Silence in the Library

The body lay in the middle of the floor, sprawled in exactly that sort of pose one comes to associate with the chalk outlines on prime-time police procedural dramas. Detective Fleming noticed his position right away and thought it odd. The campus security had escorted Fleming and his partner, Detective Maria Sandoval, to the body. “It’s funny, in a way, you don’t always see a body that’s positioned like it belongs on TV.” She looked at him and offered a non-committal “hmph.” They spiraled in as they approached, taking in the body and its immediate surroundings from as many angles as they could, looking for anything that stuck out or seemed out of place.

The early arrivers had already started to gather. A few students who had come to study early were peering over the police tape. One, an older gentleman, probably a professor, had even sat at one of the tables with his hands resting one over the other atop his walking stick. His chin perched between the first and second fingers of his right hand; his head tilted slightly, and his lips pursed in a mournful expression.

Detective Fleming stopped and addressed the group of seven or so onlookers, “Hello everyone, my name is Detective Erik Fleming with the Chicago Police Department…”

“Like the James Bond guy?” A lanky young man interrupted.

Fleming sighed, “No, that’s Ian Fleming, no relation. If you could please all be so kind as to stay back while we investigate the scene. If you have information you feel may be pertinent we invite you to share it with us once the coroner arrives. Until then, you will all need to stay here.”

“You don’t think he was murdered, do you?” A girl with a messy ponytail and overalls, who stood chewing her thumbnail, asked.

“We’re not committing to anything yet,” Dt. Sandoval answered.

“Oh no, oh no, oh no.” The young woman murmured to herself, and went back to chewing her thumbnail and glancing around the room. Sandoval followed her eyes to a ceiling mounted security camera.

She made a mental note and returned to the body as Fleming knelt beside her, and she began listing her initial impressions. “Young Caucasian male. Late teens or very early twenties. Brown hair and medium build, slightly overweight. There are numerous scratches on his neck, see that?” She used her pen to move his collar aside, so Fleming could have a better look.

“Yeah, those look pretty fresh,” Fleming noted, “probably perimortem.”

The professor looked up at the vaulted ceiling of Harper Memorial Library and closed his eyes. He remained that way for some moments before he opened his eyes and shifted, returning his silent gaze and attention to the two detectives.

He sighed and began speaking softly to himself, “If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them…”

The room had quieted enough that the detectives were able to hear him from where they kneeled by the body and Fleming’s ears perked up at the word “kill.”

“Whoa, what was that?” He started back over to where the professor was sitting. “What were you saying about killing?”

“Oh dear, I’m sorry.” The older man looked up, shaken from his musings. “I was quoting Hemingway’s ‘A Farewell to Arms.’ ‘The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills.’ It came to mind as I was thinking about the tragedy of such a young man dying.”

“Hmmm,” Fleming grunted and squinted his eyes at the professor as he turned and walked back to the body.

Detective Sandoval was still examining the body “Blue hue to his lips, probably cyanosis due to lack of oxygen. Do you think, maybe, strangulation?”

“Possibly, we should have the coroner check his hyoid, but it would be consistent with the scratches on his neck if… Check his fingernails.”

“Yeah, it looks like skin and blood there. We’ll get the DNA matched, but those scratches were probably self-inflicted.” Maria Sandoval held her own hands to her neck, curling her fingers in and drawing her hands down; miming how the wounds might have been inflicted. “If he was strangled, that’s just how he’d try to get whatever object it was off of him.”

From one of the tables on the opposite side of the room a uniformed officer walked over with a student ID card in her gloved hand. “His name is Andy Stevens. He’s a freshman here.” She gestured with the card.

“Yes, I could have told you that from the start. He’s one of my students,” came a reply. All three officers turned to see the professor rising to his feet. “It breaks my heart to see. I, I can’t bear to think of what it will be for his parents.” He paused a moment to look at each of them in turn, “I am Professor Florian Graves. I teach English here. I don’t suppose you’d let me tag along; I promise I’ll stay out of the way and just observe. I’ve always loved a mystery; I fancy myself a bit of a hobbyist detective, you know.”

Fleming let out a brief and quiet groan. The uniformed officer muttered, “There’s always one,” Under her breath.

The Professor looked at her name badge, “Yes, I’m terribly sorry. I understand your reluctance. I don’t mean to insert myself into your process at all. I just had hoped to be able to observe.”

Sandoval turned her back to the Professor and spoke sotto voce to Fleming, “We’ll need to ask him some questions anyway. Those scratches look like foul play, and he knew the victim. As long as he stays out of the way I don’t see the harm.”

Fleming closed his eyes and shook his head side to side as if saying “no,” but instead he whispered back, “Ugh, fine.”

“You,” he said, pointing to the Professor, “we’ve got some questions to ask you. You can follow along, but you’d better stay out of our way, or I will arrest you.”

The Professor briefly smiled a tight, sad smile as he stepped forward.

“When was the last time you saw the victim and what are you doing in the library this morning?” Detective Sandoval asked.

The Professor thought for a moment, “It must have been at class on Thursday, I don’t take roll, but I do believe I saw him there. As to my being in the library, I am an English professor and this is a library. I mean no disrespect. I come here most days to peruse or just be available to students who might have questions.”

“Students like Mr. Stevens.” Sandoval offered.

“Yes, if he’d been alive and had questions he, like all of my students, knew that he could stop me as I walked by to discuss.”

“Did Mr. Stevens ever stop you to ask questions?”

“No, I don’t remember him ever doing so.”

“Did Mr. Stevens have any enemies or anyone he didn’t get along with?”

“I can’t say that he did, but I didn’t know him well enough to comment with much certainty on his social life.”

“Thank you. If we have other questions, I’ll let you know.” Fleming said.

“Yes, well, I’ll be around.” The Professor replied and stepped back a couple of feet until he was satisfied that he would be in no one’s way while remaining in the thick of the action.

“Well, since we’re talking to people already,” Sandoval muttered to herself.

“Miss,” she gestured to the thumbnail biter, “do you mind if we ask you a few questions?”

“What? Why? Uh, sure, I guess, why?” She answered.

“I’m Detective Sandoval. What’s your name?”

“Al- Alma, Alma Gutiérrez. Why do you want to talk to me? What’s going on?”

“Well, Alma, I noticed you looking around earlier. You seemed interested in the security cameras earlier. Why was that?”

“Oh, that?” Alma almost chuckled. “Well, I was just thinking that it was really bad timing that this happened last night, since the security cameras were down.”

Sandoval swore under her breath. “How do you know they were down?”

“Because she was the one who brought them down in the first place.” An older man with a crisp goatee and deep chocolate eyes stepped closer to Alma as he said this. “She’s upgrading all the security cameras and software currently. I’m advising her on this project for my class.”

“And you are?” Dt. Sandoval asked.

“Marcus DuBois, I teach software design and development here. Miss. Gutiérrez has designed a new CCTV system in my class and has been installing the equipment and servers.”

“So, you knew the security cameras would be down last night?” Detective Sandoval asked, turning again to Alma.

Alma glanced quickly at Sandoval then to Professor Graves and then to DuBois before she replied, “Well, yeah. But it’s not like I thought anything was going to happen. I mean why would it? And I was in the server room and security closet for the entire night.”

“Can you corroborate that, Professor DuBois?”

“No, unfortunately I cannot. I was at home last night with my family.”

“I see,” continued Sandoval, “is there anyone who can confirm your whereabouts?”

Alma glanced at her professor nervously. “What? Nu-no. No one. Nope.”

Before she could ask any follow-up questions, Detective Fleming called over. “Hey Maria, come take a look at this.”

“Stay right here. I’ll be back with more questions.”

Professor Graves stood a moment longer watching Alma before he turned to follow Dt. Sandoval as she walked over to where Fleming was standing. As she approached where the young man had left his backpack beside a stack of books and his laptop, Fleming pointed to the papers and contents of the backpack spread around the table and onto the floor. “Looks like afterwards the killer was looking for something.”

“You’re thinking there was a killer, then?” She asked.

“Yeah, and it looks like there was a struggle.” He nodded toward a bookshelf next to the table. Several feet of books had been pulled off the bottom shelf and flung around the aisle.

“Alright,” she replied, “let’s see if this makes any sense. He’s studying at the table. He realizes he needs another book, so he gets up to get it and walks over to the book case…”

“Or maybe he was lured over.” Detective Sandoval offered.

“Yeah, maybe he demanded the victim give him whatever it was he wanted…”

“Or she.” Sandoval interrupted, “I was just talking to that I.T. girl, Alma Gutiérrez, and she had disabled the security cameras for an upgrade. She says she was in the security closet and server room all night but when I asked if anyone can confirm that she said no. She seemed pretty nervous when I asked about her being alone.”

“Hmmm. Ok. Interesting.” Fleming mused aloud as he looked over Sandoval’s shoulder at Alma. “Well, he or she, either way, didn’t like being told ‘no.’ Our victim comes over to the bookshelves and is attacked. He’s kicking and flailing to get free and that’s how the books get knocked loose.” Fleming looked up from the books on the floor to the body and raised his eyes from the body to the opposite wall and the “Exit” sign. “He manages to get free and makes straight for the exit, probably yelling for help.”

“Alright. But the attacker was faster and caught up to him and threw something around his neck and strangled him with it. No bruising to indicate what it was. We’ll see if they can lift any fibers to determine what it was.” Sandoval continued the rundown.

“Good,” said Fleming. Then he continued the narrative, “then our guy came back to the backpack and searched through it.” Inspecting the backpack with gloved hands as he spoke, he added, “He certainly was thorough, every zipper on this thing is open.”

“What about the wallet? Was there anything left in there?”

Fleming reached over and grabbed the evidence bag, extracting the wallet and opening it. “Nope. No cash, but the bank card is still in here. Makes sense. The killer can explain away cash, if they’re stopped, but it’s hard to explain why you have a dead guy’s ATM card.”

“Yes.” Professor Graves stepped forward as he spoke again. Both detectives turned to look at him in annoyance. He had promised to stay out of the way but was already interjecting himself. “That’s very true. But, I think the main problem I have with it is that I’m almost positive that’s not how it happened. I don’t believe there was a killer. Well, not a human killer at any rate.”

“We were just talking about this. There are clear signs of a struggle. There are perimortem injuries to his neck and the bookcase was disturbed, plus his backpack was ransacked.” Detective Fleming didn’t try to hide the annoyance in his voice.

“Plus,” Detective Sandoval added, “there’s clearly something fishy going on with the Gutiérrez girl. She knows more than she’s willing to tell.”

“Yes, I suspect I know what’s going on there as well. If you don’t mind, I think I can ask her a question that will clear that up. If I’m right about that, I’ll explain what I think happened.”

“If you’re wrong you will go back and stay out of the way.” Fleming growled back.

Graves nodded his head as he answered. Then, as Dt Sandoval turned to call Alma over he added, “And, Detective Sandoval, would you please have Miss Gutiérrez come apart from Professor DuBois? I think we’ll get a clearer picture from her without him.”

Fleming and Graves watched as Detective Sandoval walked over to the small crowd and spoke quietly to Miss Gutiérrez and then returned with her. Alma looked uneasy and stared at the body as she walked past him, even though he was covered now.

“Hello Miss Gutiérrez,” Professor Graves began, “I know you’re scared and nervous and that’s very natural. But I did have one question I wanted to ask you now that Professor DuBois is not here to hear you. When you were working last night, were you actually alone? Did you perhaps have a visitor and weren’t supposed to?”

Alma looked frightened and looked back and forth between the detectives before she looked back over her shoulder toward DuBois. Relieved that he was well out of earshot, she finally took a deep breath and answered.

“Yes. I know we’re not supposed to have anyone over when we’re working on the project. We’re graded on it being our own work. But I was so hungry, so my boyfriend brought me some food, and we may have made out for a bit, and it probably wouldn’t be a big deal normally, right? But he’s also in DuBois class, and then it looks like cheating, for both of us. And this project is 20% of my grade, I can’t afford to fail it and neither can he. I know I shouldn’t have said I was alone, and you’re probably going to think he did it, but he didn’t. He never even came in the building. I went out to meet him. You can probably look on the security feeds from the building next door, I wasn’t working on them. They’ll show that he never went in, and I was with him outside the whole time he was there.” She spoke so fast, the confession came so freely that she nearly seemed to need to catch her breath when she stopped speaking.

Professor Graves smiled another tight, sad smile as he turned to the detectives. “Yes, I supposed it was something like that. Thank you, my dear. That’s all we needed from you. You may go back for now.”

She left, walking quickly and stiffly past the body, this time keeping her eyes straight ahead until she was past it.

“And now,” Prof. Graves moved over to the bookshelf and supported himself on his cane as he lowered himself to his hands and knees. “And now, I believe I shall reveal the real killer.”

He pushed his cane under the bookshelf and made a large sweeping motion. A small grey object slid out from under the bookcase, stopping as it collided with Detective Fleming’s foot. Both detectives looked at it.

“Asthma.” It was an inhaler. The professor continued speaking as he rose to his feet. “Mr. Stevens ransacked his own backpack looking for his inhaler when he began having trouble breathing. In his frenzy to find it, he accidentally dropped it, and it slid under the bookshelf. Mr. Stevens then tore the books from the bookshelf, trying desperately to find a space that he could reach down underneath to the inhaler. He probably then ran for help or for something to try to fish it out like I just did, but it was too late. The more he panicked and the faster he moved, the faster he ran out of the little air he could still breathe. You rightly deduced that he inflicted those scratches himself as he clawed for oxygen. But it wasn’t an assailant, it was his own lungs he was fighting. The poor boy.

“I believe that fits all the facts quite well.”

Erik Fleming looked at the professor, now standing quietly before them. “Asthma.” He repeated. “How did you figure on asthma?”

“Oh, I wasn’t sure it was asthma until I saw the inhaler at your feet. It might have been severe allergies.” But the fact that only the bottom row was disturbed puzzled me. If it was disturbed in a fight I would have expected the rows at shoulder height to have displayed as much or more of the disturbance. If there was no fight, then it was simply a question of why. Why would someone tear apart the bottom shelf? Perhaps to get at something underneath? If there was no fight he might’ve been alone and in that case, it seemed to me that it might have been the medicine he was after. Then it was just a matter of looking for anything that wouldn’t fit that story. Nothing did.

“As for the girl, I’ve been a teacher for long enough that I can spot when a student is worried about her grade. Miss Gutiérrez was clearly nervous around Marcus and seemed very concerned that he should believe she was alone. Since she was working on a solo project, that made sense if she’d bent the rules a bit.”

As Professor Graves walked away the two detectives heard him muttering to himself, “It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too, but there will be no special hurry.”