To coincide with his new role as a Royal Literary Fellow at Swansea University, Cal Smyth has written a social media murder mystery set on a university campus. Each Sunday, Like, Love, Kill will be serialised via Crime Cymru…
Amy scrolls through Facebook posts on her iPhone, jabs at the screen, says:
‘I’d kill to get as many likes as her.’
Caitlin looks across the counter, asks:
Amy turns the phone so that Caitlin can see the screen. The photo is of Charlene, the dancing queen, in mid-salsa pose with another young woman. Charlene isn’t pouting, but her lips naturally form a kiss shape. Two high-heeled, short-skirted women locked in an embrace give the photo an added sheen. It has already got over a hundred likes.
Caitlin shakes her head. SMH, she thinks, SMH. Realising even she is thinking in text speak, Caitlin smiles at life. She likes Charlene’s joyful attitude and doesn’t think Amy should take the whole ‘like’ business so seriously. Caitlin turns back to the cups she’s putting away, says:
‘I can’t believe you’d really kill for that.’
‘It was like a metaphor. Thought you’d get that.’
‘I get the metaphor, but does it really matter so much?’
‘Not for you, no. No offence Caitlin, but no-one is going to kill for your posts about Jane Austen and feminist literature.’
Caitlin adjusts her glasses in mock hurt, says:
‘How can you say such a thing?’
‘You want likes, get pouting bitch.’
Caitlin makes an exaggerated pout, crosses her eyes. Amy frowns, says:
‘Stick with the literature.’
‘How come Charlene never came in anyway?’
‘Probably still hungover. Or woke up in the wrong bed.’
‘I know, I’m such a bitch.’
‘She’s always in.’
Charlene is the only full-time barista, having dropped out of Uni. Caitlin is in her third year of Creative Writing and Amy is in her first year of Social Media Marketing. The café is on campus, a gap year venture of Business Management student Grace. It’s partly Grace’s get-go personality that has made Campus Café such a success. And also that as an independent café it fits in with Uni life.
The café is incredibly popular amongst students and professors, so Caitlin and Amy haven’t stopped making espressos, cappuccinos and lattes. With the shift now over, Amy is on her phone, flicking through Instagram and Facebook. A bleep on Amy’s phone and she switches from Facebook to Tinder. She sighs at the message, speaks out loud as she types:
‘Yes, I have breasts. No, I won’t be showing them to you.’
Another bleep and a photo comes through. She turns her phone to show Caitlin a picture of an erect penis, says:
‘What’s with all the dick pics on this app? I don’t work in a sexual health clinic.’
Amy deletes the guy as a match, starts some swipe action. Left. Left. Left. Right. Left. Amy gets lots of matches. She’s slim and goes to the gym, wears clothes to show off her body without displaying too much. The bob haircut is both business-like and femme-fatale. Male customers are always asking for her number.
Caitlin doesn’t get the same attention, but she’s genuinely not jealous. It’s not that she’s unattractive. Some guys go for the curls and glasses look, just not the same ones who send dick pics to Amy. As Caitlin and Amy get ready to leave, Grace returns to the café. She’s been out all day, checking new coffee blends. Caitlin knows that Grace wasn’t born rich, but still thinks of her as a Nigerian princess. With her erect posture, beaming smile and correct speech, Grace asks:
‘Is there still no news from Charlene?’
Caitlin checks her phone, says:
‘It is unlike her.’
It’s true. Charlene likes to party, but she’s never taken a day off sick and always works hard. Ever since she dropped out, working in the café is one part of her life, clubbing the other. Amy can’t help saying:
‘Maybe last night really was a long night.’
Ever-gracious, Grace defends her missing employee:
‘We all need one now and then.’
‘Just a pity that made more work for us.’
Amy grabs Caitlin for a quick Snapchat selfie, gives them both donkey ears to show how hard they’ve been working and posts the photo. And with that, Amy is out of there. The café is usually open at night for some event, but this evening it is closed so that the University’s resident artist Irina can put up video installations on the walls. ‘Amazing Grace and Russian Irina’, as Amy calls them: the regal business-woman and dramatic artist, two high-flyers in collaboration.
Caitlin gathers her jacket, heads to her campus flat too. The university is new, built five years earlier. Art studios are state of the art, lecture halls are equipped with all visual and audio aids, student residences are padded out as modern apartments. You have to be good to get in. As is inscribed on the entrance monument, this is UCASS: University of Creative Arts and Social Sciences. Set in the Cotswolds, it is an out of town encampment, a world of its own.
The campus has shops and restaurants, so you hardly need to go into town, unless you go clubbing like Charlene. From the main entrance, the road goes direct to the town centre, buses every few minutes. Though if you fancy a walk, there is an old canal with a path that goes most of the way. Caitlin sometimes uses it to gather her thoughts. Now she’s tired and just wants to relax at home.
In her studio-flat, she makes a cup of tea and sits on her bed. The place is tiny, an all-in-one room, but she prefers it to sharing. She needs to be by herself so she can have time to write. Not that she’s planning to do any tonight. Too tired from making a million coffees. She hits up the internet on her phone.
Caitlin isn’t immune to checking Facebook, she’s just not as addicted as Amy is to all forms of social media. Or maybe it’s that she’s more passive whereas Amy is active. Caitlin sees the donkey ears photo Amy put up of the two of them and smiles. It’s already got more likes than any of her own posts. She doesn’t care. Of course Amy’s selfies or Charlene’s dance moves get more likes than her posts about literature. She’s not sure she has ever posted about Jane Austen, but it’s true she writes about books she likes, especially by female writers. Her last post was about an event she went to called ‘How to be a Bestseller’ by thriller writer Silvia Hunt.
As Caitlin checks if anyone has commented on her post, she sees that Kel is online. Kel studies criminology. They became online friends through connections with other friends, liked each other’s shared posts. They don’t see each other much, but chat a lot. Caitlin types and sends a message:
‘Hey, sorted out any crimes today?’
The reply comes back:
‘Just reading about how a drug dealer was caught because he posted photos of himself in a bath of stolen money. Who needs to investigate criminals when they give themselves away like that?’
‘Online Investigator. Could be a new role in the police.’
‘True. Your day ok?’
‘Busy. Charlene off work so just two of us.’
‘Saw her photos from last night.’
‘I know, but no sign this morn.’
‘Also reading about that girl who committed suicide in Bristol Uni. Did you see that?’
‘Boyfriend posted revenge porn. Girl couldn’t cope so hung herself. Question now is if the guy will be found guilty for causing her death.’
‘Hey, wait a sec.’
Caitlin takes the opportunity to sip her tea and glance away from the screen, absently looking at her bookshelf. Yes, Pride and Prejudice is there. But so is Gone Girl and 50 Shades of Grey. You have to read widely if you want to be a writer. Caitlin imagines one day her name will be on a spine. She just has to write the novel. And sell it. Would Jane Austen get a deal these days? She doubts it. A bleep brings her back to her phone. She clicks up a new message from Kel:
‘Have you seen the news?’
‘Check the feed.’
Caitlin checks the feed, sees the host of posts and photos popping up one after another. It’s a swirl of rumours:
‘The police have cordoned off the canal.’
‘Maybe someone drowned.’
The first photo appears, a policeman in the foreground trying to block the view, divers in the background, pulling something out of the water.
Caitlin gets a message from Kel:
‘I have to get down there.’
It’s all Caitlin can type. She understands Kel’s curiosity, it’s why she studies criminology, it’s what drives her. But she’s not sure she understands this morbid modern life where every single thing has to be posted online.
The next photo is uploaded and the comments come fast:
‘It’s a body!’
‘OMG, who is it?!!!’
Another message comes through from Kel:
‘Fuck, look at the heels and skirt.’
Caitlin doesn’t want to, but looks at the photo. Although the dead body is obscured by policemen, the legs can be seen. It’s the same heels and skirt Charlene was wearing in her salsa-dancing photo from the night before.
Kel makes the connection to Charlene as she is leaving her flat. She is a fast walker so she makes it to the canal in under ten minutes, following the paved routes between modernist blocks. To get to the canal walk, she has to take a turn off the marked pathway just before the main campus entrance. Kel takes a breath.
She’s not out of breath, keeps in good shape by going on the running machine twice a week. And she’s not afraid of seeing a dead body. She’s seen one of those before. But she wants to appear calm and in control. She steps through to the canal walk.
Police tape has been hastily stretched between the hedgerow and a cone on the path. The wild shrubs are at odds with the perfectly designed University site the other side of the hedge. Beyond the cordon, Charlene’s body has been taken out of the canal and is covered up.
The group of students milling around are starting to disperse, bored now that the rumours have been confirmed: a woman has drowned. But no-one seems to have worked out that the woman is Charlene. Maybe they don’t know her. Kel doesn’t recognise anyone. She checks with the nearest person:
‘Do they know who it is?’
‘No, just that it’s a woman. We saw her legs when she was pulled out.’
Someone joins in:
‘Probably fell in drunk.’
A thin, nerdy-looking guy says:
‘Or she was raped, murdered and dumped in the canal.’
Kel doesn’t know the guy’s name, but she’s seen his face somewhere. The others condemn his comment. Kel can’t help wondering a similar thought. Of course, she doesn’t want Charlene to have suffered, but her natural inclination is to be suspicious.
Kel didn’t know Charlene well, just from the café. They were Facebook friends and that was about it. But if no-one else has identified the body she can do it. Kel steps towards the police officer standing by the tape. She tucks her hair behind her ear and stands tall, aware that the officer can’t help a glance at her chest. Men, she thinks, all the same, whatever their age or job. She asks the officer:
‘Have you identified the body?’
The officer is slightly taken aback by her language, says:
‘We can’t give out that information at present.’
‘If you haven’t, I can tell you who it is.’
This gets the officer’s attention. He calls over his shoulder:
The inspector in charge looks over. In his forties, stubble, still fit though probably drinks. Kel stops her analysis. After conferring with the officer, the inspector turns to Kel, says:
‘You know who it is?’
‘How do you know?’
‘Someone took a photo and put it on Facebook. I recognised the heels and skirt.’
Kel holds up her phone to show the image of Charlene’s legs as her body was taken out of the water. The inspector sighs:
‘I can have a look at her face to give a positive ID if you want.’
‘Then step this way madam.’
The inspector makes a sweep of his hand, providing a mock royal entrance. Kel smiles at his dry humour. When they reach the body, the inspector gestures for one of the forensics team to uncover the face.
The face is white from being under water but there are no obvious marks or cuts. Kel nods, says:
‘It’s Charlene Pinto.’
The inspector notes down the name and the face is covered back up. Taking Kel to the side, the inspector asks:
‘Did you know her well?’
‘Not really, just from Facebook.’
‘But you recognised her skirt. That’s very perceptive.’
‘I study criminology.’
The inspector glances up, says:
‘Well thanks for IDing the body.’
‘What do you think the cause of death was?’
‘Afraid I can’t give out that information.’
‘So it wasn’t an accident?’
‘There’s no evidence to suggest foul play. At present it seems like accidental drowning. But don’t put that on Facebook.’
‘I won’t Inspector…’
Kel puts her hand out for Inspector Christie to shake, gives her full name:
Inspector Christie digs a business card out of his wallet and hands it over, says:
‘If you think of anything that might be useful give me a call.’
Kel smiles and leaves the scene, aware that she’s been brazen and not caring. Life is too short. As poor Charlene has proven. Stepping back onto the campus grounds, Kel is passed by a news crew. By the time she’s back in the flat, Charlene’s name is all over social media.
Facebook explodes with reaction. People can’t believe it. OMGs abound. The girl who was salsa dancing with Charlene the night before posts:
‘So shocked. Dancing together just last night. I love you Charlene.’
Kel wants to ask questions, but doesn’t know the girl well enough. She just sees the post because a friend is tagged in it. Someone else does the asking for her:
‘Did she go home alone?’
‘Yea, I stayed in town with bf. Charlene had to work in morn.’
‘Was she drunk?’
‘Yea, but the bus ride should have sobered her up. Can’t believe it.’
Kel checks Charlene’s timeline. Her last photo was taken outside the nightclub, arms around her dancing partner, the two of them in a semi-drunken stance with the caption:
‘Best night ever.’
So Charlene had been happy, came back to campus on her own by bus, then decided to walk by the canal and fell in drunk?
Tragic accidents happen all the time, yet Kel wonders why Charlene would take a late-night canal stroll. And she wasn’t so drunk that she couldn’t post on Facebook or catch a bus. Police will check bus and town centre CCTV. It will be seen if Charlene was followed by anyone. Kel thinks about the University’s surveillance. There are cameras in certain places, like the ICT labs to prevent burglaries, but there is nothing by the turn off to the canal. It will be impossible to tell if Charlene went there alone.
Kel wonders what is wrong with her. Does she want Charlene to have been murdered? She calls Caitlin, who answers:
‘You were right. Poor Charlene.’
‘Yea, I just ID’d the body.’
‘No-one had made the connection yet.’
‘Are you there now?’
‘No, back home. It’s official now anyway.’
‘Look, do you think I’m sick if I think there might be more to it?’
‘What do you mean?’
Kel knows Caitlin won’t dismiss her, will listen, so she continues:
‘It’s just strange that she would go to the canal on her own in the early hours.’
‘She’d been drinking.’
‘I know, but according to her last posts, she wasn’t that drunk.’
‘What are you saying?’
‘I’m saying maybe it wasn’t an accidental drowning.’
‘Come on Kel, I know you love to investigate things, but leave it to the police. It’s just hypothesis at the moment.’
‘Yea, guess you’re right.’
They end the call, Kel looking at her phone. Caitlin is right, she should drop it. But she will just check how people react online, in case of any anomalies.
13th October 2019