The Constant Reader


By J. T. Seate



A bird flapped off into the night toward the third-quarter moon hanging overhead. A person crept away from the building in the darkness, quietly giggling with the knowledge that only the bird served as a witness.

* * *

Ashley Connelly was known to be a voracious reader. That is why no one took special notice as she sat primly on a Student Union couch with her legs crossed and a book in her hands. When the building became alive with students moving about, someone finally said, "Hey Ash, better get your nose out of that book and join the real world."

Ashley did not respond. Her glasses had slipped down her nose and her chin nearly touched her chest. A male student, determining she had fallen asleep, approached and shook her knee. "Hey, sleepy head?" Getting no response, he shrugged. "Too much Lunesta" and wandered off.

A coed named Lindsey Reynolds came along next. With her face glued to her smart phone, she plopped down on the other end of the couch without giving Ashley a glance.

"What's with the bookworm, another coed said to Lindsey who was busily pressing letters on her device.

Lindsey raised her shoulders. The second coed patted Ashley on top of her head. "Hey girl, wake up."

Ashley did not wake up. Instead, she slowly tilted and collapsed sideways with a whoomp against the center couch cushion, glasses falling from her nose and book falling to the floor. Lindsey and the second coed both stared for a moment before Lindsey backed into her corner of the couch as far away as she could get from the askew strands of Ashley's hair that seemed to be reaching out for her. The second coed screeched, getting the attention of other students.

Ashley's eyes and mouth had opened slightly, enough to recognize their sightlessness and soundlessness.

* * *

It had rained overnight just enough to find outside clues difficult. In the distant parking lot, blockades had been set up to keep the media from swarming over the campus until preliminary searches and interviews could be conducted. Detective Jonathan Barnes walked across the damp parking lot, past two patrol cars, the crime-scene van, under the yellow tape, and into the side entrance of the campus's Student Union building.

"Haven't touched her yet, Sir," a serious looking policeman told Barnes.

Barnes shook his head slightly, unwilling to show any more emotion that that. "She's been dead for, what, ten hours before someone noticed?"

"Thought she'd just dosed off, two girls stated. Had her legs crossed, book in her hands, until she capsized."

"Just nice and blue," Barnes said as he looked closely at the marks around the dead girl's throat and the conjunctivae hemorrhaging usually associated with manual strangulation. "Any clues?"

"If we get anything it'll be from the ME or the lab. No footprints inside or out. Lucky bastard caught a storm."

Barnes fought the image of a freshly dug grave with a casket suspended above. Inside, a once pretty young woman waiting to be lowered into a vault surrounded by the thick, sickly scent of flowers mixed with the underlying smell of freshly turned earth. What could be the motive for this slaying, Barnes wondered? He believed a violent temper lurked beneath an urbane top layer within most humans, waiting to find a reason for escape. "You got the girls for me to talk to?"

"I took their initial statements, Sir. They're in their dorm. A female officer is with them."

A sad smile crossed Barnes's face. He could picture the nineteen to twenty-one-year-old college girls with the unusual look of puzzlement on their faces finding themselves in a situation beyond their ordered lives.

"Have the body removed along a path to the far side of campus," Barnes instructed. "Better to have students gaping at a passing gurney than to have an ambulance in the middle of the circus the parking area is becoming."

* * *

While conducting interviews, Barnes concentrated on the eyes of those questioned. Therein lay the truth, he believed. The eyes revealed more than lie-detectors. He could see the fear of becoming another victim, or the fear of being caught in a lie, of being trapped, or being helpless, doomed. If he ran across a sociopath, the eyes showed little, as dead as those of a corpse. Those were the eyes that were truly frightening.

Barnes sent two uniforms to look for a discarded garrote of some kind. After briefly speaking with the two girls who had realized Ashley was dead, he visited Ashley's dorm room for a cursory check. The experts would eventually go through the room inch by inch in search of stashed-away secrets. Nothing unusual jumped about at Barnes. There were the usual assortment of baubles and trinkets that greeted him with a wink of reflected light, but mostly, Ashley had books in her half of the room. He asked her roommate if anything was missing, if Ashley had a boyfriend, been dating, who she hung out with. The roommate couldn't get past the befuddlement stage to be of any help other than confirming that Ashley was sort of a loner, more interested in books than people.

"She liked to throw around literary words like "perfidious" and "obstreperous." That put some people off, but she still got the attention of some guys 'cause she was cute, in a librarian sort of way."

An alarm went off in Barnes's head. Might some dude have killed because Ashley wouldn't put out? You could almost smell the Testosterone on a college campus. It was an age in which youthful allegiances tended to rule actions. What kind of mind would pose her, play a little shock-joke on whoever decided something was askew with the book-reading coed?

There was a photograph of Ashley and another young woman on the dead girl's study desk, she and some high school chum by the look of it. They reflected two shy smiles revealing what Ashley had once been. She was no raving beauty, but could definitely be considered... arresting, something exotic about her heavy-lidded eyes and sullen mouth. Could she have been a bookworm by day and sexy siren by night? Bookish or not, she could certainly have turned the heads of a few young men.

Barnes advised the roommate to bunk in with someone else and to pass the word that everyone should henceforth stay away from the room until a thorough search could be conducted. He ordered that a strip of crime scene tape be placed over the door as he left the dormitory.

Senseless crime made Barnes's skin itch as if something had glommed onto him he'd have trouble scraping off. To one of the officers waiting outside he sighed and said, "Ahhh, God I hate this kind of case."

The following would happen on campus while the homicide investigation proceeded: reporters with their recorders would descend like locusts hoping to get a sound bite about how it felt to have a classmate murdered. The dean of the college would be forced to make a statement amidst the glare of flashing cameras. Girls would be frightened and foolish to cross campus after dark without a companion. Inevitably, rumors and jokes would run rampant about the girl who wouldn't give up her book even in death.

In one of the school's admin offices, Barnes spent the afternoon interviewing those students and teachers who were purported to be most involved in Ashley's student affairs. A camera was set up to record the interviews so other detectives and the police department's psychologist could study the tapes. They could search for inconsistencies and behavior modification, just as Barnes took his cues from the interviewees' eyes.

After twenty sessions, Barnes was tired and frustrated. He hadn't picked up on anything that struck him as useful. He considered the possibility of the killer being someone off-campus which would widen the case to include everyone. But the positioning of Ashley's body felt like a college prank, someone who could commit murder and combine it with dark, deadly humor.

Just as he'd taken the last cassette from the recorder and decided to call it a night, one of the male students interviewed earlier knocked on the office door. Barnes waved him in.

"Sorry to bother you," the student said, "but there's something I forgot to mention when we talked before."

"Sit down..."

"Dillon." The young man took a seat. "As I said before, Ashley and I were becoming friends. She was sort of shy, but still cute and friendly enough to be...interesting. We had only gone out once, but we hung out after class sometimes, just bull-shitting, you know."

"So what was it you forgot to tell me?"

"She mentioned a note she'd gotten under her dorm room door telling her to stay away from me. That I was bad news, or something like that."

"That's a pretty significant thing to forget."

"Yeah, I guess. But we laughed it off. I couldn't imagine anyone who'd have a reason to bad-mouth me to her."

"Some girl interested in you that didn't like your interest in Ashley, maybe?

"I thought about that at the time. I date around, but couldn't think of anyone who'd be ballsy enough to leave her a note."

"Did you see the note?"

"No. Ashley said she tossed it."

"Would you give me the names of the girls you've been with while at school?"

The boy smiled. "That might be a pretty long list, Sir."

Barnes smiled back. "Well then, let's start with those you've seen recently and work our way back to when you started to hang out with Ashley."

Dillon wrote down the names of six students. "Not that many really," he said.

"Glad to hear it," Barnes replied. "Thanks for the information and since this is a police matter, I expect you to keep my request to yourself for the time being."

"Oh, sure. I've got my own room, no roommate to look over my shoulder."

"Lucky guy."

After Dillon left, Barnes stretched and sighed. He doubted this new information would lead to anything, but he didn't have much else. He'd studied Dillon's eyes for any sign of fraudulence or a desire to gain attention. So far, there was no evidence to suggest Ashley had a guy in her life that might be violent or even jealous. Could a female do what had been done? Whoever did it, there had to be a catalyst, a trigger, something to set him or her off. But what? Sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll?

It was late. Barnes pondered the day's events as he headed toward his car. With the exception of himself and a police woman at Ashley's dorm, police presence had disappeared. Even the TV trucks had packed up and moved on to police headquarters for their channels' late-breaking report, such as it would be. One victim didn't hold their interest nearly as long as a mass shooting would have.

By nine o'clock, no one was strolling along the tree lined paths or gathering at the quad. The school wasn't on lockdown, but the day's events had made their impact. Students had been asked to delay any makeshift shrine until police activity concluded. The next day would be a tough one. Ashley's parents would be arriving. It would fall to Barnes to meet them and give them any information he could provide, which would the nothing other than the old song and dance about the department doing everything it could to find their daughter's killer. No meeting with friends or relatives was ever pleasant. That would be followed by interviews with Dillon's "friends." Other detectives, along with the station shrink, could study the tapes and the lab people could continue their search for forensic evidence on Ashley's body and clothes. If a detective knew what was good for him, he never got personally involved with the circumstances of a case, but thoughts of the dead girl plagued Barnes.

A night bird screeched from a distant tree. With what Barnes had so far, it might as well have squawked a somber, "Nevermore." He decided he hadn't done enough on Day One. He wanted another look in Ashley's room before a team picked it apart. Something could have been overlooked during his cursory search. He entered the dorm and waved at the policewoman in the lobby who'd been assigned there for the night. He climbed the stairs to Ashley's room on the second floor.

Barnes opened her door and slid beneath the yellow tape. The roommate was staying with two other girls as instructed, so he had the room to himself. Again, he studied the picture of Ashley and friend. "Who did this to you, child?" he asked the photo.

With a sigh, he turned to a pile of study material. He focused in on her class notebooks and flipped through a few. Ashley had been a good note-taker. Her remarks were very precise and free of mind-wandering doodles. He pictured her having thoughtful themes and perfect penmanship. After the notebooks, he perused the textbooks. A stack of fiction made up another small pile. In spite of her bookworm reputation, she took flights of fancy into poetry as well. He looked through one of the books full of iambic pentameter.

And there it was, a neatly lettered note written in cursive on a half-sheet of folded computer paper.

A, Take my advice and stay away from Dillon. He's a rapist. Don't let what happened to me happen to you.

Barnes pondered the missive. He might not have believed it had anything to do with Ashley's death if not for the fact that he did not believe Dillon was a rapist. He'd seen into the young man's eyes and that gleam of omniscient right had not been there. And why would he have provided information about a note if its suggestion were true? Barnes guessed Ashley hadn't been specific to Dillon as to the accusations. The good news: a sample of handwriting to check out even if it meant getting samples from most of the school. Barnes placed the note inside a plastic bag and slipped it into the pocket of his jacket.

To accompany this piece of evidence, Barnes suddenly had one of those cop hunches, something intangible, something with a poetry all its own. He thought of it as an Edgar Allen Poe moment: the sense that something meaningful was about to happen. Instead of starting toward his vehicle for a second time, he left the dorm and sat in the darkness across the walkway leading to the Student Union while the three-quarter moon cast pale shadows across the campus.

Just before midnight, a female wearing a hooded windbreaker approached a side door, opened it, and disappeared inside. Barnes stealthily approached the building's front entrance. His eyes adjusted. Through a large window, he could see that the girl held something...a flower. She placed it on the infamous couch, paused for a moment, and then departed the way she had come. This gesture was undoubtedly the beginning of a memorial that was surely to blossom in the days to come. An innocent act, perhaps, but he kept low and followed the girl across campus until she disappeared inside the same dormitory in which Ashley had lived.

Barnes turned his attention from the solo figure to the building itself. He moved to one of its corners so he could observe two sides. He waited and watched calculating where Ashley's room was. The glow from various windows dotted that side of the building. From the second floor, an additional light suddenly clicked on. That's when the little tingle most detectives get when convinced they're on to something kicked in and he knew he had more than a hunch.

Ashley's room.

He walked to the building quickly. The police woman was looking bored until Barnes spoke to her. "Would you come with me, Officer," he said in a voice that was more an order than a request. "I want to find the girl who just came in."

Given a task, the officer laid her magazine aside and hurried to follow Barnes up a flight of stairs. The two other times Barnes had climbed the stairs he had announced "Man on the floor." God forbid he should run into a scantily clad coed walking the hallway. But not this time. He didn't want to announce his presence. He and the female cop walked down the hallway and stopped in front of Ashley's room. Light seeped from beneath the door and the yellow tape had been removed.

Whoever was inside was making a sound. It was a giggle like one would expect from a younger girl. Barnes turned the knob and quietly pushed the door open. For a moment, it felt like déjà vu. A figure sat on the edge of the bed; a young woman wearing glasses, holding a book. The windbreaker lay across the back of a chair along with the discarded strip of tape. She didn't notice Barnes or the woman peering over his shoulder at first. When she did notice, she closed the book and pulled the glasses from her face. She stared at the two intruders as they came closer and they stared back. It took Barnes a moment to ID her: the girl who had been spoken to first, the one who sat down on the couch next to Ashley's body. Barnes had spoken to her only briefly and had seen her a second time as she strolled across campus with another student while he was taking a coffee break.

Then something else clicked. Her name. He had hastily read it among the interviewing officer's notes. Lindsey Reynolds. It was a name that appeared on Dillon's list of girls he'd been chummy with as well. That should have set off an alarm that superseded any hunch. Again Barnes took notice of Lindsey's cute face, a cheerleader type, he thought, but she looked perplexed now as their eyes met.

"What did he see in her?" Lindsey suddenly said. Her voice was steady, almost indifferent, as if reciting a passage from a book. "After they started hanging out, I didn't see much of them."

There was a pregnant pause. Barnes wanted to make sure Lindsey was finished before speaking. The she continued. "I tried to figure it out. Still trying. I started reading more, even wore these dorky glasses, but it didn't work. She and her big words had some kind of power over him. What I did was the only way to break the spell."

"What did you do, Lindsey?"

The girl broke eye contact. She looked down at the book and rubbed her fingernails over its cover. "She didn't take the hint about avoiding Dillon. Last night, I told her I needed to tell her something away from the dorm and from other people. I got her out behind the Student Union and told her she had to quit seeing Dillon or something bad would happen. 'You wrote that note,' she said. Then she kind of laughed and told me she didn't believe it and that it was a sick thing to do. She shouldn't have said that."

"Then what happened?"

"Nothing much. She turned away and started back. I put a belt around her neck and twisted it until she fell to the ground. I twisted until she quit fighting."

Another pause.

"But that wasn't the end of it, Lindsey. You put her in the building to be found."

Lindsey calmly giggled again. "Yeah, she never went anyplace without a stupid book. I thought she should end up doing what she did best, turning guys on by looking all studious. Cool, huh?"

"Some gimmick."

Lindsey's gaze returned to Barnes. Her eyes opened wider in a chilling stare as if they were the counterbalanced lids of a doll's eyes. They held the familiar coldness of a sociopath. Then she shocked the detective further by suddenly falling sideways onto the bed. The stunt made the hairs on the back of his neck rise.

"Plop," she said. "I'm awfully tired. Can I lay here a minute. Maybe Ashley's spirit will come to visit. Maybe even tell me her secret of how to attract people you care about."

"I don't think your actions will get Dillon back."

"Dillon? You don't get it," Lindsey said with a mocking tone. Then her mood changed. A softness seeped into her voice, a voice for low-light and soft music, for only one listener. "I wanted her. Not some immature guy. I wanted Ashley back."

Barnes and the police woman exchanged looks. He instructed her to guard Lindsey like a Rottweiler while he stepped into the hallway and called the station. "Chief, we appear to have our murderess. That's right, a female. I'll request a couple of patrol cars at first light if not sooner."

They let Lindsey sleep on Ashley's bed until the vehicles arrived. The police woman woke her up and Barnes read her Miranda Rights before leading her out of the dormitory. As the sun began to tremble on the horizon, he looked beyond the parking lot across the campus. "It's going to be a beautiful day. This place is beautiful. No place for murder," he said as the attending officer led the girl to a patrol car. Lindsey had cavalierly sat down on the couch next to her victim, playing innocent. Who less to suspect than a person who would do that? But she didn't get away with it. Vanity did her in. For some, once they start to confess, it's hard to shut them up.

Lindsey hadn't been cuffed. She wasn't going to break and run. Chances were her daddy had a lawyer who would have her out on bale within a few hours. Life and crime were complicated propositions. Passion and jealousy were potent motivators, even more than money. Ashley died, not because of anything she did, but what she didn't do. She either didn't know of Lindsey's desires or didn't respond to them properly. She died because another college girl had eyes for her, because someone was afraid she might be more than a blip on Dillon's radar. Would the shrinks find her sanity intact or find it hanging by a fraying cord like an elevator car about to drop like a rock?

"See you in a bit, Detective, an officer said.

"Young or old, broken minds don't work right," Barnes said with a sigh. "Some brains are tuned into the wrong frequency. The punch line is a cosmic joke. How fucked up has society become?"

Barnes didn't get an answer nor did he expect one. The inevitable shrine would go up, but in a few months, everyone would be back on their phones about something other than the heinous murder and Ashley Connelly would be no more than a fading memory. He had lucked into a quick and tidy confession served with a cherry on top. But it didn't make him feel any better. Murder is unique from all other crimes. It is the only one that begs the question: Why? The darkness of a mind that would commit such atrocities never ceased to amaze him no matter how many stabbings, shootings, or strangulations crossed his path. There was also the possibility that Lindsey's confession had been false either to protect someone else, or just for laughs. Sociopaths like to play games, but then there were those cold eyes of hers.

There was a sudden rawk-rawk from a bird hidden high in a tree. It could have been a Raven, Barnes supposed, mocking lowly humans and the sins they commit. There were still statements to be taken and reports to be written. But not right this minute. Barnes was headed for a place where he could sift through the debris of his past, looking for something wholesome to seize upon, and drink an ale as dark as a Raven's wings or a murderer's heart.


J. T. Seate's publishing credits include six novels/novellas, a dozen one-author anthologies, and more than two hundred short stories and memoirs. This is his fourth short story to appear in omdb! online. The previous stories were: "Mask" (March, 2013), "Montezuma's Revenge" (January, 2013), and "Turn About" (November, 2012).

Recent publications can be found at www.melange-books.com, www.whispershome.com, and www.museituppublishing.com for those who like their tales intertwined with the paranormal. See it all at www.troyseateauthor.webs.com and on amazon.com. You may also wish to visit the author's blog.


Copyright © 2013 J. T. Seate. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!


Return to Over My Dead Body! Online.