“Down to Zero” by Jon McGoran is a new ecological thriller short story featuring Detective Doyle Carrick! This exclusive serialization on CrimeHQ will break the story into 4 parts throughout the rest of this week. Be sure to check back each day for more, or if you can't wait, scroll to the bottom and buy a copy for your e-reader for only 99 cents!
When a beekeeper removing hives from an inner city warehouse is greeted with gunfire, Detective Doyle Carrick is called in to help aging mentor Jack Conroy catch the shooters. Although a previous case involving genetically modified bees has made Doyle the closest thing to a bee expert the Philly PD has, it’s a subject he wants nothing to do with. But Doyle owes Jack plenty of favors. Soon, the pair are clashing with foreign agents, corporate security agents, and lowlife thugs while tracking the mysterious bees across the city. As they work to figure out why these bees are worth killing over before the shooters can strike again, Doyle finds himself racing against a clock he could never have imagined.
The rotted porch sagged under the weight of the five agents crouching at the ready. A peeling label next to the doorbell said MRS. MARISELA CRUZ in faded ballpoint pen. But Mrs. Cruz had been dead for five years. The place now belonged to her son Marco, the former best friend and right-hand man of a drug dealer named Ontario Brown.
The relationship between Brown and Cruz had changed when Cruz started doing the math and realized just how much money Brown was making from the operation and how little of it he was sharing with his oldest friend. A local Dominican gang had made the same calculation and started moving in. Cruz approached them hoping to cut a better deal. We didn’t know the terms of Cruz’s proposal, but the Dominicans had countered: Cruz could keep working the same corners for the same money, only for them instead of Brown, and as a bonus, the Dominicans wouldn’t chop Cruz into tiny bits with machetes. In return, though, he would have to kill Ontario Brown.
Brown had turned up dead the day before. Marco Cruz was the prime suspect.
It was still technically a narcotics investigation, so my partner, Danny, and I were the leads, but now homicide was involved, as well. That’s why there were five of us on the porch. Hudson and Dubrow from homicide, Danny and me, and a uniform named Stan Wallis, who some people called “Boom Boom” because of his artistry with the compact door ram.
Danny cop-knocked the door—bam, bam, bam—and identified us as police. Then he nodded to Stan.
The ram hit with a sharp crack, and the door swung gently open.
I went in first. It’s a tense moment when that door swings inward and you’re wondering what’s on the other side of it. This time it was Marco Cruz, sprawled facedown across a brown corduroy recliner in the living room. The top of his head was in the dining room. There might have been some in the kitchen, too. It was a small house.
The place looked like it hadn’t been cleaned or redecorated since his mother died. The furniture, the carpets, the pictures on the walls — apart from the carnage and filth, it probably looked just the way it had when Mrs. Cruz had been living there. When Marco had been her baby.
After making sure the rest of the place was clear, we gathered on the front steps to figure out what this meant for the case. Hudson and Dubrow looked over at Danny and me, questioningly, wondering if we were going to hand the case over to them since there were two homicides now and the victims were the two guys we’d been building a case against.
Danny shrugged. I knew he wanted to hand it over without a fight, and I knew he was right. I wasn’t crazy about handing off cases, especially to homicide. But Hudson and Dubrow weren’t as bad as most of their pals, and both our suspects had been murdered. Even if we were going to build something on the Dominicans, it would be a while before we had anything usable. We’d put in a lot of hours on this case, but it was as dead as Marco Cruz. Or Ontario Brown.
I just wasn’t quite ready to admit it yet.
Danny shook his head at me and opened his mouth, but the voice that said, “Doyle,” wasn’t his.
We all looked off to the side and saw Jack Conroy ambling up the sidewalk with his signature ponderous, shuffling, bad-hip gait.
“Looking good there, Jack,” I said, because that’s what I’d been saying since I was a rookie, even though he hadn’t looked good once in the fifteen years I’d known him. He’d been looking particularly like hell since his wife died two years earlier.
Usually, he’d come back with, “Looking good there, Doyle.”
This time he responded with, “Fuck you, Carrick.”
He said it good-naturedly, but when I looked closer, I saw what he meant. “Jesus, Jack, what happened?” The doughnut of an Afro that ringed his head had gotten noticeably grayer and narrower. Around it, his face and scalp were blotchy and swollen with angry welts that showed red through his deep brown skin.
He turned to Danny and said, “Hey, Dennison.”
Danny winced at him. “What’s going on there, Jack?”
“Fucking bees,” he said.
Danny looked at me sideways and said, “Bees?”
I felt a wave of trepidation that some would have called fear, but I quickly got it under control. I’d been irrationally afraid of bees ever since I was a little kid. More recently, I’d been involved in a case involving bees. Many, many bees. I’d learned a lot about them, found new respect for them. But I’d also seen some crazy stuff. Confronting my irrational fears had helped me get over them, but I’d come away with a different set of fears that were pretty goddamned rational as far as I was concerned.
“What happened?” I asked.
He was absentmindedly picking at a stinger still stuck in his cheek. “Got a call this morning about shots fired in Logan.”
He nodded. “Local beekeeper. Couple of neighborhood kids got stung, playing out behind an abandoned warehouse across from their houses. The moms got together and called the Bee Guy. Schlump, Stump, something like that.”
“Philadelphia Bee Company?”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
“Don Shump. I know Don. He’s a good guy.”
He paused and gave me a look to let me know he didn’t care about my acquaintance with Don Shump beyond the fact that it was interfering with his story. “Anyway, Shump specializes in bee removals,” he went on. “I don’t know why they don’t just spray the shit out of the little bastards—” I opened my mouth to share some of what I’d learned about bees, but he winced and raised a hand to silence me. “But I understand that’s not what you’re supposed to do, whatever. So this guy Shump goes out there, figures out the bees are coming from inside this old warehouse, goes inside to have a look, all of a sudden bang, bang, bang. Three shots, two hits.”
“Jesus, is he okay?”
“He’s fine. Grazed the abdomen, passed through the arm. So me and Perkins go over to check it out. Gunmen are gone, but we did encounter some resistance, so to speak.” He smiled, causing the welts on his cheeks to raise up. I counted eight stings on his face, two more on his neck, and at least three on his shiny scalp. “The place was full of bees, hundreds of them. And they were pissed.”
“Looks like they lit you up pretty good,” Danny said. “How’d Perkins make out?”
Perkins was Conroy’s partner. Good guy, but maybe not quite rough enough around the edges for Conroy’s liking.
“Fucking guy.” Conroy laughed. “Got stung once just as we went in. I’m in there fighting these fucking things, trying to figure out if the gunmen are in there. He’s in a heap by the entrance, his face blowing up like a melon.”
“Yikes,” I said. “He’s allergic?”
“Apparently. He had one of those EpiPens, but I had to take him to the hospital, anyway.” He shook his head. “One fucking sting.”
“Those allergies can be pretty serious.”
He waved the thought away, even as he said, “Yeah, I know. Whatever.”
It was a decent story, although not quite up to Jack Conroy’s usual standards. I was about to ask him why he was telling me all this when he said, “Anyway, Suarez said I’d find you here. I got to head back there and finish my look around. Figured I could use a little backup. The boys said you know a thing or two about bees from that thing in Massachusetts. Anyway, I figure you owe me a few favors; I’m kind of running out of time to collect.”
Everybody owed Jack Conroy favors, and I owed more than most. This was the first time I’d ever heard of him collecting.
When I was new, Conroy and I were assigned together temporarily. He didn’t show any of the exasperation he would have been totally justified in showing—that I would have shown. Instead, he took the time to teach me things, important things, from how to write reports so they don’t look like a nine-year-old wrote them and how to finesse information from a reluctant witness to how to stay clean without looking suspicious to those who might not be quite so clean.
“Can’t I just, like, paint your garage or something?” The truth was, I’d do anything for Jack Conroy, but not without a little fun first.
He smiled. “Good idea. We can talk about that, too.”
“Yeah, all right.” I turned to Danny. “Can I, Mom?”
Danny’s eyes narrowed into a sour expression. “What about Cruz and Brown?”
“Let homicide have it.”
“What about the paperwork?”
Conroy cocked an eyebrow at him.
Danny laughed and shook his head. I’m pretty sure he owed Conroy a few favors, as well. “All right. Whatever. I hope you both get stung.”
Conroy snorted. “I already got stung.”
“Then I hope Carrick gets stung twice.”
* * *
As Conroy and I got into his car, he paused before he started the engine, looking in the rearview as he finally worked the stinger out of his cheek and flicked it out the window.
“You believe this shit?” he said. “All these years, I never had to deal with nothing like this. Here I am, old enough to retire, and I step right into it.”
“Retire? Sorry, Jack, I’ve got you pegged as a lifer.” Especially since he’d outlived his wife, I was having a hard time picturing him going willingly.
“You might be right about that.”
“How long you got left?”
“On the job? My time is in,” he said quietly. “I can leave whenever I want.”
“So does that mean the old ‘fuck-it list’ has kicked in?”
He looked at me and laughed. “You remember that?”
“Are you kidding? I remember everything you told me back then. That’s the only reason I’m still alive.”
Conroy had said many times he didn’t have a “bucket list” of things he wanted to do before he died, he had a “fuck-it list” of things he didn’t want to deal with, and if they came up, he could just say, “Fuck it. I’m out of here.”
In the old days, he would add, “Of course, I have to get my time in first.” Now he had.
“Let me tell you,” he said, “this case would have been on that list, if I’d thought being attacked by a swarm of angry bees was something I had to worry about.”
I looked at him. “You sure you don’t want to just step off this case? I’m sure they’d let you.”
He shook his head. “Not a chance. These assholes out there taking potshots at beekeepers? Can’t be letting that happen. Anyway, I cleared it with Lieutenant Suarez.”
“He owed you a favor, too?”
“Something like that.”
“What’s my role?”
“You know what to do. Back me up, lend me your expertise. If you see a bee about to sting me, swat the shit out of it.” He nudged me with his elbow. “It’ll be fun. Just like old times.”
I laughed. “Sure thing. What’s first?”
“Talk to the neighbors, interview Shump … Oh, here. I got you a present.” He pulled something out of his jacket and handed it to me.
I looked at it and then at him. “An EpiPen?”
“In case you have a reaction.”
“Yeah, I know, but why do I need one?”
“Because before anything else, we gotta go back in there.”
I have a great appreciation for the importance of honeybees in the world, but I’d had enough interactions with them to last a lifetime. Conroy laughed at my expression. “If you want, we can stop at Home Depot for some bug spray on the way. While we’re there, we can pick out some paint for my garage.”
* * *
The place where Don Shump got shot and Conroy and Mitch Perkins got stung was a dark red brick warehouse in Logan. There was a big asphalt lot in front that had mostly turned to gravel. A bent and rusty chain-link fence surrounded the whole thing, but the gate was gone. Across the street was a row of two-story wooden houses with identical sagging porches and wildly mismatched vinyl siding. A few of them looked vacant.
A handful of kids were playing on the street, a trio of moms keeping an eye on them from up on one of the porches. Conroy waved, and the women waved back. “They’re the ones that called,” he said.
I waved, too. I’d want to talk to them, but I wanted to see what was inside first.
As we stepped onto the curb, Conroy gestured toward a rusty metal door set in the red brick, not quite closed and sitting crooked in its frame. He stopped ten feet away from it and looked around, a little uneasy. “This is where the kids said they got stung.”
I looked around, too. I didn’t see any bees. “How about you?” I asked.
“Inside,” he said, flicking his wrist at the door again. I saw a look in his eyes that I’d never seen before, and it took me a moment to realize it was fear.
I hoped I was concealing mine a little better. We walked up to the door, and I said, “You want to wait out here?”
Conroy screwed up his face and said, “Fuck you.” But he handed me the flashlight and let me go first.
I pulled the door open with a screech of protesting metal.
The kids stopped playing and watched, drifting to the far side of the street, closer to their moms. The moms were watching, too.
I poked my head inside and paused, listening. I didn’t hear anything like buzzing. The air smelled musty, with a slight tang of machine oil and a trace of the sweet, yeasty smell of the beehives I’d encountered before, so faint it could have been my imagination.
The interior was one huge, cavernous room, with a smaller one partitioned off in the far corner. The grimy windows set along the top of the wall, just under the roof, let in a dull wash of light punctuated by bold, bright shafts coming through the holes where rocks had punched through the glass.
The wall along the left was mostly taken up by a series of rusted metal garage doors. Pale light spilled through the gap underneath one of them, striping the floor with long, narrow shadows from a sprinkling of dead bees.
I looked back to make sure Conroy was with me. Together, we moved forward to the small enclosed office.
On the floor inside it were a couple of blankets, a pair of half-deflated air mattresses, and a pile of trash. I walked over and spread the trash out with the tip of my boot.
Conroy hung back by the door just for a second, scribbling in his notepad with the strangely elegant handwriting he once told me had been beaten into him by nuns. He started walking over, taking two or three steps before he’d finished writing.
I shined the flashlight over the trash: pizza boxes, cigarette butts, beer and soda cans, an empty Doritos bag. There was also a crumpled and grease-stained white paper. I handed the flashlight to Conroy and picked up the paper—it was a little bag—and uncrumpled it to reveal a cartoon logo of a smiling cow. The words “Happyfield Farm” were printed across the top, and stamped underneath it, not quite straight, were the words “FARM-FRESH BUTTER CAKE” and a price sticker that said “$8.”
“What the hell’s that?” Conroy asked, looking over my shoulder. “Happyfield Farm? I take my grandkids there. They have a corn maze and pumpkins and stuff.”
“That’s some good butter cake,” I said. “My girlfriend Nola buys them at the farmers market near our house.”
“Serious? Eight bucks for a tiny little cake?”
“Actually, she pays nine at the farmers market.”
Conroy shook his head and laughed, jotting some notes in his notepad. I hoped it wasn’t about my butter cake budget. “Well, these guys paid six for it,” he said, pointing his pen at the sticker on the bottom of the bag that said “Happyfield Farm Reduced for Quick Sale 25% Off.”
“Probably day-old,” I said. I’d never known one to last that long. “Still, do these guys seem like the type to go to the farmers market and pay six bucks for ‘farm-fresh’ butter cake?”
Conroy thought for a second, then shook his head and scribbled on his notepad. “No, I wouldn’t think so.”
* * *
We crossed the street to talk to the three women on the porch. Conroy gave them a nice smile, and they smiled back at him, but all three winced as they did. The welts were going down, but he still looked like hell.
“You okay?” one of them called out as we approached. She was the tallest of the three. I’m pretty sure it was her porch they were standing on. The other two women tutted and shook their heads.
Conroy waved his hand, like it was nothing. “I’m fine, Mrs. Odoms. Just a couple of bee stings. Ain’t no big deal.”
“What about your partner?” said one of the others, a heavyset woman in a very obvious wig.
“Yeah, he didn’t look too good,” said the third one, taking a sip of coffee. They all looked to be in their thirties, but she was the smallest and looked like the youngest.
Conroy laughed. “No, he didn’t, did he? He’s fine, though. He’s just allergic. He’ll be back getting on my nerves tomorrow.”
They looked at me, the replacement partner, wondering if I was getting on his nerves, as well. I nodded in the way of a greeting. They nodded back, undecided.
“Didn’t get a chance to finish talking to you this morning,” Conroy said.
The women laughed.
“Yeah, you guys left in a bit of a hurry,” said Mrs. Odoms.
“Wondering if you could tell me if you saw anything,” he said, pen poised over his notepad.
“Saw a lot of bees,” said the young one, pointing at the building we’d just come out of.
Conroy asked them their names. The young one was Mrs. Greene, and the other one was Mrs. Stanfield.
“They was flying around thick over there,” said Mrs. Greene. “In the yard and on the street.”
“My Jamaar is allergic,” said Mrs. Stanfield.
Mrs. Greene nodded. “And my Darnell is just plain scared.” They started laughing at that, then she added, “Hell, I was scared, too.”
Mrs. Odoms poked her in the arm. “Scared they was all going to be playing in the house all day!”
They all laughed at that. Conroy and I did, too.
“Mr. Shump had come and got rid of some bees at the school I work at,” said Mrs. Odoms. “So I called him to see if he could get rid of these.”
Conroy was scribbling in his notepad. They looked at me, maybe wondering why I wasn’t scribbling, too. Note-taking wasn’t one of my strengths, and Conroy seemed to have that part under control.
“Who owns the place?” Conroy asked.
“No one knows.”
Conroy nodded. “So, Shump comes out, and that’s when he got shot?”
They all nodded solemnly.
“Can you tell us what you saw?” I asked, thinking it was going to start seeming strange if I never said anything.
“He parked his truck on the street and came over to talk to us,” said Mrs. Odoms. “Then he went over and looked around outside for a few minutes. I guess he figured the bees was coming from inside, so he opened the door, and they just shot him.”
The other two nodded. “We heard it. Three shots. He kind of staggered back and let the door close. I called 911, but he got in his truck and took off.”
“Did you see who did it? Or see anybody hanging around beforehand?”
“Oh, we know who did it,” Mrs. Odoms said, and the others nodded.
“There was a couple of white guys coming and going the last few days,” said Mrs. Greene, looking at me like maybe I was one of them.
“Did you get a look at them?” Conroy asked, his pen never stopping.
“There was two of them,” Mrs. Greene said. “Tall, skinny one with sideburns and a big nose, and a shorter one with curly hair, kinda long.” She frowned at me and looked away, like I wasn’t one of them after all.
“They seemed kind of stupid,” said Mrs. Odoms.
She shrugged. “Like they was on drugs or something.”
“And they had a truck,” Mrs. Greene added.
“What kind of truck?”
She shrugged. “Just a basic green pickup, kind of old. Ford or Chevy, I guess. It had one of those caps, like a lid on the back.”
“It had a white painted bumper, kind of scratched up,” said Mrs. Odoms.
Mrs. Stanfield nodded. “And the tires was all muddy.”
“It showed up a few days ago, on the street. Then I think they got one of them garage doors open and moved it inside. I saw them come out and take off right after the bee guy got shot.”
Conroy was still scribbling, probably trying to catch up with everything they had said, when a black Nissan Altima drove slowly down the street and stopped next to the warehouse across the street. As we watched, it sat there for a moment before turning into the parking lot.
I looked at Conroy, and he shrugged.
I asked the three women if they’d seen that car before, and they all said they hadn’t. Conroy thanked them for their help and took down their phone numbers. Then we went back across the street to the warehouse.
A large Asian man got out of the Nissan. He looked at the warehouse and then at us approaching him.
“Is one of you Gary Robeler?” he asked with a smile.
The name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place it.
Conroy took out his badge and held it up. “Nope. Who’s Gary Robeler?”
“Oh,” he said, taking a step back. “He’s a realtor. He’s supposed to be showing me this property.” He looked at his watch. “I’m actually ten minutes late.”
The guy had a definite accent, but his English was good. He stared at Conroy’s face—even with the swelling gone down, it was still a sight. The staring was understandable, if a little rude. I was having a hard time getting a read on the guy, and I didn’t like it. I hung back, my hand near my piece.
“You actually thinking of buying this place?” Conroy asked.
He looked up and down the block and smiled, almost bashful, lowering his voice. “I told Robeler I might be interested in hiring him as a consultant to help me buy bank-owned properties that would make good investments. Looking around, I’m thinking it was a waste of time.”
“‘Bank-owned’ as in ‘foreclosed’?” I said.
Conroy nodded and took out his notepad. “And what’s your name?”
“Why? What’s this about?”
“This is a crime scene. Someone was shot here this morning.”
“Are you serious?” He let out a nervous laugh and looked around again. “Definitely a waste of time.”
Conroy nodded. “Name?”
“Zhang. Lei Zhang.” He spelled it and when asked gave his phone number.
When Conroy asked for his driver’s license, he handed that over, too. “You got contact info for this Robeler guy?”
Zhang shook his head. “I forgot to bring it with me. That’s why I couldn’t call to tell him I was running late.”
Conroy handed him back his license.
Zhang looked around, then at Conroy. “I guess I missed him. If we’re done here, I’d better be going.”
“Good luck with your case,” Zhang said as he got into his car.
As we watched him pull out, I stepped up next to Conroy and said, “So what do you think that was about?”
He shrugged. “Could have been legit.”
“And I could decide to move to Paris and study mime.”
He laughed. “Yeah, I hear you.”
We both watched as Zhang’s car disappeared up the street. I made a note of the license number. Then I turned to Conroy. “What’s next? Shump?”
He nodded. “Yeah.”
* * *
After he got shot, Shump had driven himself to Temple University Hospital on Broad Street. Temple was taking over North Philly, much the way the University of Pennsylvania had been doing in West Philly. The campus was surrounded by concentric circles: gentrification, speculation, and then the unchanged neighborhoods, great and not so great. Some people loved how Temple invested in the area, and some people found it disruptive, but if you got shot in North Philly, you were glad Temple Hospital was there.
Shump was a big man with a big smile and a loud laugh. He wasn’t hard to find, sitting up in one of the emergency room bays telling the discharge nurse about the time the state police brought him in to wrangle several million angry bees from an overturned tractor trailer on I-95.
“Carrick!” he boomed when he saw me.
The nurse almost dropped the paperwork she was handing him.
“Hey, Don,” I said. “Looks like those bees are getting nasty out there.”
He let out an explosive laugh and looked down at his arm, wrapped in thick bandages. “I wish! The bees I can live with. The goddamned people are the problem. Am I right?”
I’d had problems with bees and people, but I recognized that they each had their good points. I kept those thoughts to myself.
The nurse finished telling him his exit instructions, then slipped away to treat someone else.
“You doing okay?” I asked.
“Oh yeah,” he said, moving his arm around to look down at the bandages, wincing as he did so. He looked back up, his face a little paler, his smile a little weaker but still there. He leaned forward conspiratorially. “Hurts like a bitch, to be honest, but they said it’s nothing serious, so I don’t have to stay. I figure I came out of it with a good story to tell.”
Conroy had his notepad out. “Mr. Shump, I know you gave a statement to the officers when you arrived, but we’d like to ask a few more questions.”
“Sure, sure, whatever.” He paused and winced at Conroy’s face. “They got you pretty good, huh? No wonder you got Carrick on the case. Bringing in the big guns, huh?”
Conroy turned to give me a look like, Who is this guy?
I just smiled. Shump was great.
“So what the hell happened there, Don?” I asked.
He shrugged and winced. “I got a call from a lady saying there was a bunch of bees around an abandoned building near her house, like a lot of them, and they were scaring the kids in the neighborhood, some of whom were allergic. I said I’d come by and take a look, maybe I could relocate them somewhere they’d be more appreciated. I go to the place, this old warehouse, and she’s right, there’s a lot of them. They seem agitated, too. They’re coming from inside, so I open the door and see they’ve got hives in there.”
“There were hives in the warehouse?” I said.
Shump said, “Yeah, can you believe it? What kind of idiots keep honeybees inside?”
I turned to Conroy, who shook his head and said, “The hives were gone by the time we got there.”
Shump snorted. “They must have taken off with the hives in a hurry. The bees that got you were probably left behind. No wonder they were in a bad mood. Anyway, all of a sudden these two dipshits are shooting at me. I’m like, ‘Hey, asshole, I’m just the bee guy,’ then I look down and see I’ve been hit. I got the hell out of there and went to the hospital. I mean, I didn’t even feel it at first, then I look down and see all this blood, I don’t know if I’m dying or what.” He laughed. “Part of me is worried I’m going to die before I get to the hospital; part of me is just worried my wife’s going to kill me for getting blood all over the truck.”
“But you’re okay?” I asked.
“Yeah, they say I’m going to be fine. One grazed me, and the other went through me. Didn’t hit anything important on the way through.”
“Did you get a look at the guys?”
His description was almost verbatim what Mrs. Odoms had said. “There was a sketch artist in here earlier,” he added. “I thought he really captured their essence.”
“Did you see anything else?”
He shook his head. “Just five beehives inside a closed-up warehouse.” He looked at Conroy. “Don’t blame the honeybees, man. Blame the idiots who were keeping them inside like that.”
Conroy smiled noncommittally. I don’t think he was ready to let the bees off the hook just yet.
“Is it possible they were keeping the hives in there long-term?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Not a chance. And Mrs. Odoms, the lady that called me, she said the bees had just started showing up a few days before. I figure that’s when they brought them there. I don’t think those bees were going to put up with it much longer.”
“Any idea where these guys might have been keeping the bees before that? Or where they might have been headed?”
He shook his head. “Not really. I mean, if you got the hives, you could look at what kind of pollen the bees had been collecting and see where they’d been. Maybe your forensics people or whatever could figure it out from that. As for where they’re headed, I got no idea.”
* * *
“Where next?” I said when we got outside.
Conroy shook his head. “I got nothing. Any thoughts, Mr. Bee Expert?”
I’d become friends with several bee experts, but I wasn’t one myself. “Hey, I never claimed I was—”
He waved his hand. “I know, I know. I’m just jerking your chain.”
I was quiet for a moment. “I’m thinking maybe we should take a ride in the country.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Probably nothing, but I’ve been thinking about that butter cake. They were reduced, like they were old. A lot of places do that, because they’re not as good. But the bag had a Happyfield Farms discount sticker, meaning that’s where it was discounted, so I’m thinking maybe that’s where they got them. The ladies said the pickup had mud on the tires. I’m wondering if maybe our boys were out near Happyfield Farm for some reason. Maybe it was less that they appreciated a truly excellent butter cake, and more that there was nothing else nearby.”
“Let’s check it out.”
“Okay. First thing tomorrow, a ride in the country and a big piece of butter cake.”
Conroy looked at his watch and said, “It’s not even sixteen thirty.” It took me a second to remember how old-school Conroy always said military time was more precise. Took another few seconds to figure out he meant four thirty. “Any reason we can’t go out there right now?”
* * *
There were reasons. I had other cases that needed attention. I had told Nola I would pick up some things she needed for dinner. Getting on I-76 at rush hour could be a major life commitment. But none of that was good enough for Jack Conroy. He was determined to get out there as soon as possible, to wrap the case up as soon as possible. Conroy had been in the race for a long time, and slow and steady had always been more his style. But suddenly, there we were, heading out to Happyfield Farm an hour outside the city.
It was a beautiful summer day and a beautiful drive. I pressed Conroy about his hurry. He said he didn’t want the case to get cold, then he admitted he had some appointments later in the week and he was hoping they wouldn’t get in the way of the case. I asked casually what kind of appointments—not because I actually cared but because I thought I should seem like I did. Turned out I shouldn’t have.
“What are you, my mother?” he snapped. I almost snapped back that I was pretty sure his mother had died in the late 1800s, but I held my tongue. He took a breath and sighed. “I have stuff to do, okay? What, you think I got nothing going on?”
“Hey, okay, Jack. Jesus, if you don’t want to tell me about getting your bunion waxed or your carbuncle lanced, that’s fine.”
He looked at me, trying to glare, but then he laughed. “I forgot how much of an asshole you are.”
“That’s why I thought I should remind you.”
“I got stuff to do, okay? And please observe how I refrained from saying I had to go bang your girlfriend.”
We drove in an oddly relaxed silence after that, but soon he was back, cheerfully bitching about random small things that got his goat. He briefly reminisced about taking his grandkids out to Happyfield, but then he went off on what kind of punks they’d grown into. Then he started on Perkins, his partner, and what a loser he was for having to go to the hospital for a single bee sting. His basic sentiment was, “Kids these days.”
It was strange seeing Conroy as an old man. I mean, to me he’d kind of always been an old man, from the day I first met him when I was a rookie. I didn’t know what an old man was.
Happyfield Farm was still a working farm, but it had added all sorts of attractions as a substantial supplement to its income—hayrides, corn mazes, and a busy little snack counter that sold jams and jellies, ice cream, and some very fine butter cake. Nola bemoaned that they’d had to turn to these side ventures in order to stay afloat as a farm, but they did them well, and they seemed to be making money at it.
I’d only ever been there during the fall—Nola dragged me out there to get lost in the corn maze and buy a big pumpkin. In the middle of summer, it was a little less festive. There were a few small groups, mostly young families with sweaty kids, strollers struggling in the gravel, ice cream melting a little too fast.
We went into the little market and asked the girl behind the counter if we could speak to the manager. When she asked why, Conroy badged her, and she disappeared into the back without a word. Less than two minutes later, a guy in his fifties came out. He had short, curly gray hair and a face with the kind of creases that come from exposure to the elements and a genial disposition. But he wasn’t smiling now.
“Can I help you gentlemen?” he asked suspiciously.
I gave him my warmest smile, feeling maybe Conroy had come on a little strong. “Sorry to bother you, Mr.…”
“Geiselman. Ted Geiselman. I’m the owner.”
“Sorry to bother you, Mr. Geiselman.” I took out the bag we’d found at the warehouse. “We found this at a crime scene in Philadelphia, and we wanted to ask you about it, see if maybe your staff had any idea who might have bought it.”
He held up his hands defensively. “We sell our butter cake in two dozen stores in the area, including a couple of farm markets in Philly. Chances are whoever left it there bought it somewhere else.”
“I understand, Mr. Geiselman, but this bag has one of your reduced stickers on it, which is why I’m thinking they bought it here.”
He put out his hand for the bag, and I gave it to him. “Yes, this is from here,” he said as he smoothed it out. “This would have been from the day before yesterday.” He turned to the young woman behind the counter. “Delia, were you working Tuesday?”
She shook her head. “Janine was.”
He nodded and turned back to us. “I can ask her when she gets in, but … even if she does, I don’t see what you’re hoping to find out about whoever bought it.”
“Anything at all, Mr. Geiselman. All we know is that one of our local beekeepers was shot by two men in a warehouse in Philadelphia last night, and this bag seems to have been left behind by the shooter.”
“Did you say a beekeeper?”
“Yes, that’s right. Why?”
“And there were two of them that shot him?”
“Son of a bitch.”
Conroy stepped forward, his pad at the ready. “What is it, Mr. Geiselman?”
“Do you have pictures of these guys?”
“We’re waiting on sketches,” I said. “Why?”
“About a week ago, this guy comes in, says his name is Doug Phillips. He asks if he can keep some beehives on my property for a couple of weeks. Seemed a little odd, but bees are always welcome, and he says he’ll pay me $500, so I wasn’t about to say no.”
“Is that a lot for that sort of thing?” Conroy asked.
“It’s unheard of. A lot of times it’s the other way around—farmers pay the beekeepers to put honeybees on their land to help with the pollination. Depending on the crop and what your native pollinators are like, it can really increase yields, although it’s not like I got anything in bloom right now. But, anyway, it’s never them paying you. This was like found money.” He looked at us dryly. “I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t find money all that often.”
“So what did their $500 buy them?” Conroy asked.
Geiselman shrugged. “Not much. Just a spot to keep their beehives for the month, on the western edge of the property, a place where they could get to them. So it needed to be near the access road.”
“And this guy Phillips, you think he’s one of the guys we’re looking for?”
“No, he came and paid, then the next day he comes back with these two knuckleheads who’re going to be watching the bees. He shows them where the bees are supposed to go, then they leave and the two hands come back later with the hives in the back of a pickup truck. I could tell right away they weren’t beekeepers, or much of anything else either, just knuckleheads. They’d come into the shop every day toward closing and buy stuff out of the day-old bin. Like that butter cake.”
“That pickup, was it green with a white painted bumper?” Conroy asked.
“Yes, that sounds right. And it had a cap on the back.” He shook his head. “Anyway, honeybees don’t need that level of attention, and I wasn’t crazy about them hanging out, coming and going, but whatever, five hundred bucks, I guess I can let them stay with their hives.”
Just then I got a text from Danny, with a single image that included the two sketches the artist had made with Don Shump, side by side. They’d been tentatively identified as Dwight McGinn, the tall one, and Rickie Crossan, the short one. Photos to follow.
I thought they looked suspiciously like the henchmen from One Hundred and One Dalmatians, but I kept that to myself and held them up for Geiselman to see. “Sketches just came. The one on the left is the tall one.”
Geiselman snorted and shook his head. He tapped each of the images, saying, “Knucklehead one and knucklehead two.”
* * *
Geiselman offered to take us out to where the bees were being kept and led us to a little John Deere tractor-type vehicle. Conroy made a point of looking right at me as he climbed into the passenger seat and left me to ride in the rear-facing wayback.
“Age before beauty,” he said.
I would have offered him the seat, anyway, but I crossed another favor off the list. At this rate, I’d be down to triple figures in no time.
“If they’re not here, they’ll probably be back soon,” Geiselman said as we bounced along. “They don’t seem to go too far.”
We drove past corn five feet high, then he turned down a narrow path between two of the fields. At the end of the row, I could see a narrow dirt road. Twenty feet before it, shielded by a thin wall of stalks, was a small clearing.
As we pulled up next to the clearing, Geiselman grunted. “Looks like they’re gone, all right.”
We got out and walked around as if two men, a green pickup truck, and five beehives could have been somehow hiding in the corn that surrounded us.
“Son of a bitch,” Geiselman said under his breath.
“They stiff you?” Conroy asked.
“No, they paid in advance. I made sure of that. Just surprised, that’s all. Five hundred was a lot for a month. It’s a lot more for less than a week.”
At the edge of the clearing, a long plank lay across two cinder blocks. “That’s where the hives were?” I asked.
Next to it, I could see the ruts where the truck had been parked, and the tread marks where it had left—not the way we had come but down the dirt road in front of us.
“Where’s that go?” I asked, pointing down the road the way the tread marks led.
Geiselman shook his head. “Just down to Route 363, the road you came in on.” We were quiet for a moment, looking around. Conroy scribbled in his notepad.
Geiselman rubbed his hands together and said, “Anyway, I have to go take care of something on the lower field. If you guys want to wait here and poke around, look for clues or whatever, I can pick you up in ten minutes on my way back.”
“Sounds good,” I said.
Geiselman drove off, and we started canvassing the small clearing. Conroy let out a long wheezy sigh and started from the opposite side. We found some trash snagged on the weeds, snack wrappers and cigarette butts. I bagged them.
When we were done, Conroy stretched out his back up with a groan and a wince.
“You okay?” I asked.
He waved me away and sat on the plank. “Yeah, fine. Just old and tired.”
“Bullshit,” I said. “You’re not old. You’re Jack Conroy, badass.”
“Well, I don’t feel like a badass.”
“Hell, you were a badass before I was even born.”
He rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah, that’s the problem. I’m fucking old. A lonely old fuck who’s outlived his usefulness.”
I’d never heard him talking like this, and it took me aback. “Come on, Jack, that’s bullshit, and you know it. You’re one of the best detectives I know. And you’ve got a daughter and three grandkids who love you.”
“Yeah, and what am I going to do, become a burden to them?”
“You’re not that old.”
“Well, I sure as shit feel like it.” He stood and brushed his pants with his hand. “Anyway. Are we done here?”
I was about to say yes when I noticed two guys approaching on foot on the other side of the dirt road. They were dressed like farmers — jeans, boots, flannels over T-shirts, and caps, John Deere on one, Agway on the other. But they still didn’t look like farmers.
I stepped out onto the road and waved as they got closer.
“How you guys doing?” I asked, trying to sound folksy. I wasn’t dressed that much differently from them, except my shirt was buttoned and I wasn’t wearing a cap. They both nodded at me, probably thinking about how much I didn’t look like a farmer. To be fair, I wasn’t trying.
They scanned the scene, looking past me at Conroy. In his rumpled suit and scuffed dress shoes, he looked even less like a farmer. He didn’t look like anything other than a cop.
As the two non-farmers got closer, I could see that they each had a bulge under the right-side tail of their flannel shirts.
I glanced back at Conroy, and he cocked an eyebrow to let me know he’d seen it, too.
“Excuse me,” I said, and they stopped and stared at us, looking annoyed. They looked even more annoyed when I held up my badge and told them I just wanted to ask a few questions.
“What’s this about?” Agway asked. He had eyes I didn’t like and a neatly trimmed goatee that had matching bald spots on the lip and chin, like he had a two-part scar the beard was supposed to be hiding.
John Deere hung back, quiet, his hand near his shirttail.
“Won’t take a minute,” I told him. Conroy hung back, as well. “We’re looking for a couple of guys that were camping out here the last couple of days, tending some beehives. Tall, skinny guy with sideburns, and a shorter one with long, curly hair.” I walked up close and showed them the picture on my phone. “They were camping right over there behind that corn, with a green pickup truck.”
Agway turned to look back at John Deere, who slowly shook his head. “Sorry,” he said. “Haven’t seen them.”
They started walking again, and I said, “You guys come by this way a lot?”
They stopped, and Agway squinted at me, like he was trying to decide how long he was up for playing this game. “Couple times a day.”
“You work over there?” I said, tilting my head toward the land behind them.
“Well, if you see them, I’d appreciate it if you let us know.” I took out my card and stepped closer to hand it to him. He stiffened when I got near him, but he reached out and took the card, glanced at it, then up at me.
“That’s right,” I said.
He shrugged and put the card in his shirt pocket, then the two of them resumed walking. From the road, I could see a fence through the brush, about thirty yards back from the road.
“What are you guys growing over there?” I called after them.
They didn’t turn around or even stop walking. Agway shrugged and called back, “No idea.”
Conroy muttered, “Assholes,” and I nodded, because they were. Not the worst I’d encountered but definitely members of that club. Conroy let out a loud sigh and looked around us, like, What are we supposed to do now?
Three sighs later, Geiselman returned. Conroy cocked an eyebrow at me to let me know I’d be crossing another favor off my ledger. I nodded and climbed into the back once more.
“We met your neighbors,” I said as we headed back through the cornfields to the market and the parking lot.
Geiselman turned to look back at me. “Oh yeah? Who’s that?”
“Two young guys, walking down that road back there. They said they worked across the way there.”
Geiselman laughed. “Yeah. I don’t know those guys. The land is owned by a holding company. They lease it out. I’ve seen a few different guys over there. I don’t actually know who they work for. None of them seem particularly neighborly.”
Conroy snorted. “Not particularly, no.”
* * *
We were halfway home, exiting the PA Turnpike to get on the Schuylkill Expressway when Conroy said casually, “You noticed the black Yukon riding us four cars back, right?”
“Of course I did,” I said, scanning the rearview until I found it.
“How long have they been back there?” I asked, merging right and slowing down.
“Before we got on the turnpike.”
The Yukon slowed as well, let two cars pass, then slipped into our lane, four cars behind us. I tried to get a look at the driver, but its windows were tinted dark.
“What do you think we should do about it?”
Conroy laughed. “We could lead them into the Badlands and shake them there. That’ll give them a good story to tell their boss.”
We had a laugh about all the different ways we could mess with whoever it was that was following us, when Conroy said, “Seriously, though, what do you want to do about these guys?”
We were practically in the city. I thought for a second, then took out my phone and called Billy Vargas, a friend of mine who worked out of the Grays Ferry police district.
“Billy,” I said when he answered. “Doyle Carrick.”
“Hey, Carrick. What’s shaking?”
“Yeah, me and Percy just busted some jackasses at the Starbucks on Spruce Street, stealing people’s laptops when they went to the bathroom.” He let out a short laugh that oddly combined weariness and disgust and sadness with a hint of admiration. “Why, what’s up?”
“I need a favor. Where are you now?”
“Twenty-Third and Bainbridge.”
“Perfect. I’m in my unmarked, a silver Charger, and there’s a black GMC Yukon on my tail. In about ten minutes I’m going to lead him off the South Street exit, going south, and I want you to pull him over when we cross Twenty-Fourth Street.”
“Sure thing, Doyle. What’s my probable cause?”
“I’ll time it so he has to blow a red light to stay on me. You can let him off with a warning. I just want to get him off my tail and find out who he is.”
“You got it. Description of the occupants?”
“Nope. Heavy tint all the way around.”
“Got it. Let me know when you’re thirty seconds out.”
I got off the phone and checked the rearview to make sure the Yukon was still there. When I looked back at the road, I saw a billboard coming up with a familiar name on it. I elbowed Conroy and pointed to it.
“Gary Robeler,” he read out loud. “That’s the realtor, right?”
“Yup.” It was a standard realtor billboard pic—douchebag trying not to look like a douchebag, standing perpendicular to the camera with his arms folded, looking over his shoulder with a big fake smile. Above it was a massive phone number, “555-BUY-HOME.” As we got closer, we could read the rest of it. “GARY ROBELER, THE HOME MAKER™, SPECIALIZING IN EMPTY NESTERS, CORPORATE RELOCATIONS, DIVORCE RESETTLEMENTS, AND ALL YOUR RESIDENTIAL NEEDS.”
We both read it as we approached, then turned to look at each other.
“Nothing about commercial or foreclosures,” I said.
I knew he was thinking the same thing I was—Zhang was full of crap and had made up a story on the spot using Gary Robeler’s name because he’d just seen it on this billboard.
Conroy punched in the number and put the phone to his ear, then identified himself when Robeler answered the phone. “I’m wondering if you can tell me if you have a client named Lei Zhang, Z-H-A-N-G. He said you were supposed to be showing him a foreclosed commercial property in Logan this morning.” He looked at me as he listened. “I see. Okay, well, thanks for your help. What’s that?… No, I’m not in the market for a new home, but thanks for your help.” He put down the phone. “No commercial, no foreclosures, no Lei Zhang.”
He started punching in another number.
“You calling Zhang?”
He nodded as he put the phone to his ear. “Mr. Zhang, this is Detective Conroy with the Philadelphia Police Department. Please call me as soon as possible.” He left his number, then lowered the phone. “Straight to voice mail. No outgoing message.”
I grunted, then recited Zhang’s tag number from memory.
Conroy flicked through his notepad then held up the page where he’d written it, as well. He picked up the radio and told dispatch he wanted to run some plates then read her the number.
A moment later, dispatch came back and said the car was registered as corporate fleet for a company called New Eon Corporation.
“Know anything about them?” Conroy asked her.
“Yes, Jack,” said dispatch. “Apparently, they’re listed on a website called Google.”
Conroy snorted. “Is this Charlene?”
“Love you, Jack,” she said. “Got to go.”
Conroy put down the radio, grinning. “Smart-ass kids.” He looked over at me. “You heard?”
“Yup.” I checked the rearview to make sure our friends were still there. The South Street exit was just ahead, a long ramp leading from the left lane up to the South Street Bridge over the Schuylkill River. At the top, you could go straight and back onto the expressway, right toward the University of Pennsylvania and West Philly, or left, down South Street, through what used to be called Devil’s Pocket, the ever-expanding craziness of east South Street, and then the Delaware Waterfront.
I signaled with plenty of time, then took the ramp. I felt bad for whoever was on us—it was a long ramp with no place to hide. When I got to the light at the top of the ramp, I signaled left, then looked in the rearview. They were coming up behind us, slowly.
I called Billy Vargas and gave him our location. He said he was in place and waiting. When the light changed, I turned onto South Street and the Yukon followed. “They’re right behind me,” I told Billy. “We’re coming down South Street.”
I could see the light at Twenty-Fourth Street up ahead, green, and I slowed as I approached. Everything was one-way in that part of the city, and there was no left turn. I put on my left turn signal to make it convincing, slowed almost to a stop through the yellow, then took off through the intersection as the light turned red. The Yukon surged through the red light behind us, and then Billy Vargas pulled out behind it, lights flashing.
“Is this him?” Billy asked.
“You got him.”
“I’ll take it from here. Call you in a few.”
The Yukon stayed with us at first, but when Billy blasted his horn, it pulled over. We turned on Twenty-Second and took Walnut Street back across the river toward Thirtieth Street. Having shaken the tail, I didn’t want to hang around the area and risk letting them pick us back up.
I pulled over near Thirtieth Street Station. “Should we look into New Eon while we wait?”
Conroy looked from me to the swivel-mounted laptop attached to the dashboard between us. He winced as though something unpleasant was taking place in his digestive tract, then swung the computer toward me. “Hate those goddamned things,” he said.
I smiled. Jack Conroy was old-school and determined to stay that way. I pulled the computer closer and typed in “New Eon Corporation.” I immediately got hits, but none were the company’s official website. A few referred to business deals—contracts, acquisitions, announcements, things like that—but five of the first ten hits referred to how New Eon was a front company for the Chinese government. I grunted involuntarily.
“What?” Conroy asked.
I swiveled the computer back in his direction.
He let out a similar grunt. “So he’s working for the Chinese?”
“Jesus. What the hell’s that about?”
I was wondering the same thing, but then my phone rang. Billy Vargas.
“Hey, Billy. What’ve we got?”
“A couple of assholes. Driver’s name is Brett Knapp. Private security is the sense I got. The car is registered to Svengaard Life Sciences.”
I closed my eyes and let out a deep sigh.
“That mean anything to you?” he asked.
“I’ve heard of them. One of the smaller and newer biotech giants out there. Hey, did either of them have a goatee with a scar running through it, like a bald spot above and below his lips?”
“That’s the passenger. Alex Myers. I asked for his ID because he was a bit of a dick, too. You know these guys?”
“Okay. Well, let me know if you need anything else. And by the way, I was going to let the guy off with a warning, but he was a jerk, and he totally blew that light. I went ahead and gave him the ticket.”
“Nice,” I said, smiling briefly.
“What is it?” Conroy asked as I put down the phone.
“It was the two guys from the farm next to Geiselman’s. Brett Knapp and Alex Myers. Vargas has them pegged as private security. Car’s registered to Svengaard Life Sciences, a biotech company.”
I shook my head. “Chinese nationals, biotech companies. You think maybe you want to hand this off to someone else?”
He squinted at me. “What are you talking about? Why?”
“These are big fish. I’ve seen this kind of thing get messy in a hurry.”
“From what I hear, that’s not so much a deal breaker for you. Now you just want to walk away?”
“No, we hand it off to someone else. The feds or something.”
He waved me off, disgusted. “Bullshit. A couple of assholes shot a civilian. Seems to me we’re right behind them. We need to find said assholes and lock ’em up. What the hell, Carrick. I thought you were supposed to be some sort of badass or something. The Doyle Carrick I know could have this wrapped up in a day or two.”
I sighed. Jack Conroy was one of the most levelheaded cops I’d ever known. He didn’t have that turfy, political, hard-ass, no-one-takes-my-case vibe that so many cops have—including me, on occasion.
He was right, of course. Not about the badass part, but about locking up the assholes who shot Don Shump. But I was right, too. This thing was looking bigger and uglier by the minute. Handing it off before some asshole fed told us to hand it off didn’t seem like the dumbest thing I’d ever proposed.
“Do you want to hand it off?” he said.
“Then neither do I.”
Just as I said, “Good,” my phone buzzed again. Ted Geiselman.
“Hello, Mr. Geiselman,” I said.
“I just had a visit from that that Phillips guy. I thought his head was going to explode.”
“What do you mean?”
“He was freaking out that his knuckleheads were gone. And that they took his bees.” He let out a laugh that seemed to release some of his tension. It made me realize how stressed he’d been. “He asked me where they went, like I somehow knew. I told him I had a hard enough time keeping track of my own knuckleheads, let alone his.”
“Are you okay?”
“Oh, sure, sure. I mean he was upset, but it was nothing to do with me. I asked him if I should let him know if they came back, see if I could get you his contact info or something, but he didn’t go for it.”
“Anyway, I thought you’d like to know. Oh, and I looked into who’s leasing that property across the road. Svengaard something. Swedish company, I think.”
“Svengaard Life Sciences?”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
“Do you know what they’re growing over there?”
“Tomatoes. It’s a test field, apparently, some kind of experimental genetically engineered variety. That’s why they’ve got that big fence.”
“Aren’t you afraid that pollen from their experimental crops will contaminate yours?”
Geiselman laughed. “No, not really. I mean, I’m not crazy about it, but I’m not that worried. I’m not growing tomatoes, and there’s a hundred-and-fifty-foot buffer, which should be more than enough. Plus, I got nothing else in bloom right now.”
As I put down the phone, Conroy looked over at me. “You think there’s a connection between Svengaard and the guys that shot Don Shump?”
When I first started out, Conroy used to quiz me all the time, helping me think things through. His questions still reminded me of that, only now I knew he was doing it because he didn’t know the answer. “I think there’s something. Those guys were definitely on our tail.”
“They’re based in Philly, right?”
I nodded. “Thirty-Second Street, I think.”
“Let’s go talk to them.”
“Kind of late in the day.”
“It’s not even nineteen hundred hours.”
I looked at my watch. “Six fifty-five. They’ll be long gone.”
“Let’s try, anyway.”
I sighed and looked up the number.
The woman who answered seemed bright and cheerful, but nervous when I identified myself as police. Nothing unusual there. She informed me that the entire management staff was at a retreat, off-site. “They’re out in the woods, literally. Incommunicado.” She followed that with a forced, jittery laugh, like she was really not crazy about them all being out of the office at the same time.
“When will they be back?”
“Not until the day after tomorrow. But Rory Johannson, our COO, is supposed to stop by at the end of the day tomorrow to drop some stuff off. Maybe he could talk to you then.”
She took my number and agreed to call me in the morning to let me know what time exactly.
I hit the grocery store and made it home before it was too late. Over dinner, I told Nola casually about my day with Jack Conroy.
“Is this Jack the old guy whose wife just died?”
“Yup. That’s him.”
“That’s nice. I remember you saying how much you liked him. How’d you end up working a case together?”
I laughed, apparently suspiciously.
Nola put down her fork as a furrow appeared in the middle of her forehead. “What?”
I laughed again. Same way. The furrow deepened.
“Nothing,” I said. “Jack apparently caught a case involving bees. He knew that I had some history, so he came to me for help.”
She picked up her fork, but the furrow remained. “Involving bees? How? And doesn’t Jack have a partner?”
I put a forkful of salmon in my mouth and paused long enough for Nola to do the same. “His partner’s allergic,” I told her. “And he got stung.”
She put down her fork again. “He got stung? What kind of case is this? Are they bee rustlers?”
I smiled. “Bee rustlers?”
“It’s not funny, Doyle. You know as well as anybody that bees are dying all over the place. Bee rustling is a problem, people just stealing hives and making off with them.”
I thought about it for a second but couldn’t think of how that could fit in. “No, I don’t think so. No one is reporting any stolen hives, as far as I know.”
“What kind of case is it, then?”
That was when it occurred to me that Don Shump was really more her friend than mine. Finding out he had been shot and that it was part of this case was not going to go over well. I thought about not telling her just yet, but I knew she was going to find out. Every scenario I could envisage in which I didn’t tell her now was substantially worse than the one in which I did.
“Doyle!” she exclaimed when I was done. “I don’t like this. I was there last time you got drawn into a case involving bees. I’ve seen what can happen. What kind of bees are these, anyway?”
“Just regular honeybees. Nothing’s going to happen.”
“How can you say that when whoever you’re after already shot an innocent bystander?”
I opened my mouth and closed it, but it was too late. Nola knew what I’d been about to say.
She had mostly made her peace with the fact that I was a cop, but she wasn’t crazy about it, and every now and then the extent to which she disliked it hit home.
What I’d been about to say—what she knew I’d been about to say—was that I dealt with bad guys carrying guns every day and they were all more dangerous than these morons with the bees.
We finished our dinner in silence.
* * *
The next morning as I was driving in, I got a call from Don Shump.
“Hey, Doyle,” he said. “I just heard from a guy who manages one of those storage places in Northeast Philly. He’s getting complaints all of a sudden about a lot of bee activity around one of his units. I wouldn’t have thought anything of it, but then he starts going on about the two guys that rented the unit, how they were suspicious and all. When I described the two guys that shot me, he said that sounds like them. Anyway, I’ll be headed out there at some point, but I thought you might want to check it out.”
There was a note of trepidation in Don’s voice, and I didn’t blame him. It sucks to get shot, even just a flesh wound. Getting shot two days in a row wouldn’t be worth the story you’d get to tell.
“Okay, we’ll go check it out,” I told him.
He sounded grateful as he got off the phone.
I called Conroy and told him we had a lead we could check out while we were waiting to hear back from Svengaard. The storage facility was out near Northeast Philly Airport, not far from Conroy’s house off Bustleton Avenue. I picked him up on the way.
“More bees, huh?” Conroy said as he got in the car.
“Bees and knuckleheads. I thought we should check it out.”
He nodded and rolled his eyes. He looked like hell, dark circles under his eyes, pale everywhere else.
“Rough night?” I said.
He gave me a look that was sprinkled with f-bombs. “They’re all rough when you get to be my age.”
* * *
Northeast Public Storage was a maze of low concrete walls embedded with orange garage doors, all surrounded by a black metal fence. We drove through the gate and parked by the front office. The young woman at the counter was about twenty, slightly heavy, and engrossed in the book she had open in front of her.
I held up my badge and told her we were there to see the manager.
“Mr. Stavros is emptying one of the units in the back, section D,” she said without looking up. “D27. Make a right out the door, then a right down the little cut-through. He’ll be three rows down.”
Conroy huffed. “Can we drive there?”
She looked at him over her book and shrugged. “The lanes are one-way and the cut-throughs are narrow, so it’ll probably take you longer.”
I looked at him, too.
Conroy nodded. “I don’t care about that.”
She shrugged again and gave us convoluted directions with a right, a couple of lefts, looping around once, and doubling back twice.
As we walked back to the car, I noticed Conroy’s gait was even more distinctive than usual.
“Fucking hip.” He grimaced as he got in but didn’t elaborate beyond that.
We followed the directions through the maze of storage units and found the manager without too much difficulty. He had one of the units open, poking around, maybe looking for anything of value before he had it officially cleaned out or auctioned or whatever. He looked up at us, guilty and defensive.
“Can I help you?” he said. His tone sounded more like, “What the fuck are you looking at?”
I badged him to get rid of the attitude, then quickly told him why we were there so he wouldn’t think it had anything to do with whatever he was up to.
He nodded and put down a box he was looking through. “Yeah, right. The guys with the goddamned bees.”
“You saw the guys?”
“I knew they was trouble when they came in yesterday, but who’s not trouble, right?” He laughed. “I start screening everyone who seems a little shady, I got a lot of empty lockers, you know what I’m saying?”
I smiled disingenuously. I didn’t like the guy.
Conroy snorted and shook his head. “When was the last time you saw these guys?”
He came out and closed the door to the unit behind him. “They were out here this morning. Fucking guys. I told them, ‘I don’t know what you got in there, but if it’s attracting them bees, you need to get rid of it, pronto.’”
Conroy and I looked at each other.
“Where’s their unit?” I asked, feeling a slight increase in urgency.
He pointed down a narrow gap that cut across the rows of buildings and the wider lanes that ran between them. “Just a couple rows down,” he said and started walking there. “I’ll show you.”
I turned to Conroy. “You okay walking?”
He nodded, but he didn’t look happy about it.
As we set off after the guy, I slowed my pace to accommodate Conroy, who was wheezing with the effort. Stavros looked back, annoyed, but I glared at him, and he slowed down, too.
“That hip’s really bothering you, huh?” I said. “You seen anybody about it?”
Conroy waved his hand, annoyed at me, too, now. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
By the time Stavros had passed the third row of units, we had almost caught up with him. As he turned the corner, he froze. “Hey!” he yelled. “What the fuck?” Then he took off running.
I went after him, the sound of Conroy’s grumbling fading behind me. As I turned the corner, I saw two guys in beekeeper hoods, one tall and skinny, the other one shorter and heavier, loading a beehive wrapped in plastic into the back of a red Chevy Tahoe. Looking back at us, they slammed the hatch closed. Simultaneously, each pulled off his hood with one hand and pulled out a handgun with the other. McGinn and Crossan.
I grabbed Stavros by the collar and pulled him to the entrance of the nearest storage unit, squeezing against the frame and hoping the meager cover it provided would be enough to keep us from getting killed. McGinn and Crossan each squeezed off three or four shots, but I don’t know if any of them came close. Then Jack Conroy came shuffling out from between the units, service revolver in his hand. McGinn and Crossan were still shooting, but Conroy just walked out into the hail of bullets and raised his gun, one eye closed, taking aim.
“That’s my car!” Stavros squealed. He broke away from me, running over and pushing Conroy’s gun hand up into the sky.
Conroy scowled at him, angry but cognizant of the fact that the guy was obviously a little unstable. As the Tahoe’s engine roared and its tires screeched, Conroy cracked Stavros in the nose with a short left jab that snapped his head back and left him stunned. By the time Conroy turned back to the Tahoe, it was skidding around the end of the row. I stepped up beside him and we stood there for a moment, staring down the vacant row, listening as the Tahoe screeched one more time, out the gate and onto the road. Gone.
Our car was parked on the other side of the property. By the time we got it and got after them, they could be on the turnpike east or west, Route 1 north or south.
“They took my Tahoe,” Stavros said, holding his nose, sounding petulant.
Conroy glared at him. “You interfered with an arrest, a criminal investigation. I could lock you up.”
Stavros’s eyes went wide. “You were going to shoot my car.”
Conroy sighed and shook his head. In the quiet that followed, we could hear a faint buzzing noise coming from the open storage unit to our left. It was empty except for two things. Lying on the floor, partially unfurled, was a roll of thick plastic film, the kind you buy from U-Haul and use to wrap pallets or stacks of boxes to keep them from shifting. Next to it was a wooden box, a standard beehive, partially wrapped in torn plastic film, and with some kind of smaller box mounted on the front. A cloud of bees was circling the whole thing, and a steady procession of them were entering and leaving the hive through the box mounted on the front.
Stavros moved back a bit. Conroy stayed where he was. I stepped a little closer than I would have expected of myself.
The bees were surprisingly calm, and so was I. As I stepped slowly into the unit, I noticed that in addition to the bees flying in lazy circles around the hive, some were zipping in and out of the storage unit with great purpose.
Moving even closer, I saw that the hive was split, and it was leaking a thick, viscous liquid that was puddled around the bottom.
“What the hell is that stuff?” Conroy asked, stepping past Stavros.
I didn’t know. It looked like honey. But it was bright blue.
* * *
While Conroy called in Stavros’s stolen car, I called Don Shump. I’d been kind of hoping that the bees were more of a tangential aspect of the case, a clue as opposed to something central. Seeing that bizarre blue honey, though, made me think they were at the heart of the case. And it wasn’t about bee rustlers, although Nola’s guess was looking less and less outrageous.
On the upside, I felt like we were getting closer to figuring out whatever was going on. On the downside, whatever was going on was weird.
“Blue?” Shump said with a humorless laugh when I told him what we’d found. “Well, that doesn’t sound quite right.”
“What would cause that?” I asked.
“Hard to say without seeing it. Maybe something they ate, although I’d hate to think what.”
As he said it, I noticed a line of bees coming and going, to and from the northwest, disappearing over the roof of the next row of units, and reappearing over the same spot.
“I’ll be out there soon,” he said. “I’ll take a look.”
“Yeah, okay. Thanks.”
“What is it?” Conroy asked as I put away my phone.
The bees were flying in a straight line. Beelining, as it was called, when the bees had their fill of whatever they were eating and flew directly back to the hive.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “Wait here, okay? I’ll be back in a minute. I have to go check something out.”
I jogged around to the next row of units and stopped, staring at the sky until I spotted the bees zipping back and forth overhead, in a straight line. I paused again at the next row, then the one after that, following the bees to the edge of the property.
Across the street, an eight-foot chain-link fence encircled some sort of concrete factory building and a lawn about twenty yards wide.
The bees were flying through the fence as if it wasn’t there.
But it was there. I knew this because I climbed it. I swung over the top and dropped to the other side. Eight feet is a lot more than it sounds.
The bees seemed to be flying toward a small building semidetached from the main part. As I crossed the grass, I moved to the side so I didn’t accidentally cross their flight path. Stepping onto the concrete slab that surrounded the side building, I drew my gun. I could see the bees zipping around the corner of the building, coming and going. I ducked under them and circled wider to get a better angle and hopefully see whatever they were getting at.
It was a fifty-gallon drum, right up against the building, twenty feet away. The bees were in a tizzy, flying in and out, circling madly, crawling all over it. As I inched closer, the buzzing grew louder, and I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck stirring.
When I was close enough to look inside, I heard myself gasp. The drum was filled with blue liquid, a jarringly intense cerulean, so vivid it looked like a window into the sky of an alternate blue universe. I felt a wave of vertigo, as if I might fall inside it. I tried to imagine what it could be—toxic waste or a chemical weapon or a witch’s brew. I was so mesmerized by the spectacle in front of me, I almost didn’t hear the footstep behind me. But I did hear it.
I was already spinning around when the voice behind me barked, “Hold it right there!”
I brought up my gun and yelled, “Freeze, motherfucker!”
The twenty-year-old kid behind me jumped almost out of his ill-fitting security guard uniform. Luckily, he was unarmed, because otherwise I probably would have startled him into shooting me.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded, recovering admirably but betrayed by a break in his voice. The uniform looked like a Halloween costume on him.
I pulled out my badge. “Police,” I said, my voice breaking a little, as well.
He cleared his throat, then asked, an octave lower, “Is there a problem, Officer?”
“Detective,” I said, correcting him, my voice a few steps lower than his.
“Sorry. Is there a problem, Detective?” he asked, sounding like Barry White.
“What is that stuff?” I asked in my best James Earl Jones.
The bees were loving it. Hundreds of them, getting their fill and shooting back toward the locker.
“Dye,” he said, clearing his throat and trying to find a normal tone. “Well, dye and fructose. It’s for one of the new candies they’re working on.”
“Candies? What is this place?”
“Richmond Candy Company.” He lowered his voice confidingly. “I thought maybe you were a spy from Chewy-Gooey. They’re always trying to find out what we’re up to next.” He nodded back toward the bee-covered drum. “They’d kill to find out what’s in our new Screaming Blue Lip Smackers.”
I turned and looked back into that portal to electric-blue hell and felt almost dizzy again. “Is that what that is?” I said. “Screaming Blue Lip Smackers?” It was hard to look away.
He laughed. “Nope. They rejected this. When they mixed it with the fructose, it just wasn’t blue enough.”
I looked at him to see if he was joking. He wasn’t.
“Jesus,” he said. “That’s a lot of bees. I should get someone to come and spray them.”
“No!” I said sharply. “No, that’s okay. You don’t need to do that … but you should cover that stuff up.”
I’d hoped that the whole blue honey thing would be central to the actual case. It looked now like it wasn’t, but in the back of my mind, I knew it held a piece of it.
“Okay, well, thanks for your help,” I said. “I’ll see myself out.”
I paused at the fence, partly because I didn’t feel like climbing back up there, but also to watch the bees for another moment, flying straight and true, directly back and forth from their busted hive to their toxic blue sugar water. It was sad, in a way—these amazing little things being duped by this fake, toxic syrup that was sweeter and brighter than anything nature could come up with. I took a deep breath and launched myself onto the fence and climbed over it.
Jogging back to the storage locker, I thought back to the fence that surrounded Svengaard’s test fields across from Ted Geiselman’s farm. A theory started to come together.
By the time I got back to the unit with the beehive, Stavros had disappeared, probably back to pillaging the possessions of whatever poor bastards were a month behind in their payments. Don Shump had arrived, however, and he and Jack Conroy were leaning against Don’s truck, a green pickup with a big Philadelphia Bee Company logo magnet on the side.
“Here he is,” Shump said as I came around the corner of the building. He had a bulky bandage around his upper arm, but it didn’t seem to be slowing him down any. “Jack here thought you had ditched him.”
“The hell I did,” Conroy said. “I figured you got lost, or stung to death, chasing after them bees.”
“I’m touched by your concern,” I said.
Shump hooked a thumb toward the hive in the storage unit. “Christ, Doyle, when you said blue, I thought maybe it was a slight tinge. That is some truly blue honey.”
“I found the source. You were right about it being something they ate. Candy factory across the road. A big barrel of fructose mixed with blue dye. The bees were all over it.”
Shump shook his head and laughed. “That’d do it. Poor things. Probably no decent food for them anywhere around here. And what kind of moron wraps them in plastic? Well, if you’re done with them, I can take them somewhere a little more appropriate.”
“Yeah, I guess.” It wasn’t like I could put them in an evidence locker. “Before you do, though, I have a couple of questions. Do bees pollinate tomatoes?”
He scratched his beard, thinking. “Well, let’s see. Tomatoes do flower, but they don’t produce nectar, so the honeybees aren’t really a factor. It’s mostly bumblebees and other native pollinators. Tomatoes self-pollinate, too, you know? But no, they don’t depend on honeybees for pollination.”
“Oh,” I said, disappointed.
“I mean, the honeybees will pollinate them a bit. Just the tomatoes don’t depend on them for pollination.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean the tomatoes don’t produce nectar because they don’t need the honeybees to pollinate them. But honeybees eat pollen as well as nectar, so they’ll hit the tomato flowers for pollen to eat, and they’ll pick up extra pollen while they’re doing that. It’s just not at the top of their list.”
“What if there was nothing else in bloom?”
He thought about it and shrugged. “Then they’d hit the tomatoes a little harder.”
“Right. Okay, one other question. What’s that box mounted to the front of the hive?” It was yellow plastic, just a couple of inches tall and wide, but it ran the length of the hive.
“That’s a pollen catcher.”
“What’s that for?”
I gave him a steely glare, and he laughed. “It brushes some of the pollen off the bees. Collects it in a box there.”
Bingo. “Why would someone want to collect pollen?”
He shrugged. “People eat it, like food or a supplement. Or to look at it under a microscope and see what kind of pollen your bees are getting into, that sort of thing. These pollen traps come right off.” He grabbed it with both hands and gave it a little twist. It did come off easily. He handed it to me. “You should freeze it as soon as possible, within a day or two. This stuff is notorious for going moldy fast.”
As Don got the bees together and loaded them onto the back of his truck, I pulled Conroy aside. He grunted several times while I explained what I was thinking, and then several more times afterward as he turned it over in his head.
“I guess that makes sense,” he said after a couple of minutes. “Kind of outside of my experience, you know? But it sounds like you’ve got it all figured out.”
“Maybe partially figured out.”
Conroy looked at his watch for longer than it should have taken to just read the time. I got the impression he was calculating something. I wondered if he was having trouble translating it into military time, but when he was done, all he said was, “What do we do next?”
Don had reinforced the hive with duct tape and was gently loading it into the back of his truck.
“Let’s take our time and make sure we haven’t missed anything here. Then I guess we’re just waiting to find out when we can pay a visit to the good folks at Svengaard.”
* * *
The storage locker was clean except for the blue honey and a few dead bees. We sealed the pollen in an evidence bag and then decided to break for lunch. Conroy seemed uncomfortable taking time off from the case, but he had things to take care of, and so did I. We decided to split up until it was time to go to Svengaard.
At three o’clock, Dena from Svengaard called to say Rory Johannson, their COO, would be in at five if we wanted to talk to him.
Svengaard Life Sciences felt more like a tech start-up than anything to do with agribusiness. But their offices reeked of money, enough that Conroy was visibly nervous. He seemed happy to let me take the lead, maybe since I was more experienced at hiding my nervousness. Dena, the receptionist I had spoken to, was an attractive blonde with a touch of makeup and smart brown eyes. She looked at a strange art contraption on the wall that, after a moment, revealed itself to be a clock.
“He’s running just a little bit late, I’m afraid,” she said with a smile. “You can wait over here.”
She led us away from the reception area toward a small seating alcove with a view of the railroad tracks that wound alongside the Schuylkill River below.
Conroy pretended to stare out the window, but he checked his watch three times in five minutes, huffing and sighing each time.
I stepped up next to him. “What’s the rush, Jack?”
“What do you mean?” he said without looking at me. “Leads get cold, right? You don’t want these guys getting away.”
He was right, but I knew that wasn’t all of it. We stood there looking out the window for another moment.
Then he took a deep, wheezy breath and let it out. The glass fogged in front of him. “I didn’t want to talk about it because I didn’t want it to be a thing. But this is my last case.”
My head whipped around. “You’re retiring?”
He kept his eye straight ahead as he nodded. “Today’s my last day.”
He held up a hand. “I don’t want a big fuss. And I didn’t expect this case to turn into a whole big thing when Perkins and I picked it up.” He took another deep breath. “Look, I know it’s not likely to wrap up nice and neat, but it’s going to bug the hell out of me, leaving on an open case.”
I totally got it, but before I could say anything, a voice behind us said, “Gentlemen.”
We turned to see a small guy with glasses in a suit two sizes too small and a beard three size too large. He looked to be about twenty-four.
Conroy shook his head.
“I’m Rory Johannson,” the kid said, extending his hand, “chief operations officer here at Svengaard.”
His palm was so clammy it took an effort to ignore it. Conroy just went ahead and wiped his hand on his pants.
“We just have a few questions,” I said. “Should only take a minute.”
“What’s this about?”
“Do you know someone named Doug Phillips?”
The receptionist looked over from her desk, and Johannson looked down with a sigh.
“Doug Phillips used to work here,” he told us in a quiet voice. “We fired him.”
“I’m afraid I can’t comment on that.”
I held out my card. “Do you have a photo of him you could send me?”
“Um, sure.” He walked over to the receptionist, who looked down as if she hadn’t been paying attention. “Dena, can you send”—he looked at my card before handing it to her—“Detective Carrick a copy of Doug Phillips’s headshot?”
“Absolutely, Mr. Johannson,” she said and immediately started tapping at her computer.
Johannson turned back to us. “Why do you want to know about Doug Phillips?”
I smiled. “I’m afraid I can’t comment on that. And it’s a shame, too, because you’d really want to know about this.” We turned to go.
“Wait,” he said with a sigh. He lowered his voice and stepped closer. “Look, we found out he was stealing secrets.”
“Our biopharming division is working on some pretty big breakthroughs in vaccines. Biopharming is engineering plants to produce pharmaceuticals. The specifics are highly confidential, so I can’t tell you anything more about it.”
Conroy was frantically scribbling in his notebook.
“Are they tomatoes?” I asked. “The vegetables you’re modifying to create pharmaceuticals, I mean?”
He blanched, then he tilted his head like he had an inkling what this was about. “I’m sorry, I really can’t say anything else. It’s really top secret. I’ve probably said too much already.”
“Absolutely,” I said. “We understand. Can you just tell me is that what you’re growing on Skippack Pike in Worcester?”
I’m pretty rusty on my Morse Code, but while Johannson’s mouth was repeating that he couldn’t comment, I’m pretty sure his left eye was twitching out the words, “YES, THAT IS EXACTLY CORRECT.”
“That’s what I thought,” I said with a smile. “Thanks for your help.” I tipped my head to Conroy, and we turned to walk back toward the elevators.
“But wait,” Johannson said. “What’s this all about?”
I thought about holding out on him, but in the end, he had been pretty helpful, probably more helpful than he had intended. Svengaard didn’t seem to be as bad as some of them, and I figured they deserved to know if someone was ripping them off.
Plus, Conroy nudged me with his elbow.
“Okay,” I said. “In investigating an unrelated crime, we think we’ve stumbled across a plan by Mr. Phillips to steal your intellectual property, the pollen from your tomato plants.”
Johannson smiled, like he had just put things together. I wondered if maybe he had heard something about our interaction with his employees when we were at Happyfield Farm. He shook his head, seeming somehow relieved. “I don’t see how. We’ve taken a lot of precautions. We have those plants behind ten-foot perimeter fences with video surveillance, armed guards, and a hundred-and-fifty-foot buffer. I don’t know how he’s going to get in there and steal—”
“Bees,” I said.
“Bees. He placed beehives in an adjacent field and let the bees collect the pollen.”
Johannson shook his head. “Tomatoes don’t need honeybees to pollinate.”
“Well, you know more about the genomics, plant biology, horticulture, and apiculture, but I’m pretty up on my larceny. My understanding is that while it’s true the tomatoes don’t need the honeybees, and their flowers don’t even produce nectar, the honeybees will still collect the pollen from the tomato flowers to eat.”
He went quiet.
I said, “If you think of anything else I should know, please give me a call.” Then we turned and left him thinking about what we’d just told him.
* * *
We’d been on the elevator for about five seconds when Conroy said, “I’m glad we got a chance to work together one more time, kid.”
“Me too, Jack.”
We exchanged awkward smiles. Then the elevator doors opened, and at the same time my phone dinged. Awkward time was over. Dena the receptionist had e-mailed me Doug Phillips’s photo.
I held it up so Conroy could see it.
He laughed. “Weaselly looking fella, ain’t he?”
He was. Eyes too deep and too close together and a chin so slight that even doubled it was inadequate to the task of anchoring his face. He looked weak and nervous, deceitful and instantly unlikable. I felt bad about how readily I wanted to judge him, and I wondered if he’d earned that face by being that guy, or if fate had given him a face to mirror his personality, or if he’d started out fine and turned out bad as a result of living down to people’s assumptions. His face was so strikingly of a type, I imagined it would have taken a lot not to let a lifetime of people’s assumptions turn you into the guy they thought you were. And maybe he had. Maybe he was innocent and we had it all wrong.
Hopefully, we’d find out soon.
As we left the building, Conroy clapped his hands together and rubbed them briskly. “So now what? Do we even know that what Phillips was trying to do was illegal? What are we going to do, charge the bees with trespassing?”
I shook my head. “That’s not our case. That’s a civil matter for Svengaard to pursue. I mean, technically, we should contact the FBI, see if they want to pursue a corporate espionage case.”
Conroy shrugged. “Maybe so. I don’t want them taking over, but we can share information.”
“Yeah, I hear you.”
I took out my phone and called a guy named Nickelson at FBI. My partner, Danny, had worked with him on a task force. Nickelson was a bit of a dick, but at least he was competent.
“Special Agent Nickelson,” he answered.
I smiled, like I did every time a fed identified himself as a “special agent.” No regular agents at the FBI, no sir. I identified myself, resisting the urge to call myself “special detective.”
“Right,” he said. “Danny Tennison’s partner. What’s up?”
“Well, I’m working on a case with another detective, and we’ve come across a situation that we thought you might be interested in.”
I gave him a brief recap, told him about Shump getting shot, about Svengaard, and how we suspected someone was using bees to steal their intellectual property.
For a moment, he was silent. Then he said, “Bees?”
I was silent for a moment. I could see it coming. “That’s right.”
I could practically hear his smug smile over the phone. “Well,” he said slowly. Condescendingly. “Well, I’ll pass it along, but I doubt this is really something that the FBI would be involved with. Have you tried Agriculture? Maybe Fish and Wildlife?”
“No, I haven’t. I just figured that since this case potentially involves theft of intellectual property, the FBI might want to know about it.”
“I see. Well, I appreciate you keeping us in mind. I’ll make a note of the call, and we’ll definitely take it under advisement.”
“And tell Danny I said hey.”
“Will do, Special Agent.”
Conroy laughed at my expression but then hid his laughter when I directed it at him. “Sorry,” he said. “So I guess they’ll get right on it?”
“Taking it under advisement.”
“Okay. Well, you tried. You told them about it. If they want to do anything about it, that’s up to them. Now we can focus on the other crimes. These guys shot Don Shump, endangered those kids, trespassed in the warehouse, and stole the storage guy’s car. We got the descriptions out there, got BOLOs on the car, as well as McGinn and Crossan. What else can we do?”
I used the car’s computer to do a quick search on Doug Phillips, but he appeared to have no priors. I put out a BOLO on him, as well. There were still a couple of loose ends, a couple of pieces left over when we thought we’d finished the puzzle. “I don’t know. I think we have most of it, but not all of it.”
“Yeah, I hear you.”
“I mean Geiselman calling to say Phillips had come back, that he was all pissed off that his guys were gone.”
“Yeah. I was wondering about that. And what were they doing hiding with those bees in a warehouse in the middle of North Philly?”
“Exactly. Unless they were double-crossing Phillips.”
I think we both realized it at the same instant. We turned and looked at each other, but Conroy was the one to say it out loud. “Zhang?”
Conroy whistled as he got out his notepad and started flipping through the pages. “Jesus, an international incident. We’re going to be in the goddamned national news,” he said. Then he looked up and smiled. “Maybe I should make a bucket list after all.”
I had reason to believe that being in the national news wasn’t as much fun as it might seem from the outside, but Conroy was having a good time. I didn’t want to ruin it.
He stopped flipping pages and read me off the address we had for Zhang, a town house in Queen Village, near the Delaware River.
I circled Thirtieth Street Station and cut across the city on the Vine Street Expressway.
Conroy went through his notes as I drove, moving his lips as he read, deep in thought. “So you’re thinking Phillips has the idea to use the bees to get the pollen, sell it to whoever, then he hires McGinn and Crossan to babysit the bees.”
“Exactly. Then either they’re approached or somehow they figure out they’re sitting on something worth a lot more than their cut, and they take off before Phillips comes to collect them, stealing the bees that stole the pollen. They arrange a meeting with Zhang, who wants to buy the bees or the pollen or whatever for the Chinese. They probably set up a meeting at the warehouse in Logan, but they’re idiots and don’t know how to take care of the bees. The bees get pissed, the kids get stung, the moms call Shump, and when he surprises McGinn and Crossan, they start shooting.”
Conroy grunted. “So they panic and take off before Zhang gets there, leaving him to make up some stupid story about a realtor when he finds us there instead of them.”
“So what’s our plan?”
“Assuming they still haven’t made the trade, if we find Zhang, we’ll find McGinn and Crossan. So we stake out Zhang’s place and see what happens, see if he leads us to them.”
Conroy grimaced. “A stakeout? You know that’s, like, number two on my fuck-it list, right?”
“Don’t be a wuss. It’ll be like a sleepover.”
“Yeah, all right. But I got to be done by midnight. Zero hundred hours.”
“Or what, you turn into a pumpkin?”
“Something like that.”
* * *
We stopped at the Wawa on Arch Street for coffee, snacks, and a couple of sandwiches. I grabbed a few bananas, which Conroy thought was hilarious. Before we got back in the car, I called Nola to tell her I’d be late.
She answered the phone with, “What’s for dinner?” subtly reminding me that I’d said I would cook.
I laughed uneasily. “Well, funny thing, really.” I could tell she was annoyed as I started explaining the situation, but I kept going, and by the time I got to the part about it being Conroy’s last case, she was okay.
“He’s retiring?” she said. “You said you thought he never would.”
“I guess I was wrong. It’s his last day, actually. We should be chasing down this lead, anyway, but he really wants to close this before he’s done.”
“Well, I want you to finish it, as well, but be careful, okay?”
I knew better than to tell her I was always careful.
We found Zhang’s condo and drove not too slowly past it. His car was on the next block, a resident permit hanging from the rearview mirror. The car was encouraging but not conclusive. Until I saw Zhang himself, I’d have a gnawing anxiety in the pit of my stomach that we were sitting there staring at his empty house while he was out there concluding his deal with the McGinn and Crossan.
I found a spot diagonally across the street and halfway up the block, where we could see both the car and the condo. It was 8:00 p.m. in the middle of summer, another hour before the darkness would let us park any closer.
Conroy broke out the Wawa bag and handed me my sandwich, a turkey and cheese hoagie. Then he pulled out his. I laughed. “You got a cheesesteak at Wawa?”
He paused with his mouth open, about to take a bite. “What? I wanted a cheesesteak.”
Wawa was famous for its hoagies. No one went there for cheesesteaks. “From Wawa?”
“Hey, if we had time to go to Pat’s, I would’ve gone there.” He took a big bite of it, and a couple of fat droplets of cheesy grease landed heavily on the foil wrapper covering his lap. He immediately took another bite, then another.
“You in a hurry there, Jack?”
He turned and gave me a sour look.
“It’s probably going to be a long, boring night. You might want to make that last a bit.”
“I’m not supposed to eat anything after ten.” He took another huge bite, squirting more grease. This time a chunk of bacon fell out with it. He picked it up and popped it in his mouth.
I started laughing. “You got a cheesesteak with bacon?” Conroy had diabetes and high blood pressure. Admittedly, it was a good-looking sandwich, but nothing to die for. “Jesus, Jack,” I said as he washed it down with a swig of Mountain Dew. “You keep eating that stuff, it’s going to kill you.”
Conroy laughed and shook his head. “Probably already has.” Then he took another bite and closed his eyes, savoring the taste of it.
“What do you mean by that?”
He took another drink, then wiped his mouth. “Colon cancer.”
“Cancer? Holy shit, Jack, are you serious? Why didn’t you say anything?”
He nodded and waved away my reaction. He’d been making it clear as long as I’d known him—no fuss.
“How bad is it?”
He shrugged. “Well, it’s not as nice as getting a new pony. But they tell me it’s treatable. I almost wish it wasn’t so I wouldn’t have to go through with all this chemo bullshit.”
“Don’t say that. You’ve got a daughter and grandkids.”
He nodded and gave me a look to remind me he already knew that. “Start chemo first thing tomorrow. Good thing I decided to go bald thirty years ago.”
He had a laugh about that, which helped lighten things up. I didn’t know how to react. I loved the guy, but I knew he wasn’t pretending—the last thing he wanted was a fuss.
“Anyway,” he said, putting down the sandwich and wiping his hands. “Today’s my last day as a normal human being. At least for a while.”
“Jack, you’ve never been a normal human being.”
He laughed at that. “Fuck you. If I was a normal human being, I wouldn’t have asked to work my last case with Doyle Fucking Carrick, that’s for sure.”
“Good point. Anything I can do?”
He looked at his watch and snorted. “Yeah. I’m a cop until midnight. Zero hundred hours. It’s twenty-two twenty-five. You can help me close this case in the next ninety-five minutes.”
He cocked an eye and looked at me with a sly smile. We both knew that was far from a sure thing. Then he smiled. “And give me one of those fucking bananas. This sandwich is disgusting.”
* * *
The next thirty minutes passed quickly enough. Being the poster boy for old-school, Conroy didn’t feel the need to chitchat about the bombshell he’d just dropped, and I was okay with that. Stakeouts don’t bother me. I am able to enter a state of Zen that allows me to pass the time while focusing with great clarity on the relevant observations. It is almost like meditation, but it’s not, because I don’t meditate. It’s also like patience, but again, it’s not. I’m not patient.
It was almost eleven when Zhang finally came out of his house and got into his car. We followed from a safe distance as he zigged and zagged westward toward Eastwick and the airport. I thought for a moment he might have spotted us, with all the seemingly random turns, but he wasn’t going very fast, and I realized instead of evasive maneuvers, he was driving at the mercy of his GPS.
Finally, he turned down a darkened side street. There were streetlights every twenty yards or so, but the light kept to itself, a row of illuminated patches separated by stretches of inky black. We kept going, then doubled back around. I was about to turn after him when I saw he had parked at the other end of the block. I pulled over just off the corner and watched. Zhang’s taillights winked off, and he got out.
“Bingo,” Conroy said softly. We were both leaning forward to see better.
Zhang looked around as he crossed the street toward a darkened brick building, then again before he slipped inside. I waited another few seconds, then I doused my headlights and turned after him.
* * *
I found a spot forty yards back from Zhang’s car where I could see the front of the building he had walked into and the lone entrance to the dead-end alley that ran behind it. If he left either way, we’d see him.
I turned to Conroy. “Should we call for backup?”
He scowled. “For what?”
The door through which Zhang had disappeared swung open, a wedge of dim light in the surrounding darkness. But it wasn’t Zhang who stepped out. Instead, grinning wide and stupid, like they’d just gotten paid with at least one more zero than usual, were McGinn and Crossan.
McGinn took out a set of car keys, examining them in the darkness like they were unfamiliar. He pressed a button, and the headlights flashed on the car behind Zhang’s. It was a shiny red Camaro. The two of them turned to each other and exchanged a high five.
I looked at Conroy, and he snickered and nodded.
I was about to get out of the car when Conroy said, “Hold on.”
When I looked at him, he gestured with his eyes over my shoulder. I turned just in time to see Doug Phillips walking past my car door, a gun in his hand.
“McGinn!” he called out, his voice loud but unsteady. He raised the gun, but it shook and wavered. He didn’t seem ready to use it. “You double-crossing piece of shit.”
McGinn and Crossan both drew without missing a beat. Phillips stopped and took a step backward. I got the sense he was realizing maybe he had miscalculated.
“What the fuck?” Phillips called out, his voice wavering more than his gun, his bravado gone. He was now standing almost directly between where Conroy and I were sitting and where McGinn and Crossan were standing. I was concerned they’d see us behind him, and even more concerned that if shooting broke out, we’d be right in the line of fire.
McGinn spotted us, his eyes shifting a couple of degrees away from Phillips and over toward Conroy and me. His gun followed his eyes.
“Here we go,” I said to Conroy, but before we could get out, a pair of headlights swung around the end of the block, blinding us.
“What now?” I said.
Conroy laughed. “It’s a fucking party.” He was having fun.
It was a black Yukon, like the one Vargas had pulled over for us. It stopped in the middle of the road, its bright headlights illuminating the entire block. As my eyes adjusted, I saw two guys with automatic rifles walking toward McGinn and Crossan. It was Knapp and Myers from Svengaard, the ones Vargas had pulled over.
“Okay, Phillips,” said one of them. “Enough is enough. You have something of ours, and we want it back.”
McGinn and Crossan backed out of the way, but before they could get out of there, Phillips laughed and lowered his gun. “Sorry, Knapp, I don’t have it. But I think maybe these guys know where it is.”
Knapp and Myers swung their guns toward McGinn and Crossan.
Conroy was still laughing. He was having a ball.
I smiled at him and shook my head. “Come on,” I said. “We’ve got to break this up before someone gets hurt.”
He held up a finger, trying to get himself under control, but his laughter had already turned into coughing. It was loud enough that Phillips turned and looked at us, spotting us in the car for the first time. Now Knapp and Myers were looking toward us, too.
Conroy was still coughing, but if I waited any longer, I risked letting the situation get even more out of control. I got out of the car, holding my badge up high in one hand, and my gun down low in the other.
“Police!” I said forcefully. “Drop your weapons.”
If they had all been working together, we would have been hopelessly outnumbered. Luckily, they weren’t. Unfortunately, they were also too suspicious of each other to drop their weapons.
Phillips started to—crouching down and lowering his gun to the ground—but when he saw that no one else was, he straightened back up, looking from face to face, trying to figure out how he was supposed to behave.
Then a deep voice boomed out, “He said drop your fucking weapons!”
It was Conroy, halfway out of the car, his elbow braced against the windshield. He must have pegged Knapp as the biggest threat, because that’s who he was aiming at, squinting down the sight of his gun.
Interesting choice. I was aiming at McGinn. Less badass but more unpredictable.
For a tense moment, we all stood there, locked into place. I think Knapp was feeling the intensity of Conroy’s aim. He started lowering his weapon, keeping one hand raised in the air while he slowly bent his knees, much as Phillips had done.
Before his weapon touched the street, however, two new sets of headlights swung around the corner behind us, the other end of the block from Knapp and Myers. I looked back and saw two government-issue black Chevy Suburbans.
Conroy started laughing again.
The front doors of the Suburbans swung open, and four feds in FBI windbreakers emerged. The drivers had handguns. The passengers had assault rifles.
“FBI!” yelled one of the drivers, in a familiar voice. “I want everybody to drop your weapons and get down on the ground!”
“Philly PD,” I called back, raising my badge with my free hand. I kept my gun locked on McGinn as I glanced over at the feds to confirm it was Nickelson. Apparently, someone upstairs took the situation a little more seriously than he had. He seemed to be trying to make up for it with extra seriousness now. “It’s me, Carrick,” I said.
“Jesus, it really is a party now,” Conroy said. “We’re going to need more snacks.” His shoulders were shaking with laughter, but his gun was rock steady.
The feds paused, then Special Agent Nickelson said, “Okay … well, everyone else, then, drop your weapons and get down on the ground.”
Conroy and I exchanged a glance and a shrug. I could go along with that. And better to be at least nominal allies than get started right away in some kind of turf war. “You heard what he said. On the ground, now!” I shouted, solidifying our allegiance.
Knapp and Myers seemed to know they probably weren’t in serious trouble. They complied right away.
McGinn and Crossan had been busted a few times each. They got down, too.
But Phillips, he was at a loss. He seemed startled at the realization that he was the only one standing. He jumped when he looked down and saw the gun still in his hand.
Nickelson stepped closer, the barrel of his weapon pointing directly at the back of Phillips’s head.
Phillips looked around, his face almost blank, as if he was slipping into shock.
“Now!” screamed Nickelson, the spray from his lips visible in the glare of all the headlights.
He didn’t seem overly determined to keep things nice and mellow. I could easily picture Phillips taking a bullet before he had fully processed what was going on.
I held up a hand and stepped closer to Phillips.
“Doug,” I said in as conversational a tone as I could muster. “Doug Phillips.”
The calm tone seemed to penetrate the chaos and confusion. He turned to look at me, tilting his head a bit, like, Do I know you?
“You have to put the gun down,” I said.
He glanced at it, surprised once more to see it in his hand.
“You have to put the gun down and get on the ground, or else they’re going to shoot you.”
He looked back at the feds, squinting into their headlights. Nodding absently, he put the gun on the ground. He got down on his hands and knees to lie down next to it, but two of the feds rushed over to cuff him. They yanked his arms out from under him, letting him pitch face-first onto the asphalt.
As the feds closed on Phillips, I leaned toward Conroy. Pointing at McGinn and Crossan, I said, “You might want to arrest your perps before somebody else does.”
The other two feds walked over to where Knapp and his partner were lying on the street. They cuffed them quickly and got them onto their feet, treating them with the utmost courtesy.
Conroy and I cuffed McGinn and Crossan, and Conroy told them they were under arrest. He had just started informing them of their rights when Nickelson announced, “This is a federal crime scene. I’m claiming jurisdiction, under the Economic Espionage Act of 1996.”
Conroy looked up at me, and I waved my hand in a little circle, telling him to go on.
“Bullshit,” I said, standing in front of Conroy and his suspects. I could hear Conroy quietly telling them anything they said could and would be used against them.
Nickelson gave me an unfriendly look. “I beg your pardon?”
“These two are wanted for assault, attempted murder, and resisting arrest, which we take very seriously.” As I was speaking, I could hear Conroy finishing the Miranda warning. When he was done, I said, “Besides, it’s too late.”
He rolled his eyes. “What are you talking about?”
“It’s too late,” I said. “They’re already under arrest.” I turned to Conroy. “Conroy, you okay?”
He looked winded, but he nodded and waved me off.
I turned back to Nickelson. “But we can help you with that other stuff. Those two work for Svengaard Life Sciences,” I said, pointing up the street at Knapp and Myers. “I don’t know what you can get them for other than reckless driving.”
Then I turned to Phillips. “This is Doug Phillips, the one who started all this. You’ll want to be charging him.” Phillips looked up at us, his cheek bleeding from where it had hit the ground. He still looked confused.
Next I pointed at McGinn and Crossan. “Phillips hired these two to use bees to steal Svengaard’s intellectual property in the form of pollen. But these two knuckleheads are ours. They were working for Phillips before they double-crossed him, but they’re under arrest for attempted murder, assault, and half a dozen other things. We’re taking them in, and you can charge them with economic espionage when we’re done with them.”
“Where are the bees?” Knapp called out.
I didn’t completely ignore him, but I kept my focus on Nickelson. “As far as we can tell, these two double-crossed Phillips and tried to sell the bees and the pollen to a Chinese agent named Zhang, who works for a company called New Eon, a known front for Chinese corporate espionage.”
Nickelson gave me a flat, noncommittal look, like he was conceding nothing and we would have a discussion about McGinn and Crossan later. “Zhang. Where is he?”
Conroy was tilting his head, like something had caught his attention.
“I’m pretty sure he’s in there,” I said, hooking my thumb toward the unit that Zhang had walked into and McGinn and Crossan had walked out of.
Conroy was walking toward the garage door, his head at an angle, like he was listening to something. I cupped my hand around my mouth and called over to Nickelson in a loud whisper, “And at this point, he might be expecting us.”
As Nickelson went quiet, I could hear a distant, muffled engine noise. I realized this was what Conroy had heard. It quickly grew into a roar.
For an instant, everyone was looking around for the source of the sound—everyone except Conroy, who was still walking toward the garage door, and me, because I was looking at Conroy.
The engine roar was joined by a screech of tires, and as I shouted to Conroy to get out of the way, the garage door exploded, sending dozens of wooden shards spinning through the air like throwing knives. The big red Chevy Tahoe punched through the middle of it.
I grabbed Phillips by the collar and yanked him out of the way. The feds pulled McGinn and Crossan in the opposite direction. I don’t know if Zhang didn’t realize there’d be people in his way, if he didn’t care, or if he calculated that the law officers would be more concerned with saving the lives of their current suspects than acquiring their next one.
By the time the Tahoe hit the street, everyone was out of the way except Jack Conroy.
Maybe he didn’t trust his hips to shuffle him out of the way in time, maybe he liked the idea of checking out before the grueling months of chemo, or maybe he was just that much of a badass, but he stood his ground, badge in one hand, gun in the other, his voice drowned out by the roar of the engine as he told Zhang he was under arrest. At the last second, the Tahoe swerved around him, clipping a parked car and careening down the street.
Knapp and Myers rolled out of the road.
I remember thinking Zhang might be getting away, but at least no one got hurt. As it turned out, I was wrong on both counts.
As the Tahoe swerved to avoid Knapp’s Yukon, Conroy braced his legs and closed one eye, aimed, and pulled the trigger. The Tahoe lurched as one of the rear tires exploded. It swerved wildly one way and then the other as Zhang tried to regain control, overcompensating each time, swerving worse and worse until the SUV jumped up onto the sidewalk and slammed into a set of concrete steps under one of the streetlights.
Even from forty yards away, through the closed doors of the SUV, I could hear the distinctive growl of tens of thousands of agitated bees. It was muffled, like the engine sound had been inside the garage, but I recognized it right away. I remembered it. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up.
Then there was another sound, a strangled scream that exploded in volume as the driver’s-side door flew open and Zhang tumbled out onto the street, flailing and swatting at the cloud of bees that tumbled out with him. He started crawling away, then got to his feet and ran. As he passed under a streetlight, screaming and batting at his hair, I could see the cloud still surrounding him. As we realized he was coming toward us, the feds took a step back. I might have, too.
Conroy stayed where he was, frozen, a wisp of smoke still rising from his gun. In the back of my mind, I wondered if he was going to start shooting individual bees.
But each streetlight Zhang passed under showed fewer and fewer bees still following him. By the time he stumbled and fell sobbing onto the pavement in front of us, the bees had left him alone.
He looked like hell. He was breathing okay, but I fished in my pocket for the EpiPen Conroy had given me, and I jabbed it into his thigh. Just in case.
A half dozen squad cars arrived, their lights filling the block with a strobe of red and blue.
Before the jurisdictional squabbles could begin in earnest, Jack Conroy bent over Zhang and said, “Zhang Lei, you are under arrest for violating the Economic Espionage Act of 1996.” He read him his rights and then slowly straightened up.
He looked at his wrist, then showed me his watch. Eleven fifty-five, or rather, twenty-three fifty-five. “Five minutes to zero,” he said with his old mischievous grin. “Maybe I’m still a bit of a badass after all.”
Copyright © 2016 Jon McGoran.
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Jon McGoran is the author of six novels, including the ecological thrillers Drift, Deadout andDust Up, and the D. H. Dublin forensic thrillers Body Trace, Blood Poison, and Freezer Burn. He has been writing about food and sustainability for twenty years, as communication director at Weavers Way Co-op in Philadelphia and editor The Shuttle, and editor in chief at Grid magazine. During that time he has also been an advocate for urban agriculture, cooperative development and labeling of genetically engineered foods. He is a founding member of the Philadelphia Liars Club, a group of published authors dedicated to promotion, networking, and service work. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and son.