We have a Member Monday submission for you. This is an excerpt from CR Roberts’ novel, Sweet Danger; A Mystery Novella. You might recognize CR Roberts as Writers Forum member Carolyn R. Flaubel. Carolyn was the grand prize winner of last summer’s short story contest, with the Southern Gothic story ‘Let Freedom Ring’. You can find Carolyn’s novel at Amazon by clicking on the above link.
From “Sweet Danger; a Mystery Novella”
By CR Roberts
I was happy and feeling content. The first honeybee yard I was heading to was my own. All one hundred hives belonged to me, Jessie McConnell, either bought and paid for or painstakingly divided from one stronger colony into two. After I checked on my busy little girls, I’d go see how the rest of the yards were doing. Dad and Mom ran their bee business, McConnell Honey Company, by themselves with just one employee, but the bees had really taken off lately, and the folks were plenty glad to have me working for them also now. Some people were surprised when I showed up to handle an account. They weren’t expecting a kid of seventeen, much less a girl.
My hive tool and various hammers, empty coffee cans and baling wire rattled around in the floorboards as the old Chevy bucked and pitched over the ruts. I was happily thinking of the icy Pepsi in my cooler and tuna sandwich in my lunch bag. The only other equipment I needed that day was stuffed in a couple of bee boxes tied down on the flatbed; a smoker, some burlap, extra rope, and a bucket of water. I was only planning on cracking open the hive lids, checking on the health of the colony, and then moving on to the next one. I needed to confirm that each one was full of bees, the queen was still there, and it was well-stocked with honey and brood. These were due for going to the seed alfalfa pollination. The farmers paid well, but only for good bee hives.
If I hadn’t been so preoccupied with my own happy thoughts, I might have had an early warning when I pulled to a stop to get out and open the gate. It was kept shut with a chain. Half a dozen padlocks laced the rusty chain, and my key opened one of them. But I didn’t need to use it. The chain had been cut. Instead of being concerned, I just shrugged. One of the property owners must have forgotten their key and needed to get in, I figured. I got back in after pulling the gate shut behind me and wiring it shut with a piece of the baling wire.
At first, I didn’t notice the fresh tracks leading down to my bee yard. But the background noise of bees humming sounded ominous. Something was wrong. My belly tightened. I turned the corner and was shocked at what I saw next. I gasped at the black cloud of honeybees in front of me, and I cringed at the furious whine that came in through my open truck window.
I quickly rolled up my window and backed away from the bee yard to give the angry bees a little space. What in the world was going on? They’re crazy mad! I thought. The last time I had seen something close to this was when I was driving in to one of the parents’ locations, and I met in passing a man running in the opposite direction, one hand dripping with honey and the other wildly swinging about his face, which was already raising red welts.
Something was terribly wrong. Maybe some animal had knocked some boxes over, or worse, some person had come in and vandalized my hives. These bees meant a lot to me, both financially and personally. My stomach squeezed in anxiety. I wasn’t afraid, mind you, but I was worried over my honeybees, and I slid my long legs into my white cotton coveralls, tying off the bottoms around the tops of my leather work boots. Normally I didn’t bother with a lot of fuss in protecting every crawl hole in my coveralls, but this was different. Angry bees were stinging bees, and I did not need angry, stinging bees crawling under my clothes. I tied the strings of my wire veil around my chest and then put my leather gloves on, pulling the canvas gauntlets up past my elbows. Finally I was ready. I jerked the truck door open and hopped up on the flatbed, rooting around in the bee box for my smoker and a piece of dry burlap sack.
My heart was pounding as I jogged toward the storm of screaming bees. I was pumping the smoker bellows madly to encourage the curl of acrid smoke wafting from the hole while juggling my hive tool and trying to stick my phone in my pocket with clumsy gloved hands. The closer I got, the more worried I got. The bees hitting my veil and my body felt like someone was tossing gravel at me. Most were bouncing off, but the angry ones were hanging on to me, and I could see their stings sticking out, pulsing as they sought to stab me through my clothes. I stopped to give my coveralls a few puffs of smoke. The stupefied insects let go and wandered off, forgetting what they had been up to a second ago.
A dark object lay crumpled on the ground. I saw legs sticking out, and I was confused. Then I realized it was a man, his shape disguised under the roiling, buzzing, stinging honey bees.
Good Lord! I had to calm things down, and fast! Was the man alive or dead? If he was still alive, maybe I could save him. Another part of my brain was kicking into business—if I didn’t stop this mess, I would have no hives left. The mob mentality would take over and they would all start robbing from each other, killing and stealing honey in a mad frenzy until the whole yard was ruined. I started puffing my smoker over the bee-covered man.
I didn’t want to asphyxiate the bees, or the man, I thought, coughing from the rank smoke, so I spread out the fume in a light blanket, back and forth over the crawling mass. Periodically I had to stop and puff smoke over myself as more bees attached themselves to me, trying to find a way in, to sting, in their blind fury.
I smoked them, and I brushed off clumps of them until the person was more man than bees. I grabbed him by the ankles and began dragging him back towards my truck, stopping to waft more smoke on both of us to keep the mad bees from following us. I was strong, strong as most boys are because of my work, but if the man hadn’t been a wiry guy, I’m not sure I would have made it back to where my Chevy was parked. The adrenaline was starting to wear off, and my arms were shaking by the time I lugged him over there and heaved him in through the passenger door. I ran around to the driver’s side, tossed the smoker onto the back of the flatbed, jumped in and slammed the door shut after me.
I hated to do it, but I started squashing the bees who had followed us into the cab, killing them or folding them up in my sweat rag to immobilize them. I’d never had a bee fly up my nose and sting me, and I didn’t want to find out what that was like. Finally I was able to yank off my veil and check the man out. I was no doctor, but I could tell that he was dead.
Grossly swollen, his face, neck, and hands were purple and covered with welts upon welts. Thousands of tiny pulsing bee stingers, each tugged from the abdomen of a dying bee dotted his skin. I couldn’t find a pulse when I pressed my fingers against his carotid artery. At least, where I thought his carotid artery should be, since his neck was so swollen it looked like a tree stump. It was then I noticed the odor.
The man was reeking of honey bee alarm pheromone.
Every experienced beekeeper recognizes that peculiar odor that masses of honeybees give off when they are at high alert, as in, Code Red! Danger! Kill it! I expected to smell a whiff of this around the poor guy because so many bees were stinging him and giving off the pheromone. But the overwhelming smell from the man rose above and beyond what you’d expect. The only answer was that it had been deliberately applied to him. This wasn’t some hapless dude who’d wandered into my bee yard looking for a free swipe of honey. This was murder.
Of course I sucked it up and tried a little CPR after I made the 911 call, like everyone knows you are supposed to do, no matter what you think about the patient’s condition. But then I had to start driving us back to the main road to meet the ambulance. I parked in front of the gate, rewiring the baling wire on the chain hanging around the post. I turned off the engine and waited, every now and then cracking the window to shoo a bee out.
Copyright ©2019 by CR Roberts; used with permission
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