Tin City (Mac McKenzie #2)
For Renée, as always
I would like to thank Tammi Fredrickson, Alison Picard, Ben Sevier, Michael Sullivan, and Renée Valois for, well, everything.
The old man held three dead honeybees in the palm of his caramel-colored hand.
“Here,” he said.
I took a step backward. “What do you mean?”
I kept retreating until I was hard against the kitchen counter.
“What’s the matter with you?” he wanted to know.
“They can’t hurt you.”
“You big baby.” He dumped the bees on top of the kitchen table and sat 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?”
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.”
“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.”