Each Sunday, Cal Smyth‘s social media thriller Like, Love, Kill is serialised via Crime Cymru. Here is episode 3…

7

With the café closed, Grace has an hour before she hosts UCASS business society night. It’s been a busy day so far. Irina in the morning, checking her screens are all in synch. Followed by the police coming in, though their questioning didn’t last long. The afternoon TED talk, which was stressful to prepare, but amazing in its outcome.

The news that Charlene’s death has been ruled as accidental came as welcome relief. Kel’s messages had Grace worried. She defended Mike, but doubts crept in. Now she can rest easy, knowing that he is simply a vindictive control freak, not a murderer. She also worried that she should have discouraged Kel more, but the police statement will do that now, so that’s another worry gone.

Checking Facebook, Grace looks at her earlier post following the TED talk she gave:
‘Possibly the greatest achievement of my speaking career. I am grateful for the journey that I continue on. Every day, do one thing and you will be closer to your dream. I am blessed beyond measure. Thank you everyone for making it possible.’
There are 134 likes and lots of comments. Her former professor’s comment is:
‘Great to hear you are inspiring young women reach for their dream.’
Grace replies with a beaming smile emoji. A male Facebook male friend she doesn’t really know comments:
‘Beautiful lady inside and out.’
Grace doesn’t want to encourage unwanted attention, but is ever polite:
‘Thank you.’
The organiser of the TED talk comments:
‘Grace, you are amazing. What an inspiring talk.’
Grace replies:
‘It was great to see so many amazing people. The whole afternoon was amazing. Amazing event.’

As Grace’s TED talk showed, anyone can achieve their ambitions if they put their mind to it. Her wellbeing is disrupted by a text. As soon as she sees the unknown number, she knows who it will be from. Taking a breath, she checks the photo that has been sent. This time, it is not of her but another young woman, being taken from behind.
Is it time to go to the police? But what can she say? Her ex-boyfriend is sending her indecent photos of sex acts, some of which include her? There is no threat attached. But as she is not asking for the photos, surely it is harassment. She’s been too embarrassed until now to ask for help. She has suffered in silence for long enough. It is time to get advice.

###

Mike grunts as he pumps iron, the weights 10 kgs more than usual. His muscles strain, veins bulging. He finishes the set, lets the weights drop to the floor with a thud. Fuck yea.

He nods at the guy next to him, who nods back in respect. Man talk. No words needed. Mike feels the adrenaline. He is pumped. Had to be after that stupid fucking tutorial in the morning.

Professor dickshit saying Mike’s idea didn’t seem very original or at an advanced stage. Did the professor have a better idea? No, he just earns his salary for criticising his students.

Bitterness eats at Mike. On his way to the gym, he passed Campus Café. Opening a café is hardly original, but Grace is applauded every fucking minute. He’s no longer her Facebook friend, but her posts get shared by mutual friends. How many times does he have to read what an inspiration she is?

Grace is simply running a café better than other people. Why can’t Mike be a better gym youtuber than those out there? He can show other men how he became Mr UCASS. Make videos of his routine, provide a running commentary. What does Grace have that he doesn’t? Tits?

Mike leaves the weights on the floor and stalks towards his locker. The gym was supposed to relieve his anger. Instead, he just feels the heat of resentment. He needs release.

He hits up Tinder on his phone. There are two new matches so he messages them both with the same opening line he uses for every woman:
‘What’s a beautiful girl like you doing an app like this?’
It’s not his line, he stole it from some blog. While he waits for a reply, he starts swiping. There are so many ugly fucking women out there. But the odd hot one makes up for it. About one right swipe for every five swipes left. Mike looks up as a girl in butt-tight leggings passes by on her way to the changing rooms. Mike gives her an imaginary swipe to the right. Tinder effecting his mind.
A bleep brings him back to his app. One of his matches has messaged him:
‘You think that line up yourself?’
Looks like this girl is giving him a challenge. He checks her photos again to see if she’s worth it. She’s pretty hot. So he thinks up his own line:
‘Like a fisherman uses a line to hook in a fish.’
‘Any more clichés? Can’t you think of anything original?’
‘Yea, how about this? Fuck you bitch.’

Mike isn’t going to waste his time. Hook up or shut up. That’s his motto. Though his impatience leaves him with no hook up for tonight. Not his fault he has to use Tinder. Grace is to blame for ending their relationship. Needing to take it out on her, Mike hits up a photo he took the night before of him fucking the girl from the gym. Let Grace know what she’s missing.

###

Amy takes a sip of her energy drink, grimaces at the taste. It doesn’t even help. She still feels completely uninspired to write her essay. The deadline is by 3pm the next day.

She could blame her lethargy on having to work today, but she knows it is no excuse. What is she going to say to her professor – that she was so jealous of a dead woman, she had to work to stop herself from self-harming?

In fact, working really did help. Being busy stopped her from thinking dark thoughts. She even jumped on the Charlene bandwagon, posting about the police coming in to the cafe. Everyone wanted to know more. Not that there was much to tell. The police didn’t suspect anything. And by the afternoon, it was official: Charlene’s death was old news. Welcome news as far as Amy was concerned, letting her relax.

The day got more positive when a really hot customer gave Amy her number. Because yes she’s bi, if that’s ok with everyone. It’s 2017 people, so what’s the problem? Besides, she’s had enough with all the tinderfellas and their pics of fish, their dicks and gym selfies. The girl said her name was Nia, a first-year website design student. When she finished work, Amy sent a WhatsApp message with a winking emoji:
‘Hey Nia, fancy coffee? The girl from Campus Café.’
Amy checks her phone and sees two blue ticks. So Nia has seen the message, but not replied. Maybe she’s busy. Amy turns from her phone to her laptop.
She’s only written the title: ‘An analysis of a successful social media marketing campaign’. Finding an example is easy enough. It’s the analysis write up which is a killer.

Amy checks her phone again. Still no reply from Nia. Amy touches the screen, sees that Nia is online. So no reason for not replying. And then Nia goes offline. WTF? Amy doesn’t understand. It was Nia who instigated the number swap. Maybe Amy misread the situation, saw flirtation instead of friendship. Was her message too forward? Amy thinks about directly asking Nia, but if she doesn’t get a reply to that either, it will be further humiliation. And sending a wink really isn’t too much. Maybe her profile photo isn’t sexy enough. Is that the problem?

In that case, time to update. Amy sets up in front of her full-length mirror, applies blusher, eyeliner and lipstick. She tries a couple of different selfies until she’s satisfied. In fact, she looks pretty hot if you ask her. Not only does she update her WhatsApp pic, but she makes it her Facebook profile photo too. She smiles as the likes start coming in.

Feeling better about herself, Amy gets back to her essay. She types up the introduction, then pauses. That was the easy part. The analysis needs to be based on research. While she’s online, she checks her Facebook timeline. She’s got 45 likes so far, but it’s the first hour that counts. After the initial burst, her photo won’t be at the top of people’s feed. And at this rate, she will get less likes than for her previous profile photo. Is it due to the time of night? People not yet relaxing after a day at Uni? It’s the kind of analysis she should be applying to her essay.

Panic starts to grip Amy. She’s not going to get the essay done in time. She’s been ignored by a potential date. And people don’t like her new photo. Her arm starts to itch. And an unwanted image of the razor in her bathroom flashes into her mind.

###

Irina is finally satisfied that the exhibition is ready to be seen in the morning. She has spent half the day going back and forth between her studio and Campus Café, checking how the live feed looks on screen. She’s adjusted the stationary cameras in the studio and gallery twice each.

Yes, it is perfectionist, but with the selfie camera constantly mobile the others must juxtapose with their static vision. The metaphor should be clear: while the studio and gallery are unmoving, Irina the artist has to work non-stop. And that her work consists of social media publicity not creativity.

Whenever she’s been on her laptop, Irina has added to her website, posted on Facebook, sent emails. All she wants to be doing is creating art. As she posted earlier:
‘In the past, artists sold their soul to the devil. Or maybe to a private buyer. Van Gough sacrificed his ear. In 2017, an artist must sell their soul to social media to survive.’
The website is now fully updated with all the latest reviews of her work. On Facebook she posted a video of herself as she tested the screens, a teaser prior to the exhibition opening. Like a film trailer, with the caption:
‘Artist at Work. Live from tomorrow. Campus Café.’
People love it. Now, in the early evening, the likes are almost three hundred. What she needs more than likes is funding. That’s the whole point of the exhibition. To show what a modern artist has to do to get funding and by doing so, actually obtain the funding.

An email comes in. The chairman of the Arts Council funding body will pop into the café tomorrow. Irina immediately sends a thank you. She thinks the chairman is an academic snob, but as long as he puts in a good word for her that’s what matters. Together with the two reviewers from national newspapers, it should work out ok.

The plan tomorrow is to be in the café all morning, at work on her laptop and chatting with people as they come in to watch the videos, all of which will be seen on one of the screens. It better be successful, because without the funding she will be a starving artist next year.

###

Sarah feels calm after her afternoon nap. Her morning rant about her husband receiving praise instead of her is long forgotten. She read Seb’s message, saw he was concerned for her and replied that she was fine – just getting it off her chest. An apt metaphor.

In a stroke of genius, Sarah realises she has come up with the title for her book as well as an idea for the next blog: thoughts on how not having breasts defines her as a woman.

Now she is compiling her blogs for her dissertation. Putting them all in one document, she does a word count. She’s 20,000 short of the required 60,000. She has to write an introduction and then a series of post-op blogs. She has ten weeks, so 2,000 words per day. That’s fine by her. A blog a day keeps depression away. As long she doesn’t have any set backs, she will reach her target.

Being a mother and wife means there are always things to deal with, even holed up in her country cottage. Yes, her family have been incredibly supportive, but they still expect her to solve their daily problems.

Sarah’s youngest daughter is going though a terrible time at school. The teasing has spread to the internet. It’s easy to say don’t be friends with them. The peer pressure demands that everyone is on Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram. Erica doesn’t have her mother as a Facebook friend, so Sarah feels free to go public:
‘The problem with mean girls is that they are masters of manipulation. The only way they can big themselves up is by putting someone else down. In the past, this could sometimes be solved by physically moving apart from the bullies. But now they can get at you on social media. What advice do I give a tearful 12-year-old?’
Sarah’s female friends reply with sympathy and advice. The first comment is:
‘This is so horrible. I can’t bear the cruelty that goes on between girls online. Your daughter is so lovely. Bullying in any form is unacceptable.’
Sarah responds:
‘When you read nasty comments, it’s worse than to your face. I think girls feel that it’s not really real so they can say what they want.’
‘I suggest you block the nasty girls and tell your daughter to be strong.’
‘Have done. X.’
Among all the support is a comment from Toby:
‘Teach her the throat punch.’
‘Not very helpful Toby.’
‘Trick is to jam the heel of your hand under their nose first. They’ll instinctively draw back and expose their throat. Then apply the throat punch.’
‘Again, not very helpful.’
What is it with males that all their solutions have to be so aggressive? Not all males. Seb posts a lovely comment:
‘Some of the coolest people in the world have been bullied and how they turned out had to do with their resilience and belief in themselves. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.’
‘Thanks Seb. That’s so nice. I will pass it on to her.’

Sarah feels better for her daughter now. While she’s on Facebook, a classmate from the creative writing course posts a link to an article in The Guardian about modern female writers. Sarah reads it and her blood boils.

It’s so true. The only way for a female writer to succeed is to write like a male. Not stylistically, but in the sense of portrayal. Take Gone Girl. Ok, it plays with the genre in that the femme fatale is the main character, but she is still basically a she-devil, hence conforming to male stereotypes.

And what about 50 Shades of Grey? It’s another huge success that panders to male portrayals of female roles. The female character is submissive to a richer, older guy and ends up marrying him. It’s Cinderella with soft core porn. Where is the integrity?
Sarah posts her enraged thoughts:
‘As female writers, we owe it to each other to show solidarity, not pander to male visions of sexuality. Authors such as EL James and Gillian Flynn betray all women with their depictions of female characters.’

###

Caitlin sees Sarah’s post and is happy to be distracted. After the day working in Campus Café, she’s once more at work on her novel.

As she told Kel, Caitlin isn’t sure how the novel will end, but at least she’s getting the words down. She previously spent several months planning a different book – a modern version of Jayne Eyre. And then scrapped it a month ago.
The synopsis and outline got workshopped to death. Instead of helping Caitlin write the novel, it made her see all the flaws. Caitlin hasn’t told her tutor yet, but a few nights earlier she was inspired to write something completely new.

Choosing third person was an easy decision as there are several characters and she wants to capture different perspectives. The protagonist is female to fit with the times. She read that literary agents are looking for strong female characters. The novel is taking shape, but she needs to be decisive with style. In one of the lectures, they learnt about DARN’D – dialogue, action, reflection, narrative and description. She’s not telling anyone about the novel for fear of what they might say. She doesn’t know how that is going to work with the next workshop or if she’s left herself time to finish it.

She will have to pack in her job at Campus Café, live as an impoverished writer until the novel is written. Spend all day every day writing. It is the only way. First, she will just reply to Sarah’s post:
‘But most readers of Gone Girl and 50 Shades of Grey are female, so doesn’t that show women like how they are portrayed in the books?’
Sarah comments back:
‘Because all of us have been indoctrinated from a young age to believe in these gender stereotypes.’
‘You don’t think the writers are playing with gender roles in a post-feminist era and that readers are able to see this?’
‘No, I don’t. There is no dignity in the writing. Where is the truth?’
‘Sometimes fiction is needed instead of reality. We all crave escapism.’
‘So maybe I should give up writing.’
‘No, I didn’t mean that. I love your blogs. I was just playing devil’s advocate.’

Caitlin and Sarah send each other smiling emojis to show there are no hard feelings between them. Caitlin respects Sarah’s stance. Like everyone else, she admires Sarah’s honesty in writing about her ordeal with cancer. But Caitlin is also realistic. Are more people going to read a memoir about cancer or a thriller with a twist?

Maybe Caitlin has been influenced by working with Amy and her constant marketing babble. Or Kel with her real life stories of crime. But it doesn’t take a genius to realise that sex and crime sell.

Although people do love real life gossip. A kiss and tell will always sell. But that is in a magazine not a novel. Facebook and other social media just grows and grows. Everyone ready to expose themselves because there is such a demand. But how can that be transposed to a book?

###

Toby is working on his concept of a new console game. In the coding session in the morning, he joked about it to see what response he got. Predictably, his tutor suggested it was inappropriate. His classmates just sniggered. Like being back in school.

Toby still thinks High School Massacre could be a great game. Ok, it is a bit sick, literally. But what about other games? Are you telling him that Call of Duty: Black Ops doesn’t cater to violence? It’s fantasy, that’s the whole point. You have to escape death by killing. A game of survival.

As Toby envisages the game, you could choose either to be a vengeful teenager on the rampage or a fleeing teen trying to stay alive. With the first character choice, you have to kill everyone before the police arrive. With the second choice, you have you get out of the school before you are shot dead.

Toby could go on a gaming forum, post his ideas and see what feedback he gets. He imagines it would be positive. But he doesn’t want anyone stealing his idea so he’ll keep it to himself for now. He’s got the concept and the setting, but isn’t yet sure how to form the storyline. What if someone develops the idea before him?

Temporarily paused in his thoughts, Toby goes on to Facebook for a laugh. His earlier banter with Sarah about throat punching bullies made him chuckle. Sarah is so serious, she didn’t find it funny. Hey, well he didn’t find being bullied at school hilarious either, so get a sense of humour.

Toby can see Sarah has moved on to ranting about female writers betraying their gender. Yawn. He can’t bear reading any more than the first reply. Scrolling down the feed, Toby comes to Irina’s video of her preparing her exhibition. As far as he can see, it’s just Irina filming herself with her mobile phone during the day. He posts a question:
‘Is it a selfie video?’
Irina responds:
‘No, it’s art using modern technology.’
‘Ah, modern technology art.’
‘Ah, a man who finds it easier to mock than to create.’
What’s wrong with these women? Can’t they take a joke? Grace is another one. Toby nearly pukes at all her success. Wow, she gave a TED talk. He can’t refrain from posting a sarcastic comment:
‘Maybe you should go for PM.’
Grace is of course too above it all to respond, but one of her female friends does it for her:
‘Maybe you should go back under your shell.’
And maybe you should die, thinks Toby. He refrains from typing the thought and sees Amy’s pout pop up at the top of the feed. It makes Toby think of a fish. He copies an image of a trout and posts it under Amy’s photo. Her reply is pretty quick: an image of a raised middle finger. Toby smiles, enjoying the banter. He types:
‘Trout pout strikes again.’
Amy comes back with:
‘Fish couldn’t find your dick to nibble on it’s so small.’
Toby’s smile fades. Did he actually say anything insulting to her? But it’s fine for her to insult him. Stupid bitch. He could think of a lot of replies, but he holds back. Just about.

His blinking gets faster, his fingers twitching. He leaves Facebook before he gets himself in trouble by posting his real thoughts. Turns to his console and starts a game of Black Ops, shoots people to shit as way of release.

###

Ever-monitoring for stress, Seb sees that Sarah is need of guidance. She PM’d him earlier that she was fine but is clearly agitated again. He sends her a personal message:
‘Sarah, if you wish to work on your processing, do not hesitate to contact me. Please also remember how much you have achieved.’
‘Thank you Seb. It’s just that I feel some female writers are betraying gender integrity.’
‘There are different kinds of integrity. I haven’t read the writers you mention, but perhaps they are being honest in their genre. Your work is from the heart. It shows great courage. You should focus on this rather than look at others. Remember, happy people build their inner world. Unhappy people blame their outer world.’
‘You are right. As always.’
‘I am just happy to facilitate.’
Sarah sends Seb a heart. He smiles in satisfaction. It is important to stay humble, though it does feel good to help. However, Sarah is a relatively easy person to guide. Seb can see when she gets upset and knows how to calm her. Egos shouldn’t be inflated, but Sarah’s does require a gentle massage every now and then. As long as she feels her work has worth, she is fine.

There are other people like Kel, who are much harder to decipher. He hopes Kel will call him if she ever needs his assistance. As in processing her own life rather than investigating deaths.

Someone Seb is sure now needs his help is Toby. In the space of a few minutes, Toby is posting cruel comments on several women’s timelines. As always, the posts are borderline rather than overtly offensive. Yet the frequency is worrying. Seb has to attempt contact, so he messages:
‘Hi Toby, I hope all is ok with you. I notice you are posting quite a lot. If you have anything on your mind, please feel free to PM me.’
Seb hopes he adopted the right tone. He gets an instant reply:
‘Are you spying on my comments?’
Seb types back:
‘No, nothing like that. I just happened to see your posts and wondered if you were upset about anything.’
‘Upset because Amy can’t take a joke? Her prob not mine.’
‘Ok, but please be careful as your comments might be interpreted as misogynistic.’
‘What like killing the bitches? JOKING! All fine. Got to go. People to kill. IN A GAME.’
Seb frowns at the screen, rubs his shaved head. Is it simply a joke? Seb is pretty sure Amy, Irina and Sarah don’t see the funny side of it. He has to find a way to make Toby more mindful. His thoughts are disrupted by Neel:
‘Dinner’s ready.’
Seb smiles over his shoulder:
‘You start without me. I’ll just be a few minutes.’
‘So no breakfast, lunch or dinner together?’
‘I’m sorry, I do appreciate the effort you make. But I have to do my job.’
‘Is your job more important than your partner?’
‘I love you very much, but right now a lot of people need my guidance.’
Seb watches as Neel takes a breath, says:
‘Ok. I’m going to meditate, to be thinking about this.’

Seb nods. He’s sure Neel will realise that when mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers. In his early relationships, Seb would have argued or ran after his lover if they had a tiff. His mindful approach is different now. And his role is to guide the students of UCASS.

 

8

Grace sees out the last of the business society, a kiss on the cheek from each of the girls. It’s an all female group, the young women pooling what has and hasn’t worked for them once a month as well as sharing opportunities. Grace basically plays host, letting the group use the venue for free.

This night, the others all wanted to know how Grace’s TED talk went. Everyone wants to be part of her success, hoping it rubs off on them. As soon as Grace shuts the door, the first Facebook post bleeps on her phone, a photo of the group raising their wine glasses to Grace with the caption:
‘Great night hosted by the Amazing Grace #UCASSBusinessSociety.’
Grace should go home, but just has to clear up first. She bins the empty wine bottles and pizza boxes. The café needs to be in good shape for Irina’s exhibition opening in the morning. She posts a Facebook reminder:
‘Don’t forget. Awesome new exhibition from Irina Zhivova. Opens tomorrow at CampusCafé.’

Grace tags Irina, so that will double the presence. While she’s on Facebook, she sees there is an unread message from Seb. She PM’d him earlier and after an initial exchange, she explained everything about Mike. About how the relationship ended because he was so controlling and how he now sends her extremely inappropriate photos.
It felt like a confession, though she knows it is not a sin to have sex. She felt relief to tell someone and Seb’s answer provides further tranquillity:
‘Grace, I am so sorry you have suffered in silence and am so glad you have unburdened yourself. There is no shame in anything you have done. The only person who should feel ashamed is Mike. You must stay strong in your self-belief and continue to believe in the goodness of your heart. It will seem upsetting to review the various texts and photos, but I urge you to preserve the evidence and show it to the police. Do not feel demeaned but empowered by your actions. You will be preventing future harassment not only of yourself but other women.’
Grace replies:
‘Thank you so much Seb. I will take your advice. God bless you.’
Grace sighs in relief. It is good to hear a voice of reason. As Seb said, she has to take Mike’s messages to the police or the harassment will not stop.

What did she ever see in Mike? The same as Charlene and all the other girls. She fell for his looks and self-confidence. He acted as if it was natural that she should fancy him. That kind of male confidence works as an aphrodisiac.

She was new to the UK, making new friends. Getting together with Mike made them the glamour couple of UCASS and she got carried away by the hype.

Mike’s confidence soon turned out to be a cover for insecurity that morphed into a need to be controlling. He couldn’t take it that she was focused on her café venture. Was it because she was doing better than him? Did he want a subservient girlfriend? Because that wasn’t her.

Every weekend, Mike arranged an event for them. At first, the trips were fun, but then they became a burden. Grace needed every day of the week to plan her café venture. For Mike, the weekend trips became an obsession. It had to be a surprise and she had to be available. The occasional meal was fine, but she didn’t want to go to a spa or theme park every weekend. When she told him to stop planning them, Mike instantly became jealous. Grace remembers his first accusation. He didn’t even have the guts to say it to her face, so sent it by text:
‘So who is he?’
‘Who is who?’
‘The other guy you’re fucking at the weekends.’
‘I am not even going to dignify that with a response.’

It wasn’t enough for Mike. He would turn up unexpectedly at the café as Grace was having a coffee machine installed or going over plans with the business grant officer. With the latter, it became embarrassing. Grace had to meet the grant officer regularly because she needed his endorsements to obtain the funding. Mike would hang around during the meeting making it awkward then stalk off bored and send texts like:
‘I saw how you smiled at him.’
‘I smile at everyone.’
‘At the same guy every week?’
‘He’s the business grant officer. I need to have weekly meetings with him.’
‘What else do you do with him?’
‘You need to stop this.’
‘Stop what?’
‘You cannot simply turn up at one of my meetings.’
‘Am I not good enough for you now? Is that it? Because I don’t remember you complaining when you were sucking my dick.’

Of course, Mike later sent a photo of said sex act to make Grace feel humiliated. Along with a hundred other abusive messages. Mike telling Grace that she was an ungrateful bitch, that he did everything for her including sacrificing his gym time while she was busy whoring with other men. Grace deleted most of his messages, but has kept the latest ones as evidence. She could have taken screenshots of his texts, posted them on Facebook for everyone to see what an abusive, controlling and cowardly guy he really was. She wasn’t going to stoop to his level.

Mostly Grace refrained from reacting. However, before blocking him, she did send a final message:
‘You can go to the gym as much as you want. It will never make you a man.’
Grace shakes her head. She shouldn’t even be thinking about Mike, because then he is winning. In the morning, she will go to the police, let them deal with it. Satisfied with her resolve, she is about to leave the café when her phone warbles with a skype call. Grace thumbs the app and answers the call:
‘Hi mum.’
On the screen, Grace’s mother frowns. She has a big-boned, expressive face that shows every emotion as she speaks:
‘My beautiful daughter, how is everything? I have been worried about you.’
‘There is no need to worry. It has been a busy week, but a very successful one.’
‘I am so happy to hear that. You are sure there is nothing wrong?’
‘Yes, I am sure.’
Grace isn’t going to tell her mother about Mike’s upsetting messages. Telling Seb is one thing, but letting her mother know would be too embarrassing. So instead she tells her mother about the TED talk, the business society night and the exhibition opening. She turns the phone so that her mother can see the café and the screens on the wall. Turning the phone back to herself, Grace sees her mother beaming a smile as she says:
‘I always knew that one day my baby’s dreams would come true.’
‘I seem to remember you thought I might go off the beaten track.’
‘We saw your potential. That is why we sent you away to school.’
‘I know.’
‘We gave you the name Grace because we knew you would be amazing. I am so relieved to hear everything is going well. I had a terrible dream last night. It seemed like an omen. I consulted the priest and he said you may be in danger.’
Grace’s mother has always believed in both the dark and light side of spiritual visions. Grace only believes in the goodness of God. Of course, there is evil out there, but she doesn’t believe in voodoo:
‘Mum, you know I have heard you tell me about your omens for many years. I am still alive and well.’
‘It is a mother’s duty to worry about her children.’

Grace is about to tell her mother that she loves her when the skype connection cuts out. She tries to reconnect but gets no joy. And then her phone crashes. Too many apps. She needs to upgrade to iphone7. It will set her back a thousand pounds, but will be a well deserved present to herself after all the work she has put in.

A crash makes Grace jump. She spins around. The café is empty. Why is she so jittery? Charlene’s death has obviously left a mark, but it was accidental so there should be nothing to worry about. It’s the effect of Mike’s texts.
Grace takes a step towards the storage cupboard, where the crash came from. She reaches out to the door handle. And yanks open the door. She shrieks as a mop falls onto her.

Shaking her head, Grace stands the mop back up and closes the storage cupboard. She’s tired, needs to get home and sleep before another busy day. She shouldn’t let her mum’s omens get under her skin.

A breeze of air makes the hairs on her arms rise. She is a practical business woman, not a believer in superstitions. But it feels as if someone has just entered the café. As if there is another presence.

 

9

Amy arrives at Campus Café to find Caitlin standing outside. Amy asks:
‘How come you’re out here?’
‘Door’s locked.’
‘Are we early?’
Amy checks her phone. It’s exactly 8am. The café opens at 8.30 and the baristas usually come in half an hour earlier to prepare. It’s unusual for Grace not to already be there. She’s so organised that if she has to be somewhere else, she arranges beforehand for one of the baristas to open up. Still looking at her phone, Amy says:
‘She didn’t say anything to us about opening up did she?’
‘No, sure she’ll be here in a minute.’

Caitlin is concentrated on her notebook, writing notes as she stands there. She seems serene in her own world. In contrast, Amy feels wired from all the Red Bull she drank at night and the lack of sleep. She should feel pleased with her self-control. She reached for an energy drink instead of the razor, worked on her essay until the early hours. She has no idea if it is any good, but at least it’s done.

If Amy was Chinese, she could have just plagiarised from the internet. Everyone knows about the marketing prof who told a Chinese student to re-write an essay in his own words. The student went straight to the Dean, who told the prof to mark the essay. It’s all about the money and the Chinese are paying triple that of British students. None of them can speak English for shit, but the University doesn’t give a fuck. Amy tells herself to stop being bitter. She takes a selfie of her and Caitlin by the closed café, says:
‘What do you think I should put as the hashtag?’
‘Hmm?’
‘All staff and no knickers? That’s too long and doesn’t really make sense. Open all hours? Bit too sarcastic. Waiting for the boss? Too bitchy.’
Caitlin looks up from her notebook, asks:
‘Are you ok?’
‘Just a bit wired. I was up all night finishing an essay for today.’
‘Don’t talk to me about deadlines. I have to finish a whole novel by June.’
‘That’s three months away.’
‘Yea, to write at least 50,000 words.’
‘Better get a crate of Red Bull in then.’
Amy doesn’t know about writing a novel, but it does sound like a lot of words. She can’t even decide which few words to use as a hashtag. She opts for ‘#Earlybirds’ and posts the photo. That’s positive about her and Caitlin, not negative about Grace. PMA all the way.
Caitlin says:
‘I’m going to tell Grace today that I have to quit. It’s the only way I will be able to finish the novel.’
‘Bloody hell, dropping like flies around here. First Charlene, then you.’
‘Er, I don’t think Charlene had a choice and I’m hoping not to follow suit.’
‘Sorry, that was really inappropriate.’

Amy glances between Caitlin and her phone. The lack of sleep is effecting her judgement. Caitlin is one person Amy has never felt jealous of and now she feels a pang of envy towards her. Caitlin obviously has the resolve to simply quit her job in order to concentrate on writing a book. Amy is determined to be successful, but she needs a million things to keep her busy, not just one task. Unable to keep still, Amy tries to look over Caitlin’s shoulder, says:
‘So what’s the novel about?’
Caitlin frowns, brings the notebook close to her chest so that Amy can’t read anything. Caitlin says:
‘Private for now.’
‘Is it like some sexual fantasy scene you’re embarrassed for me to read?’
‘No, it isn’t.’
‘So what’s the big secret?’
‘It’s not ready to be read by anyone yet.’
‘Come on, give me a look.’
Amy reaches for Caitlin’s notebook, tugs it out of Caitlin’s hands. Caitlin whips around, pen held like a weapon as if ready to strike Amy’s neck. With her free hand out, Caitlin demands:
‘Give me the fucking notebook.’

Amy is taken aback. She’s never seen Caitlin angry or heard her swear. She hands the notebook back, says:
‘Ok, ok. Jesus, were you going to stab me with the pen?’
Caitlin blinks. She never acts like this, her aggressive action completely out of character. She looks at the pen in her hand and relents:
‘Sorry Amy, it’s just that writing is private until it is published.’
‘Well if gets published, I hope you don’t kill your readers.’

Caitlin and Amy lapse into silence, Amy back on her phone while Caitlin looks at her notes. Their contrasting styles symbolised by Amy’s bobcut and Caitlin’s curls. A breeze ruffles their hair. Caitlin looks up to see blossom drift off from the young cherry trees. Caitlin shivers, says:
‘I’ve just had a real déjà vu.’
‘Standing here? I think it’s the first time we’ve ever had to wait for Grace to open up.’
‘Amy, two days ago we were waiting for Charlene to turn up. Now we’re waiting for Grace. What if something’s happened?’
‘I think you read too many books.’
‘I’m going to call her.’
Amy watches as Caitlin makes the call. There is no answer. Amy gets onto Facebook, gives an account from Grace’s timeline:
‘She hosted Business society night until 11ish by the look of it, tagged in a photo of them all with raised glasses. So she could be hungover. But her last post was at 11.21, telling everyone not to forget Irina’s exhibition opening this morning, so you’d think she really would be here by now.’

As if saying her name conjures the artist’s arrival, Irina appears just that second, making Amy and Caitlin both jump. Irina is taller than the other two women, her topknot giving extra height. With her lithe body and high cheekbones, she could be a model if she wasn’t an artist. She takes in the situation, says:
‘Is Grace not here yet?’
Amy can’t help being sarcastic:
‘Well, we’re not standing here for fun.’
‘People do many different things for fun. You have tried calling her?’
Caitlin gives a sensible answer:
‘Yes, there’s no answer.’
‘This is not what I had hoped. I need to have the screens working before the first customers come in. There is no spare key?’
Amy and Caitlin shake their heads. Irina asks her next question:
‘Do you know where she lives?’
The other two women shake their heads again. Irina sums up the situation:
‘In that case, I guess we must just wait.’
Focused on her art, Irina is immediately the lead of the three women. She needs the day to start successfully. Reviewers and the funding body chairman are coming.

Amy thinks of saying that there won’t be any customers if Grace doesn’t arrive with a key, but being further sarcastic will just be demeaning.

Caitlin admires Irina’s drive. As an aspiring writer, Caitlin can go into her own world at times. Irina though is oblivious to anything that doesn’t involve her art.

Irina thinks on her feet. How can she use the time until Grace arrives? She unpacks her selfie stick, attaches her phone and makes a six second video of her trying the locked café door. She posts the video on Facebook with the hashtag ‘starving artist’.

Just half a metre away, Amy sees the video pop up on her feed. Within a few seconds, it already has more likes than her earlier post. She tries to think of a witty comment, but her brain is too frazzled. She wishes Grace would hurry up so she can start work and not think about anything.

Caitlin watches Irina’s impatient improvisation and Amy’s nervous scrolling. She turns to see a few students arrive, wanting coffee before the first lecture of the day and not knowing whether to hang around or not. Caitlin feels distant from the scene, as if she is a spectator at a live performance. She recognises the next character as Kel strides into the picture.

In leggings and hoody top, Kel comes up to Caitlin and says:
‘Hey, what’s going on?’
‘Hey. Grace hasn’t turned up.’
‘Yea, I guessed. I was just heading out of the gym when I saw Irina’s video. I thought it’s strange. And no contact from Grace I guess?’
‘No.’
Kel glances around at the scene. No-one seems to know what to do. Irina, Amy and a couple of customers are all checking their phones. Another customer has just rolled up on his bicycle, taking out a heavy-duty padlock. Kel turns back to Caitlin, says:
‘I know you think I’m reading too much into Charlene’s death, but you have to admit it’s a co-incidence that Grace has gone AWOL 48 hours later.’
‘I hate to say it, but I think you’re right. What can we do apart from wait though?’
Kel walks to the door, presses her face to the glass and peers inside. Nothing looks untoward. She scans the café, stops her focus at the foot of the counter. She can’t be sure, but is that a phone on the floor?
Kel calls to Caitlin:
‘You called Grace yea?’
‘Yes, she didn’t answer.’
‘Call her again.’
Caitlin makes the call while Kel stares through the glass. A light vibrates on the floor. It’s definitely a phone. And Kel thinks she glimpsed a hand briefly lit up.

Kel whips around, looks for something to break the glass. She should call the police but if it’s Grace’s phone and hand, they need to check she is alive quick. Kel goes up to the guy with the padlock, says:
‘I need this.’
Before the guy can reply, Kel grabs the padlock off him. She makes sure her hand is inside her sleeve and swings the padlock into the door. The glass smashes. Kel reaches inside, careful not to get cut and unlocks the door.
The others have gathered around. Someone asks:
‘What are you doing?’

Kel ignores the question, doesn’t have time to explain. She shoves open the door, leaps over the broken glass and strides to the counter. Kel halts at the counter. On the floor behind the counter is Grace’s prostrate body, the phone near her outstretched hand and a knife in her heart.

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