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The Bee Balm Murders
A Martha's Vineyard mystery
By Cynthia Riggs
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2011 Cynthia Riggs
All rights reserved.
The bee balm, in full ragged bloom in Victoria Trumbull's garden, was taller than she'd ever seen it, probably because of the heavy June rains. Victoria, at ninety-two, had known seasons when the minty-smelling plants never bloomed. This year they formed a dense fire-engine-red blanket that she could see from the west window. True to its name, the bee balm resonated with the buzz of honeybees, dozens and dozens in this patch of brilliance.
Sean McBride, the beekeeper, had set up seven hives in Victoria's west pasture. Each hive had twenty thousand bees. Each of the twenty thousand bees had a specific job to perform for the hive. During its short life, each of the nectar- gathering bees produced an eighth of a teaspoon of honey. And each lived only two weeks, its wings worn out from forays in search of nectar-bearing blossoms.
Sean visited the seven hives weekly to minister to the bees' needs. When Victoria saw his red truck pull off New Lane into the pasture this early July morning, she hurried out to watch him work, careful to stay a safe distance from the cloud of bees hovering around each of the hives.
"Morning, Mrs. Trumbull. Don't get too close. They're acting unusually ornery for some reason."
Victoria moved back to the bench near the fenced-in vegetable garden. The next half-hour of Sean's ministry to the bees would be theater, and Victoria loved theater.
Sean retrieved what looked like an old-fashioned oil can from the back of his truck, stuffed it with torn fabric, lit the fabric with his Cricket lighter, and pumped the handle. The oil can let out a puff of smoke. Next he unfolded a surgically white suit and pulled it over his normal working jeans and plaid shirt, topped it with a sort of Hazmat hood with a clear faceplate, and tugged on protective gauntlets with cuffs that reached to his elbows.
Sean usually went about his business silently. This morning, however, he was talkative.
"You rent rooms, Mrs. Trumbull." His voice was deadened by the hood. Victoria wasn't sure what he expected of her.
"Occasionally," she said.
"Guy stopped by the Farmer's Market on Saturday, looking for a place here in West Tisbury."
"Oh?" Victoria watched him squeeze the handle of the smoker, releasing a puff of smoke. The cloud of bees funneled back into the hive.
"Name's Orion Nanopoulos." Sean's voice was muffled. "Seems like a nice enough guy."
Victoria had the disembodied feeling of trying to communicate with a robot. She couldn't see Sean's face.
"What did you say?"
The faceless head turned. "Orion Nanopoulos."
Smoke drifted toward Victoria's nose and she sneezed. "How long does this man intend to stay on the Vineyard?"
"Couple of years, I expect."
Victoria welcomed occasional weekend guests, but was not enthusiastic about long-term tenants. "Has he checked some of the lovely places in town that take in guests?"
"Nope. I told him about this place, and he said he'd be over this morning to give you a check."
"Why is he staying for such a long time?"
Sean removed the top of the nearest hive and lifted out a frame that looked as though it was coated with black fur. Hundreds of bees. Or maybe thousands of bees.
"He's installing a fiber-optic system on the Island."
"I beg your pardon?" She wasn't sure she'd heard him correctly.
Tenderly, Sean set the frame upright in a box so the bees wouldn't be crushed. "Fiber optics. Glass. Wave of the future. Data travels at the speed of light instead of poking along on copper wires."
"Data." Victoria was not sure she liked the way this conversation was going.
"Emergency response. Cell phone reception. Your television programs ..."
"I don't have television or a cell phone."
"If you have a heart attack ..."
"Unlikely," said Victoria.
Sean lifted out another frame. "I told him to stop by. You don't have to put him up if you don't want." He turned his shiny non-face to her. She could see her reflection, and the reflection looked unconvinced. "He'll pay whatever you ask. Double your price. Triple it."
Sean turned back to the bees and she had only the back of his white hood to look at. His voice was muffled. "Winter'll be here before you know it. Heating bills."
Victoria, having viewed Sean McBride's costuming and the opening of the hives, had seen what she'd come for. She levered herself off the hard wooden bench and headed to the house to confront Orion Nanopoulos when he called.
She would let Mr. Nanopoulos know that she had no desire to have a long-term tenant. Occasional guests were fine. She could put up with tiresome visitors for two or three days. But how did one get rid of a long-term guest who didn't fit in? She would discourage him. Her house was not a Captain So-and-So house with polished brass and mahogany. She'd tell him the floors creaked, the doors wouldn't close, that her granddaughter Elizabeth lived with her and could be difficult. Elizabeth, a serene presence, would forgive her. Victoria would let him know the bathrooms were shared and that the toilet in the upstairs bathroom often stopped up. He wouldn't be able to watch the Red Sox games, she'd say, because she had no television. Red Sox games, she understood, were a must for ninety percent of New England's population. That would discourage him, right there.
* * *
She was typing her weekly column for the Island Enquirer later that morning when a large station wagon pulled up in her drive, a twenty-year-old Chevrolet that looked almost new. Victoria liked cars and felt she understood them.
She watched as a white-haired, mustached, deeply tanned man climbed out. In his fifties, perhaps, but she wasn't good at ages. The man gave the side of his car a pat, as though it was a horse that had delivered him safely to her door. His trim body and mustache gave him the appearance of a cavalry officer, at least from the front. When he turned, his long white ponytail altered the effect. He was wearing jeans, an open-necked short-sleeved blue shirt, and worn, highly polished engineer's boots.
She pushed her typewriter to one side and waited for the man to approach. He climbed the steps, his boots making a sturdy sound, and knocked on the open kitchen door. "Anybody home?"
A pleasant voice, low and mellow. A fine large nose, not as large as hers, of course. Dark eyes.
"Come in," said Victoria, going to the door.
"Mrs. Trumbull? My name is Orion Nanopoulos." He waited in the doorway and offered her his hand. He was shorter than she. Victoria was almost six feet tall.
His hand was as callused as her own. "How do you do?" she said. "My beekeeper said you might be coming by."
"He told me about your house. I'd like to rent one of your rooms."
"I don't rent rooms long term," said Victoria.
"Perhaps we can discuss renting one of your rooms short term, then," said Orion Nanopoulos.
Victoria uncrossed her arms. "Come in."
He stepped into the kitchen. "Thank you."
Victoria moved a stack of newspapers from the captain's chair and dropped them on the table, then turned to look at this man.
Orion Nanopoulos had two deep creases running from his high cheekbones to his strong chin, giving him an extremely pleasant expression. "Sean McBride has a high opinion of you, Mrs. Trumbull. He suggested ..."
"I know what he told you." Victoria sat on one of the gray-painted kitchen chairs and indicated that he might sit on the cleared-off captain's chair. Then she explained to Orion Nanopoulos that the floors creaked, the doors didn't shut ... and so forth.
Orion listened attentively, his head cocked at an angle, the deep creases on either side of his mouth expressing both intense interest and delight at hearing whatever she had to say.
Victoria's voice strengthened on her last item. "With no television, you won't be able to watch the Red Sox ..."
Orion held up his hand to stop her flow of words. "That won't bother me at all, Mrs. Trumbull." His pleasant expression deepened. "I'm a Yankees fan."
Despite her intention to send him packing, she found herself warming to this man with his soft voice and lack of Red Sox boosterism. Still, she tried to hold her ground.
"My granddaughter lives with me and she can be ..." Somehow, Victoria couldn't slander her granddaughter, even in the interests of ridding herself of a would-be tenant, so she didn't finish her sentence. Studying Orion, with his warm, dark eyes, she was beginning to think it might be nice to have a man around the house, a man who drove a twenty-year- old car that he treated like a fine stallion, a man who could listen to her the way this man did ...
She tried once more to convince herself and him that he should look elsewhere. "The only room available is a small attic room with no insulation. It's hot in summer, frigid in winter. It's right over the kitchen where you'll hear pots and pans rattling early in the morning, smell cooking during the day, and hear the dishwasher running late at night. You can't stand upright except in the center of the room because of the roof slope, and there's a hornet's nest above the window."
The creases on either side of Orion's face deepened with pleasure. "May I see the room?" he asked.CHAPTER 2
Victoria charged Orion Nanopoulos double the rent she felt was reasonable. Orion paid two months in advance without protest and settled in.
She and Elizabeth saw little of him the first week. He was gone before they were up in the morning. On Monday, the only evidence of his having been there was an empty wasp-spray can next to the recycling bin, and a mug, rinsed and set upside down on a paper towel on the counter. At night he returned after Victoria and Elizabeth were in bed.
The Sunday morning of his second week in residence, Orion was in the kitchen brewing himself a cup of green tea when Victoria came downstairs.
A northeaster had set in during the night and rain slashed against the windows facing the fishpond.
"We'll have at least three days of wet weather," Victoria predicted, looking out the window at the downpour. "A good time for you to take a break."
"Not a very long break, I'm afraid." Orion spooned the tea bag out of his mug and dropped it into the compost bucket. "I have to work today."
She turned from the window. "Sunday? In this rain?"
"I have a schedule to meet."
McCavity, Victoria's marmalade cat, had entwined himself around Orion's legs and was purring like a locomotive working up a head of steam. Orion leaned down and stroked him.
"I hope you're not allergic to cats," said Victoria.
"Not cats," said Orion. "Just bees."
"Will Sean's bees be a problem for you?"
Orion gave her his pleasant look. "I try not to smell or appear like a flower, Mrs. Trumbull, and I wear shoes when I walk through clover."
"How serious a reaction do you have?"
"Serious. My throat and tongue swell and my heart rate goes way up. I carry an EpiPen with me in the field."
"A sophisticated hypodermic needle that contains epinephrine, an antidote to insect stings. I can inject myself if I get stung."
"Perhaps I should ask Sean to remove the hives."
"Don't do that, Mrs. Trumbull. The bees were here before I was. I'll avoid them and they'll avoid me."
Victoria opened a can of tuna. McCavity untangled himself from Orion's legs and stretched.
"Morning, Gram. Morning, Orion." Victoria's granddaughter entered the kitchen looking dewy and rested. Her sun-bleached hair curled around her ears. She was as tall as Victoria, and looked exactly like her grandfather, Victoria's dead husband.
"First things first." Elizabeth poured herself coffee. Her mug had once read POOLE'S FISH MARKET but washings had faded it to a simple FISH.
Victoria took eggs out of the refrigerator. "Would you like to join us for breakfast, Orion?"
"Love to. Thanks."
Elizabeth baked a batch of muffins, Victoria whipped up an omelet, Orion set the table, and the three sat down.
"Gram says you're involved with fiber optics," said Elizabeth as they were eating. "They carry phone calls really, really fast, right?"
"Much faster than copper wire," said Orion. "A single fiber, smaller in diameter than a human hair, can carry more data faster than a fat electrical cable." He paused briefly to dig into his omelet. After he'd devoured the first bite, he made a thumbs-up sign and then continued. "Since it's glass, it's immune to corrosion and electrical interference." He stopped again and turned to Victoria. "Enough about my business." He gestured at the omelet on his plate. "This is wonderful."
"Will you install the cable underground?" asked Elizabeth.
"Underground throughout the Island. We've already started in Tisbury."
"How many miles of trenches will you have to dig?" asked Elizabeth.
"Too many." Orion set down his fork. "We won't dig trenches, though. One of my investors is buying a machine that can drill horizontally and pull the cable back through the hole without disturbing the surface."
"Is your investor an Island man?" asked Victoria.
"Woman, actually," Orion replied. "Her name is Dorothy Roche and she lives in Edgartown. I've had several discussions with her and am quite impressed."
Victoria said, "Hummmph," and frowned.
Orion looked mystified.
Elizabeth laughed. "Gram doesn't much care for Dorothy Roche. She thinks she's an egotistical, self-satisfied, nouveau-riche-bitch social climber who'll stamp on the fingers of anyone on the ladder below her. Right, Gram?"
Victoria had just taken a sip of coffee. She coughed and dabbed her mouth with her napkin. "I wouldn't put it that strongly." She gave her granddaughter a look. "I really don't know her well."
"She moved to the Vineyard only a couple of months ago," put in Elizabeth. "Go on, Orion. You were telling us about the drilling machine."
"It's amazing. A radio beacon and receiver track the drill head. It can be steered around rocks, go around corners, go any direction." He stopped long enough to eat. He put his fork down and dabbed at his mustache with his napkin. "If a trench is excavated for some purpose, for a sewer or electric line for instance, we'll use that trench. Otherwise, we'll use the drill." He helped himself to another muffin, broke it open, and buttered it. "Tisbury's Department of Public Works is opening up a trench in the ball field for a drainage line. We'll be laying optical cable in the trench alongside it today."
"I'd love to see that," said Elizabeth.
"If you don't mind mud, come down and watch." He abruptly sat sideways in his chair, reached into his pocket, brought out a cell phone, opened it, and looked at the display. "Excuse me, Mrs. Trumbull. I've got to take this call." He left the cookroom and returned a few minutes later, frowning.
"Trouble?" Victoria asked.
"I'm afraid so." He tossed down the napkin he'd been holding and took the back stairs two at a time to his room. Seconds later, he returned, carrying yellow oilskins. His face was pale and a muscle twitched in his jaw. "A worker on the early shift climbed down into the trench for some reason and found a body."
Victoria laid down her fork. "How awful." She set her napkin on the table and got to her feet. "Who is it?"
"They didn't say."
Elizabeth, too, stood. "What do you have to do?"
Orion shook his head as though to clear it. "I've got to get to the site and see for myself what's going on."
"How deep is the trench?"
"Six feet. The ditching machine was filling in the trench right behind the worker who found the body. Ten minutes later, the trench would have been filled in. The body would never have been found."
Orion slipped his oilskin trousers over his jeans and shrugged into the hooded jacket. "Sorry to leave like this."
"Don't even think about it," said Elizabeth.
"If it turns out not to have been an accident and you need help, Orion," Victoria said, "let me know."
He glanced at her.
"I'm a deputy police officer," she added.
"Ah," said Orion, clearly not knowing exactly what to make of that. "I'll be sure to keep you informed."
He pulled the hood up on his jacket and headed out, his oilskin trouser legs swishing as he walked.
He clumped down the stone steps, patted the side of his wagon, got in, and sped out of Victoria's drive.
* * *
Orion drove into Vineyard Haven, quiet this rainy Sunday morning, turned right at Five Corners, right again down an obscure side road across from the Tisbury Printer, and parked. Rain fell steadily.
Excerpted from The Bee Balm Murders by Cynthia Riggs. Copyright © 2011 Cynthia Riggs. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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