With His Dying Breath

Hosting a graduate literature retreat in the remote Mendocino Woodlands is San Francisco professor Rose Sweeney’s idea of heaven. But Rose’s dream job quickly spins into a nightmare when her mentor and ex-lover crashes the event, then dies a horrible, inexplicable death at the music camp next door where her husband Niall Sweeney is teaching. Deadly rumors scatter the campers, graduate students, and musicians while lumber company lawyers descend on the Woodlands to evict both camp and retreat and begin clear-cutting the redwoods. But who would rig the unlikeliest possible weapon to kill an apparent stranger? And who would plant evidence pointing to Rose as the murderer?  Rose and her Irish fiddler husband scramble to discover the truth as Rose dodges the police and Sweeney’s musical world rapidly crumbles.  Searching separately in their worlds of myth and music, Rose and Sweeney converge on an astonishing secret that reveals a most subtle murderer.  But with two lives in the balance and no evidence, they must set a trap for the killer in a last, deadly game of cat-and-mouse.

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.

He’d transferred from out of state.  Carried himself with the assurance of an Ivy League trust fund kid.  And he’d indicated that he’d made few friends in San Francisco.  Rose wasn’t surprised.  Dave had that unfrayed cock-sureness about him that most men can’t muster up till much later in life and that other men find vaguely repellent.  Rose had to admit that she found him attractive in some strange way.  But she also found him to be a pest.

“So what’s the question, Dave?” she asked, putting on her professional tone.

“Actually,” he began, pronouncing each syllable carefully, “I wondered if we could chat about it somewhere more pleasant… perhaps over coffee?”

Rose was wording her response when Heather clattered through the door, tossing her satchel into the corner and halfway out of her blue Levi’s jacket before even looking up.

“Sorry I’m late, Rose.  I’ve got a real prob… oops.”  She slid to a halt, cheeks puffed as if she still had a bunch of words in her mouth.  Rose shot her a glance, thankful for her timing.

“I’m sorry, Dave,” she said with as much sincerity as she could muster.  “I have an appointment now.  Can we talk later?”

Dave Casey didn’t seem much fazed.  He smiled and acknowledged Heather’s arrival much as the Pope would acknowledge the crowd in front of St. Peter’s.

“I’m going back to New York for the summer, you see, Professor,” he continued, glancing at his watch.  “I have to be at the airport by six, actually.  And I didn’t want to leave without an opportunity to thank you and say goodbye properly.”

“Ah.  And that loose end you mentioned?”

“Yes, well, it’s not that important.  I’m sure the paper will be presentable as is.”

“Yes, I’m sure it will be,” Rose smiled a patient smile.  “Look, Dave, thanks for the thought, but I can’t right now.  I need to talk with Heather.”

“Are you sure this can’t wait?” he pressed.

“No it can’t!” blurted Heather, marching forward to the desk, green eyes flashing under her dark bangs.  Rose glowered Heather into silence.

“Tell you what, Dave,” she said quickly.  “Why don’t you come back around four?  I should be done by then.”

Dave continued to meet her gaze for a moment, then nodded, getting slowly to his feet and assuming a posture of deference and respect.

“Oh, absolutely, Professor.  Don’t let me keep you.  I’ll be back to drop my final paper off at four o’clock sharp.  Maybe you’ll be free for coffee then.”  And with that he turned and disappeared down the hall.

God, he’s full of himself, thought Rose.  

She shuddered at the thought of getting involved with such a personality.  She much preferred her husband Niall’s tangled, contradictory mix of musical zeal, vulnerability, and cluelessness.  It was always better when musical zeal won the day, but she’d learned to take it as it comes.

Rose and Heather stared for a moment into the space that had previously held Dave Casey.  They then exhaled dramatically in unison, looked with surprise at each other, and burst out laughing.  Heather stopped laughing abruptly and made a face.

“Boy, he’s something, isn’t he?” said Heather, dark eyebrows arched.  “You know, there’s something about that guy that gives me the creeps.”

Rose opened her mouth, thought better of it, got up, closed her office door, and returned to her chair. 

“So what is it about him, exactly, you find so creepy?” she asked, eyeing Heather with the slightest glint.

Heather thought for a second.

“It’s like… everything he says is so carefully rehearsed,” she said finally.  “And the way he looks at you.  He seems polite but he isn’t, really.  More calculating than polite.  I don’t know… Something odd going on upstairs.  I just wouldn’t like to be alone with him.”

Rose agreed silently.  She had to admit she’d been trying to avoid analyzing Dave Casey, but she’d sure as hell also been avoiding Dave Casey.

Rose leaned forward on her elbows.

“I don’t know what it is,” she faltered, feeling a little pang of guilt even to admit it to Heather.  Then she leaned forward conspiratorially.

“But would you believe it?  I just lied to him!  A flat-out, baldfaced lie!  I’m not going to be here at four o’clock.  I’ll be halfway across town getting my hair cut and then coming back about five to turn in my grades and go home to get ready for Mendocino.”

“Ha!  And you did it so well,” said Heather.  “Have you been practicing?”

“Not on your life,” Rose shook her head.  “I’m as honorable and pure of heart as Sir Gawain.”

Heather squirmed uncomfortably in her chair.

“Which reminds me why I’m here.  I need some advice fast, Rose.  About my Gawain and the Green Knight thesis.”

“Can’t it wait till the drive up to the retreat?  We’ll have more than three hours to yack.  You still want to drive up together, don’t you?”

“Oh sure.  No, this is something I just found out about.  I really don’t know what to do.”

“About what?”

Heather fidgeted uncertainly, then spoke.

“Okay.  It’s Dr. Kingsley.  You and Kingsley are on my thesis committee, right?  But I keep having to talk to you separately because of your schedules.  So, anyway, I was mocking up the overall outline about the Gawain poem itself and the 14th century Alliterative Revival and I had a wild new idea for an added section to the thesis.  At least it seemed wild.”

Rose was all ears.  Heather hesitated, then rolled on.

“So, you weren’t around when I ran the idea by Kingsley the other day.  Rather than just talking about how the Revival failed, I thought up an empirical experiment to help demonstrate why it failed!  I tossed it around with a couple friends and they liked it.  See, my idea was that imported Norman rhyme and meter made the super-long bardic poems and historical romances easier to remember than the clunkier old northern Saxon alliterations did.”

“What?” said Rose.  “You don’t like Thay clomben bi clyffez ther clengez the colde?”

Heather chuckled.  “Of course I like it.  But I could never remember two thousand lines of it.  And since most literature up to the 14th century was memorized and spoken, this could account for a major reason for the shift.  I got a couple of theater major friends to agree to try and memorize and recite long passages of both alliterative verse and the more metrical and rhyming Norman Chaucer stuff.  I’d figure out some way to measure if they had a harder time doing the alliterations.”

“It’s wild, all right,” said Rose.  “I can see some obvious problems already.”

“Of course, there are problems,” replied Heather heatedly.  “But isn’t that the point of a thesis?  To set a problem and then think your way through to an elegant solution?  The point is, Kingsley vetoed the idea outright.  Said it would be more appropriate for linguistics or behavioral psych, even, than for Comp Lit.  He said it was fundamentally flawed because theater people raised on Shakespeare are so used to modern rhyme that the results of my bogus experiment would be meaningless.  He said I was at risk of undercutting the serious tone of the rest of the work.  ‘Serious tone.’  He said that.”

“So you did?…”

“Well, nothing.  I abandoned the idea.”

“Heather,” Rose began, wondering how many times she’d have to remind this very bright but insecure student to stick to her guns and not listen to knee-jerk nay-sayers like Kingsley.

“Wait,” protested Heather.  “Then I hear from one of the friends I was telling my idea to—she’s doing theater at Mills—that Kingsley was over there in Oakland yesterday chatting up her drama instructor about the chances of getting a stage and a recording engineer for exactly the same experiment!  Except he was talking like it was his idea!  Rose, the bastard’s sneaking around behind my back, stealing my experiment!”

“You’re sure this is true?”

“My friend saw her instructor schedule a trial session in the studio calendar.  So what am I supposed to do now?”

Rose was seeing red.  It was an anger of a particular kind—one she’d buried deep along with the memories tied to it.  The anger and the speed of its arrival almost frightened her with its familiar intensity.

“You’re not to do anything, Heather,” she said carefully.  “But if this is really happening the way your friend says, I’m sure as hell going to make Kingsley regret even thinking about doing it.”

And with that she stormed out of the office, leaving Heather alone and slightly confused.

By the time she got to the door labelled “Byron Dechter—Dean of Humanities,” Rose had worked herself up into a fury.  This was not going to happen again.  Not in her lifetime.

She blew past the secretary, who had barely time to turn around from the filing cabinet, and straight through Dechter’s office door.  The occupant of the desk looked up over his half-frame glasses as she entered.

“Rose.  What can…?”  It took him half a beat to notice her emotional state.  He put down his pen.  “Jesus, Rose!  What’s wrong?”

Rose composed herself with an effort.

“Byron, do you remember long, long ago when a certain English professor in this department absconded with papers written by two of his graduate students and published them under his own name?”

Byron Dechter nodded.

“Desparto almost scuttled the department,” he replied, pulling the rolled back sleeves of his white shirt up to his elbows and crossing his arms.  “But he…”

“It might be happening again,” said Rose, and briefly repeated the story Heather had just told her.  Dechter got up and paced behind the desk.  He looked tired and disheveled, pretty fit for fifty but graying with the job if not with the years.

“It’d be hell to prove,” he said finally.  “Did Heather actually do the experiment?”

Rose shook her head.

“Well, then, who’s to say it wasn’t his idea originally?  Middle English is his field, after all.  How do you know your student’s telling the truth?”

“Because I know her, dammit!” Rose flared.  “And you know her.  She’s one of the brightest students ever graduated from this department.  Only four spots for the Mendocino retreat and you picked her for one of ‘em.  And you know Kingsley, too.  He was lucky that harrassment suit last year got settled so quietly.  But hell, Byron, I’d’ve thought with that in mind, he’d be extra scrupulous dealing with students—especially female students.  You’re not taking his side, are you?”

Dechter shook his head, half to himself.

“I’ll have to talk to him, of course.  If it’s all the way Heather reported, we can nip this in the bud before anything gets published and the playing field gets muddy.  That, at least, makes this situation different from the last one.”

Thank God, thought Rose.  Different in many, many ways.

Dechter stopped pacing and sat back down with a sigh.

“Don’t worry, Rose,” he said.  “I’ll take care of it.  I don’t want you to even indicate you know about it.  Not yet.  With any luck, I can smooth everything out with Kingsley before Heather gets back from the retreat.  One thought, though.  Will the inclusion or exclusion of the experiment affect the success of Heather Bell’s thesis?”

“No,” stated Rose flatly.  “Not a bit.  We’ll be talking about it plenty in Mendocino, you can be sure of that.  Lots of time to help her sort out the fuzzy stuff, though I don’t really expect much fuzzy stuff.  Will it affect my ability to sit quietly on a committee with Kingsley without wanting to punch him?  That’s another question.”

Dechter acquired an uncomfortable expression.

“Um, well, as to faculty relations…  There’s been a staff change at the retreat.”

Rose exploded.

“Byron!” she cried, slapping both palms flat on the desk.  “You can’t!  I’ve been looking forward to this for months!  Two days before…”

Dechter waved both hands frantically, signalling her to stop panicking.  “Hey!  Calm down!  It’s not about you coming.  It seems Foster up at Chico State had to cancel out and… well, and Margaret Hemmings never sent us an inter-campus program update from Fresno.  Looks like these were printed up weeks ago but nobody ever bothered to send us any.”  

He seemed at a loss what else to say while he fingered a sheet of paper on his desk.  Reluctantly, he finally picked it up and handed it to Rose.

The standard university memo sheet was headed: Experiment in the Redwoods—42 Graduate Students Chosen to Attend Statewide English Faculty Summit.  Rose scanned down past the names of the students listed by campus to the roster of faculty participants.  She stopped at a name she never expected to see—a name that turned her heart to lead.  B. Desparto.  She looked up at Byron Dechter feeling very lost indeed.

“Two days, Byron.  I’m going up in two days!  It’s not like I have much of a chance to change my mind, is it?  Sort of like it or lump it?  This is not like you.”

  “I only just found out,” sighed Dechter.  “That’s God’s truth.  I was on my way over to show you this when you came in.”

Rose sat down on the edge of the desk and stared at the floor.

“A lot’s changed in ten years, Rose,” said Dechter gently.  “You’re faculty now.  You’re on an equal footing with him.”

Equal footing my eye, thought Rose to herself.  Never.  Desparto used his mentor’s power over a protégée not just to rip off my work but to wreck my personal life.  And I wasn’t the only one.  I’m a teacher now, but I’ll never be that kind of teacher.  You still don’t know the whole story, Byron, though maybe you’ve guessed some of it.  I might have had to tell you everything if Desparto hadn’t driven that other girl over the edge first.  

Rose looked up, somber.

“What the hell’s Benedict Desparto doing teaching at Chico State, anyway?  I thought he left California after he resigned from here.”

“Yeah, seems he taught in Texas for a couple years, then he came back, got a job over at U.C. Davis, and eventually moved up to Chico.  After the scandal blew over nobody wanted to talk about him anymore, so we all just let it drop.  All the stuff’s still in the files, of course.”

Not all the stuff, thought Rose.  Niall was the only person I told about the affair.  About the whole affair.  Even though it was just before we got together it was hard for him to deal with.  We haven’t spoken about it in so long.  And I sure as hell don’t want to talk about it now.

“I’m sorry, Byron,” said Rose.  “I know you’re on my side.  It’s just a shock, that’s all.”  She stood up and composed herself.

“I’ll still go, of course,” she added.  “I’ll be there to work with the students, after all.  Forty-two Heather Bells, God willing.  With any luck I won’t even have to talk to Desparto.”

“Right, Rose,” said Dechter.  “Your week in Mendocino doesn’t have to turn into Wordsworth’s deep and gloomy wood.”

“Sure.  Me, I’d prefer Milton: Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new.”  But I’m not gonna get it, am I?

With a wave and a look of profound sadness she strode out the door.