War memorial 5 mins
Calix shoved the phone in his pocket, opened the car door and climbed out into the dark and the rain. In the distance he heard a burglar alarm and sirens, the muzak of Manchester.
On his face the cold rain felt like stabs of electricity. It suited him. Encouraged hoods up and heads down, discouraged hanging about. He looked around. Two lines of sardine-parked cars, a few spindly trees and an army of black and brown wheelie-bins. A flickering street-light revealed the slant of the rain. Behind the cars were small gardens and quiet houses. TV-blue seeped from windows.
No movement, no voices.
On the car’s passenger side he popped the small square flap and pulled it open. No petrol cap. Instead, there was a compartment half the size of a shoebox. Bespoke and expensive, but a business had to be invested in to be successful – before long he’d be getting a government-sponsored trainee. In the compartment was a plastic bag. Smaller bags inside. He removed one bag and pushed the flap shut.
He walked around the back of the car, hopped up onto the pavement and headed for the meet. His last delivery of the evening and so far no problems. No IOUs, no photocopied notes, no ‘These are my five mates from the football club’. The word delivery made him think of milkmen. Trudging around the streets clinking their bottles while everyone else got on with their lives. He was a modern milkman with a crap gig of a job. No holiday or sick pay, not even a Christmas party. A violent boss to answer to. But only temporary and good money while he waited for something better to come along.
Maybe something just had.
A car splashed past. He pulled his hood up. Yes, he was a modern milkman, an oversized delivery boy, out in all weathers. Milkmen got to sleep with their customers. No way was he doing that.
He reached the memorial, a cross above a great slab of stone. Sacrifice chiselled on the front and underneath, a long list of names. His john waited in the monument’s deep shadow. The flare of a cigarette pinpointed him like the laser of a sniper’s scope. A new john, friend of an old one. Second time.
Calix walked closer.
Ryan threw down his cigarette. It hissed in a puddle. He took a step forward. ‘Alright?’
Calix nodded. He liked to get it done quickly and without words. In and out, like a knife. He sensed a problem – no proffered hand. ‘Money.’
‘Next week, okay?’
Calix stared at Ryan. Seventeen or eighteen, still at school or college. Under his charity shop trenchcoat was a Barry Manilow T-shirt. For fuck’s sake: Ryan was trying it on wearing a Barry Manilow T-shirt.
He decided to cut Ryan some slack. There was no point asking why, and he wasn’t a bank. Credit meant more investment, a minder, and greater risk. Maybe when he came back from his trip, but for now he liked things as they were. Just him, no one else to stuff up. Once a week, meet The Big Red, a dozen deliveries. Easy.
‘Okay,’ he said. He handed the bag over.
Ryan took it. He looked relieved, surprised even. ‘Thank–’
Calix hit him.
An open-handed slap to the cheek. Not hard enough to put him on the floor, but hard enough to make him remember. ‘Next week, double, plus next week, so that’ll be triple. Sixty.’
He walked back to his car with its twin petrol flaps. Carrot and stick – basics.
A bee inside the veil was every beekeeper’s nightmare. Going cross-eyed, Rick watched it crawl around on the mesh. She was annoyed and buzzing loudly. Keep calm, he told himself. He put down the frame of bees and pulled back a strip of Velcro which secured his hood and veil.
His phone rang.
Life would be boring if incidents were doled out with fallopian frequency.
With a pincer-grip he extricated the phone from a pocket of his smock. He knew it would be work, even on a rest day. Still watching the bee, he prodded the screen with his gauntlet and held it up to his ear.
‘Rick, it’s Robbo, I’ve got a missing person enquiry for you.’
He closed one eye to see if it helped. It did. The bee was heading towards his left ear. ‘I’ll phone you back.’ If anyone would understand it would be his boss because he’d given Rick his first nucleus.
He pocketed the phone. She’d disappeared.
Bees could tell if a keeper was nervous. He thought of lying on a beach. Going to the cinema and eating popcorn. A meal out. Christmas with his parents and sister. Thoughts, not memories. He never lay on a beach – he hated them. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been to the cinema and he usually worked Christmas.
She was in his hair.
The sound as he ripped back the rest of the Velcro seemed to aggravate her and the buzzing intensified. Still he couldn’t see her. He unzipped the smock, pushed the hood backwards and ran a hand through his hair. For a second he felt her vibrating body between his fingers and then she was gone.
Ten minutes later, Rick had put the hive back together. Keeping it open, even on a bright windless spring day, wasted the bees’ reserves.
He walked away from the hive, tapped a couple of keys on his phone and put it to his ear. He hadn’t achieved what he’d hoped to do. Find the queen. She was longer than the workers and more spidery looking, and she was marked with a yellow spot. But despite all that, and checking every frame, he had not been able to find her. Which meant problems.
‘Why me, sir?’
‘I know the missing’s father,’ said his boss. ‘A war hero. Brigadier Coniston, David Coniston.’
‘Falklands. Won the Military Cross.’
‘His son Calix.’
‘Is there something wrong with him?’
‘Only he can’t get a job.’
‘How long he’s been missing?’
Rick was silent.
‘I said you’d go and see him this afternoon.’
Rick put his phone, gauntlets and smoker into the box of beekeeping paraphernalia, picked it up and walked back through the apiary to his car. Bluebells everywhere. The long grass was still wet and his socks were damp.
Beekeeping was the perfect foil to police work. Honeybees behaved predictably, never complained, and cooperated for the greater good. Very rarely aggressive. Even when they were stuck inside your veil.