The Bee Balm Murders

A Martha's Vineyard Mystery

Martha's Vineyard Mysteries (Volume 10)

Cynthia Riggs

Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books


The bee balm, in full ragged bloom in Victoria Trumbull’s garden, was taller than she’d ever seen it, probably because of the heavy June rains. Victoria, at ninety-two, had known seasons when the minty-smelling plants never bloomed. This year they formed a dense fire-engine-red blanket that she could see from the west window. True to its name, the bee balm resonated with the buzz of honeybees, dozens and dozens in this patch of brilliance.
Sean McBride, the beekeeper, had set up seven hives in Victoria’s west pasture. Each hive had twenty thousand bees. Each of the twenty thousand bees had a specific job to perform for the hive. During its short life, each of the nectar-gathering bees produced an eighth of a teaspoon of honey. And each lived only two weeks, its wings worn out from forays in search of nectar-bearing blossoms.
Sean visited the seven hives weekly to minister to the bees’ needs. When Victoria saw his red truck pull off New Lane into the pasture this early July morning, she hurried out to watch him work, careful to stay a safe distance from the cloud of bees hovering around each of the hives.
“Morning, Mrs. Trumbull. Don’t get too close. They’re acting unusually ornery for some reason.”
Victoria moved back to the bench near the fenced-in vegetable garden. The next half-hour of Sean’s ministry to the bees would be theater, and Victoria loved theater.
Sean retrieved what looked like an old-fashioned oil can from the back of his truck, stuffed it with torn fabric, lit the fabric with his Cricket lighter, and pumped the handle. The oil can let out a puff of smoke. Next he unfolded a surgically white suit and pulled it over his normal working jeans and plaid shirt, topped it with a sort of Hazmat hood with a clear faceplate, and tugged on protective gauntlets with cuffs that reached to his elbows.
Sean usually went about his business silently. This morning, however, he was talkative.
“You rent rooms, Mrs. Trumbull.” His voice was deadened by the hood. Victoria wasn’t sure what he expected of her.
“Occasionally,” she said.
“Guy stopped by the Farmer’s Market on Saturday, looking for a place here in West Tisbury.”
“Oh?” Victoria watched him squeeze the handle of the smoker, releasing a puff of smoke. The cloud of bees funneled back into the hive.
“Name’s Orion Nanopoulos.” Sean’s voice was muffled. “Seems like a nice enough guy.”
Victoria had the disembodied feeling of trying to communicate with a robot. She couldn’t see Sean’s face.
“What did you say?”
The faceless head turned. “Orion Nanopoulos.”
Smoke drifted toward Victoria’s nose and she sneezed. “How long does this man intend to stay on the Vineyard?”
“Couple of years, I expect.”
Victoria welcomed occasional weekend guests, but was not enthusiastic about long-term tenants. “Has he checked some of the lovely places in town that take in guests?”
“Nope. I told him about this place, and he said he’d be over this morning to give you a check.”
“Why is he staying for such a long time?”
Sean removed the top of the nearest hive and lifted out a frame that looked as though it was coated with black fur. Hundreds of bees. Or maybe thousands of bees.
“He’s installing a fiber-optic system on the Island.”
“I beg your pardon?” She wasn’t sure she’d heard him correctly.
Tenderly, Sean set the frame upright in a box so the bees wouldn’t be crushed. “Fiber optics. Glass. Wave of the future. Data travels at the speed of light instead of poking along on copper wires.”
“Data.” Victoria was not sure she liked the way this conversation was going.
“Emergency response. Cell phone reception. Your television programs…”
“I don’t have television or a cell phone.”
“If you have a heart attack…”
“Unlikely,” said Victoria.
Sean lifted out another frame. “I told him to stop by. You don’t have to put him up if you don’t want.” He turned his shiny non-face to her. She could see her reflection, and the reflection looked unconvinced. “He’ll pay whatever you ask. Double your price. Triple it.”
Victoria sighed.
Sean turned back to the bees and she had only the back of his white hood to look at. His voice was muffled. “Winter’ll be here before you know it. Heating bills.”
Victoria, having viewed Sean McBride’s costuming and the opening of the hives, had seen what she’d come for. She levered herself off the hard wooden bench and headed to the house to confront Orion Nanopoulos when he called.
She would let Mr. Nanopoulos know that she had no desire to have a long-term tenant. Occasional guests were fine. She could put up with tiresome visitors for two or three days. But how did one get rid of a long-term guest who didn’t fit in? She would discourage him. Her house was not a Captain So-and-So house with polished brass and mahogany. She’d tell him the floors creaked, the doors wouldn’t close, that her granddaughter Elizabeth lived with her and could be difficult. Elizabeth, a serene presence, would forgive her. Victoria would let him know the bathrooms were shared and that the toilet in the upstairs bathroom often stopped up. He wouldn’t be able to watch the Red Sox games, she’d say, because she had no television. Red Sox games, she understood, were a must for ninety percent of New England’s population. That would discourage him, right there.
*   *   *
She was typing her weekly column for the Island Enquirer later that morning when a large station wagon pulled up in her drive, a twenty-year-old Chevrolet that looked almost new. Victoria liked cars and felt she understood them.
She watched as a white-haired, mustached, deeply tanned man climbed out. In his fifties, perhaps, but she wasn’t good at ages. The man gave the side of his car a pat, as though it was a horse that had delivered him safely to her door. His trim body and mustache gave him the appearance of a cavalry officer, at least from the front. When he turned, his long white ponytail altered the effect. He was wearing jeans, an open-necked short-sleeved blue shirt, and worn, highly polished engineer’s boots.
She pushed her typewriter to one side and waited for the man to approach. He climbed the steps, his boots making a sturdy sound, and knocked on the open kitchen door. “Anybody home?”
A pleasant voice, low and mellow. A fine large nose, not as large as hers, of course. Dark eyes.
“Come in,” said Victoria, going to the door.
“Mrs. Trumbull? My name is Orion Nanopoulos.” He waited in the doorway and offered her his hand. He was shorter than she. Victoria was almost six feet tall.
His hand was as callused as her own. “How do you do?” she said. “My beekeeper said you might be coming by.”
“He told me about your house. I’d like to rent one of your rooms.”
“I don’t rent rooms long term,” said Victoria.
“Perhaps we can discuss renting one of your rooms short term, then,” said Orion Nanopoulos.
Victoria uncrossed her arms. “Come in.”
He stepped into the kitchen. “Thank you.”
Victoria moved a stack of newspapers from the captain’s chair and dropped them on the table, then turned to look at this man.
Orion Nanopoulos had two deep creases running from his high cheekbones to his strong chin, giving him an extremely pleasant expression. “Sean McBride has a high opinion of you, Mrs. Trumbull. He suggested…”
“I know what he told you.” Victoria sat on one of the gray-painted kitchen chairs and indicated that he might sit on the cleared-off captain’s chair. Then she explained to Orion Nanopoulos that the floors creaked, the doors didn’t shut … and so forth.
Orion listened attentively, his head cocked at an angle, the deep creases on either side of his mouth expressing both intense interest and delight at hearing whatever she had to say.
Victoria’s voice strengthened on her last item. “With no television, you won’t be able to watch the Red Sox…”
Orion held up his hand to stop her flow of words. “That won’t bother me at all, Mrs. Trumbull.” His pleasant expression deepened. “I’m a Yankees fan.”
Despite her intention to send him packing, she found herself warming to this man with his soft voice and lack of Red Sox boosterism. Still, she tried to hold her ground.
“My granddaughter lives with me and she can be…” Somehow, Victoria couldn’t slander her granddaughter, even in the interests of ridding herself of a would-be tenant, so she didn’t finish her sentence. Studying Orion, with his warm, dark eyes, she was beginning to think it might be nice to have a man around the house, a man who drove a twenty-year-old car that he treated like a fine stallion, a man who could listen to her the way this man did …
She tried once more to convince herself and him that he should look elsewhere. “The only room available is a small attic room with no insulation. It’s hot in summer, frigid in winter. It’s right over the kitchen where you’ll hear pots and pans rattling early in the morning, smell cooking during the day, and hear the dishwasher running late at night. You can’t stand upright except in the center of the room because of the roof slope, and there’s a hornet’s nest above the window.”
The creases on either side of Orion’s face deepened with pleasure. “May I see the room?” he asked.

Copyright © 2011 by Cynthia Riggs