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Asked to discover what has been killing his friend's honeybees, Twin Cities private detective Mac McKenzie finds himself up to his ears in trouble with a case involving a vicious thug who mysteriously vanishes, irate federal agents, rape, and murder. Reprint.
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David Housewright has worked as a journalist covering both crime and sports (sometimes simultaneously), an advertising copywriter and creative director, and a writing instructor. He won the Edgar Award for his first novel, Penance, in 1996, and the Minnesota Book Award for his second, Practice to Deceive, in 1998. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.
1The old man held three dead honeybees in the palm of his caramel-colored hand."Here," he said."What?""Take 'em."I took a step backward. "What do you mean?""Take 'em."I kept retreating until I was hard against the kitchen counter."What's the matter with you?" he wanted to know."They're bees.""They're dead.""So?""They can't hurt you.""Who says?""You big baby." He dumped the bees on top of the kitchen table andsat down. "Honest to God, McKenzie--a grown man afraid of harmless honeybees." He shook his head like he felt sorry for me.It disturbed me that Mr. Mosley would question my manhood. But twenty-five years ago I had been stung no less than sixteen times by "harmless" honeybees in his own backyard, and the incident had stayed with me. Once I even abandoned my Jeep Cherokee along I-94 because two wasps had flown through the open window. When I explained it to the state trooper who was going to cite me for illegally stopping on a freeway, he put his ticket book away. He understood, even if my own father had not. But then my dad was a big believer in the Nietzschean philosophy--"That which does not kill me makes me stronger"--though I doubt he knew who Nietzsche was. Mr. Mosley was the same way. He and Dad had fought together with the First Marines at Chosin Reservoir. They weren't afraid of anything. Not even God."You gonna sit down or what?" Mr. Mosley asked.I sat in a chair on the other side of the table and as far away from the bee carcasses as possible. The tall black man ran his fingers through the fringe of silver hair just above his ear while he stared at me. The hair seemed thinner--and so did he--than the last time I had visited him, and it gave me a small jolt. My dad had died two years earlier, and he and Mr. Mosley were the same age."I need a favor." He said it like he wasn't sure he was asking the right person."Sure." I answered automatically. If Mr. Mosley had asked me to jump off the Lake Street Bridge I would have said yes. Yet it occurred to me in that moment that I had never heard Mr. Mosley ask for assistance from anyone. He was like my dad, one of those guys who was quick to help others but would never ask for help himself. It gave me another shock of anxiety. He really was getting old. Either that or it was his way of persuading me to visit more often."It involves my bees," he said."Just as long as it doesn't involve handling them.""I can't believe you used to be a cop. Man, you went up against some nasty people.""And not one of them tried to sting me.""You tellin' me you're more 'fraid of harmless honeybees than you are of crim'nals with guns?"There's that word again--"harmless.""I'm also afraid of heights," I told him.Mr. Mosley rested his forehead against the tabletop. "Unbelievable." When his head came up again, he said, "I've been losing bees. And it's gettin' worse.""What do you mean, losing bees?""I mean they're dying. What do you think I mean?"For a moment, I flashed on the old nursery rhyme--Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep and doesn't know where to find them--but I didn't say it out loud."Last year I lost maybe twenty percent of my population."Leave them alone and they'll come home, wagging their tails behind them."And this year it's closer to a third. Do you want some joe?""Sure."Mr. Mosley went to an ancient percolator plugged into the wall near the sink. My first cup of coffee had been poured from that percolator decades earlier, and I was amazed that it was still working. He filled a mug that was adorned with sunflowers. He served it black--"the way God made it"--without bothering to ask if I wanted cream or sugar. When he had poured that first cup Mr. Mosley informed me that spooning "additives" into good coffee was like putting ice in bourbon (which I sometimes do but always feel guilty about)."I started noticing strange doin's couple years ago but didn't think nothing of it.""Strange doings?""The queens," he said. "The young ones would be takin' on the older ones, which is what they supposed to do, 'cept they wuz doing it in the fall, which they ain't supposed to do. Wrong season. Then I start noticin', man, my bees are dyin' all over the place. In the winter, I lose as much as 10 percent of the hive. That normal. But now, man, it up to 30, 40 percent. That bad.""What's killing them?" I asked. "Pollution?"Somethin'. You watch 'em and sometimes the bees go insane like, jerkin' all around and bouncin' into each other and then they lie down and die. It's ugly."I looked over Mr. Mosley's shoulder and through the back door screen. I could see three hives arranged on a wooden pallet. Each hive contained a queen and approximately sixty to seventy thousand worker bees that produced 120 pounds of honey a year--sometimes more, sometimes less. Mr. Mosley sold the honey for $6.50 a pound. There were forty-seven hives scattered over his property. That amounted to well over three million "harmless" honeybees and for the first time since sixteen of them had chastised me for thumping one of the hives with a football, I actually felt sorry for the little buggers."Something from around here is killing them, you think?""It's gotta be 'round here cuz this is the only colony that's hurtin'," Mr. Mosley said. "My other colonies--I keep hives in five locations now, I don't know if you know that."Last I heard it was four."All but this one are located on the western side of Minnesota, near South Dakota, cuz there ain't much people or insecticide spraying over there. And those colonies, they fine.""Are you sure?""I talked to my man out there just this morning. Lorenzo says there're no problems. Nothin's changed since I was out there last week.Lorenzo, though, he isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer. I might have t'--I haven't fired anyone before. You ever fire anyone?""I've never been in a management position.""It's not somethin' to look forward to." Mr. Mosley gave his head a frustrated shake. "You watch your bees, man, and they'll let you know if somethin' gone wrong with the environment. Like them birds they use t' bring down in them mind shafts--if 'n there a problem, boom, they the first to die. Now, look at my bees--yeah, we got a problem."Mr. Mosley shook his head some more."When I moved to Young America back in '61--that was way before the city merged with Norwood and became Norwood Young America--there weren't nothing out here and I didn't have to worry about DDT and such. DDT was used a lot back then. I was thirty-five miles from downtown Minneapolis. Now with the people and traffic and pollution, I might as well be in downtown Minneapolis.""Urban sprawl," I told him."Whatever they call it, it ain't healthy.""What do you want me to do?""I want you to earn all those free jars of honey I've been giving you and your girl all these years.""She's not my girl.""I 'member the first time you brought her 'round, way back when you was in college. She wasn't afraid of a couple a' well-mannered honeybees, didn't mind 'em at all. Last summer she visited with her little girls, they were still babies almost--they weren't afraid of the bees, neither. Unlike some people I could name.""Yeah, yeah.""That Shelby, she's a looker.""You do know I've been seeing someone else.""The jazz girl?""She owns a jazz club.""I notice you ain't never brought her around," he said. Mr. Mosley didn't ask "Why not?" but the question hung between us just the same. I didn't have an answer for him.Mr. Mosley said, "You shoulda married her. Shelby, I mean.""She married my best friend.""You shoulda married her."I didn't have anything to say to that, either."Agatha thought so, too.""I know.""So why didn't you?""She married my best friend," I repeated."That Dunston fella ...""Bobby Dunston.""Was a cop, like you.""Still a cop. A homicide detective in St. Paul.""He's okay. Agatha liked him--but not as much as she liked you."Agatha was Mrs. Mosley. It was she who treated my bee stings all those years ago, telling me it was all right to cry, telling me to ignore the disapproving glares of my father and Mr. Mosley, who figured I got what I deserved for playing where I didn't belong. "They're just jarheads," she told me. That was six months after my mother had died of a cancerous brain tumor. Twenty years later, the Big C also claimed Agatha."She was a good woman," I said."Yes," Mr. Mosley agreed."My mother was a good woman, too. You were the only one who would tell me that she was dying. Not even my father had courage enough for that."Mr. Mosley refused to linger over the memory. My father had been the same way. I learned from them."What about my bees?""I know a guy ..."Mr. Mosley smiled. "I knew you would.""At the University of Minnesota. A professor of entomology. What we'll do, we'll ask him if he can determine what actually killed the bees. Then we'll have to decide what to do about it. Might have to sue someone.""I don't want to sue anyone.""That's okay, Mr. Mosley. I know plenty of lawyers who'll be happy to do it for you."He grimaced at that but didn't say no. Instead, he swept the three deceased honeybees into a plastic sandwich bag and sealed it. He held the bag by the corner."Be careful, now." He didn't actually say "wuss"--I don't think the insult had ever passed Mr. Mosley's lips--but I heard it just the same.I slipped the bag into my jacket pocket."Before you go." Mr. Mosley produced a sixteen-ounce jar with a colorful Mosley Honey Farms label and slid it across the table to me.I caught the jar. "Thank you, sir.""Take two." He slid another jar in front of me. "Give one to your girl.""She's not my girl."
"Sevin XLR Plus," the young woman said."Is that some kind of new coffee drink?"She didn't so much as bat an eyelash in response.'That's a joke," I told her.She glanced at Professor Buzicky and shrugged. He shrugged back. The silent message that passed between them was unmistakable--there's no accounting for what some people call humor.We were sitting at a small table inside Lori's Coffee House on ClevelandAvenue North, across from the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota. Among other things, the St. Paul campus housed much of the university's agricultural college. I had gone there with my Baggie of dead honeybees an hour after visiting Mr. Mosley, dropping them on Buzicky's desk. I had told him what I needed, and he said he'd take care of it. I had introduced him to his wife fifteen years earlier, and the success of his marriage was such that Buzz still felt obligated to me. Three days later, he arranged a coffee meeting with the graduate student who had tested the dead bees. "When I said I'd take care of it, I didn't actually mean I would take care of it," Buzz said at the time."Sevin XLR Plus is an insecticide," the student told me. She spoke slowly, as if she were instructing a dull child."Is it particularly virulent?" "Virulent" isn't a word I use often, but after the coffee joke I wanted to prove that I had gone to college, too."No more so than any other insecticide when used properly.""Ahh."She glanced at Buzicky and shrugged again.Her name was Ivy Flynn. She was five-foot-nothing with Irish-red hair that she wore in a severe ponytail and emerald-green eyes that she muted behind thick, large-rim glasses. Her clothes were baggy--she was dressed for winter instead of a warm day in May. When he introduced her, Buzz said she was one of the brightest students he had ever instructed. Her lips curled slightly at the compliment, the closest she had come yet to a smile. She reminded me of a character in one of those makeover movies, the kind where the plain Jane takes off her glasses, lets down her hair, and is suddenly transformed into Sandra Bullock."Sevin XLR Plus controls important crop pests," Ivy said. "It is approved for use on alfalfa, corn, dry beans, small grains, soybeans, sugar beets, and sunflowers. Unfortunately, it contains an ingredient called carbaryl.""Carbaryl," I repeated to let her know I was paying attention."I should emphasize that carbaryl is not illegal by any means. It is, however, toxic to bees. Apparently, Mr. Mosley's honeybees came in contact with the insecticide and brought it back to the hive, where it built up over a period of time, resulting in his current predicament.""So what we need to do is find the source of the Sevin and ask the perpetrator to stop spraying it."Again her lips curled upward just so."I like that word--'perpetrator,'"Ivy said. "Unfortunately, it's not that simple. Even if we do locate the source, convincing the 'perpetrator'--she quoted the air--"to cease and desist is problematic at best. It is extremely difficult to demonstrate cause and effect.""We'll worry about that later," I said. "Right now, we need to find the source of the Sevin. How would I go about that?""We know that Sevin is employed to control insect pests on certain crops. We know that honeybees have a range of four miles. It should be comparatively simple if somewhat time-consuming to fan out in, oh, let us say a three-mile radius initially from the infected colony and take samples--soil samples, water samples, plant samples--from likely locations and test them using equipment here at the U.""Would you be interested in undertaking such a task?"Ivy turned to Buzicky."It'll be good practice for you," he said. "I'll even give you academic credit.""And I'll pay you," I added."You will?""What's the going rate for something like this? Twenty-five hundred?""Dollars?""Yes.""Yes. Of course, I'll do it. For science." She smiled, really smiled. If it had been any brighter I would have needed sunglasses.I gave Ivy Mr. Mosley's address in Norwood Young America and directions on where to find it, along with his phone number. I gave her my address in St. Paul and phone numbers--home and cell. I wrote out a personal check in her name for $2,500. She took off her glasses like she didn't want them coming between her and the number. Forget Sandra Bullock. I swear she looked just like Nicole Kidman.
Shelby Dunston didn't look like anyone in particular. Instead, she always reminded me of a southern Minnesota wheat field, all golden and windswept. She met me on the old-fashioned wraparound porch of her pre--World War II Colonial wearing a white sleeveless shirt and khaki capris. She probably hadn't dressed to look sexy but managed it just the same.The Dunstons lived across the street from Merriam Park in St. Paul in the house that Bobby had grown up in; he and Shelby bought it from Bobby'...
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