One bee is no bee’ … ancient proverb
If you stumble, make it part of your dance.
A witched pot never boils unless to the spell you’re loyal.
‘…a winged snake has bitten me, which country people call a bee.’ R. Herrick
It was too damn early for that brazen ol Arizona sun to invade the sanctity of my bedroom. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth like old fly paper, and I needed to whiz. After groping on the floor, I found my discarded jeans and pulled my cell phone loose. It said 7:15am; that couldn’t be right.
Why did I feel hung over? Best as I recalled, I’d only had one long neck last night. I stumbled into the bathroom and opted for a short, cold shower and two aspirins. As I hightailed it out the door and down the road, I remembered I was the sheriff and could come and go as I pleased.
Yes indeed, I was sheriff of a town whose men were being mutilated by a serial killer that remained at large. Our at risk bee population was rebuilding, but a new breed of bee had also come to call. And if I was honest, I was besotted by a strange vixen of a woman. At least I now had her name and an address of sorts. Time was boot scoot boogey’ing by. August had arrived; the full moon would soon be rising. I had to make sure it didn’t shine on another of Ryder’s bawdy boys.
We’d talked through the band’s second set. After Cerrie made an ambiguous comment about the quaintness of Ryder’s citizens, I got a might defensive. I told her there were educated cowboys here, and Ryder had some of the state’s biggest ranches. “They’re successful because most everything is done scientifically, using holistic and computerized state-of-the-art equipment. Our support staff have degrees. Hell, I’ve even read the classics; I wasn’t brought up on just Louie L’Amour and spaghetti westerns.” I paused to watch her reaction. My mind was clicking like a geiger counter. Her finger swiped a bead of sweat off the outside of my glass and delivered it to her mouth. She waited for me to continue.
My mouth formed an O, which I disguised as a yawn. “What’s a smart, worldly lady like you doing here any how?” She tilted her pretty head sideways, like she was studying me.
Now I look back on it, she had a talent for changing the subject, making me forget she was a person of interest in an ongoing investigation. We chatted all the way from the saloon to the office, where I made a photocopy of her passport. Her full name was Cerridwen Latrommi. I didn’t ask if that was her maiden or married name. I did ask about her trip to Egypt and before you know it, we were talking about my surname and the tribe of Dan that came from lands once known as Judaha.
“It’s fitting a man with your name would lead this investigation.”
“Fitting, what do you mean?” I asked.
Your first name is Peter, an old Roman name for phallic pillars found throughout their kingdom. The tops of these pillars often resembled a thyrsus, a pinecone shape linked to Dionysus. You’re aware, are you not, of Hercules pillars and the biblical alternate name for one of the 12 followers of the man taught magic by the Essenes? He was called Simon, or Peter the Rock. In Greek, Petros means stone. That’s likely where related words pater (father) and petra (rock) originate.”
In fact, Peter Dan, phallic pillars were thought to represent the old gods. Men entirely got off seeing these vertical representations of their—anatomy. In Jerusalem, they named a few of the temple pillars; they called one pair Jachin and Boaz. Masons adopted twin pillars as a Masonic symbol. One pillar was white, the other black, in theory representing the gods of light and darkness. Later, kings wielded physical symbols, scepters, signifying their magic wand. Lingam, I think, is the stylized name for your tallywhacker, is it not? Sorcerers used wands and musical conductors waved batons. Maypoles were popular among pagans, and not just brought out on Beltane. But older festivals honoring the goddess were soon forgotten.” Deep, unhappy dimples formed; Cerrie crossed her arms.
All that talk about pillars and lingams made my own man root surface. Maybe something cool would help. I didn’t have much in the way of refreshment. I pointed to the coffee machine and to where we kept bottled water and soft drinks. She declined. The fax machine whirled and spit out several sheets—a bulletin to be on the lookout for a New Mexico bank robber they called Gentleman George, and a memo announcing planned roadwork in AZ in August. “Maypoles, yeah my old buddy Jon Mack said he once saw a Maypole dance while visiting relatives in Oregon. It reminded him of square dancing. All that weaving and allamand’ing right and left made him feel right at home.”
Cerrie circled round the break table. “Your surname is even more intriguing. It connects you to one of the lost tribes through your father’s lineage. The Tribe of Dan is the most mystical of all the tribes. For a long time after the others stopped, the Danites followed the old gods and the goddess.”
She gave me an odd look, as if she was trying to decide whether or not to share some juicy bit of gossip. I mentioned my surname was likely a coincidence, seeing that the lost tribes were Jewish. As far as I knew, my father’s ancestors hailed from Liverpool, England. They were Church of England; we were lapsed Protestants, agnostics. Mom was half Zuni, half Irish, though she never said much about her kin across the ocean. If she worshiped anything, I told Cerrie, “it was nature. My Pa followed her lead and the golden rule, and taught us to do the same.”
Cerrie stirred my interest when she mentioned the most famous Danite was Sampson, a man that, like Hercules, killed lions, and overcame obstacles using brute strength, rather than mental acuity. Neither of these men were lucky in love either. In fact, Cerrie seemed to relish saying women were their downfall. Delilah discovered Sampson’s weakness and sheared him like a sheep. Hercules wife Deianira accidently poisoned her man, causing him so much pain he jumped into a funeral pyre.
Her head tilted sideways again. It felt a tad strange when she reached up and brushed her hand along the back of my neck where hair hung over my collar. I wasn’t any relative of Sampson’s, but I could hold my own in a bar fight and once lifted a year old heifer over a fence. This lady made my knees weak. It was hard to imagine she could of overpowered any of our strapping young men.
I asked her “Wasn’t there a story about a swarm of bees taking up space in the carcass of a lion Sampson killed with his bare hands? I seem to recall he scooped out the honey and brought it home, or am I mixing up the tale with one of Hercules 12 labors?
Cerrie stepped back, as if to bolt, then seemed to change her mind. “Oh, do let’s dance, Peter. Do you hear it, the celestial music of the cosmos tapping, turning, spinning?”
I heard nothing but the hum of office equipment. Undaunted, she wrapped her arms round my neck and sang an old ballad in acapella. Normal noises retreated. All I could hear was her soulful voice. We slow danced, waltzed, and dosey-doed between desks and into the dark hallway where the street lamp served as mellow spotlight. It shot a beam through the sheriff’s star etched in the window glass onto our makeshift dance floor. It felt weirdly magical.
Now I’m no loose foot fanny wiggler but we floated round the floor as graceful as gazelles. At least, that was my impression. She was cool as the underside of a silk pillowcase while I was beading with sweat, and a powerful basic, primitive urge. I’ll be damned if I can recall the words of the ballad she sang.
When Cerrie finished singing, she pulled away rather abruptly and thanked me for the dance. She said perhaps she would like some water after all. I fumbled through cupboards to find a clean glass. When I turned back around to hand her a plastic bottle and a glass, the room was empty. I made the motions of looking in the conference and ladies room. I knew I wouldn’t find her. By the time I hightailed it back to Easy Ryder there were no vehicles there that resembled what folks said she might be driving.
I guess I drove home distracted. My memory’s hazy. I do recall rubbing the back of my neck, and catching a trace of her scent, her subtle perfume. It reminded me of the joyful aroma of night blooming flowers I’d come across in the high sierras—that had been kept too long from the rain. The scent the flowers release in gratitude, when rain soaks and pummels it, is akin to a bouquet of pure floral decadence. What do you call that—smell ventriloquism? I wondered what other tricks Cerrie knew.
Plans for hosting Ryder’s one and only Tallywhacker Festival had some folks in an uproar. Sani-pots were set up at either end of Main Street. Mayor Reece Pauling and his cronies jacked up the rate to rent a booth or park a fast food truck within a ½ mile perimeter of town center. Electrical hookups at designated locations cost extra. I had no suspects, no physical evidence linking anyone to these murders, and no witnesses. The question on everyone’s lips wasn’t if there’d be another murder, but who would be killed in August? If I could figure out why, maybe I could figure out who.
Even worse, my super power had failed me. You see, people always confided in me. I had a knack for getting folks to open up, spill their secrets. It was always personal essay day in Mrs. Fiore’s lit class. I must be a good listener, or maybe it’s because my ears are somewhat prominent, especially right after a haircut. If I had a quarter for every time a stranger told me I don’t know why I’m telling you… Don’t think it’s easy keeping confidential details; somehow I manage to keep my lips zipped. I’ve also been accused of hoodwinking and hypnotizing folks.
We say ‘fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.’ I’d been hoodwinked twice by Ms. Cerridwen Latrommi or whatever her real name was. Not only had she disappeared on me, but once again, I had no way of contacting her. I shoulda realized the address she gave me was a barren piece of worthless land, owned by AZ Parks and Services. It was used as public campgrounds, as there was a fresh water spring nearby and hiking trails (but no electrical hookups). Maisie was verifying that Cerrie’s passport was genuine. I had my doubts.
My ongoing research had turned up a bunch of interesting facts about hives, swarms, and honey, none of which got me closer to knowing who was murdering Ryder’s men folk. I’d shared a bit of this new found knowledge with my ranch hands and deputies. It didn’t take long for the semi good-natured mocking to begin. “Peter, I’ll take the category Bee-witched and Bee-wildered for $200; or Petey, tell me again what role Gloria Swanson played in Killer Bees?”
What Cerrie had suggested about my surname being related to one of the ancient tribes of Israel made no sense. History mentions all kinds of tribes composed of twelve something or another, or aligned to the signs of the zodiac or the months of the year. Sometimes there were further divisions—groups divided into 12 men and women, five stages, four seasons… Each group/sub-group had a leader and a hierarchy. Gods reigned over and mirrored the twelve tribe system. Odin was advised by 12 divine councilors; there were 12 Greek gods and goddesses; the Hindus recognized 12 solar gods; and old King Solomon had 12 princely counselors.
A 15th century book declared the tribe of Dan became the Danes; another asserted the Danites sailed to Ireland and became the Tuatha, followers of Dana. Getting nowhere with bee lore, I did a deep dive into some of the darker, spookier books I’d bought and fired up the laptop. As she’d done with me, I looked up Cerrie’s surname Latrommi. It sounded Italian or perhaps Slavic. One website said the name meant one with the potential to attain spiritual enlightenment. Okay; regarding her first name, Cerridwen, there was a bounty of lore and information.
Old 9thc legends called her an ancient Welsh triple moon goddess of death, transformation, and rebirth. They referred to her as White Sow, Lady of Inspiration and Death, and Guardian of the Cauldron. The first part of her name, Cyrrid, translates to crooked or bent; the 2nd part meant woman. Other scholars felt her name stems from cerru (cauldron/womb) and her actual story is 1000’s of years old. They speculate there were three cauldrons—one by which slain warriors were reanimated; one by which poets received inspiration; and one by which the average was changed into the extraordinary. The later cauldron was referred to as Dagda’s pot of plenty. A cauldron served as a means by which people came together to share food and stories about brave and foolhearty ancestors. As a tool, it was used as a potion and salve making vessel, to wash clothes in, and to bath.
In one popular story, Cerridwen was a sorceress residing on the shores of Bala Lake in Gwynedd, Wales, living with a mortal man and several children. Her daughter was beautiful; her son Morfran was both ugly and stupid. She determined to make him handsome and clever by brewing a concoction that required constant cooking and stirring for a year and a day. Towards the end of the process, their servant Gwion Bach, tasked to stir the brew, splashed three drops of the potion on his hand. It burned and he licked his thumb. Immediately, he was able to understand the language of birds and wisdom of the ages, shape shift, and perform magic.
Cerridwen returned and found the cauldron abandoned. She chased Gwion, who turned into a rabbit, a dog, a bird, a fish…to escape her. She shapeshifted as well. Needing to rest, he morphed into a kernel of corn. In hen form, Cerridwen ate the corn and nine months later, gave birth to a beautiful boy. She couldn’t bring herself to kill the baby, so she set it to drift in a basket. Fisher men found and raised the child whom they called Taliesin. He became a seer, warrior, and bard. As for Cerridwen, she retreated to a dark cave after her (mortal) family died. Some say she and her cauldron(s) went to Ireland, others swore she turned up in deepest, darkest Africa, and later amongst the Romani in Transylvania.
Shouting that issued from somewhere south of the town’s main bank, Sunshine Trust, interrupted my reading. Dag-nabit, the Deborah’s were at it again. The Deborah Ryder Hive ladies took it upon themselves to move their BEE-utification tent from the Welcome sign at the end of town to the graveled, shady parking area next to the bank. This gave them access to electrical outlets for portable fans and a mini fridge. Their permit didn’t allow them to change to a location offering better access to food, electricity, and public toilets.
When I politely mentioned this to Mrs. Melissa (Mellie) Pauling, the mayor’s wife and newest member of the Deborah’s, who was attired in form fitting yellow spandex capris and matching top bejeweled with rhinestone bees and fleur de lis, she announced a revised permit would be on her husband’s desk before close of day. She was absolutely sure he would approve it. Shop owners were yelling at the chanting Deborah’s, complaining about losing valuable parking space for their customer’s. Men in bib overalls and shop owners in Bermuda shorts were preventing the women from staking their tent.
Someone fired a gun (it wasn’t one of my deputies) and folks scattered. In the chaos that ensued, a hive in a square shaped wooden container was knocked over. Out poured hundreds of bees, including the queen, and a mess of gooey honey and wax seeped onto the gravel. This was sure to attract ants, flies, other bees, and possibly even our honey loving skunks and raccoons. The Deborahs went from chanting to ranting to shouting Save the Queen, Save the Queen.
The ladies had ordered a queen bee (apis mellifera) online, all the way from the south of France. The intention was to install a new honey bee colony in the foothills around the AZ State Park I mentioned earlier, which was public land. There was a profusion of wild flowers growing between rocky nooks and crannies, and more posies around the natural spring. I suspected the Deborah’s had aided nature and seeded the area with bee loving plants. The technical term for this exercise was a walkaway split, which wasn’t going to happen unless the hive could recapture the French Queen or hatch a new one. Pamela Taylor, who apparently had been an Entomologist before becoming a stay at home mom, confirmed the new queen had fled.
The mayor bolted out the front door of our town hall building and ran towards his wife. That day, I learned you could tell a bee, in a note between F & G sharp, to buzz off but not a husband, who was also your boss. He was stung first on his bottom lip, which began to puff, giving him a pouty look women paid good money to get via botox or collagen injections. My intrepid deputies were herding folks off the street and into shops. I kind of stood there mesmerized by the swarm of bees doing loop de loops. I heard a strange sound, a kind of rustling of wings, but with a sinister edge. This swooshing noise kicked up debris that made folks cover their eyes. It wasn’t emanating from the bees either. Luckily, I was wearing my ray bans.
People were screaming and scattering. Trash cans and a AZ Cactus Juice stand was knocked over. The bees stung the backsides of two saddled horses tied to a bench. I’d been telling city council they needed to invest in a proper hitching post. The horses galloped down the street, kicking and snorting, dragging the bench with them until it shattered at the base of the town’s bronze and granite war memorial.
Without saying a word Mellie Pauling extended her arm, open palm up, fingers pointed skyward. I bet she’d been wicked good at playing the kid’s game Red Light, Green Light. Over the chanting and shouting of the Deborah’s, the mayor, frozen in his tracks by his wife’s stop sign gesture, was imploring her, through swollen lips, to get out of the path of the menacing bees and get indoors.
Undaunted, Mellie Pauling grabbed a bee hood and pair of gloves from the back of the bee van, righted the box and snapped a piece of loose wood back in place. Then she lowered the honey dripping, bee laden frames back into the box. Next she raised an arm over her head and made sweeping circular motions. It reminded me of one of them Exorcist spin-off movies.
After Father Merrin successfully exorcises Pazuzu from a boy called Kukumo, the lad developed special powers to fight devils. Please don’t summon the locusts Mrs. Pauling, I murmured to myself. It seemed to be working; the swarm appeared mesmerized by the swirling motion of her extended arm. When she lowered it, still gyrating, towards the box, bees double filed it down the crevice between the reinserted frame and the foundation box. Only then did she pull off her hood and speak, ‘the queen is gone, save our blessed bees.’ After which, she collapsed in a heap. A bee straggler stung her forehead, right about the spot where our third eye’s supposed to be. Then it fell to the ground besides her.
Turns out Mayor Pauling, who’d been stung multiple times, was allergic to bees. He jumped around like a man lit on fire. His skin was turning beet red and raised bumps formed on his extremeties. Mrs. Lawstein picked up her megaphone and asked if anyone had an epi pen. Luckily, a tourist had one handy. Mrs. Lawstein jabbed the mayor just as he was beginning to gasp for breath. The ladies laid him across the backseat of their van. They propped Mellie up in the front seat and waved smelling salts under her nose.
I reckon about 25-30 good people were stung, including Benton Booker Foxgrove, the idiot that shot his gun off and started the stampede. Several folks had jumped in their cars and beelined it down Main Street. A dozen or so bees flew into Kevin Kloss’ car as he fled and stung him. Kevin was our resident gay hair apparent, owner of Best Little Hairhouse salon. His car jerked and swerved like a drunken sailor as he swatted irritated bees and tried to shoo them out the open window. He lost control of his car and plowed right into the passenger door side of the ambulance coming to tend to the mayor and our other bee stung folks.
Dazed ambulance workers stumbled out of the back of their rig. Someone checked on Kevin, who’d crawled from his car and sat slumped against his left rear tire. The medic pulled a small, round jar from a jacket pocket and applied a brown, gritty, acrid smelling salve to his bee stings. Relief was almost immediate. Kevin perked right up. The salve had melted the stinger and reduced angry red splotches to pea sized perturbances.
I helped carry the last lethargic victim to the shady porch of our general store, which was really more a glorified hardware store with a front section that gave a nod to ye old mercantile shops of yore. They sold stick candy and licorice whips in jars, and dried fruit and trail mix in bulk; a shovel full cost $3. There was a horse trough full of sodas and bottled water, and they stocked all matters of sundries, from sunglasses and sunscreen to T shirts and rubber flip flops and tomahawks.
My heart darn near skipped a beat when I saw they had a whole section devoted to the Tallywhacker Festival. Tacky attire—from bee’s knees socks to ‘home grown’ phallic shaped, honey scented beeswax candles (guess where the wick was)–were displayed next to sparkly queen bee tiaras and heart shaped Bee Mine sugar cookies. A sign swung in the breeze above the display. It said Buy a Tallywhack Knick Knack and Give a Bone a Home.
There were bumper stickers that screamed Bee Here or Bee Square, Ryder, AZ or just Beehaw, and posters that took a bizarre spin on those Doors of a City posters. It listed famous AZ murder sites, including the seven committed right here in Ryder (to date). There were also new jars of hand salve and small black pots of Bee Balm, made by, you guessed it, DerriWenc. The jars were neatly stacked inside a large plastic cauldron, and there was a sample jar left out with wooden sticks you were supposed to use to apply this insect antidote. Just one whiff of the Bee Balm convinced me I wanted no part of it.
After most of the folks had been tended to, I pulled Mrs. Lawstein aside and asked, “What were you thinking bringing a live beehive here?’
She huffily explained they planned to install the hive in the state park at sundown. But in light of the unfortunate spilling of the hive, that would have to wait until the Queen was recovered. She added the bees provided a source of comfort and inspiration to her ladies–and it was an honor to serve French royalty. My eyebrows arched and she clucked and walked away. Except for Mellie Pauling, none of the Deborah’s had been stung. However, most of the shop keepers who’d raised a fuss over the Deborah’s relocation had felt the bee’s wrath multiple times.
It took several days to sort everything out. Sure enough, the Deborah Ryder Hive ladies were issued a new permit, though live beehives were permanently disallowed within city perimeters. If it were up to me, they would have been issued a citation and given 30 days. Town folks called the ladies the Boobies, Wanna Bees, and the Drona Queens. The Deborah’s clapped back and threatened to throw another house-swarming party now their tent was up again. Kevin capitalized on his mishap and offered 20% off honey comb-overs and 911Appointment Crasher cut and color specials.
Overall, the hullabaloo was good for business. Tourists flocked to Ryder a day ahead of the Festival and partied with locals until the wee hours. The dude ranches, B&Bs, and hotels were filled to capacity. La Fonda del Sol even put up half a dozen friends of friends that arrived without reservations. In retrospect, perhaps that’s why we didn’t notice that our greenest ranch hand, A. J. Strand, was missing.
I blame myself. If only I’d known AJ had been taken, I woulda shut down the festival. This murder was different. We had a living witness, AJ’s girlfriend Marisol Ramos, though she wasn’t talking—yet. Badly dehydrated, she was at Ryder’s one and only hospital, hooked up to an IV, and heavily sedated.
Just like the first murder—of my buddy Jon Mack—it was a couple of tourists that came across AJ’s body, stretched out on a flat topped boulder like some altar sacrifice. He also had a stupid grin on his face and carvings on his chest, but these were unlike any of the other ones. These looked Nordic; I recognized one often referred to as Odin’s Triple Horn. There were also straight and angled lines cut into his chest and arms, like a tally count, though the marks didn’t add up to eight. Marisol was found wedged under a nearby overhanging rock and a scraggly ironwood tree, bound, gagged, and blindfolded.
She was covered in a layer of red ants, the biting kind, though it didn’t appear a single ant had bit her. North of where Marisol lay, a crude sand/earth and pebble painting had been created. There were two lines of pebbles and inbetween the lines was a labyrinth shape, crudely drawn with red earth, within a circle. In the center was a tiny black pebble with five prongs of red earth radiating out in squiggly lines. I’d seen that design, or something similar, in a book recently.
We also had a new suspect. When Marisol and AJ left the bar, there was a third person with them. They were seen piling into Booker Foxgrove’s truck, headed out of town on the road that led to La Fonda, and a few dozen other ranches. Booker Foxgrove and his truck appeared to be missing, though his friends thought he was just laying low after shooting off his pistol.
One last thing, when I got back to my office to heavy heartedly file the official death report on Abraham John Strand, there was a brown paper wrapped box on my desk, a bit large than a Rubik’s Cube. It was making an odd, pinging sound, and was full of pin prick sized holes. The tag attached said: For immediate delivery: Deborah Ryder Hive. Do not open.
Next up: Chapter 6 Bee the Change