It was a suburban Saturday morning in the San Fernando Valley just west of Los Angeles. This particular neighborhood was a former orange grove, and it was dotted with modest, well-kept single story ranch homes. One modest, well-kept ranch home stood out as its front door was swinging back and forth in the light wind. Several citrus trees dotted the backyard of this home. A sycamore tree stood alone in a corner opposite a tangerine tree. Quite a few bees buzzed around this sycamore. They were agitated and sought to enter their hive, which was stuck in a hollow of the tree about ten feet up. Something had threatened them and they were not happy about it.
Across the yard a middle-aged man drove his Toro rider-mower across the back lawn. He did not hire a mow and blow gardener because this was a bi-weekly ritual of enjoyment for him. He relished the scent of fresh cut grass and the sense of accomplishment from a personally manicured lawn. He was clad in a tank top and shorts. He wore earbuds and did not notice the bees above him. As he drove closer, the beehive vibrated from the sound of the mower engine, further agitating the bees. The man drove the mower closer, listening to his music, oblivious to the environment around him.
The bees had recently arrived at this location so they were anxious. Prior to leaving their former home, they would normally have gorged on honey to sustain themselves. But there was a shortage of nectar at their old hive. These bees were starved for sustenance. They also lacked their queen, who normally provided a calming influence. These bees were part of the scout team to look for a new home. Normally this interim stop in their journey would be a place to rest and send out new scouts to find the most suitable place for a home. But something was wrong with these bees. Right now they were pissed off.
The rider-mower engine rumbled under the sycamore tree. The man had some strong cologne on which mixed with his sweat and permeated the immediate area. The bees were further annoyed by this smell. Then a stick snapped in the blades of the lawnmower and it made a loud crack as it split in two. That was the final straw.
The man on the rider-mower didn’t notice the swarm as it moved out of the hollow of the tree and targeted him. The bees hovered above his head, drawn to the smell of his cologne and the carbon dioxide emerging from his mouth. Then they pounced. First hundreds, then thousands of bees landed on the exposed flesh of the man. Caught off guard, he looked down at his bare legs and arms, covered with the workers and scouts who proceeded to sting him.
He swatted at the bees but that didn’t help. More landed on him. They stung his face repeatedly. In the chaos he hopped off the rider-mower. But he forgot to turn off the engine or set the brake. The bees continued to sting him and he brushed them off his skin. He didn’t notice that the rider-mower was still moving. The mower rolled over his foot. The blade sliced his instep causing him unimaginable pain. He fell to the ground, wincing as the mower rolled away.
Blood flowed onto the freshly cut lawn. In this moment, when he should have been running for his life, the man lay on the ground, writhing. Hundreds of bees swarmed over him. Then thousands. The man screamed for help, but his cries were drowned out by the loud mower engine.
The driverless lawnmower kept moving, cutting the lawn on a diagonal, past the side of the house towards the front lawn. It plowed forward until it met the street curb. There it plunged over the edge and got stuck spinning its wheels half on the lawn and half on the asphalt. Across the street a tall, bearded driver sat in his car with binoculars, watching this spectacle. The driver had an unusual costume on. It was a padded jumper suit, not unlike the kind that beekeepers used. On the car seat next to this driver was a beekeeper’s helmet.
The driver stared at the man writhing on the ground underneath the tree. As the man screamed, the driver revved his engine loudly to drown out the sound. The man went silent again. He barely moved now. The driver watched, almost as if he were counting how many bee stings the man was receiving.
It was as if this driver knew that an average adult could safely tolerate ten stings per pound of body weight. Of course, if that person were bleeding out, they would tolerate fewer stings. 1000 stings would put them in a danger zone. The driver in the beekeeper’s jumper took another look at the body of the lawnmower man and saw that he was not moving. He was not screaming. The driver put down his binoculars and drove off.
Topanga Canyon, named after the native people that once lived there, the Tongva, was a picturesque canyon that spanned all the way from the San Fernando Valley to the Pacific ocean at Topanga State Beach. Highway 27, aka Topanga Canyon Boulevard, wound through the canyon, lined by a creek, leafy trees and scrub brush. The canyon was famous for its tie-dyed, earthy, hippie residents who had made it home since the 1960s.
Duke drove the Charger up the canyon and passed several organic bistros and clothing boutiques that had an old west vintage charm to them. The center of the canyon was known as the village and it was here that they found the address they needed. 7341 Old Topanga Canyon Road was a small gift shop with a sign out front: Mailboxes for rent.
Duke, Peters and Kelso walked into the small shop. A diminutive, tanned woman of about thirty looked up from the counter. She was not Indian, but she had a bindi on her forehead and she wore a sari. “Is this the shop for the Honey Bee Ranch?” Kelso asked.
“No, it’s not,” Bindi girl answered. “But they collect their mail here.”
“Can you tell me where the ranch is?” Duke asked.
“I don’t know,” Bindi said. “He never told me. He just comes here every couple of days to pick up his mail.”
Kelso flashed a picture of Gonklin on his phone and Bindi girl took a look. “This him?”
“Yeah. That’s him. Mitch. He’s really nice. Gives me honeycomb.” She held up a box of gourmet honeycomb. It was filled with gorgeous, perfectly formed hexagonal wax cells. “You want a piece? It’s so good.” She popped one in her mouth.
“Thank you, I don’t mind if I do,” Kelso said. He took one and put it in his mouth. “Wow. That is good.”
“Isn’t that where the bee used to live?” Duke asked.
“Yeah, the queen lays larvae in the wax cells where they feed on the honey,” Kelso answered.
“That’s disgusting,” Duke replied as he watched Peters pop a chunk of the comb in his mouth.
Peters’ eyes rolled back in his head. “Those are delectable.” He turned to Bindi girl. “When’s the last time Mitch was here?”
“Two days ago, so he’s due. He’ll probably come in today. Can I give him a message?” she asked.
“Tell him we want to buy some honey. Can you have him give me a call at this number?” Kelso said. He jotted his number on a pad of paper and handed it to her.
“Sure thing!” Bindi replied.
The guys walked out of the shop and looked at their watches. They got in the Charger and pulled it up the road a ways, so they could surveil the shop. Duke turned the engine off and they waited.
“Why did they put you on desk watch?” Kelso asked.
“I initiated a police pursuit that was deemed reckless. Meanwhile we caught the perp safely and no one was harmed.”
“That should clear you then,” Kelso offered.
Duke fidgeted in his seat. “I was coming out of a bar. I had a couple of beers in me. My BAL was .0049.”
“That’s legal, isn’t it?”
“Yeah but I didn’t know it at the time.”
“What were you supposed to do? Give the perp keys to the city because you’d had a couple of beers?” Kelso offered.
Duke smiled as he realized there was some common ground between them. “How about you? Why do you love them so much?”
“Love who so much?”
“Oh. I didn’t always. Bugs were nothing but walking targets for me. My father was a crop duster and he wanted me to go into the business. But instead I joined the military.” Kelso showed off his tatt of an Apache helicopter.
“You get that in Iraq?” Duke asked.
Kelso nodded. “1-227 Helicopter Attack Battalion. We were shot down outside Tikrit. Everyone else onboard got waxed except me. The Haji took me to a POW camp. I was in solitary for three weeks. The insects were my only friends. Especially the spiders. I was constantly getting bitten and buzzed by flies in my cell. But black widows would spin webs and eat them.”
“You weren’t scared they’d bite you?” Peters asked.
“No. I was so grateful when one would show up. I didn’t even care that they were venomous spiders. They watched over me.”
Duke rolled his eyes. “The shrink thinks I got PTSD issues? I got nothing compared to you. Talking about how some black widow is your guardian angel.”
Kelso kicked the tires of his motor home as he made a basic pre-flight check for the trip back home. He opened the hood of the vehicle and checked the oil. He washed the windshields. Then he went inside to make sure all of the cabinets were secure. He did not want anything to fall out as he turned a corner.
Kelso’s physical labor on the RV did little to take his mind off the fact that he knew he was not wanted here. His crusade to catch his friend’s killer had resulted in an arrest but he was not sure justice had been done.
He went from terrarium to terrarium checking on the residents of his small insect menageries. He came to a stop on one in particular, an empty aquarium which housed a praying mantis. “Do you want to spar?” he asked, almost to himself, but one could not help but think he was also speaking to the insect.
The praying mantis looked up at him, as if in response. Kelso grabbed a chopstick and turned on a small video camera set on the top of the aquarium. He poked at the praying mantis with the chopstick and the insect adeptly dodged and parried his thrusts.
He stopped and put the chopstick down. Then he stopped the video camera. He connected it to his computer and the footage he shot came up on the monitor. He studied the moves of the mantis as it evaded his chopstick. There was a certain gracefulness to its motion.
Kelso began to mimic the moves of the mantis with his own body. He made what looked like tai-chi motions. Now he was starting to relax. But his zen moment was broken by a loud knock at the door of the RV. He went to answer.
Beryl stood there. She wore a silk top with blue jeans and espadrilles. Her silky hair met the silk of her blouse in a flowing line that struck him as very attractive. “I saw the news. Congratulations. Can I come in?” She held up a celebratory bottle of champagne.
“Sure, of course,” he said.
She followed him in and he pointed out some glasses near the sink. “I actually don’t take much pride in it. The perp probably set back the environmental movement by twenty years. The word environmentalist will become synonymous with terrorist.”
“Yeah, but you caught him,” she said as she popped the cork on the champagne.
“We caught someone. I’m not sure if he’s guilty or not.”
“He confessed!” She handed him a glass of bubbly.
“Yeah, but that could be due to other factors…I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be a downer.” He raised his glass and touched it to hers. They both sipped.
“It’s a cheap bottle,” she said. “A little too sweet for my taste. You don’t have to drink it.”
“It tastes good to me,” he offered, smiling.
Beryl noticed the footage of the praying mantis on his computer monitor. “What’s this?”
Kelso played the footage for her. “I’m taking lessons from my sensei,” he said. “The motto of this martial art is follow mantis which means to pause, reflect and become very aware of your surroundings, just like the mantis. The mantis is considered a messenger from the spirit world.”
Beryl watched the slow-motion video of the mantis gracefully parrying Kelso’s chopstick. She was captivated. “I noticed you do some kickboxing,” he said.
“Yeah. Helps me get out of my headspace.”
“You want to try a move?” He positioned his body just like the mantis in the video. He pointed his toe down at the floor and lifted his left leg to elbow height. “This is known as the crane stance. It helps you develop the ability to keep a distance from your opponent, to deliver a kick and quickly retract.” He demonstrated for her and nearly knocked over some tools on the counter.
“You look just like him,” Beryl quipped.
“The mantis in the video.”
“That’s the idea!”
She took her shoes off and put herself in the same position. It made her giggle.
“Breathe,” he told her. “Let the laughter escape you. That’s good. It’s nervous energy.” She did as he instructed and held the position.
“I want to do a kick but there’s no room in here.”
He led her outside. They faced each other on the lawn. She took the crane stance again. “Kick me,” he told her. “Deliver and retract. You will notice your leg is like a coiled spring.”
He took a defensive stance. She released her leg quickly, hitting his arm with her foot. It was such a fast motion it caught him off guard. “Good!” he said. “Try the mantis hook.” He made a hook with three fingers of his left hand. She mimicked his motion. It’s used in targeting the eyes and blocking an opponent’s attack. Hit me with it.”
She took the hook she had made and jabbed it at him. He dodged the punch and grabbed her arm. “Really whip your arm. Shift your weight as you deliver the hook.”
He demonstrated. She repeated the motion. He pointed to a point on his arm below his triceps. “This is an acupressure point. Strike my arm here and you can disable it.” He put her hand on the point on his arm so she could feel it. There was a spark of chemistry between the two.
“I feel it.”
“Okay,” he said and took a defensive stance once again.
She took the crane position. Before he knew what happened she whipped her mantis hook around and nailed him directly on the acupressure point. His arm dangled from his side, tingling.
“You do know that the female mantis kills her partner after they mate,” she flirted.
“That’s only thirty percent of the time,” Kelso replied, rubbing his arm. “Good move.”
“Where’s my dad?”
“I don’t know. It wasn’t my turn to watch him,” he replied.
She watched him as he continued battening down the hatches of the RV. “Are you leaving soon?” she asked with a hint of disappointment in her voice.
“Yeah, tomorrow. I’m supposed to go out with some friends tonight. Do you want to join?” he asked.
He caught a brief sparkle in her eye. He hoped she would say yes, but then thought maybe she was anxious not to move too fast. After all he was leaving town and the prospect of a long-distance romance might not suit her.
“Yes,” she answered with enthusiasm.