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Touching stories for the shorter days of November

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The University, November 2009
by Jeffrey Leever

Capital Crime Press
283 pages
ISBN: 0979996066
EAN: 9780979996061
Paperback
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Fresh Fiction Review

"The Tunnels Below Tremont University Hide Many Secrets From Prying Eyes in this Occult Tale"

The University
Jeffrey Leever

Reviewed by Katherine Petersen
Posted January 2, 2010

Mystery

Brett Duncan and his best friend, James Reed, have plans to meet up with other pals and go out one evening. But instead, Brett hears chanting in an underground place, sees a man wearing a goats head and flies through a ground- floor window. James Reed has disappeared. Brett seeks help from the police, but they brush off his experiences as crazy or a drug trip except for one who gives him a name of someone who might help. Former police officer Deswood Graham has an idea that occult activities have gone on at Tremont University and the department forced his retirement for pursuing his suspicions.

Deswood thinks James's disappearance might tie in with a tragedy two years before that left one woman dead and her boyfriend, Zac Perry, in a coma. He contacts his cousin Kevin Gibson, an investigative journalist, inviting him to help ferret out details and break the story. Brett tracks down clues with help from Ciera Kindle, with whom he's developing a new relationship. It turns out that a maze of tunnels below the university hide much, and if Brett can survive long enough, he might just unravel the plot. But many, and some high up in the university's hierarchy prefer he join his friend in death.

Jeffrey Leever weaves an eerie occult tale in The University that has some terrific surprises in store for readers. He moves from viewpoint to viewpoint, giving out small clues from different perspectives, but readers must pay attention to keep the players straight. He has a talent for just giving enough to maintain curiosity without giving away too much.

I found the dialogue pedestrian in some places, especially the conversations between Brett and Ciera. I also didn't feel Gibson served a necessary purpose in the plot. That said, this story has some edge-of-your-seat and "wow" moments, some expected but some totally startling. Occult practices have a lot to offer as fodder for fiction and Leever definitely has a good imagination for plot and its requisite twists and turns. I rarely judge an author completely by one novel and will explore more of his work. This story will appeal to fans of occult and mystery fiction.

Learn more about The University

SUMMARY

Tremont University seems Hallmark-card wholesome on the outside. It s a place for learning. A place for dating and partying. Growing and maturing. And murder. When investigative journalist Kevin Gibson allows his cousin, a former cop who got kicked off the force, talk him into looking into a student s disappearance at the local university, he gets way more than he bargained for. Kevin, of course, has a knack for dredging up the real truth like no one else can, while crossing serious lines in the process. The story at the university quickly takes a turn toward conspiracy, murder, and coverup, involving a disturbing network that extends far beyond the campus and even the community. The missing student s best friend has seen something, and could now be a target himself. Meanwhile, a former student injured in a brutal attack four years ago and in a coma may hold a critical piece of information that could save lives, including Kevin s. And an attractive coed, a young woman who seems helpful on the surface, continues to hide a very dark secret. Kevin is drawn into a cunning world few know exist, a conspiracy involving faculty, students...and some very well-connected officials in high places. Beneath the campus exterior lie many secrets. This university offers not just an education, but heart-pumping mystery with plenty of chills along the way.

Excerpt

one

“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?”

“No.”

“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.

“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?

“That sounds like a porn star’s name,” he’d said when he first met her. They were in his favorite Tremont bar, O’Charlie’s, on a Friday night. There she’d sat alone at the counter, wearing a distressed black top and applying lip balm in between sips of lager—a spectacle he’d found oddly fascinating.

It’d been loud in the bar that night, and Zack had repeated his pick-up line twice just for good measure.

“I heard you,” she said and smiled.

He remembered thinking at the time that any girl who can hear a guy use the words “porn star” in a sentence and respond with a smile, that’s a lady he’d like to spend some time with.

Later, Misty Mac smiled at him again and pow, he was in love. Or something south of that.

They’d had a good time from that night on. At least for awhile.

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 lionfish prowled around the aquarium like a top-of-the-food- chain badass, scowl on his face, always looking for a victim.

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.

“Right.”

She glared at him.

“I mean…right, that’s a bummer.”

“Right,” she replied.

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.”

“Don’t—”

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.

What, really, was the point of getting to know people in a college town with such a high turnover ratio? At least that was Zack’s excuse when it came to his neighborhood.

He didn’t have a garage, just a driveway with his red Toyota Corolla sitting in it. Zack 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.

Clear.

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 fat 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.

“What?”

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.

Zack knew that if she said yes, he’d need to plug in the phone. He could just picture getting cut off mid-call and having the police race over…and write him up for a false alarm.

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…

Held.

Still.

And longer.

Then it happened.

There was a horrific shattering, splintering sound, and blood suddenly erupted from the back of Misty Mac’s head, splaying into Zack’s face and eyes as a bullet ripped through her body. He screamed in terror and staggered back. Misty went limp and dropped to the floor like an injured lady who’d had her crutches yanked away.

“No! Misty! Oh my g—”

Zack slipped and landed on his rear in a wet pool as he retreated and tried to blink the blood and tissue from his eyes.

The shot had ripped through the front door—straight through Misty’s once-beautiful face—and careened into the lionfish’s aquarium. Saltwater gushed out through the broken glass, pouring onto Zack’s living room carpet, mixing with Misty’s blood.

This can’t be happening.

Another gunshot—muffled by a silencer.

Someone was coming in through the splintered door. Zack could make out boots and the bottom of a trench coat.

He tried to stand but slipped once more. He screamed again.

Zack noticed something on the floor. His pet lionfish was next to him, flopping, gasping for air. Some of the fish’s knifelike fins were stabbing, piercing the carpet. Making no progress.

He wiped the blood from his eyes enough to see the barrel of a gun pointing down.

“No! Please!”

He couldn’t make out a face.

“Please, I’m not involved!”

The lionfish flipped over and nearly landed on the man’s boot, lodging instead in the carpet.

The trench coat man paused and emptied several bullets into the lionfish. The fish convulsed with each shot.

“You bastard!”

Trench coat man took a step closer to Zack, crushing a piece of aquarium glass under his boot. He pointed the gun.

Zack tried to crawl away, but slipped on the wet carpet.

He felt a hot pop on the right side of his forehead, then lost all sense of movement, balance, and fear. He could no longer control his muscles, but could feel his head falling back toward the floor.

Zack thought about his parents. He thought of Misty, dead in his entryway. And Jenna, still out there somewhere, never knowing.

His vision blurred and faded. He saw two black boots, then four, then…

Nothing.

From The University by Jeffrey Leever, Copyright © 2009 (ISBN 9780979996061)


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