The street outside Ross’s house felt dark and cold, though it was a summer night. Penny lifted her hand to the doorbell three times but couldn’t bring herself to press it.
Welcome took her free hand and squeezed it. Penny watched as her friend started the voice recorder on her phone and slip it into her back pocket. That done, Welcome nodded encouragingly.
Penny heaved a deep breath and rang the bell.
After an agonising wait, Ross opened the door.
‘Hey!’ he smiled. ‘What brings you two here?’
‘We need to talk to you, Ross,’ she said, her own voice sounding like it belonged to somebody else. ‘It’s important.’
His smile faded a bit.
‘Oh, okay. Well, you’d better come in then.’
Ross and his housemates had managed to make their student house feel like a home, not just a roof over their heads. It was warm, and spotlessly clean.
‘The others are out right now,’ Ross said, leading them through to the kitchen. There, he took stock of their bleak, stony faces.
‘Guys, what’s going on?’ he said. ‘You both look like… I don’t know what.’
Neither of them could find the words. Penny looked to Welcome, to find Welcome was looking to her. Finally, she cleared her throat.
‘Ross… we… we know you killed Chris.’
What was remarkable was the lack of change in his face. His expression froze in place, his eyes blank. It was like he had seen the flash of an explosion miles away, and the roar of sound hadn’t reached him yet.
At last, he blinked.
‘I… what are…’
‘You know we’ve been looking into Chris’s death. You know we think he was murdered. And now we know you did it,’ said Welcome. Penny had emboldened her.
As the magnitude of what they were saying hit Ross, his face became angry. It was a weird expression, somehow misshapen and wrong. It was a face of terror trying to look like one of rage.
‘That’s… that’s a disgusting thing to say!’ he half-shouted at them. Ross strode across the kitchen and yanked open the door. ‘Get out of my house. How can you even—’
‘Ross.’ Penny was amazed by the calmness in her own voice. ‘Just stop.’
He faltered but kept pushing.
‘No, Penny. I had absolutely nothing to do with Chris, and I won’t have you pretending I did, so just go away. I don’t think I—’
‘Please,’ said Penny. ‘Don’t make this harder.’
Ross was staring desperately from her to Welcome. Then he arranged his face into something new – a nasty, condescending look that alarmed Penny more than his fear. It was so unlike him.
‘You’ve got nothing,’ he sneered. ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re just scared and trying to blame someone. How, exactly, did I manage to kill Chris, around making him an Alka-Seltzer and being in bed with Karla? Tell me that, Sherlock!’
Penny met Welcome’s eyes again. Their apprehension was fading. They had begun. They would carry it through.
‘When you told us you made Chris an Alka-Seltzer, you lied,’ said Penny.
‘No, I didn’t!’ Ross snapped back. ‘Why would I even lie about that?’
‘Because,’ she said, ‘you put the second Alka-Seltzer tablet in the bin, to make it look like you’d used it. We found it in the bin bag this morning, along with some latex gloves, which I bet you used to hide your fingerprints.’
The colour drained from Ross’s face, though his expression remained defiant.
‘That’s not all,’ said Welcome. ‘We’ve worked it all out. Penny noticed how Chris’s legs were swollen. He must’ve overdosed on Prazosin. The killer had to be someone with access to that medication. There were three of those in the corridor: you, Karla, and Sam Ho. I worked out that Sam couldn’t’ve done it, and when we found that missing Alka-Seltzer, we knew you’d lied.’
The silence shivered in the air. Ross rubbed the back of his neck distractedly.
‘When we looked at the photos from the night out last Saturday,’ Penny said, ‘we realised you’d gone to Revelation wearing trainers. But that’s against their dress code, so they turned you away. You did that on purpose, so you could go back to the flat without anyone wondering why. When I bumped into you when you got back, you told me you were collecting a hat for Karla. You went into her room, changed your shoes, and grabbed a big handful of my Prazosin. Then, you could head back and party with the others, and no one would know you had everything you would need later.’
‘You could depend on Chris getting black-out drunk,’ Welcome chimed in. ‘He always did. And you understand how the body works better than anyone in the flat. You knew the Prazosin would make him pass out, if you gave it to him while he was drunk.’
‘After everyone got Chris home,’ Penny resumed, ‘you went to bed and waited for everything to settle down. Unbeknownst to you, Dalil and Lucien went into Chris’s room before you, and left the door unlocked. I’m guessing you were planning on waking Chris up yourself when the time came and getting him to open the door.’
‘You couldn’t risk taking the Prazosin while Karla was in the room,’ said Welcome. ‘She’d see you. But you had everything ready to go. After a few hours, you got up and told her you were going to make another Alka-Seltzer. You could make up any reason. You’re a Medicine student – she would believe you. Then, you went into the kitchen and crushed up the pills you’d stolen with Velda’s mortar and pestle. You snuck into Chris’s room, took her glass, and mixed up the Prazosin in some water.’
‘When Chris took all that Prazosin,’ Penny picked up, ‘he blacked out. You smothered him to death with his pillow.’
Every word of Penny’s last sentence trembled with revulsion. She dropped her gaze, unable to believe that she was saying what she was saying, or that it was all true. Ross sank into a kitchen chair and sat there staring blankly into space.
Welcome saw Penny wavering and took over.
‘But then you had to make it look like an accident. People pass out from alcohol all the time, so you rolled Chris over so people would think he’d suffocated in his sleep. Chris was a big guy, though, and that made a lot of noise. Penny heard you turning him face-down and came to check he was okay. You spun us that story about him tossing and turning, but really, you were just waiting for her to go away. You’d locked the door, so there was no way she’d get in.’
Penny glanced her thanks over to Welcome and returned to the story.
‘When I’d gone back to bed, you had to get rid of the evidence. That meant washing the glass, and the mortar and pestle. The glass went back in Chris’s room, because that was where everyone had seen it last. But you couldn’t put Velda’s mortar and pestle back on the kitchen counter because it was clean. You had no idea where it belonged, so you put it back in the wrong cupboard.’
‘Thanks for doing that, by the way,’ Welcome added. ‘That was a big help to us.’ Ross flinched.
‘Then, you headed back to Karla’s room,’ Penny continued. ‘If you used Chris’s key to lock the door behind you, people would suspect he’d been murdered because the key would be missing, so you left it open. If Karla asked where you’d been, you could easily say you’d been sitting up with Chris. Again, she trusted you to do the right thing.’
Maybe she’d said that just to hurt him, but all things considered, she felt that could be forgiven.
All through the story, Ross looked like a wilting flower. He grew paler and paler. He seemed to physically shrink, buckling under the weight of everything.
‘That’s how you did it,’ finished Welcome.
When Ross spoke into the silence, he sounded like he was trying to calm himself down rather than respond to them.
‘Well… then why did I do it? You haven’t told me that because you don’t know. If I really killed Chris, I’d need a motive, right?’
‘We don’t know for sure what it was,’ said Penny.
Ross rallied for a moment.
‘Exactly, because I didn’t do it! I barely knew Chris.’
‘That’s another lie,’ said Welcome quietly, fishing out her phone, and opening a photo she’d saved from Facebook. ‘We know you and Chris knew each other before uni.’
The photo was a high school year group picture. Five rows of pupils in blazers and ties, standing on raised stands, with a line of teachers at the front. Welcome zoomed in on the boys at the end of the second and third row. He was younger, with white-blonde hair, but it was undeniably Ross. And behind him, with that sardonic grin he had kept ever since, was Chris. Welcome swiped onto another picture. This had far fewer people in it – a high school form group photo. Again, there was Ross, and there was Chris.
‘You never told us you went back that far,’ said Penny softly.
For a very long time, no one said anything. Ross dug his fingers through his hair and heaved deep, racking breaths. Finally, he looked up, and met their eyes. Penny saw a barricade in his mind break down.
‘You’ve got no idea what it’s like to plan a murder so well that you almost have to live with it for the rest of your life,’ he said. He looked haggard. ‘I really… I really thought I would get away with it.’ He sounded disbelieving.
There it was. Irrefutable. The girls could only stare at him, as tears began to run down his cheeks.
‘Why did you do it, Ross?’ asked Welcome.
‘Does it matter?’ replied Ross, scrubbing a hand over his face.
‘It matters to me,’ said Penny, her voice heavy. ‘To us.’
Ross looked from her to Welcome, and back again. Finally, he got to his feet and wandered numbly over to the window. Then he began his story.
‘Well, I guess you know Chris and I were at school together, in the same year. You can probably imagine, he was the big I am. Handsome, sporty, strong, clever. Could charm his way out of anything, even though he was a cocky, arrogant bully.
He and I were in the same Psychology A-level. He only really noticed me for as long as it took to flick an elastic band my way. In the first year of sixth form, we were both top-grade students. But towards the end of the year…’
Ross covered his mouth for a moment.
‘See, my mum… she’s got cancer. She’s had it for ages. And that year, it suddenly got bad. I couldn’t stand to see it happening, and my grades started to slip. It was all just too much to deal with.’
Ross glanced back at them.
‘I know that seems pretty understandable, but for me it was serious. Ever since Mum got diagnosed, I’ve known I have to become a doctor, so I can help people like her. I’ve been obsessed with it for years, but the way things were going, I’d never get the grades to go to uni and study Medicine. And that was… that was why…’
Penny saw his eyes suddenly glaze over with something like fury.
‘That was why I went to Mister Turnbull.’
‘Who?’ asked Welcome.
‘My head of sixth form,’ explained Ross. He turned and leant against the counter. For some reason, his voice took on a harder edge, almost cynical.
‘No one knew, but he had an MDMA habit. It was a kind of open secret that one of the guys in my year with me was a dealer, but of course, he couldn’t buy from him. He was a teacher. If word got out, he would be finished. So, when I came along, begging for any way at all to get my grades up, he took his chance.’
Penny turned cold inside.
‘We made a deal. He’d lend me money to buy MDMA for him, and in return he would record higher grades for me.’
Ross visibly shuddered.
‘You have to understand. I know it was wrong. It was horrible. But I would’ve done anything. My whole future was falling apart.’
Penny and Welcome found themselves nodding slowly.
‘Go on,’ prompted Welcome.
‘We were as good as our words. Turnbull raised my grades, gradually, so no one noticed anything weird. I got offers from the unis I’d applied too, including Lancaster. Looked like I’d get through it. But then Chris came in.
One night, he was out partying with some lads, and he went to see the same dealer. He bumped into me. Made fun of me a bit, but nothing I wasn’t used to. I just got the stuff, put it in a bag Turnbull had given me to use, and left. But Chris knew I was buying drugs. And then, the next day in Psychology, he saw that bag in Turnbull’s office.’
Ross stopped again, raking his fingers through his hair, like he was reliving the despair all over again.
‘I knew he’d found out my secret. Don’t get me wrong, I was terrified, but I also knew Chris would be taking a gap year after school, and I’d go off to uni. I didn’t think I’d ever see him again.
He never said anything. School finished. I went to Lancaster, and for the last two years I’ve done everything I can to put those mistakes behind me. Every grade I’ve got, I’ve worked for. I’ve lived healthier, pushed myself harder. I’m not the scared-witless kid I was in sixth form. And best of all, I’ve met Karla. She’s everything to me. It was like I’d finally gotten away from it. That was until I found out Chris had come to Lancaster and was sharing a flat with her.’
Penny could see where the story was about to go. She almost wanted to ask Ross to stop, but she held back. He would have to explain all this again to the police before too long.
‘I don’t think Chris recognised me at first. Different hair, new style. But I would never forget him. You can’t imagine what it felt like. I lied and cheated and broke the law to get to this uni, and now the only person who knew about it was there, with me.’
‘So, you decided to kill him,’ Welcome put in.
Ross vehemently shook his head.
‘Not right then. I stayed away from Chris as much as I could. But this term, Karla’s had exams to revise for. She couldn’t come to mine as much, so I had to come to the flat to see her. After that, it didn’t take long for Chris to realise who I was.
One day, Chris managed to get me on my own. I tried to deny I was the same Ross, but he saw through me alright. He was loving having that kind of power over me. Whenever he chose, he could dob me in, and there would be nothing I could do. He… he said he might use it against me to get… well, anything he wanted.’
It was easy for Penny to imagine the kind of things Chris might want.
‘Oh, Ross,’ said Welcome, covering her face. ‘You know Chris. He was full of hot air. That was probably a lie! He loved a power trip.’
Ross shook his head.
‘It wasn’t hot air. A few days later he came to me and said if I didn’t let him make a pass at Karla, he’d go to the uni about what I did.’
Penny felt a wave of nausea storm through her. She could see the leer on Chris’s face as he backed Ross into a corner and made his demands. Chris’s death had cast a kind of mist over the flat’s memory of him, but in that moment, she realised that what many had taken for bluster, charm, and attitude, was just loutish, cruel, and disgraceful.
‘I had to stop him,’ Ross finished.
‘And then Karla started having bad nights,’ said Penny, flatly. Ross’s flare of anger subsided.
‘Yeah. I knew you took Prazosin. When she started looking for medication to help her sleep, I saw a chance and I took it. A chance to keep Chris quiet. And then… you know the rest. It happened just like you said.’
For a very long time, nobody spoke. Welcome looked at her feet. Ross stared out of the window. Penny couldn’t take her eyes of Ross. He looked more tired and worn down than anyone she had ever seen.
Ross turned back to them, a little smile on his face.
‘Guys… I know what you’re going to say but is there any chance you could let it go?’ he asked. ‘I promise, I’ll be a good doctor, who saves lives. I’ll never harm another living thing.’
When he said that, Penny could feel his dream, his drive, shining through.
‘No, Ross,’ she said firmly. ‘You have to face the consequences of what you’ve done.’
Ross’s chin rested slowly onto his chest. Penny could feel the last hope go out of him. His shoulders began to heave, and soon tears were tapping on the floor at his feet.
Penny turned to Welcome and nodded. She had wanted to call the police back when it all began. It was only right she should do it now.
Welcome looked warily at Ross, but he didn’t look up.
He held up a hand.
‘No. Penny’s right,’ he said, his voice a broken, thudding sob. ‘Penny’s right. Penny’s right.’
Welcome took out her phone, turned off the recording, and left the room.
It was just the two of them. Penny felt her heart beating through her chest, about to burst with sorrow. With everything they had heard, she could see Ross’s overwhelming pain, and the terrible road that had led him to this moment. She wanted nothing more than to comfort him, although she knew it was right for him to face what he’d done.
‘Ross… is… is there anything…’
‘Yes,’ he said. He dragged a sleeve across his eyes, struggling to control himself. Eventually, he managed to look up, his face red and blotched, his eyes shining like those of a frightened animal.
‘I want… I want you to tell Karla I love her.’
‘I never really deserved her, did I?’
‘I think you did. You did it for her.’
‘But for me too,’ said Ross, before anguish overtook him again.
A week later, Penny was sitting at her desk in her room in Slaidburn House. The sun was streaming through the window. Outside, she could hear a thousand students, with a thousand stories and a thousand thoughts.
Ross was now awaiting trial. At Penny and Welcome’s request, their names were left out of all reports. Every flatmate had been horrified, but as days had passed, the end of the whole ordeal had brought them all some peace.
Karla went home the morning after she heard the news, but not before Penny had passed on Ross’s message. They had cried together for an hour.
Now, on Penny’s laptop screen, was the website of Chris and Ross’s old high school. She had found the profiles of the senior management team, and was looking at a photograph of Mister Turnbull, the head of sixth form.
Such an ordinary guy, she thought. The kind you could imagine drinking beer at a family get-together or playing catch with his children in the park.
The sight of him made bile rise in her throat.
Picking up her phone, Penny dialled the number she’d found on the school’s Contact Us page. The line droned, and she reached an automated menu selection. She chose to speak to reception, and after a few seconds, the phone was picked up.
‘Hello, Meadowside Grammar School. This is Jean. How can I help you?’
Penny cleared her throat.
Everyone deserved their measure of justice.
‘I would like to speak to your headmaster, please. I have some information about your head of sixth form.’
She spoke on the phone for hours, with five different people. Finally, she hung up, and felt a great weight lift from her.
Penny spotted her Prazosin on her bookshelf and smiled.
After everything she had done in the last few weeks, everything she had achieved, she knew she would have no nightmares tonight.