The next morning, Penny pretended to work at the kitchen table in case anyone came in, while she was kept an eye out for the members of Flat 5, counting them as they left to go to lectures.
As soon as the last of them had gone down in the lift she messaged Welcome.
‘Okay. They’ve gone.’
The girls met in the foyer, and entered Flat 5’s kitchen. They searched every cupboard and drawer. They even looked in the fridges.
Penny and Welcome hadn’t gone to bed until three o’clock that morning. They had been up all night talking about the fact that Sam had his own supply of Prazosin, and what it could mean.
He had access to the poison that had killed Chris. A search on Facebook by Welcome had revealed that Sam studied Biomedicine. ‘So, he’d know enough about the body to work out how Prazosin would affect Chris,’ Penny had said excitedly.
They recalled how Sam had stayed behind when his flat went out on the night Chris died, claiming he was busy, that he ‘had something important to do’. Had he needed to lie in wait for the right opportunity?
They had one more thing to check, and, after searching the Flat 5 kitchen, they came out with their answer. No one in Sam’s flat owned a mortar and pestle.
‘So, he would have had to use the one in our kitchen to crush up the pills. He must’ve seen Velda use it,’ said Penny.
‘That would explain how it ended up in the wrong cupboard,’ said Welcome.
Penny noticed her puckered, distant expression.
‘I’m just not sure about his motive,’ said Welcome.
Deep down, Penny knew she had a point. But something inside her was sure it was Sam. He had the poison and, so far, no alibi.
‘Maybe we’ll find out something more,’ was all she could reply.
She hoped so. The nightmare was still a cold mist in her brain from the night before.
A few hours later, Penny was reading in her bedroom when she heard the door to the flat open. Heavy, clumping footsteps came down the corridor, and a key jangled and scraped in a lock.
She frowned. By the sound of it, the door being unlocked was Chris’s.
Jumping off her bed, Penny hurried to her door and peered out.
A college porter in a huge black jacket was pushing open Chris’s door and stepping into the room. It was dark and empty beyond him. Penny almost called out to ask what he was doing, but she was so surprised that her voice wouldn’t respond.
The door began to swing closed behind the man, but before it could shut completely, he came out again. He looked decidedly embarrassed and trailing from his hand was a crop top. It was frilly, camo-green, and emblazoned with a pink band logo.
That doesn’t look like anything Chris would wear, Penny thought.
Suddenly, her heart gave one slamming beat of realisation.
She’d seen that crop top before.
It was the one the red-headed girl had been wearing, in the photo of Chris dancing in the club, with Sam glaring at him.
Following the porter with her eyes, she saw a girl standing in the foyer of the flat, waiting for him. She was strikingly pretty, with a waterfall of ginger hair and a dusting of freckles across her nose. Her teeth were gritted with annoyance.
The porter handed the crop top to the girl, and they exchanged a few words. The girl thanked him. The porter then got back in the lift, and the doors closed behind him.
Penny watched, peering around her door frame. Now the porter wasn’t in the way, she could see right to the far end of the flat. The girl was standing in the foyer between the two flat corridors, which were directly opposite each other. A big black bin-liner, bulging with its contents, sat outside the open door of one of the bedrooms.
Sam leaned in the doorway.
The girl with red hair marched into Flat 5 and stuffed the crop top into the bin-liner. Straightening up, she spoke to Sam. Penny couldn’t hear what they were saying, but the expressions on their faces were furious. Finally, the girl burst into tears, grabbed the bin bag, and swept out of the flat, taking the Bowland Tower stairs at the other end of Flat 5.
The rush of blood thudded in Penny’s ears as the reality of what she had seen began to dawn on her. But she had to make sure.
Sam was still in his doorway, staring after the girl. He stayed that way for about thirty seconds, before he pushed himself off the wall and made his way towards his kitchen. He walked with the sluggish, strained movement of someone deeply depressed, who would rather not be moving at all.
Penny didn’t have time to work out an excuse, or a lie. Emerging from her room, she hurried out into the foyer, catching him just before he entered the kitchen.
‘Oh. Hi,’ she said.
He gave a non-committal grunt. She could tell the last thing he wanted to do was talk to anyone. She tried to sound as casual as possible.
‘Sorry, but who was that girl who left just now?’ Penny asked.
He looked daggers at her.
‘None of your business,’ he growled.
‘I know, I’m sorry,’ Penny said hastily. ‘But y’know, she got a porter to go into that room, and my flatmate died in that room the other day. No one’s meant to go in there, so I think we should know why.’
It was perhaps the lamest explanation she’d ever given. Maybe Sam was too unhappy to notice.
‘She was my girlfriend,’ he said, and disappeared into the kitchen.
Penny had never heard so much bile injected into the word ‘was’. With that single sentence, everything she had just seen slotted into the story she was trying to build for the murder.
She ran to Welcome’s door so fast she didn’t remember the journey. The next thing she knew, she was inside, pacing up and down, while Welcome sat on the bed listening to her. She plucked the clues out of the air as she spoke.
‘Sam Ho’s girlfriend cheated on him with Chris!’
‘What?’ exclaimed Welcome, eyes wide. ‘How do you know?’
‘Remember that girl Chris was dancing with in the photo Lucien found? She was literally just here, getting a top back from his bedroom, and Sam told me she was his girlfriend. ‘Was’, not ‘is’. Why would this girl’s T-shirt have been in Chris’s room unless she spent time with him there?’
‘How come none of us ever saw her?’ Welcome asked.
‘They must’ve been really discreet. Probably she only came over when Sam was out.’ She stopped pacing. ‘Welcome, this is the proof we need! Now we know why Sam looked so angry with Chris. He hated him for stealing his girlfriend. We know he has access to Prazosin, which Chris was poisoned with. What more do we need?’
As she spoke, Penny realised something for the first time. Ever since she first began having her nightmare, a constant, silent dread had settled on her like a lather of sweat. It didn’t affect her in life, but it just sat there, ever present.
With the realisation that she had solved the murder, she could feel that fear loosening its hold. She felt like she was breathing in a new, uninhibited way.
I’ve beaten it, she thought. I’ve beaten it.
Welcome was looking at her feet.
‘You don’t look very happy,’ said Penny, feeling the smile on her own face falter briefly. ‘It’s done. I’ve solved it.’
Welcome looked up at her.
‘I dunno,’ she said. ‘I’m not sure I agree.’
Penny was sure for a moment she’d misheard her.
‘What do you mean?’ she asked. Her continued smile clashed with a puzzled frown.
Welcome took a moment to gather her thoughts, and then said: ‘If you kill someone because they stole your partner, then you’re killing them out of hatred. You’d be angry. You wouldn’t be thinking straight. But Chris’s murder feels too cold, too clever, to just be because of hate. The killer was so careful, even the police thought Chris died accidentally. If you do something when you’re angry, you don’t care about the consequences, but whoever did this clearly cared so much about not getting caught. They didn’t just want to kill Chris – they wanted to get away with it.’
‘Welcome, who wouldn’t want to get away with murder?’ said Penny. ‘I don’t think that negates anything I’ve said.’
‘I think it does,’ Welcome replied with a shrug. ‘It’s just… what am I trying to say? I think… sorry if this sounds crazy, but I just think the story of the crime doesn’t make sense.’
Penny couldn’t stop a tiny snort. It seemed like such a dramatic thing to say.
‘Look at my bookshelf. You don’t need to lecture me about crime stories,’ she said. ‘Listen, it works. I don’t know when Sam decided to kill Chris, but he had time to plan. He studies Biomedicine, so he could’ve worked out how to use Prazosin as a poison. He was in the flat on the night Chris died, and then there’s everything I’ve just gone through.’
‘Penny, I understood what you said. Please don’t talk down to me.’ Her voice was still conversational, but her eyes had hardened slightly, indignantly. ‘But think about the level of planning in this murder. Whoever did it crushed up a load of pills, snuck into Chris’s room, gave the Prazosin to Chris, smothered him to death, and went back to their room, all without anyone hearing them or catching them. There’s an insane amount that could go wrong in that. I’m just saying, if it was me, and my partner had cheated on me, I wouldn’t go through all that to get back at the person who did it.’
Penny sighed. She began pacing again. She’d come in here floating on a cloud, elated that finally everything made sense. As Welcome poked holes in it, she felt that relief slipping away. The feeling of sliding back to square one was close to infuriating. The first icy tingle of that layer of fear began to settle back, as the uncertainty grew.
‘Of course, you wouldn’t, but you’re not Sam,’ she said. ‘Come on, what do we really know about him? Who knows why he reacted that strongly? But he’s got everything we’re looking for – means, motive, and opportunity. No one else does!’
‘You’re saying the fact we know nothing about him explains why he could have done it,’ answered Welcome. ‘But surely, it also means we have no way of knowing if he did. Yeah, you’ve found this out about Sam. We’ve found out some interesting stuff about lots of things, but right now, all we’ve got is suspicion. Have we proved anything anyone else told us?’
Welcome started counting off on her fingers.
‘You said Sam killed Chris because of his girlfriend. Those pieces seem to fit, but we can’t be sure. We’re equally not sure about Karla’s story, or Ross’s story, or Dalil or Lucien. We have literally no way to prove any of that. All that about Sam might be true, but we have no more proof for it than anything else.’
Penny was angry. All the security she’d felt after finding Sam’s motive, the sensation of being past the terrible situation, of leaving the nightmare behind, was being undermined. Why would Welcome want to do that?
‘You can do all that if you want,’ Penny snapped. ‘You can try and prove everyone’s story. But I know it was Sam. If you want a final piece of evidence, then fine. I’ll find it, even without your help. You can interview everyone else if that’s what you want to do.’
Welcome stood up. Her lips were tight.
‘I’m raising doubts, that’s all. Why do you want to shut me out just for doing that?’
‘Because I’ve got no more doubts left,’ Penny retorted.
‘Well, maybe you should,’ Welcome shot back. ‘Penny, I know how much this means to you. I know what you’ve been working through. But you need to accept that you can’t be sure yet.’
With every word Welcome said, Penny only heard a question slashing across her brain: What if you’re wrong? Her temper flared, and as it did, it was like she could see the nightmare in front of her. The grey sodden sand. The white, lifeless body. The waves heaving the chest up and down. She clung to the safety she’d felt moments ago.
‘I am sure! I can feel it. Why can’t you just go along with me?’
‘Go along with you?’ Welcome echoed, incredulous. ‘What the hell do you mean? Penny, I can’t just ‘go along with you’. This is serious, and if we make the wrong call—’
‘Remember, I asked you to do this with me,’ Penny snapped.
‘Is that it? You think I’m only here by invitation?’
Welcome dropped her gaze to the floor, breathing heavily. Silence tingled between them.
‘Fine,’ said Welcome at last. ‘If you think you’re in charge and I’m just the Watson you let tag along, then fine. I’m not doing that. You want to be wrong? Go ahead.’
Penny could feel desperate regret clawing at the edge of her anger, but anger is a stubborn feeling, and wouldn’t let it in. She stood there. Her face was glaring crossly, but behind it, she knew she had touched a nerve in her best friend.
Eventually, she turned, and left the room.
I am right, she thought furiously. Sam did it. And I’ll prove it.
That night, in Penny’s sleep, she felt again that she was being strangled. Her throat clamped and her tongue lolled spasmodically in her mouth. Only this time, she gradually managed to see through the swirling grey mist that filled her vision.
It was Sam who was strangling her.