by Sarah Simon (@sarahahara)
Editor: Leah Pierre (@leahbene)
Adult Psychological Suspense
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A down-on-her-luck thirty-something impersonates her glamourous friend in an online dating app, but gets more than she signed up for when a dead body leaves them both implicated for murder.
Mona Shammas has a busy dating life. She spends hours online, posing as her former work friend, Skylar. The job she’s unhappy at and the family she’s estranged from—none of it matters while Mona is playing the part of Skylar. Until one day, Skylar shows up at her office and tells her she needs to stop. But Skylar isn't as angry as she should be. In fact, her mind seems to be on something else altogether when she invites Mona to her New Year’s Eve party.
Things take a turn for the worse when Skylar’s husband, Daniel, is found dead the next morning. Skylar is desperate to prove her innocence and she uses Mona as an alibi, leading the police to uncover that Mona not only has an unhealthy interest in Skylar’s life, but a dark past with the victim. As the police become more focused on her and less on Skylar, Mona begins to question if her old work friend can be trusted. She knows better than anyone that we all have something to hide.
THE WORK FRIEND is an 82k word psychological suspense novel told from multiple points of view. It would appeal to fans of Lucy Foley’s The Hunting Party or Ashley Audrain’s The Push. I was born in Toronto to an English mother and an Iraqi father (like Mona in my novel). I graduated from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Science and now work in cancer research. I am a member of Sisters in Crime. Writing thrillers has allowed me to perfectly merge my interest in science with my love of all things dark and twisty.
First Five Pages
The charade had started on a Saturday, so it was fitting that it should end on one. That first Saturday had been filled with the minutiae of my existence—laundry, the series I was binging on Netflix, lunch, a walk—and the slow creeping fear that this, as in myself, the TV, my shabby apartment, was all there was and all there ever would be. I didn’t have friends who wanted to hear from me and I couldn’t call my family. After a few glasses of wine and a couple of hours of scrolling social media, I’d become fixated on photos my old work friend, Skylar, had posted of herself online. Her face gave me a rush, like sighting a celebrity out in the wild. Only more exciting, because I’d known her once, intimately. I had learned all her secrets and the petty details of her life. Skylar was my best friend and the year we worked together was the best of my life. But now, over a year later, when my only connection to her was through her social media feeds, it was obvious to me that my longing wasn’t to speak to her or meet with her, it was to be her. So, I did—become her.
Relationships didn’t come easily to me. People weren’t drawn to me. I wasn’t magnetic. I couldn’t keep friends. Or boyfriends. But Skylar could. And I wanted to be all the things she was—loved, needed, known—but most importantly, I didn’t want to be myself.
Within the first hour of posting my Skylar profile on a few dating apps, my phone pinged regularly to notify me of a new like.
I was selective, quickly deleting the profiles of men who wouldn’t stand a chance with Skylar. And there were many. I didn’t know why I’d thought it would be different for her—that the bathroom mirror selfies and twenty-year age gaps and blank profiles with a promise they would be filled in later would self-select out, like a faulty genetic trait or a pre-cancerous cell. This was Skylar Enright. Get lost creeps.
There were men I liked back. We exchanged a few messages, but most got tired of the conversation when I turned down their offers for a coffee or drinks.
Ash, however, was different. His messages came in faithfully two or three times a day. They were thoughtful and full of questions. He wanted to know everything about me—what I did for a living, what my astrological sign was, what countries I’d travelled to, my favorite food, if I could have one superpower what would it be, how many siblings I had, whether I preferred salty or sweet.
And he shared bits of himself—Ash was short for Ashish, his birthday was January 29th, which made him, an Aquarius, compatible with me, a Gemini. He was an only child, his parents had moved back to India a few years ago, his favorite color was blue, he was an extroverted introvert, and he worked as a producer-editor. For now, that meant he cut movie trailers, but he aspired to make his own film one day.
I’d looked him up online as soon as I knew what he did for a living. I didn’t even need a last name. I immediately found his LinkedIn profile and from there I’d found his YouTube channel. He’d posted the short films he’d made and I watched them all; enjoyed them all.
When he asked me out, I said yes, suspecting that if I didn’t, poof!, he would be gone. And I’d gotten too attached to him for things to end without any closure. All I wanted was a glimpse of Ash. I would watch him for a few minutes before typing out an apologetic text explaining why I, as in Skylar, hadn’t been able to come. An excuse was necessary because he couldn’t know the truth. I was Mona Shammas, not Skylar Enright who was happily married and had no idea about this date.
It hadn’t been my intention to take the game that far, but here I was waiting outside the St. Lawrence Market in downtown Toronto for my date with Ash. Every night since we had made plans for Saturday brunch, I’d typed, but not sent, a text that would get me out if it—a commitment I’d forgotten about, a family emergency, an unexpected move to a new city. But I wanted to see Ash, even if I didn’t actually plan on meeting him, and this was my only chance. So instead of cancelling, I’d confirmed our plans. I just didn’t want to be alone. I’d even put on makeup for the occasion.
The wet snow had started an hour before, pelting from the sky in relentless lines that sought out my face like they had a vendetta against it. Hood up and phone out, it was hard to pick out individual faces. Christmas was only four days away and the sidewalk was crowded. People entered and exited the market every couple of minutes. There was a constant background hum of cars sliding through the road slush. It wasn’t that cold—only a couple of degrees away from a rain instead of snow—but the damp crept through me. My toes curled in my knee-high leather boots, seeking warmth by gathering together like a litter of piglets. Shifting from foot to foot, I read the last message he’d sent. Morning! Can’t wait to meet you. See you at noon at the market.
It was ten past the hour. Ash was late. I was in danger of being stood up on the date I was going to do the standing up on.
I took off my fur-lined hood, exposing my face to the wet snow, and cast around for a figure that was familiar by now from all the internet stalking I’d done. Would he come from the west? That was the direction of the nearest subway station.
“Cold isn’t it?” came a voice from behind me.
I froze. It was Ash. And he knew what I was doing. My fraud was written in bold letters in the air over my head.
I spun around to face a man in his 60s in red ball cap and faded brown leather jacket. Not Ash. He handed me a flyer, which I scanned politely. Christmas trees, he was advertising his Christmas tree farm. “Thank you,” I said too warmly, like he’d handed me a winning lottery ticket instead of a paper I planned to crunch up as soon as he couldn’t see me anymore.
“No problem. You coming in?” He held the door to the front entrance of the market open.
“No, thanks. I’m waiting for someone.”
He nodded. The wind gusted and the door slammed shut behind him. I didn’t have to wait outside for Ash but I wanted catch sight of him before he entered the building and observe the minute preparations he did in anticipation of his date with Skylar.
My phone pinged in my hand. Hey, realize we didn’t pick a place to meet. I’m leaning against a stand-up table by the Big Top Bakery. It’s in the center of the market and it’s got creepy clowns on the sign. But I can come to you if you’re already here somewhere.
I’d missed him. Maybe he had come in when I’d been distracted or had used a side entrance.
Inside, I darted my way through the crowd of people, I snaked past the butcher with chorizo strung like a row of festive lights, past the rotten smell of the fish market, and the ripe feet smell of the cheese shop. The pillars and shopfronts were decked with evergreen boughs, red ribbons and fairy lights, but the mass of people I wove through was a colorless blob. Nearly everyone was dressed in some variation of either black or gray. I wasn’t so confident I would be able to recognize Ash at all.
But then the bakery came into view. The awning was striped like a circus tent and just as he’d described, two creepy clowns—one fat and one thin—juggled an assortment of pies, baguettes, and tarts. I slowed my pace, creeping around the periphery of the tables. When I saw him, my breath caught. He’d come. I’d brought him there, summoned him into my midst with the power over others Skylar wielded. He was a real person. In his dating app photos, his jaw was chiseled and his hair hung in loose waves that landed past his ears, but in the flesh, he was doughy and much older looking. His hair was cut close to his scalp. He stared intently at his phone and scowled.
I guess online, everyone fudged the truth. Serves you right. You don’t deserve to meet Skylar.
He looked up and our eyes met. A flash of recognition, not of my face as he’d never have seen that before, but of something else briefly crossed between us and then it was gone.
The plan had been to grab a coffee or a veal parm sandwich or a fish taco or whatever I wanted. He was going to show me the antiques market where he’d once found a pair of cowboy boots that actually fit even though he wasn’t convinced he had cowboy sized feet (I ignored the innuendo) and a jar full of old keys he’d bought because he’d been obsessed with skeleton keys as a kid (but unfortunately these ones hadn’t opened a damn thing).
Of course, we wouldn’t actually do any of those things now. After today, the fantasy would be over.
Two men weaved through the tables looking for a spot to rest. Both held a paper coffee cup and a bag stamped with the bakery’s name. Ash, the only person at a table not eating or drinking, abandoned his post and turned his back to me.
I could stare at him unabashedly now. He put his phone away and jammed his hands in his coat pockets while he studied the signs hanging from the ceiling.
He turned left and I followed him. I didn’t need to be stealth. There were enough people around that I wasn’t conspicuous. When he stopped, I stopped. When he quickened his pace, I quickened my pace. When he turned down a narrow corridor, I waited a beat and followed him.
An arrow pointed the way to the nearby bathroom. The hallway was deserted, in stark contrast to the rest of the crowded market.
He didn’t notice anyone was behind him when he turned the door handle and ducked in.
It was a proper bathroom, meant for one person, not stalls. I loitered outside and pretended to be waiting my turn. If he saw me, it wouldn’t matter. Skylar and I looked nothing alike. Skylar was tall with honey blonde hair and sapphire-colored eyes—a cross between Taylor Swift and Margot Robbie. I was short with curly brown hair and dark brown eyes —the product of an Iraqi dad and an English mom. No one would ever mistake me for her, or her for me. I was invisible as far as this date went. A fly on the wall.
I checked my phone. He’d texted before leaving his table. You coming? How about letting me know one way or the other?
My stomach tightened. The tone of his text was much different than any other message he’d sent and the hostility felt like a slap. Maybe Ash had lured Skylar here under the same false pretenses I’d used. He wasn’t who he’d said he was—just like me.
The toilet flushed and the sink faucet turned on. He was so close. I zipped my phone into my coat pocket and shoved my thumb in my mouth, gnawing at what was left of a nail already bitten to the quick. The lock turned and the door clicked open.
I pretended to be engrossed in the corkboard on the wall and studied a poster for childcare in the area. Perfect. He’d assume I had a child and was therefore a perfectly functioning member of society. He’d left the hand dryer blowing in the bathroom. The whooshing sound filtered through the door and roared in my ears in time with the blood rushing from my speeding heart.
The hallway was narrow and when he passed me, we almost touched. “Sorry,” he said, maneuvering around me. I pressed myself against the wall to let him by and used every ounce of willpower within myself not to watch him walk away. He was going to leave. The date was over. But in the periphery of my vision, I could see he’d stopped only a few feet away. I stole a glance in his direction.
Eyebrows furrowed, he tapped out a message on his phone. His fingers stopped moving and I looked away.
My phone pinged in my pocket. I’d forgotten to turn it to silent. I didn’t dare move, or breathe, or swallow. I stared at the holes in the corkboard; tiny stab wounds from a thousand pushpins. Convinced my heart was beating so loud he could hear it, if Ash suspected something was up, I wouldn’t know it. I stayed perfectly still, not daring to turn in his direction.
I waited until boots slapped against the concrete floor, the sound gradually quieting until it was gone altogether. I surrendered from my staring contest with the wall. My whole body, held for the last five minutes like a tightly clenched fist, relaxed.
Ash was gone.
I ducked back into the market. The mass of people that had felt cloying before, now were a relief as I got lost in their midst. I checked my phone, where his message waited for me.
Are you coming? You can let me know if you’re not. Or is this how you show your compassionate side?
The words hit me like a punch to the stomach. Online, he had asked me what quality I liked most about myself and I’d said my compassion. Now I regretted choosing a virtue so grandiose. Although it was better than the alternative—I’d almost written punctuality.
A man’s shoulder banged against my own. “Watch it,” he said. I put my phone away. It felt toxic and dangerous.
I didn’t check my messages again until I’d walked to a coffee shop six blocks away.
Well well well madam. I believe I may have been stood up. Hope you’re okay. Text me when you get this, even if it’s just to say you’re not interested. Want to know that you’re alright and not flattened by a bus.
Ash’s tone had switched from angry to playful. I opened the dating app we’d matched on. I wanted to see if he had unmatched me. He hadn’t. I could have unmatched him, ended this thing I’d started, but I didn’t. I wrote him back instead.
I am so so so sorry! Giant emergency, mom in hospital, will explain more later. Again, sooooo sorry. It was obviously all bullshit, but yet authentic too. I swear I’d actually received a message from Skylar once that had said roughly the same thing. Sometimes I liked to rearrange the timeline of my life. Use events from the past, future, or imagined to color my present.
My other new text was from my sister, Helene. We need to talk, she’d written. This text I ignored. I would deal with her later.