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Authors: Matt Witten

4 The Killing Bee

BOOK: 4 The Killing Bee
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REBELS WITH A CAUSE

 

“Revolution!”  When writer and stay-at-home dad Jacob Burns arrives at his sons’ school to a chorus of battle cries, he thinks – for one nostalgic, bittersweet moment – that he’s gone back in time to the ‘60s.  But no.  There’s no riot going on – just a bunch of bored, brainy kids.  One stubborn, set-in-his-ways principal.  And a whole lot of very angry parents…

 

Jacob and his fellow comrades have been lobbying – hard – for a gifted and talented program that will offer their precocious progeny some semblance of challenge.  But the principal, Sam Meckel, is the worst of all possible enemies – he’s a paper pusher, a red-tape supporter… a
bureaucrat. 
All he cares about is standardized test scores.  And when he’s brained to death with a spelling-bee trophy, Jacob starts to wonder if someone’s taken this revolution thing just a little too far.  Or is there something fishy about those test scores…

Praise for
THE KILLING BEE
and the Jacob Burns Mysteries

 

“Witten delights with his charming characters, especially Burns himself.” –
Publishers Weekly

 

“A success.  Fast…lighthearted… Witten presents his characters and plot twists in a straightforward and believable manner.”
– Albany Times-Union

 

“Matt Witten returns with another mystery featuring stay-at-home dad Jacob Burns. This is a delightfully refreshing series, and this installment does not disappoint. THE KILLING BEE is a very satisfying cozy read – good characters, good plot, well-timed action.” –
Reviewing the Evidence

 

“Interesting characters, a substantial plot, and a subtle sense of humor.” –
The Mystery News

 

“An enjoyable cozy with well-drawn characters.” –
The Charlotte Austin Review

 

“Charming, witty and moving…an irresistible read.  Jacob Burns is a welcome addition to crime fiction.” – Don Winslow, author of
Savages

 

“A winner.  Mystery fans are going to love this guy.” – Laura Lippman, author of
The Most Dangerous Thing

 

"Jacob Burns is a wise-cracking, write-at-home dad with a nose for trouble.  While solving mysterious deaths in Saratoga Springs, he manages to see into the heart of his community with a great deal of humor and tenderness." — Sujata Massey, Agatha Award-winning author of the Rei Shimura mysteries

 

“The perfect escape… THE KILLING BEE is a fast, witty, thoroughly engrossing novel that I was sorry to see end. This one is a keeper!” –
Murder Express

 

 

For Ronne Israel, Felice Karlitz, Jeff Lantos, and great teachers everywhere

WARNING:
This book is fiction! The people aren't real! Nothing in it ever happened!

"I never let schooling interfere with my education."
  —  Mark Twain

1

 

My seven-year-old son never ceased to amaze me.

He could do math like a ten-year-old, play chess like a fifteen-year-old, read like a twenty-year-old . . . but he couldn't tie his own shoes.

Or rather, he
could
if he remembered. But usually his mind was busy with loftier matters. Right now he was so engrossed in the latest Harry Potter that he just sat there on the floor, shoestring held forgotten in one hand while he flipped pages with the other. He had been sitting like that for a good ten minutes.

I'd already asked him twice to hurry up and get those shoes tied. Both times he grunted assent, tied about half of a knot, and then kept on reading. It was making me nuts. I was in a rush to get out the door, and I was sorely tempted to snatch the book from his hands, fling it dramatically in the trash, and aim a few yells in his direction.

But if the truth be told, I acted just like him when I was a kid. "Just 'til the end of the chapter?
Please?"
was my favorite refrain. Whenever I complain to my father about the trouble we have getting our seven-year-old to stop reading, he chortles and says, "Serves you right."

Another reason not to yell at my kid was that if I did, my wife, Andrea, would yell at
me
. So I gritted my teeth and held my peace. I stooped down to his level so he would have to focus on me and said, "Honey, it’s time to put down your book and tie your shoes. We have to go."

"Why?
It’s not even seven-thirty yet."

"Yeah, school won't start for, like, an hour," his five-year-old brother chimed in. The most well
-organized member of our family, not only were his shoes already tied but his jacket was zipped.

Andrea came whizzing through on her way outside, gobbling a piece of toast as she sped by. Her long black hair was in disarray. On Tuesdays she teaches an eight a.m. class at the community college, and she was running late.

"Wish me luck today, honey," she said.

"You'll be great. Knock 'em dead," I told her. Today was a big day. Andrea was up for tenure this year, and the department head was observing her two Comp 101 classes.

"Have a nice day, guys," she said, gulping down her mouthful and kissing me. "Bye, Jacob. Bye, Latree. Bye, Charizard. I love you."

Latree?
you may ask.
Charizard?

Well, it
’s like this: our kids' real names are Daniel and Nathan. But two years ago, they decided to change their monikers to Babe Ruth and Wayne Gretzky. Then they morphed into Leonardo and Raphael (after the Ninja turtles, of course, not the painters), and then Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams, the New York Yankee stars. A couple of months ago, they switched
nom de plumes
yet again.

My older son picked Latree because he loves the way the basketball player Latrell Sprewell races down the court, dreadlocks flying, for another wild and crazy fast-break layup. So he wanted to call himself Latrell.

But there was a hitch: Latrell Sprewell is not exactly the world's nicest guy. For instance, a few years back he allegedly choked his coach half to death. So my son decided to call himself Latree, on the theory it sounded similar to Latrell but was still different. This was intended to show he wanted to play basketball like Latrell, but he didn't want to
be
like Latrell.

If all this sounds a tad convoluted . . . what can I tell you? That's the kind of guy my son is. I think he was born with a few extra wrinkles and twists in his brain.

My younger son's reasons for choosing Charizard were much more straightforward. He just flat out loved Charizard—who, for the noncognoscenti, is a deceptively cute-looking fire Pokémon with the ability to spit forth flames so hot they can melt boulders. Nathan didn't care if the rest of the world was losing interest in Pokémon, he was staying loyal. He's a firm, no-nonsense kid who knows what he likes.

Right now he was standing by the kitchen door, impatient for me to justify the change in our morning schedule. Both my kids are big on routine; they're like cats that way. So with Mommy gone and the flurry of farewells dispensed with, they resumed their interrogation. "Why do we have to leave so early?" Charizard demanded.

"I have a meeting at your school this morning. It starts at seven-thirty," I explained.

Latree looked up from both his book and his shoes. "Is this another stupid gifted and talented meeting?" he asked in an aggrieved tone.

In fact, it was. Several of us parents with "academically gifted children"—to use the current jargon—had banded together. We were trying to muscle our school principal and our entire public school system into doing better by our kids.

Like most elementary schools, our school was pretty much useless for the really smart kids
—to use the older jargon. Latree hadn't learned anything new in second grade all year, and it was already May. Charizard was enjoying kindergarten, but he was no intellectual slouch either, and we worried about what lay ahead for him.

Our small cadre of intrepid parents had been meeting with the principal for months, attempting to drum into his thick skull the need to create new programs for "high-end kids"
—to use yet another form of jargon. But creating new programs was not exactly principal Sam Meckel's strong suit. He was much better at droning on endlessly about how things had always been done.

Some of my annoyance at Meckel came out in my snappish reply to Latree. "Look, I'm doing this for you, you know. So you won't be so bored at school."

"Dad, you're dreaming. School is
supposed
to be boring."

"Great attitude." I guess I couldn't blame him, though; he was only picking up on my own pessimism about public schools.

Now by this point you may be thinking, "Hey, quit
kvetching,
just be glad you have a smart kid." I've heard this sentiment often, and I'll admit there's truth to it.

But poor little Latree was going bonkers. The math they were doing in his second-grade class, he already knew in kindergarten. Make that preschool. And he had to sit around twiddling his thumbs for hours and hours as the other students read
aloud laboriously from Berenstain Bears books, when he could polish off a Harry Potter in two days. He told me one morning, "I'd rather stay home and clean every room in the house than go to school. I'd rather hang upside down from the curtains all day."

It broke my heart. Latree was a basically cheerful sort who always used to love school. Now every morning I felt like I was sending him off to the salt mines.

On this particular morning, I tried to shake off these unsettling thoughts and focus on the positive. "At least you enjoy recess," I said.

"School isn't
that
boring," Charizard piped up, trying to make me feel better. Our five-year-old was rapidly becoming the family peacemaker.

"I'm glad to hear it."

"Just maybe two-thirds boring. Or, like, three-quarters or fifteen-seventeenths boring." Charizard was obsessed with fractions lately.

Meanwhile Latree had gone back to reading his book.
"Latree-"

"Okay, okay." He put the book down. "I'm ready."

We were almost in the car when I happened to look down at Latree's ankles. Something was missing.

"Where are your socks?" I said, my voice rising dangerously.

Latree looked down. "Oh, I guess I forgot."

It took every last ounce of willpower to keep from screaming.

 

We were five minutes late for the meeting, but High Rock Elementary was still completely silent when we walked in. Nobody was in the hall. The door to Meckel's office, where we were supposed to meet, was shut.

"You sure there's a meeting, Dad?" Latree asked.

"Maybe I got the wrong day." Had all of my early
-morning hurrying and haranguing been for naught?

But when we walked down the hall, turned the corner, and entered the library, I saw there was no need to fear. The gang was here.

Standing by the librarian's desk were Susie Powell, Elena Aguilera, and Barry Richardson, fellow hardcore stalwarts in the gifted and talented fight. Playing at the computers were the children we were fighting for: Susie's daughters Christine and Megan; Elena's daughter Luce; Barry's son Justin; and a boy named Adam Braithwaite, the second-grade son of my wife's best friend, Laura. I didn't see Laura anywhere, which probably meant she was outside smoking a cigarette. She'd been trying to break the habit ever since we met her.

My sons shouted out joyful hellos and ran over to Adam, all their annoyance at having to go to school early forgotten. Adam was Latree's soul brother, and a good pal to Charizard too. Meanwhile I walked up to the other grown-ups and threw th
em a brisk military salute. "Greetings, comrades."

They quickly got into the spirit "Revolution!" Susie called out, fiercely shaking her bleached blond tresses.

Elena threw her fist in the air—although since she wasn't quite five feet tall, her fist didn't make it all that high. "Down with the ruling classes!
La raza unida jamas sera vencida!"

"Solidarity forever!
" Barry declared in his impeccable British accent.

Then we all began laughing at ourselves. After all, this wasn't the '60s anymore, and our days of sex, drugs, and rebellion had faded away like yesterday's pot smoke. The four of us weren't longhaired, peace
-medallion-wearing Berkeley hippies, we were middle-class, slightly paunchy residents of Saratoga Springs, New York, a small town in the foothills of the Adirondacks that's known more for horse races than radical politics.

But you know what? We still
felt
like rebels. We were waging war against our country's most horrific institution, which is even scarier than the military industrial complex and more deranged than the Post Office. I am referring, of course, to the nation's public schools.

With our kidlets saf
ely stashed in front of the computers, the four of us marched around the corner and up the hall doing what we usually did when we were together: ragging on Sam Meckel.

It
’s not that Meckel was a bad man, or actively opposed to helping smart kids. It’s just that he was... I can think of no more damning word... a
bureaucrat
. Don't rock the boat, cover your butt We needed to light a fire under him until he realized that instead of covering his butt this time, he'd better move it.

All of us were acting pretty slaphappy that morning. Afterward, I would w
onder if one of us had been acting a little extra goofy to cover something up.

"If Meckel gives us his standard goombah about 'limited resources,'" Susie declared, "I'm gonna kill him." Susie was a mild-mannered, stay-at-home mom, with a husband who was steadily if unspectacularly climbing the corporate ladder. But when it came to her kids' welfare, the lady was a tigress. Her third-grader, Christine, was a real whiz; I didn't know much about Megan, her quiet first-grader.

Elena added, "Yeah, Meckel always has plenty of resources for the
dumb
kids." Elena's bluntness took me aback sometimes, but her bark was much worse than her bite. Besides being a parent she also taught fourth grade at High Rock, and her students loved her.

"Now, now,
let’s not be politically incorrect," Barry chided. "It’s not 'dumb' and 'smart,' it’s 'academically challenged' and—"

"Oh, shut up," I said, more or less good-naturedly. Barry could be annoying
, with his nose-in-the-air attitudes and sense of humor. He was elitist in a way that I was sometimes afraid I was becoming. But I liked having him around, so I wasn't the only man in the group. And coming from England, where bright kids get better treatment from the educational system, Barry gave us a fresh perspective.

We reached Meckel's office and I knocked on the door. No answer.

"What, he's not here yet?" Susie said, irritated.

"He's always late. He has no respect for parents," Elena said
—but in a whisper, in case Meckel was inside after all and could hear her.

"I hope he didn't forget," Barry said.

"No," Susie said as I knocked again, "Laura called him yesterday to remind him. He said he'd be here."

Just for the heck of it, I tried the knob. It turned. I opened the door

And a strange sight greeted me. Laura Braithwaite was standing next to Meckel's desk with her mouth hanging open. Her eyes stared at me, but they were unfocused, like she was in shock. She was gripping a large object in her right hand. A trophy, it looked like.

"Laura, hi," I said.

She just stood there staring.

Susie, Elena, and Barry crowded into the office behind me. "What’s the matter, Laura?" Susie asked.

Laura pointed a s
haky forefinger at the floor behind the desk. I stepped forward, stood on my toes—

And my morning Wheaties came lurching toward my throat.

BOOK: 4 The Killing Bee
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