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With His Dying Breath

Danny Carnahan:

Chapter 1

     Rose Sweeney stared at the wall of her tiny, harshly-lit faculty office, trying to carve a window into it by sheer force of will. As she tapped her fingers, a head wearing a headband popped into her doorway, followed by the rest of Terry, the poetry professor from the office next door. He grinned.

"Bright May sunshine dances among wisps of midday fog," he chirped. "Want to go for a run?"

Chirpiness was the last thing Rose wanted to hear.

"Don’t rub my nose in it," she growled in return, regretting the growl a moment later and gesturing apologetically. "Sorry. Office hours. I’m stuck here to serve the whims of my students."

"Fine, then. I’m off," chirped Terry again, still grinning as he closed the door.

It wasn’t just a nice day. It was a very nice day, the kind that painted the sprawling San Francisco State campus in wonderful, warm pastels. The day demanded attention. Inside, Rose ached for her office hours to end so she could run and breathe and revel in it all.

She glanced at the clock. Heather Bell was late for her appointment, but Rose didn’t mind. Much. Rose did enjoy working with Heather more than most graduate students, despite the girl’s mood swings and penchant for whining. She enjoyed the time the two spent together in their shared medieval poetic world of impossible romantic ideals and improbable plot devices. Heather’d proved generally dependable. She’d be along in a minute.

Rose played absently with the ends of her shoulder-length auburn hair, reminding herself she had a salon appointment in a couple of hours. She held a few strands out in the light, looking for gray. Good, she thought. Still safe. Thirty-one is too young for gray.

There wasn’t much left on her desk but a few papers students hadn’t picked up and the notes and materials she’d gathered up to take to the thesis writing retreat in Mendocino. And today was it—her final heave-ho to the term. Turn in her grades, a quiet day or two with Niall, then off to the piney woods.

She riffled absently at her pile of research notes on the Robert Graves project. She’d take it all with her to Mendocino, hoping for some quiet time alone.

The Graves research was by far the best thing her department head Byron Dechter had dropped in her lap since hiring her to take over his Mythic Lit class five years ago. She was maybe halfway through cataloging the long-lost research notes that her department had shared with Oxford’s Bodleian Library since last fall. The project captured her imagination so thoroughly it had been coloring her dreams for months.

The only problem was, she’d been asked to teach an extra course this term and that extra load had exhausted her. There’d been no time for any Graves research for weeks. That just left her feeling more exhausted.

It wouldn’t have been quite so bad if the extra course had been something she really liked—something with a suitably ancient tang. But 19th century English poetry had never particularly interested her. The course outline had been comprehensive. That was a blessing, anyway. The students never guessed she was only a week ahead of them in the reading all semester.

Rose got up and stretched. Damn. There’d be no time for a run again this afternoon. Three days in a row. Her long legs and lanky, athletic frame needed exercise badly. Golden Gate Park must be gorgeous today, she reflected, sighing. She tucked her blouse into her pants and sat down as a knock sounded on the door.

"C’mon in, Heather," she called and leaned back, relaxed.

It wasn’t Heather. A very tall and bony young man poked a head covered with floppy blond hair into the office.

"Hello, Professor," he said politely. "I was hoping to catch you in. I had a question about the final poetry paper. Just a tiny loose end before handing it in."

"Sure, Dave, have a seat," said Rose, hoping the sudden tension she felt didn’t show in her voice.

Dave Casey sort of wafted into the room and folded himself into the chair opposite Rose. As always, he was dressed immaculately and more formally than practically anyone else, a well-tailored gray sport jacket over a narrow black tie. He considered her with deep-set brown eyes and an almost Zen-like calm.

Dave Casey was the last student Rose wanted to talk to today. He’d button-holed her after every class all term to talk about the assignments. He’d dropped by her office at least twice a week. The only problem was, he really didn’t need any help from her. His work was practically flawless. He wrote better than any other 20-year-old in her class.

So what was he really after? Rose was afraid she knew, though she’d been trying hard to shrug it off and ignore it all term.

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