The Nightmare Pills: A Penny Godwin Story – Part 5

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The lock of Welcome’s door rattled. It wasn’t like her to lock it when she was in. There was a pause.

‘Who’s there?’ Welcome called through the door.

‘It’s me,’ Penny said.

The door opened. Welcome looked haggard, but grateful.

‘I just don’t feel safe,’ she muttered, as Penny came in and they sat together on the bed.

Penny put an arm around her. Welcome’s eyes were wide but dry.

‘It’s just…’ Welcome was fighting to find words, and Penny saw just how badly she’d been hit. Even when things were bad, Welcome knew what to say. She could calm Penny down from the worst of her nightmares and night terrors. Now, all her words seemed stuck in her chest. ‘Just… so…’

‘Final,’ said Penny.

Welcome looked at her.

‘Yeah… final…’ she agreed. ‘It’s like… last night he was… himself, and now…’

She sniffed and scrubbed at her nose.

‘I mean, he was such an arrogant sod but no one…’ The words became jammed again.

Penny was nodding along with her, but unseen by Welcome, her eyes were skimming about, as thoughts flitted wildly around her head.

‘Just, such a horrible way to go,’ Welcome went on. ‘Just imagine…’ Her hand went to her throat, then to her mouth. ‘And he never woke up. How is that even possible?’

She lapsed into silence. Welcome was waiting for Penny to speak, to open a deep, heart-to-heart conversation and temper the storm of horror, shock, and disbelief in her mind.

After a minute, she glanced at Penny, and frowned at her pinched, white face, and the kindling glitter in her eyes.

‘Penny?’ asked Welcome.

Penny couldn’t find the words immediately. The thoughts in her head were too vague to express, and potentially, too terrible for Welcome to hear. She hugged her friend instead.

‘It’s horrible,’ she whispered. ‘It’s horrible.’

‘You okay?’ said Welcome.

On one hand, Penny was shaken to the core. But there was also something vibrantly alive inside her – as though she’d tapped into a live wire of energy that she’d never felt before. And it was grounded in those two seemingly minor questions that her mind wouldn’t let her forget.

She let go of Welcome and met her gaze.

‘Welcome… can I talk to you about something?’

‘Of course, honey. Anything,’ Welcome said. She seemed a little relieved – talking out feelings and having a healthy cry was something she understood. But Penny grabbed her hand.

‘No, not like that. I mean… something doesn’t feel right.’

Welcome blinked and frowned.

‘I know,’ she said. ‘Our flatmate died last night.’

‘But something doesn’t make sense. I’ve been thinking about it all day. You’re the only person I can talk to about it.’

Welcome was still drawing back, but the chance to talk superseded her fear.

‘Okay. What?’ she said.

‘Did you see Chris’s leg when they carried him out?’

Welcome shuddered.

‘Yeah. I’ve never seen—’

‘Did you notice anything weird about it?’

Welcome looked blank.

‘It was really swollen,’ said Penny.

‘So?’

‘So, I’m pretty sure that couldn’t have happened if he’d just suffocated in his pillow.’

Welcome shuffled back.

‘Penny, what’re you talking about?’

‘When someone dies, gravity pulls their blood into the lowest point in their body because the heart isn’t pumping it.’

Welcome squeezed her eyes shut.

‘You have got to stop listening to true crime podcasts,’ she said.

‘Sorry,’ said Penny, though she had neither the time nor the inclination to be sorry. Her thoughts were running on their own steam now. ‘Chris was lying down, so you’d expect the blood to sink evenly along his body, downwards. So why were his legs so swollen?’

‘Penny, stop!’ snapped Welcome. Penny turned to face her. Her lower lip was trembling. ‘Who knows why that happened? The body does weird stuff. And since when were you a forensics expert? The police looked at Chris, and they… Why is this so important to you?’

Penny put her hand on Welcome’s.

‘It’s not just that. There’s something else.’

Welcome was drawn back in. As grotesque as Penny’s words had been, she was intrigued.

‘What?’

‘Are you sure you want to hear this?’

Welcome moved her head in something like a numb nod.

‘One of Velda’s glasses was in Chris’s bedroom.’

‘Yeah. When we got back last night, she made him an Alka-Seltzer to settle his stomach.’

‘You sure?’

‘Of course,’ said Welcome. She stood up, feeling an urge to move. Penny’s questions and speculations were giving her an odd creeping feeling. ‘I’ll show you.’

Together they marched into the empty kitchen. In one of Velda’s cupboards, Welcome found a box of Alka-Seltzer tablets. Inside was the last sleeve. Two tablets were missing from it.

‘Okay. So last night, Alka-Seltzer was mixed in that glass. So how come, this morning, the glass was clean?’

The words shivered between them, unignorable now they had been spoken.

‘There weren’t even water marks on the inside,’ Penny emphasised. ‘Someone cleaned it, after Velda gave Chris the Alka-Seltzer.’

Welcome couldn’t stop herself staring around the kitchen.

‘Maybe… maybe Chris—’

‘Chris couldn’t lift a finger without help last night. And besides, even when he was sober, he usually left his washing up to someone else.’

Usually me, Penny reflected.

‘You really think he washed the glass?’ she finished, her voice swelling. Something made her feel bold, on edge. She took Welcome’s hands and stared at her intently. ‘Welcome, it must have been someone else. Why would someone wash that glass, and put it back where it was, unless they were trying to get rid of something? Welcome… I think someone poisoned Chris.’

Welcome scrambled at her pockets for her phone. Her fingers were shaking too much to enter her passcode, so she pressed ‘Emergency Call Only’.

‘Wait!’

Penny grabbed the phone and hung up.

‘What? We need to call the police!’

Penny stepped closer, holding her shoulders to keep her focused.

‘If you call the police, what do we tell them? That I think Chris might’ve been poisoned because of two weird details? That’s not enough to go on.’

She remembered Detective Carmichael’s condescending smile when he’d explained why they hadn’t looked for fingerprints. They probably won’t listen to us, Penny thought.

‘But we can’t wait!’ insisted Welcome. ‘You heard that detective. He said it’ll take weeks for them to investigate properly. Term might be over by then and whoever did it will leave and—’

‘Exactly. A toxicology report can take six weeks to come through. That’s plenty of time for the killer to get away, before the police find evidence of poison.’

‘So, what do we do?’

Penny gripped Welcome harder. She could feel a fire rising in her eyes and knew Welcome could see it.

‘We find out more. We try and work it out for ourselves. We find out who did it.’

She had been waiting to say that all day, and building the courage to say it. Now that the words shivered in the air, she felt overcome with something like pride, or conviction, or drive. She had found the first evidence. They could track down the rest.

‘Penny… are you excited?’ Welcome’s voice was tinged with uncertainty.

‘What?’ said Penny quickly. ‘No. It’s all terrible. But…’ She glanced out of the window, at the orange afternoon sunlight. ‘But imagine if we could catch a murderer.’

‘We?’

Penny met Welcome’s eyes again, and saw the fear stamped there. She softened her hold on her.

‘Yes. You’re my best friend, Welcome. I trust you more than anyone, and I can’t do this by myself. Please, will you help me?’

Welcome didn’t know where to look, her eyes darting around the room, landing on anything but her friend’s face. Penny kept moving her head to maintain pleading eye contact.

Welcome was a proactive person. The idea of sitting in dread for the rest of the term, not knowing what had happened to Chris, was somehow more terrible to her than the idea that he could have been murdered.

‘Okay,’ she relented, to Penny, and to herself.

Penny hugged her.

‘We’ll do it together,’ she insisted.

They let go of each other, and Welcome covered her eyes for a moment, collecting herself.

‘So… where do we start?’

Penny bit her lip for a moment, thinking.

‘We need to find out everyone’s version of last night, so we can make a timeline.’

‘Everyone’s?’ Welcome voice shook as she asked. ‘Penny… you think it was someone in the flat?’

There was a horrified pause.

‘Who else could it have been?’ Penny replied.

They couldn’t bring themselves to start asking the flat questions that evening, partly because of the horrors of the morning, and partly because they were both still trembling from the thought that one of them might be guilty.

The next morning, Sunday, none of the flat felt able to work. Only Ross left, to go to his placement at the infirmary, but the others remained, in their rooms or drifting about, occasionally collecting into hushed, stunned groups.

Penny had spent the whole morning lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, trying to work out if she’d missed anything. When she made her way to the kitchen, she saw Dalil, Lucien and Velda through the window, standing in one of these groups. She ran to Welcome’s door and knocked.

‘Some of the guys are in the kitchen,’ she said. ‘We can ask some questions.’

Welcome hesitated.

‘Penny… I don’t… they’re our friends.’

Penny put a hand on her arm.

‘I know. Listen, we’re just going to have a conversation. No one’s accusing anyone of anything.’

That seemed to settle Welcome, and she followed Penny back to the kitchen.

The group all glanced up as they came in, and offered the same empty, momentary smile. Penny’s insides crawled with alarm. How could she ask questions at a time like this? How was she supposed to use the answers to decide which of these people could kill someone?

‘Hey,’ she said, wanly.

Everyone only nodded in reply.

It was hard to see each of them like this. Velda, the sportsperson, who had the energy of a coiled spring, lounged in a chair, staring at the table. Dalil, quick with a joke, in a movie poster T-shirt, looked like he’d never laugh again. And Lucien, a firebrand student activist never out of debates and protests, had no light behind his eyes at all.

‘How are you guys holding up?’ Welcome asked.

‘It’s just…’ began Dalil but he stopped.

‘My mum’s coming to get me tomorrow,’ said Velda. ‘I don’t wanna be here anymore. Nothing feels right.’

Welcome sat beside her. Penny leaned against the counter.

‘It’s like… the other night everything was normal,’ she said, keeping watch on the others’ faces.

‘Yeah,’ Lucien said. ‘Chris was just himself all night.’ He gave a flicker of a smile, like he was fondly remembering the time before Chris died, when everything was normal.

‘Drunk as a skunk,’ muttered Dalil.

‘I heard you guys bring him back in,’ replied Penny.

‘Yeah,’ said Lucien, ‘he was really bad.’

‘Did you have to put him to bed, and everything?’ Penny asked.

‘We did,’ Welcome put in.

‘I made him an Alka-Seltzer to… y’know… settle him d—’

Velda squeezed her eyes shut. Welcome put an arm around her.

‘How could this have happened?’ Velda mumbled.

‘Just a bad accident,’ sighed Penny. Just then, the memory of the two empty slots in the packet of Alka-Seltzer came to mind.

‘How many Alka-Seltzer were left in the box when you made it for him?’ she asked.

Velda answered automatically, though the others gave Penny confused glances.

‘It was a brand-new sleeve of tablets,’ Velda said. ‘None of them had been used yet.’

‘How many tablets did you give him?’ Penny asked.

Velda looked up.

‘Just the one,’ she said. ‘Why?’

‘Well…’ Penny fought for a reason. ‘Some people are allergic to Alka-Seltzer. I thought maybe if he’d taken too much—’

‘What are you saying?’ demanded Velda. Penny jumped at the sudden heightening of her voice.

Welcome sat closer and gave Velda a little squeeze, drawing her attention.

‘Hey, babe, Penny didn’t mean anything. No one’s saying it was your fault.’

‘I’m sorry!’ Penny added. ‘I’m just trying to understand it.’

Velda slumped again, lacking the energy to get truly angry. Welcome gave her a gentle hug, while making warning eye contact with Penny. Don’t push it.

‘I mean, I went straight to bed after we got Chris in,’ Welcome carried on, ‘and I crashed straight out. I’m just amazed I didn’t hear anything.’

‘Me neither,’ said Velda. ‘I’d have thought there’d have been some noise while… while it happened.’

They all shuddered, but Penny realised Welcome had hit on an excellent line of enquiry when Dalil and Lucien exchanged a glance.

‘Did you guys hear anything?’ Penny asked them.

‘Well, Chris didn’t completely settle that first time,’ Dalil began, after a moment.

‘No,’ said Lucien. ‘I hadn’t been in bed too long when I woke up and heard him puking again. I went to see if I could help.’

‘I think I must’ve heard Lucien get up, ‘cuz I went out too,’ Dalil continued. ‘Chris managed to stop long enough to let us both in, and we went and gave him a hand until he felt better.’

‘He was really bad,’ Lucien put in. ‘He almost knocked over your glass, Velda, while we were helping him.’

‘Did he go back to bed?’ Penny asked. She made a mental note – that made twice Chris had been overheard during the night. The second time, she had been the one to respond.

‘Yeah, and so did we,’ said Dalil.

‘As we were leaving, we decided it would be best if we left the door unlocked, so people could get back in more easily if Chris got bad again,’ Lucien added.

Penny and Welcome eyed one another. If the door had been left unlocked, that would mean anyone could have got to Chris in the night.

A chill ran up Penny’s spine, as she remembered that, when she went to check on the banging noises, Chris’s door had been locked.

What if someone had been into his room after Dalil and Lucien left, and locked it behind them?

A few minutes later, Penny and Welcome were in Penny’s bedroom. Welcome looked a little upset still, but Penny thought that doing something proactive was re-energising her. She scribbled in her notebook, open on her knees.

‘So, what did we get from that?’ Welcome asked.

Penny’s brows drew together in thought.

‘Well, for one thing, we know Chris’s door was unlocked from two-thirty-five yesterday morning, until it was locked again at about three-thirty-six.’

She explained to Welcome how she had overheard Dalil and Lucien go in to help Chris, and then that she herself had gone to investigate the funny banging noises later on.

‘That means anyone could have gotten in!’ said Welcome.

‘Yeah. So, we’ve got means – the door was unlocked.’

‘And we know the killer didn’t take Chris’s key,’ Welcome added. ‘They could’ve easily locked the door from the inside with the latch, but they’d need the key to do it from the outside. We know they didn’t take it because it was open this morning.’

‘Good thinking!’ said Penny, scribbling down notes. ‘What else?’

‘We still haven’t explained the second Alka-Seltzer tablet,’ Welcome pointed out. ‘There were two missing, but Velda said she only used one.’

‘If she was telling the truth,’ Penny said.

‘Seems like a weird thing to lie about.’

‘True. But then again, we don’t know for sure that Dalil and Lucien are telling the truth.’

‘No, but until we know more, we’ve only got their version of events, haven’t we?’

Penny grinned at her friend.

‘Listen to you, sounding like a detective.’

Welcome smiled sheepishly.

‘Okay, so we don’t know about the Alka-Seltzer, but we’ve got a potential window where the killer could’ve got into the room,’ said Penny, checking down her notes.

‘Now what?’ asked Welcome.

‘We’ve got Karla, Dylan, and Ross left to talk to.’ Penny turned to Welcome. ‘Where shall we start?’

‘Ross is out at his placement. Maybe we should speak to Karla.’

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