The University excerpt
Sunday, 15 November 2009

"Is the back door locked?"
        Zack Perry’s gaze moved back and forth between the lionfish—the venomous pet whose tank dominated the living room of his bachelor pad—and the lovely terrified girl who kept quizzing him. He couldn’t decide which was more dangerous, or which put on the better show.
        Misty McKensie sat on his gray couch shivering, shifting her legs, twisting her light brown hair, peppering him with questions.
        “Of course it’s locked,” he said.
        “You sure?”
        “Yeah,” Zack turned his head and glanced through the kitchen, “I can see the latch from here.”
        “Did you notice that car following us on the way back from the campus?”
        “What car?”
        She rolled her green eyes at him. “Where’s your phone?”
        “Uh…” Zack patted his pockets and grimaced. “I’m not sure.”
        Her eyes widened. “What do you mean you’re not sure?”
        “Might have left it in the car.”
        “Crap. Don’t you have a landline?”
        “Why?” she asked, no longer looking at him but at some invisible teleprompter near the front door.
        Zack followed her eyes toward the door and pondered her last question. He didn’t think she would enjoy hearing the truth.
        Because I’m too cheap to have a landline.
        “I’ll just go grab it out of my car,” he offered instead. “Didn’t mean to leave it.”
        “Don’t go back out there,” she said.
        Misty Mac was bossier than usual. And more serious. Zack did not like that.
        He sighed and tried to look away. After a few seconds, though, he found himself watching her reflection in the glass of the lionfish tank. She sat there fidgeting on his couch in a long-sleeved purple v-neck and blue jeans. Her hair was parted to the right, slightly wind-blown from being outside earlier this Saturday afternoon. Still looking lovely, of course.
        Zack wondered if the fear thing from Misty was real or just an act. Sure, he’d heard her stories: Scary people. Secret rituals. Bad men who might still be after her and all that. Sometimes he didn’t know what to believe. In the beginning—two months ago—Zack had kinda liked her mysterious side. And her name. A lot.
        Misty Mac…heck yeah, what wasn’t to like?
        The lionfish swam directly into the spot where Zack was staring at Misty’s reflection through the tank and stayed there, hovering.
        Zack gazed at his colorful pet; an impulse purchase shortly after his last girlfriend breakup four months ago. The fish had zebra-like stripes that alternated in maroon and white up and down his body, with long, showy pectoral fins—Zack counted up fourteen of them one day when he was bored—and a massive jaw like a largemouth bass.
        The fish swam excitedly now, like he was expecting a meal. Or maybe being the predator that it was, the fish could sense fear in the room? Even though Zack kept his pet well fed, the thing frequently appeared to be scowling at him. At present it seemed to be scowling at the girl.
        Dude, I know how you feel.
        Truth be told, Misty Mac was—what was the word?—hot. And pretty dang good in the places Zack felt mattered most. Considering his past luck with women, he wasn’t so sure he could do any better. He could certainly do without the occasional drama.
        Zack looked at her directly and tried to be calm, reassuring.
        “What about your phone?” he asked.
        “My battery’s dead,” she replied, without so much as a glance at her purse.
        Reality was gnawing away at Zack, though he’d been trying to fight it for many days. Misty had somehow morphed from being wild, mysterious fun to fearful, high-maintenance frigidity. Why did the women he found sexy and exciting at first always end up being hard to handle?
        Seven months had passed since Jenna Weston, his last, genuine, love-not-lust relationship. He was beginning to resign himself to the possibility that it might always be this way. Looking at engagement rings, sharing ice cream at 1:30 in the morning, taking a walk just because, not being pissed on Valentine’s Day…some things he might never get back.
        The bachelor life provided its share of perks, of course, like Jenna no longer being around to tell him not to spend his hard-earned, white-collar cash on an aquatic venomous fish display. Truthfully, Zack liked his freakishly pointy, temperamental pet. The fish used its spiny pecs to capture live prey when mealtime came, herding its dinner into a corner. It was a Wild Kingdom-ish display Zack particularly found mesmerizing from the first time he’d seen it. Like Freddy Krueger meets Jaws.
        The lionfish eased off toward the other end of the tank, and Zack was left with the reflection of a still genuinely frightened girl sitting on his couch. He was beginning to get a little creeped out by the fact that her demeanor was the same whether she knew he was watching or not. And if this was real, then maybe some of her stories were, too.
        Zack did not find that thought comforting. He stood and gazed at Misty Mac. He thought about her words.
        Didn’t you notice that car following us…
        He thought about her fear.
        What if there was something to it? What was he going to do without a phone on him? Yell or something?
        Throw the damn fish?
        Zack made a decision and tip-toed toward the front door.
        “What are you doing?”
        “Just gonna look through the peephole to see if anyone’s out there. Chill.”
        Misty Mac shot him a pained look.
        Zack snuck a glimpse through the door, past his vacant porch and front steps, and out to the street.
        No one. No car lurking, staking out the place.
        He reached for the doorknob.
        “Don’t go out there.”
        “Be right back,” he replied. “With my phone.”
        Zack headed out and stepped onto his front porch, closing the door behind him and silencing Misty’s protests. He surveyed the neighborhood.
        Everything seemed normal this November afternoon in Tremont, just over the bridge from the university’s campus—about a ten-minute drive away. The wind from earlier in the day was calming a bit. Zack noticed his next-door neighbor to the right heading out to her mailbox. She was an ample woman wearing a sweatshirt that said “Big Dogs” on it. He did not know her name.
        Zack didn’t have a garage, just a driveway with his red Toyota Corolla sitting in it. He opened the driver’s side door and found his cell phone sitting in a cup holder…right where he’d left it. He picked it up and noticed he had a missed call from a number he didn’t recognize. And a low battery. He chuckled and closed the door.
        Before he went back into the house, he decided to do a quick check of the sides of his house, his backyard, and then the front one last time.
        It was all clear.
        Big Dog lady had gone back inside.
        But then he noticed something.
        Standing off in the distance, about five houses down to his right, was a large blond-haired man in a trench coat. Zack had somehow missed seeing him earlier when Big Dog was retrieving her mail. Or maybe he hadn’t been standing there a moment ago?
        He seemed to be staring at Zack.
        Zack weighed it over briefly and decided to give the guy the return stare.
        Am I, like, that interesting?
        Apparently the answer was no. Trench coat dude turned away and disappeared behind a house.
        Zack waited. A couple of cars drove past, none lingering. A dog barked in the distance. A dark-haired teenage boy rode by on a skateboard. Nothing out of the ordinary.
        He pictured Misty staring at him through the peephole, ticked he hadn’t come immediately back in. Maybe wondering if there was a problem.
        Zack glanced toward his mailbox and figured there was nothing in it that couldn’t wait. Again, he saw something, but this time—
        Whoa, that’s weird.
        There was trench coat guy again. This time, a couple of houses closer. A couple houses closer on the opposite side of the street.
        Same dude. Same build. Posing like a bar bouncer.
        How could that be?
        Zack considered the physics involved and could come up with no answer whatsoever.
        Was he some sort of ghost?
        As if on cue, the trench coat guy slipped away again.
        Zack found himself scanning back and forth between the two spots where he’d seen the blond-haired man. He knew it was ridiculous. He didn’t believe in ghosts.
        Had he miscalculated the amount of time he’d spent waiting or gawking at his mailbox?
        Making a show of it, he dialed a few buttons on his cell phone and pretended to make a call. He waited.
        He glanced back at the house and figured Misty was probably in there freaking out. When nothing else happened after a minute, he decided to go back inside.
        Zack walked slowly up the steps of his tan ranch-style home. He was proud of his house—not bad for a guy on his salary. A lot of his former classmates were either in apartments or back with their parents.
        He opened the door to come back in and was greeted not by Misty, but the sight of his lionfish aquarium. From this angle, he could see that it needed to be cleaned, a sometimes-hazardous task.
        Misty was still on the couch. “What took you so long?”
        “Just making sure we were in the clear,” he replied. “And I found this.” He held up the cell phone. “Right in the car where I thought it would be. Just needs a little charge.”
        “Did you see anyone?”
        “Nah…just my neighbor lady, a kid on a skateboard, and some guy a few houses down.”
        “What guy?”
        “Some blond-haired dude in a trench coat.”
        “What?” Misty stood.
        “He’s gone now. I waited. He left.”
        “Are you sure?”
        Zack nodded. “I’m sure I saw him walk away.”
        “I don’t like this.”
        “Don’t like what?”
        “Did you hear that?” she whispered.
        Misty held her finger up to her lips and shushed him. “Listen.”
        Faintly, weakly—the kind of thing he’d never notice if he hadn’t been in the same room with a paranoid person—Zack heard something outside his door.
        It sounded, maybe, like someone slowly approaching his front porch. He couldn’t be sure, though. Someone might just be walking by.
        Zack stared at Misty. “Do you want me to call the cops?”
        She didn’t say anything.
        Misty leaned her eye up to the peephole and gazed out. Zack stared at the back of her head. A few of her light brown hairs were out of place and staticky. She seemed frozen, her shoulders taut.
        Everything was suddenly quiet.
        “Do you see anything?” he asked.
        She held still. “Shhh.”
        Zack kept staring at the back of her head, trying to somehow see through her hair, studying for some movement. A flinch. Anything.
        She stayed tense. Zack held his breath and watched Misty’s head pressed up against the door.
        She just…
        And longer.
        Then it happened.


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Copyright © 2009, Jeffrey Leever
Capital Crime Press, ISBN 9780979996061

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