Although she’d been dead for 11 hours, her killer’s name was still on her lips.
The real mystery was how Louise Appleby came to be sharing a house with a group of people she hated and who, in turn, hated her.
Once, perhaps, they had been friends. But the things that they had in common turned out to be the things that each of them valued least in their lives. They had been thrown together for three years at university. Since graduating, that temporary co-existence was beginning to seem more like an accident than a bond.
Louise worked as a receptionist in a publishing company. The pay was derisory, but she saw the job as the first rung on a career ladder. Truth be told, there would be many rungs to climb before the money came close to what some of her housemates were already earning.
The others had all gone into highly paid sectors: the city, law, management consultancy, executive recruitment… They might not be earning mega-bucks yet, but they soon would be.
She was sure her housemates thought she was stupid. Why else would you go into an industry that was only ever going to pay you a pittance, relatively speaking? She couldn’t begin to answer that question in a way they would understand.
Louise, in her turn, was shocked by the superhuman shallowness of her companions. It was not simply their fixation with the acquisition of money. These were intelligent, educated young women who still liked to paint each other’s toe nails while passing round the latest celebrity magazines.
Louise didn’t know one end of an eye pencil from the other. She could no more bring herself to squeal over a handbag or a pair of shoes than she could fake an orgasm. And she was more interested in the latest Orange Prize winner than who was shagging this or that Premier League footballer.
Admittedly, they did it all with a certain post-feminist irony. They made heroes of Tyra Banks and Elle Woods and called each other “girlfriend”. Maybe, working in male-dominated workplaces, they saw this as a way of reasserting their femininity. Or maybe they saw it as empowering in some way. Louise, though, couldn’t see the point to any of it.
Perhaps that was why she had to die.
There was every indication that she knew she was going to die, and she knew who her killer would be. Though perhaps she had not been able to foresee the precise form her death would take: a stainless steel nail file plunged into her temple.
Almost all of her housemates commented, with varying degrees of bitchiness, that she had died wearing lipstick. That was so not Louise, was the consensus.
“So not Louise,” repeated DCI Stafford. “What do you make of that, Ringer?”
“Perhaps she had a date,” suggested DS Ringer. “Maybe that’s your motive. A love triangle?”
“Maybe. Or maybe she was trying to tell us something. The others said she never normally wore make-up of any kind. They didn’t even know she owned any.”
“We don’t always know everything about everyone we share our lives with,” said Ringer.
“What are you? Some kind of philosopher?”
“I did actually study philosophy at uni, yes, guv.”
Stafford gave a brief masterclass in independent eyebrow control. The effect was somehow insulting to both Ringer and his chosen degree subject. “I want you to go over her room with a fine tooth comb.”
“What am I looking for?”
“Can’t you work it out? You with your philosophy degree?”
Ringer’s look was wounded.
The guv’nor spelled it out for him. “Find the lipstick. Find the lipstick and it will lead us to the murderer.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because I didn’t study philosophy… at uni.”
A single stick was all they found. Stafford read out the name of the shade.
“Sounds like a pornstar name,” said Ringer.
“Good boy,” said Stafford. “You haven’t been completely spoilt by philosophy. We’re taking in their laptops. All of them.”
The killer, it seemed, was housemate Christina Morello, an ambitious articled clerk with a promising career in city law ahead of her. Provided she could keep her double life as a webcam exhibitionist secret, that is.
Somehow Louise must have found out. Her own browsing history hinted that she was struggling with a shameful addiction to web porn. It seems she had stumbled on her housemate’s online displays while looking for voyeuristic stimulation.
Emails between the two of them revealed that Louise had tried to blackmail Christina, threatening to reveal her secret identity as “Crystal Cherry” – her chatroom moniker. By a strange coincidence, it was also the name of the shade of Estée Lauder lipstick which Louise had been wearing. Perhaps she had bought it to mock Christina, to remind her of the power she now had over her.
At any rate, it was enough to make Crystal Cherry see red.