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For the next few days, Penny saw very little of Welcome. If they met in the corridor or the kitchen, they avoided each other’s eyes, kept their faces down and quickly moved on.
Penny tried to convince herself she was doing this because Welcome had stymied the investigation. But honestly, she felt bitterly sorry for their argument and couldn’t find a way to tell her.
Instead, she threw herself into finding that final piece of evidence to prove that Sam was the killer.
On Wednesday, she tried to sneak into Sam’s room when he was out in case he’d left the door unlocked. Of course, he hadn’t, and while she was trying the handle, the girl in the next room had appeared, demanding to know what she was doing.
Penny had blurted out: ‘Oh, nothing. Just… checking,’ and fled.
When that failed, she decided close observation would be the best approach. She always ran down to Costa as soon as it opened, at eight, and sat in the back window, watching the door of Slaidburn House over a strong coffee.
Sam kept quite a regular routine. He left for a 9am lecture on Thursday, returning to the flat at about ten-thirty. After that, he had a society meeting from six o’clock. He had two classes on Friday, and on Saturday, he remained in his room.
Penny found all this out because – to her shame – she followed him everywhere he went, hanging back in crowds, or taking alternative routes to where he was heading to avoid being seen. She was determined to find something. A tic in his behaviour, a meeting with an unexpected person, a journey to some secluded part of campus. Anything that might provide that last indisputable clue to prove that his rage at losing his girlfriend was enough to make him kill.
Everything else went out of the window. She forgot to cook, or shower, or work. Her phone buzzed and pinged with messages from course mates, society exec members and tutors following up on their last messages, but she ignored them, convinced that if she just paid close enough attention to Sam, a new clue would emerge.
Each day she looked, and each day she found nothing. Every night she seethed with frustration. And she had a lot of time at night for cursing.
Even though Penny took her Prazosin, she still found herself shuddering into wakefulness every night, almost sick with fear. She found it harder and harder to get back to sleep, so she would sit at her desk in the dark, surrounded by a strange creeping feeling, or the sensation of the rain on the beach.
She had been thirteen when she’d found that woman’s body, but all she had to do was shut her eyes and she could see the whole scene in every grim detail. She still had no idea how long she had stood there, staring. It was like her brain was playing a cruel joke, and forcing her to look
The woman’s killer had never been found. Penny knew because she’d kept up with the investigation as much as she was allowed to. Even now, when she was home from uni, she would set up fresh news alerts, just in case something came to light after all this time. Nothing ever did. Nothing ever would.
She had no name for the woman, and no way to explain her murder. No one did, and that was the scariest part of all. For all intents and purposes, she’d died for nothing.
Late on Sunday night, Penny was lying in bed, reading. It had been another fruitless day watching Sam. She didn’t want to go to sleep. She knew what was waiting for her if she did.
There was a knock on her door. She opened it.
Penny looked away.
‘Yeah?’ she said, into the awkward pause.
She glanced up at Welcome’s face. She had expected to find an equally uncertain, unwilling expression. Instead, her eyes were wide, her lips parted as she literally panted with some pent-up emotion.
‘What?’ asked Penny.
Welcome pushed into the room. She shut the door behind her and grabbed Penny’s arms.
‘Penny… Sam didn’t do it.’
‘I know that’s what you think,’ Penny said with a sigh. ‘But I—’
‘No!’ Welcome insisted, almost shaking Penny with excitement. ‘I can prove it. Sam couldn’t have killed Chris!’
Penny looked into Welcome’s eyes. A fire burned in them. The same fire that had lit her own eyes on the day she realised Chris had been murdered.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Sit down,’ said Welcome. She guided Penny to the bed, but she couldn’t sit down, or stop moving.
‘You know why I didn’t think Sam did it. If he found out his girlfriend had cheated with Chris, he wouldn’t’ve planned such a careful murder. So, I realised that I’d have to know exactly when Sam found out about the cheating. If it was after the murder, then that motive doesn’t work, but if it was before, then maybe you were right.’
‘Okay,’ said Penny. ‘So how did you figure that out?’
‘I’ve had a busy few days,’ she said, and began her story.
‘I started by looking on Sam’s social media, but I didn’t find anything. I wasn’t sure what to do from there, until Thursday night.
I was sitting in the kitchen, when there was a knock on the door, and Sam came in. He wanted to borrow some bin bags because his flat had run out. In his hand, he was holding…’ Welcome took out her phone and unlocked it, ‘this teddy bear.’
She showed Peggy a photo. It was of a small, red, souvenir teddy, with the name of a visitor attraction embroidered on its tummy.
‘What’s that got to do with anything?’ she asked.
‘I thought it was funny too,’ said Welcome, ‘so I asked him about it. I was just curious, I guess, but he told me it belonged to his ex, and he was going to chuck it out. Anyway,’ Welcome went on, ‘it was like the universe just leaned in and said: ‘Go on, I’ll let you have this’. I wasn’t even really sure why I said it in the moment, but I asked if I could have it for my little sister.’
‘You haven’t got a little sister,’ Penny pointed out. Her friend’s eyes glinted mischievously.
‘Yeah, but he didn’t know that!’ she said. ‘I don’t think he much cared what happened to it because he gave it to me. I realised I could use it to track down his ex and ask her when they broke up, so I posted a picture of the bear on Lancaster Lost and Found.’
Alarm rose in Penny’s stomach.
‘Didn’t you think Sam might’ve spotted it?’ she asked.
‘Don’t worry,’ said Welcome. ‘I checked. Sam isn’t a member of the group. I just said I’d found it in the flat – people never remember when they drop things. Sure enough, yesterday morning, I get a message from her.’
Welcome showed Penny a Messenger chat on her phone. The profile picture at the top showed the beautiful red-haired girl who had been in the flat on Wednesday. Her name was Chelsea Lewis.
‘We messaged for a bit, and that afternoon, we met up so I could give the bear back. She was happy about it, and I took the chance to ask her how it ended up in our flat, since we’d never seen her before. She explained her ex lived in the flat, and that was how it got there. We kinda got chatting.’
Penny wasn’t surprised by that. Chelsea had probably felt very safe talking to Welcome, with her warm and gentle attitude.
‘I think the breakup is still quite raw, so she was keen to talk about it, and aften we’d spoken for a bit, I had what I needed.’
Welcome leaned down to be at eye level with Penny.
‘Sam and Chelsea broke up this past Monday.’
Penny felt like something heavy had landed on her brain. Her mouth dropped open.
‘And Chris was murdered the Saturday before that,’ she finished. Welcome nodded.
‘Exactly. Sam didn’t know about the cheating until after Chris was dead.’
Penny was staggered. These past days, she’d been chasing around looking for a clinching clue, and in that time, Welcome had found out all this.
Welcome gave a slight smile. Penny could see she was relishing the energy of what she’d learned.
‘That’s not all. I’ve got something else. Sam’s alibi.’
‘An alibi?’ exclaimed Penny. Now it was her turn to jump to her feet. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘Okay. So,’ Welcome began. ‘I only found out about this today, which is why I’m only just telling you. We know that Sam was here on the night of the murder because he didn’t go out with his flat. Now… remember my friend Theo? He came round to pick up some make-up last week.’
‘Yeah, I remember,’ said Penny, frowning with confusion. What did Theo have to do with it?
‘Theo’s a massive gamer. He’s got his own YouTube channel, where he plays and reviews games. When he came to get that make-up, he told me he hadn’t been out the night before because he was doing a livestream on his channel. He does these ‘all-nighter’ events where he plays a game live all night, and he was doing one the night Chris died.’
‘What does this have to do with Sam?’ asked Penny impatiently.
‘I’m getting to that,’ replied Welcome. ‘I had a rehearsal with theatre today, and halfway through a bunch of us went to lunch, including Theo, and someone asked him how the livestream went. He got it up on his phone and showed us a bit of it. Turns out, he was doing the event in collaboration with another YouTube gamer.’
Welcome paused for breath.
‘Penny, the other person in the video is Sam.’
There was silence for ten full seconds.
‘Sam… seriously?’ said Penny, awed.
‘I checked what time Theo’s livestream began. It started at midnight on the night of the murder and lasted for six hours. For the investigation, I bunked off the rest of the theatre rehearsal and watched the whole thing. Didn’t speed it up, didn’t skip a second. Penny, there isn’t a single moment when Sam leaves the screen. He didn’t even have a Wi-Fi problem that stopped him being seen. He goes to the loo a couple of times, but he literally never leaves his room.’
Welcome was trembling with excitement, and Penny felt a tremor running through herself as well.
‘That livestream is Sam’s alibi,’ said Welcome. ‘He was in his room playing video games all night. He couldn’t have been the killer.’
Penny was overwhelmed. She couldn’t imagine more complete proof of Sam’s innocence. To have it all presented so clearly was astonishing.
She was about to think of where that left the investigation when she met Welcome’s eyes.
She had thought, when the two of them fought the other day, that Welcome would step away, too angry to care. But no. She had cared about finding the killer so much that she had carried on despite the argument and had found out all this in only a few days.
Once again, the rotten feeling she had felt after the argument overcame Penny.
‘Welcome… you’re amazing,’ she faltered. She felt warm tears behind her eyelids. ‘You’re so brilliant. I was wrong. It’s just… I was scared.’
‘Babe.’ Welcome laid a hand on Penny’s arm. ‘What do you mean?’
Penny swallowed the huge painful lump in her throat, only to feel it grow again.
‘You know that nightmare I have?’ Her voice quavered just above a whisper.
‘It… it… it really happened.’
Welcome’s eyes opened wide.
‘I found that woman on that beach, but I don’t know who killed her. That’s why I need to find who killed Chris. I… I just had to be right.’
Welcome opened her arms, and Penny stepped into them. They held each other tight, and quietly cried into each other’s shoulders. There was something easy and heartening about the tears. It was like they had been pent up ever since it all began.
‘I won’t blow up at you like that again. I promise,’ Penny mumbled.
‘Come on. What’re friends for?’ They both laughed tearfully.
Finally, they stepped back, holding each other at arm’s length. Penny looked into Welcome’s face. That, she thought, is a real friend.
‘You’ve done so well,’ she said. Welcome glowed with delight.
‘So, now what?’ asked Welcome.
There was a pause.
‘I don’t know,’ said Penny. ‘We’re back to square one.’
That night, Penny felt like she was being strangled again. But this time, she couldn’t see the figure’s face.
That was worse.
Monday morning. As Penny dried herself after a shower, she suddenly realised it had been just over a week since Chris died. She wondered how that was affecting the others. As far as they were concerned, Chris had died in a tragic accident.
She went through to the kitchen for breakfast. Welcome was already in there, washing up at the sink, while Dalil sat at the table eating an apple.
‘Hey,’ he said as she came in.
‘Hey,’ Penny replied. ‘You alright?’
‘I’m not sure,’ he replied. Penny hated seeing him so sombre.
‘I can’t wait for this term to be over,’ Dalil continued. ‘I just want to be away from it for a bit. I don’t blame Velda for leaving.’
‘Velda’s left?’ asked Penny, her voice rising in surprise.
‘Yeah,’ said Dalil. ‘She didn’t want to be around here anymore. She left the day before yesterday. Didn’t you notice?’
Penny flushed with shame. She’d been so caught up in the investigation – and in following Sam around – that she hadn’t paid attention to anything going on in the flat. She should’ve said goodbye to Velda.
Dalil finished his apple and went over to the bin. He tried putting the core in, but the stack of rubbish inside was so tall that it rolled off and fell to the floor.
‘How have we left this so long?’ he muttered crossly.
‘We’ll take it now,’ said Welcome quickly, eying Penny. Penny nodded. Outside the flat, just the two of them, they would have a chance to talk.
The outside bins used by Penny’s flat were around the corner from Edward Roberts Court. They were tucked in the corner of the delivery car park behind Spar, next to Fylde accommodation. The two girls headed up the path towards them, dodging ducks nibbling among the damp grass, hefting two bulging bin bags. Decanting detritus from one into another to make it manageable was one of the most disgusting chores Penny had ever completed.
‘So, what’ve we got?’ Welcome wondered aloud.
‘Not much,’ Penny said frustratedly. ‘I think Sam was probably our best suspect.’
‘I guess,’ Welcome answered. ‘At least he had a possible motive.’
‘But thanks to you, we know it wasn’t him. Who are our remaining suspects?’
‘Dalil, Lucien, Karla, Ross, Dylan and Velda,’ said Welcome.
‘We haven’t narrowed it down at all,’ growled Penny crossly. Her grip on her bin bag was slipping, and in irritation, she hefted it higher.
She should have noticed the white plastic was thinning. As soon as she tugged on the bag, it split open. Rubbish spilled onto the ground. Both the girls cried out in surprise, Penny leaping back to keep her shoes clean.
‘Brilliant!’ cried Welcome. ‘Now what do we do?’
‘Wait,’ said Penny. Her voice was strangely hollow. ‘Look.’
She crouched down. Heedless of the filth, she pushed some of the heap of rubbish aside with her fingertips.
Buried in amongst it were two blue latex gloves, and a large round white pill.
Penny picked up the pill and turned it over. There were words stamped on the other side.
‘What the…’ began Welcome.
‘It’s the second missing tablet,’ said Penny. ‘Velda used one, and this is the other.’
‘What does that mean?’ Welcome asked.
Penny looked up at her. Her face was white as a sheet.
‘It means Ross lied to us. Whatever he got up to do on the night of the murder, he didn’t make Chris another Alka-Seltzer.’