Start with a trio of unreliable but wickedly funny narrators: A small-time thief with money problems, a widow with an almond farm, a PI on the edge of the law.
To pay off his loan shark, Donnie plans to steal honeybees and rent them out… but he’s a total screw-up. One of Joanne’s hives conceals two million bucks stashed by her late husband, and when the PI discovers it holds more than honey, a simple caper becomes a life-or-death standoff.
Here are the first four chapters.
Chapter 1 – Donnie
How hard can it be?
Chummy one day starts talking about bees, says they don’t even sting, not really. I’m not allergic, either. I got stung enough as a kid.
But these bees, Chummy says they mostly fly around and do bee-fucking and poop it out in the hive, and meanwhile they’re gathering food. And it’s the food gathering that matters. See, bees are the way plants have sex. Which sounds boring and unexciting. But boring and unexciting is the way I have sex these days – without the stingers – and so why not plants, right?
So’s all I have to do is drive these bees around and farmers pay me to let them go in their fields, where they do whatever the equivalent of plant blowjobs is, and then they fly right back to the hives. And I get paid.
Getting paid is the thing.
I mean, I don’t have to get paid paid. I could steal the money. Except last time I tried that, I got the shit kicked out of me.
So I’ll steal the bees instead.
Chapter 2 – Joanne
Joanne Horvitz closed her eyes. Absorbed the lawyer’s news like a bicyclist slamming into a flung-open driver’s door. Like the one she’d seen yesterday, cartwheeling gracefully through the Tulare afternoon, soaring a rainbow arc of limbs and torso until she met the asphalt.
Joanne sensed unyielding blacktop rushing toward her. Her stomach convulsed.
Her mother-in-law might have offered the wastebasket by her feet, but Sandra instead contented herself by dodging the stream of vomit.
# # #
“I thought California was a community-property state.” Joanne glared at Michael Czerwinski, the long-time family lawyer who was handling probate, and whose secretary had finished cleaning the mess on the gleaming hardwood floor.
The secretary, mid-twenties and bubbly, had brought rags immediately at the lawyer’s summons. Might not have been the first time she’d been called in for that particular chore.
“It depends.” Czerwinski steepled his fingers, rested his chin on his fingertips. On his beard, specifically, which grew as bro-beard lush as his monk’s fringe was sparse. “Your premarital waiver – that’s the prenup – falls under the ‘omitted spouse’ provision.”
“We discarded the prenup six months after we married.” After Joanne and Chris concluded, twenty years ago, that they truly were going to spend their life together.
Life. Together. Joanne had expected more, believed in more. More life, more time, more together. Life-the-shortchanger had nailed Chris on the first attribute, and broken her on the rack of the other two.
The lawyer shook his head. “I sympathize.” Probate king of Tulare County, the guy had the choreography down cold. Knew the blocking, could recite the script in his sleep.
Sympathy – especially lawyer sympathy – didn’t pay the bills.
But sympathy or not, you had to pay the lawyers.
# # #
Sandra, Joanne’s fifty-eight-year-old mother-in-law, shifted in her seat, lifted her head, preparing to speak.
Czerwinski stared her into silence, turned back to Joanne. “Legally, that would be a tough case to make, that the premarital waiver was no longer in force.” He paused, as if the script itself said “Pause,” as if someone had called him avuncular and, after looking it up, he’d opted to lean into the description. “Because you entered into the marriage with significant assets, the state recognizes the right of the other spouse to, um, not provide beyond a minimum amount. Which, in your case, includes your IRA, the assets you brought to the union, and probably the farm, though the will is perhaps ambiguous there.”
If the farm had eyeballs, it would be up to them in debt. “You know damn well what we spent those assets on.” Joanne avoided looking at Sandra. Before her time.
Czerwinski placed both forearms on the massive walnut desk. “Yes. Well.” Which was about as close as he’d ever come to acknowledging what had happened, even after making the arrangements. He gave a small cough before continuing. “You also retain the household goods and the rights to Horvitz Honeys. And probably the vehicles. I don’t think Mrs. Horvitz will pursue a claim.” Again he stared the other woman into an unusual silence.
Mrs. Sandra Maris Horvitz. Chris’s dad’s replacement trophy wife, because Trophy Wife the First – Chris’s mom – had no longer been prize enough. Sandra was the same age as Chris, a couple of years older than Joanne.
Sandra Horvitz, TW2, to whom Chris had left most everything.
# # #
Sure, they’d drifted apart after Seth. Who wouldn’t?
But eleven months ago, the spot on the x-ray, and they’d snapped together like magnets. Chris had once again become the north pole of her life, and she the Antipodes, the distant lands he sought every day.
Life was the leakiest of vessels. Chris was taking on water, and he and Joanne both knew it.
She held him in her arms the afternoon he sank beneath the surface. She tried so goddam hard to pull him back.
The rabbi quoted Genesis, dust to dust.
But the ancients lived in a dry place. Joanne’s bones knew a different truth: we were born from water, and only our most desperate flailing, for a time, keeps us above the waves.
# # #
“Try not to gloat.” Joanne held Sandra’s eyes, forced a civil tone. Wondered why she made the effort. Sandra had mad skills in the taking of pleasure at the expense of others, whether the honey of true wins or the Sweet’N Low of schadenfreude. And madder skills in displaying her toned body. Next to her, Joanne was a thrift-shop sweater mistakenly hung in a Nordstrom’s display.
Sandra brushed the pearls nestled below the neck of her black crushed velvet top, tucked into a gray skirt over black billowed jodhpurs, sheer black leggings, and raven-black ankle boots. Black-on-black with gray and eggshell accents, as if she were the one in mourning. “I’m so sorry you feel that way. You have always been a most welcome member of our family.”
Yeah, Joanne had been a member of the family only because the marriage club’s bylaws didn’t allow parents to deny applications. A member of the family the way a housecat was a member of the same family, Felidae, as a tiger.
In the chair next to her, Sandra offered a tiger smile.
Joanne suppressed a shiver. Housecat on the menu. Felis catus, served cold.
# # #
Sandra pushed the box of tissues toward her.
Joanne slid them away. You’re not getting the satisfaction. Bitch.
# # #
Czerwinski held the door for Sandra as she exited his corner office.
He touched Joanne’s hand. “My condolences. Truly. I wish I could be of more service.” He placed his other hand on her hip, massaging it gently. “It’s impossible to divine Chris’s intent.”
Joanne could guarantee said intent did not include his lawyer putting the make on the widow. She stared through him, knowing that if she looked down she’d see the telltale bulge. Maybe she could rip it off and feed it to him.
But she was housecat, not tiger. She nodded, allowed him to air-kiss her cheek, and pivoted away.
# # #
Sandra held the elevator. Joanne head-faked an acknowledgment, motioned toward the women’s room.
Mommy-in-law stepped into the car, let the slider shush and close.
Joanne pushed open the bathroom door, walked to the sink. And the mirror.
Her makeup was smeared. She’d applied it like shit to begin with, since makeup was generally incompatible with working fifteen-hour days on a money-losing almond farm. Now, seeing the uneven coloring streaked with tears, she couldn’t remember why she’d bothered. She hadn’t made a good impression on her mother-in-law in seven years, and there’d been no reason to suspect today’s encounter would get the goose egg off the scorecard.
Joanne couldn’t explain why she even cared about the scorecard. She had rolled so many gutter balls that no one would bother to add up the few fallen pins. And every encounter with TW2 was a goddam gutter ball, the only question being whether the ponderous sphere made a beeline for the exits or threatened a pin or two before falling harmlessly into Loser Highway.
She wiped her face with a paper towel that might have been recycled from a wire scrub brush. She pitched it in the trash, realized her hands were still wet. Rubbed them on her pants.
Where her fingers encountered an unexpected lump. A flash drive that the lawyer must have slipped into her narrow pocket.
Chapter 3 – Donnie
-Whaddaya mean, they don’t sting, I ask Chummy one day.
-Unless you bother them. You don’t wanna do that.
-Everyone knows bees sting.
-Everyone knew the sun went ’round the earth, too.
And there’s the problem. ‘Cause the sun does go ‘round the earth. I know scientifically it’s the other way ‘round, but then sun and earth are going ’round some other point in space, so “the earth goes around the sun” ain’t exactly accurate either.
But Chummy and I, we’re standing outside the bodega in Ripperdan, and looking up at the sun, or at least where the sun would be if there weren’t low clouds like a giant’s foot waiting to stomp out us ants. If we think about the earth moving, it just gets all confusing. The sun’s moving, rising in the east, setting in the west, wandering north and south with the seasons. Knowing how it all works backstage is like taking the fun out of a magic trick.
‘Cept with bees, the magic trick is pretty important. Like with the sap stuck inside the box when the swords come slamming through. Don’t get in the way of the blades.
There’s obviously a trick to not getting in the way of the stingers.
I just gotta steal some water first. But that’s a one-time gig. Bees, they could keep on giving.
That afternoon, back in Tulare at the library, Beekeeping for Dummies is checked out, according to the librarian. He suggests How Not to Keep Bees.
-I already know how not to do it. You just don’t do it, is how.
-They’re competitors to the Dummies books. Funnier.
If Hollywood needs a stunt double for Elastic Man, they could do worse than the librarian. He can’t weigh much more than me, but he’s got like a foot of extra height into which to pour it. His arms are barely beefier than the black rims of his glasses. And if computers can de-age Robert DeNiro and revive Carrie Fisher, they can probably scrub the guy’s zits off the big screen.
I try to figure out if he’s shitting me with How Not to Keep Bees. Thing is, if I could figure out from a look who the liars are, I wouldn’t need to rent out stolen bees to get outta hock.
So I might as well try the book.
-Fine. Where is it?
The librarian – and what kind of man becomes a fucking librarian? – flourishes the number like a close-up magician. Is this your card, sir?
How the fuck do I know if it’s my card. I tell him that, using simple words, and he points me to rows of metal shelves with endplates finished in blond wood.
Turns out all the books are numbered, sort of. Arranged like streets in downtown Bakersfield. And at the corner of 638 and 1, How Not to Keep Bees.
The doorside thingies go bwap-bwap-bwap – not too loud, ‘cause it’s a fucking library – as I exit with the book under my coat.
No one pays attention, ‘cause yours truly had the foresight to first pull the fire alarm.
Chapter 4 – Richard
Richard Sims was going to be late with the rent.
So-the-fuck what. Stephenson wasn’t going to put him on the street, and thus go from receiving late rent to receiving no rent, because who else was going to lease this shithole of a singlewide, let alone pay $500 a month – plus fucking utilities – for an out-of-zoning live-in workspace? Too close to other buildings for a meth lab, too near the highway for a good night’s sleep with the windows open, too shitty wiring for an air conditioner.
Besides, he paid. Eventually. Slow-Pay Sims, but never Stiff-You Sims. Almost never. Some people deserved the shaft.
Such as the jamoke with the makeshift water truck.
Czerwinski was paying Sims beer money to keep an occasional eye on the newly widowed Joanne Horvitz. Beer money being better than no money, Sims would drive past occasionally, make sure there was no funny business. The lawyer hadn’t said what kind of business might be specifically funny, though. Sims, having seen Horvitz working the farm in tight jeans and chambray work shirt and close-cropped blond hair, had developed his own idea of what kind of amusing commerce he might want to pursue with her. She had to be fifty at least, maybe even sixty, but she could still stop traffic.
So Sims wasn’t totally surprised to see one particular piece of stopped traffic on the driveway to her farm. Her husband had been dead, what, less than a couple months, but who would begrudge a woman like that the right to get horny, or do something about it?
The first surprise was that she had picked a guy with a beat-to-shit flatbed.
The second surprise was that the jamoke was still with the truck.
Sims drove a few hundred yards to the next farm, killed his headlights, and turned around, drifting back slowly. He stopped where a tree obscured the jabronie’s view of his Buick.
He flipped off the dome light, took night-vision binoculars from the cushioned case anchored between the seats, and stepped out.
The guy had mounted a 2000-gallon water tank to his converted F-150 liftgate flatbed, parked next to Horvitz’s water cisterns, and started to pump. He’d done a lot of stuff right, too. Cover of darkness, obviously, cover of four in the fucking morning to be specific. Had a transfer pump that ran off his battery while he kept the engine idling. Even had tubing and fittings prepared.
Ten minutes after Sims started watching, the water thief shut off his pump, disconnected the fittings, took his sweet time placing them in the cab, and began to back – uphill – toward the road.
Sims grinned as he climbed back into his car. The jamoke had indeed figured a lot of parameters right. But had gotten two things wrong
The first was the GVW.
Because that little truck wasn’t going anywhere fast with over eight tons of water in the tank. By the time the F-150 neared the road, it was smoking like it was the 1960s. The truck hit a pothole in the driveway, and the axle’s agony could have been heard all the way to the river.
The truck simply stopped.
The second thing the jamoke got wrong was Sims, who drove up behind him, trapping the flatbed in the driveway. He offset-angled his car so his left headlight shone along the driver’s side of the truck and into the thief’s eyes.
He stepped out, waited until the water-thief opened the truck door, prepared his best street voice. “Ya got three choices. First, you can reinstate the water, if you can get this heap back to the tanks. Do that, and you go home no worse for wear. Though I can’t say the same about your truck.”
“Yeah? Fuck you.”
“Ooh.” So the guy was an asshole, and here he was, Richard Sims, who’d spent his whole life trying to better himself, extending the very olive branch that he himself had never been offered. He could play the fuck-you game, too. Play it better than anyone. “That brings me to door number two. I stay here, the cops come, and, well, you know how that will go.”
The miscreant took two steps toward him. Little guy, five-four or -five, radiating a skinny man’s nervous energy. Stained jeans, plaid shirt, washed-out denim jacket, Raiders cap – Oakland edition – over wavy graying hair, two days’ growth surrounding what was either a half-assed soul patch or truly pitiable razor skills. Slight steam clouds punctuating every breath. Round thin-rim glasses, broad nose, parentheses lines around his mouth. A squint easily attributed to the headlight shining in his eyes, but just as likely the consequence of a permanently jaundiced worldview.
So: “Third choice. Take another step, and I’ll shoot you. A thirty-eight. Center mass, no fancy shoot-to-wound shit, ‘cause this ain’t the movies.”
The jamoke started to cry, actually fucking grown-ass-man cry. Without warning he pivoted and took off across the grass, juking just the way it worked in the movies and not so much in real life. He slammed into the split-rail fence, did the kind of parallel-bars floppity that Sims could never get right in eighth-grade gym class, and kept running.
Sims inspected the F-150. The left rear tire was flat. The impact plus the weight might have bent the axle as well. Returning the precious water, lifeblood of almond farming, wasn’t going to be easy.
But problems equaled opportunity. Or so he’d read, even if he’d never successfully balanced that particular equation.
Richard Sims was not a give-up guy. He’d work out the logistics with Joanne Horvitz. In fact, he couldn’t ask for a better conversation starter. The way into a grown woman’s pants was her brain, and he could think better than most guys his age.
First things first. He safed the gun – a Ruger .22 target pistol, but no reason to share that particular datum with the runaway thief – and tucked it into the holster in the small of his back, wiped his hands, took his cell phone from his pocket, and did something reserved for the direst of circumstances.
Sims punched in 9-1-1 and eyed the green “connect” icon.
Copyright © 2020-2023 by Brent Salish. All rights reserved.