Once the boys' horticultural efforts for the day were complete, they stood back, mandatory stubby in hand, to admire their colorful creation. "What do you think?" Dickson asked.
"To be honest, mate, and no offence intended, but it looks like your gran still lives here."
"Gardens are not just for grannies, you macho boofhead. There are more blokes who host TV gardening programs than women. Anyway, I think we did a great job--it brightens up the joint."
"So do you, mate."
"Cut the crap."
"Speaking of flowers, when do you intend to visit the Spiropoulos place?"
Cody waited kerbside as the boys arrived on their bikes outside No. 41. "No way, guys," he said as they came to a halt. "Dark T-shirts are out. Come on inside to my room and you can borrow two of my white ones."
As shirts were removed, Cody noted the scent. "What kinda deo are you guys wearing? You better use my ensuite to wash your armpits."
"What the bloody hell's all this about?"
"Dark clothing and perfume--a major no-no when you're around bees, mate. And if you do happen to get balled..."
"The bees form a big ball when they attack."
"Anyway, if you get balled, don't run. Stay still. Don't wave your arms around. If you get stung, don't try to remove the sting with your thumb and forefinger, flick the sting from your skin or you'll release the venom."
"How come I suddenly wanna change my mind about going?" Dickson asked.
His mate agreed: "Yeah, me too."
Less than 30 minutes north of Taree is Johns River, a quiet village surrounded on all sides by national parks, including Crowdy Bay National Park, a haven for native flora and fauna, as well as large stands of majestic rain forest and massive Moreton Bay fig trees.
The two Suzukis and three riders entered the open double gates of the Spiropoulos property and rode up to the sprawling ranch-style house. A couple of goats scattered from the path of the noisy machines and a small flock of pink and gray galahs took flight. Tony Spiropolous, a tall, lanky man in his late 30s, with a prominent bald patch like that of a monk, emerged from the house and stood on the wraparound verandah as the bikes slowed to a halt. "G'day, Cody. Good to see you again."
Following introductions, Tony led his guests to a series of outdoor wooden boxes fitted with lids and slide-out drawers that buzzed with insects. Since no honey was scheduled for collection this time, he saw no need to wear a special suit or gloves. "These guys are pretty docile," he explained, "they're used to being handled. Did you know bees and ants are related? Distantly, but nonetheless related. They both have a queen.
"So do some of the guys in Kings Cross," Mick contributed, but was ignored.
"So this is where the honey comb is collected, and is then processed through a special machine called a honey extractor. It's not overly processed, like commercial honey is, because I like to keep it as natural and organic as possible."
"We've tasted it," Dickson said, "and it's very impressive."
"There's very little introduced flora around here--it's almost exclusively indigenous--wattle, bottle brush, varieties of banksia, grevillea, eucalypts... that kind of thing, depending on the season. So our honey is not exactly unique, but pretty close."
"Sorry, force of habit. My wife and I are separated. I also harvest honey from a number of hives in the forest, but not as often--perhaps once a month. The wild bees can be quite unpredictable so one needs to exercise caution. Would you like to see them? I trust Cody has enlightened you as to your behavior if the bees become a little aggressive."
Reluctantly, but without an audible word of protest, Dickson and Mick followed the rest of the group along a narrow track through the gum forest, stopping occasionally to inspect a wooden hive. Native flora abounded, and filled the air with a sensual aroma. Shafts of dappled sunlight filtered through the tall canopy and created an atmosphere of privacy, almost secrecy, as if the forest were a sacred place that demanded a certain spiritual reverence from visitors ... Nature's Cathedral.
"Have you contemplated expanding the operation?" Dickson asked as the group headed back to open, grassy space.
"I had interest from an investor once, but he eventually reneged. He has a habit of doing that... inflates one's balloon then takes great delight in pricking it with a pin."
"He's talking about my next-door neighbor," Cody chirped.
"Yes, that's him, the dreaded Horace Fink," Tony continued, "But I won't make that mistake again. I get by okay with the income from the hobby farm, and I'm my own boss. Things could be worse, you know."
"You live in a beautiful area, Tony, you should be very happy here."
"Yes, I do and I am, and it would be absolutely perfect with the lady I love."
After a tour of the processing and bottling plant (a small operation in a farm shed), and with two jars of honey safely stowed in a saddle bag, the trio headed back to the beach house where Cody borrowed Dickson's board to surf with Mick. "You ding that thing, and you're a dead man."
"She'll be right, mate," the cheeky and confident teen beamed. "No wukkers."
Meantime, Dickson sat at the computer and prepared another report for Doris. However, he omitted to include his private thoughts about any possible motive Tony might harbor in relation to Horace Fink's premature dispatch. It would be preferable, Dickson reasoned, to have someone else point a potential finger of suspicion at Tony, such as Doris herself.
"Doris? It's Dickson. I prepared another report. Cody will deliver it later today. He's here at the house surfing with Mick. We arrived back from Tony's farm about an hour or so ago."
"The report is about Tony?"
"What did he tell you?"
"It's in the report. But it's what he didn't say that interests me. I'm wondering if you and I can chat."
"I'll be there in 15 minutes, and I can drive Cody home if you like."
"Have you had lunch?"
It seemed fitting to wheel out the old charcoal fired barbeque to celebrate the new garden. Mick complained about the lack of ocean view but Dickson argued that the ocean wasn't about to disappear, and that they could see it anytime. "Could you do me a fav, Mick, and nick down to the shop for some fresh bread rolls and sausages--the garlic and chilli ones? We're pretty right for everything else. Oh, and tomatoes."
As the Suzuki disappeared down the road, Cody lamented: "I feel like a bludger, I didn't bring anything."
"You brought yourself, mate, that's more than enough--and thanks a stack for arranging the visit to Tony's place this morning. Now, you wanna help me set up this thing?"
By the time Mick returned, the garden was furnished with folding chairs, a small table, an Esky crammed with beer and soft drink, plastic plates and glasses, and regular cutlery. Dickson set about making a leafy salad while Mick tended the charcoal. "What did you think of Tony?" Cody asked out of the blue.
"Nice bloke," his friends chorused.
"Yeah, top bloke--but did you get the impression he's lonely?"
"He lives alone," Mick commented, "so I guess that figures."
The attention of the guys was diverted by the arrival of Doris in her shiny black VW Golf, with its top down and her red hair clearly on display in the bright midday sunshine. She was dressed in sandals, knee-length shorts and a button-up shirt. "Just in time," she smiled as she entered the rear yard, "and, my goodness, just look at all this! You've hired a gardener."
"Nope," Dickson responded, "it's all our own handiwork--Mick's and mine. We kinda got roped in at Mitre 10 yesterday."
"And I like your taste in plants--all resistant to salt air and windy conditions, I see. You're not just a pretty face, Mr. Bottoms... nor you, Mr. Morris." Then she turned to the spiky mop. "And how are you, Cody?"
"Good thanks, Doris."
"You mean `fine', Cody, you're never good, as it were, and you know it. You've got the whole neighborhood talking about your skinny dipping in my pool."
"Really? How could they see?"
"Attics, second storey balconies and binoculars." Doris's comment broke everyone up, including herself. "And, in addition, I must say that binoculars are not essential."
Blushing was a rare occurrence for Cody. Nonetheless, this time he managed a brilliant shade of scarlet. "Maybe I should wear Speedos."
"You do and I'll fire you."
After lunch, Dickson explained to his friends that he and Doris needed to discuss business for a while. They stopped by the kitchen to make tea, then proceeded to the front verandah. "I wanted to ask you a few questions about Tony Spiropoulos," Dickson began.
"How much in love with you is he?"
"I think it's important to keep our relationship at an arm's length. I'm married to Horace and my loyalty to him is non-negotiable. Any friendship with Tony will remain just that--friendship."
"Does Horace know about Tony?"
"Yes, of course, but that's all he knows--that Tony is a bee farmer and friend who supplies our honey."
"Is Tony aware of your unwillingness to part from Horace?"
"Why are you asking these questions, Dickson? Do you suspect Tony?"
"I have no particular bias, Doris. I'm here to investigate matters. The more I know and understand, the better I'm able to do my job."
"Well, I must say I feel uncomfortable about this line of questioning. However, I'll be honest with you. At the same time, I insist that this information is strictly confidential--for your ears only, and that doesn't include Mick's. Understood?"
"Tony wants to marry me. If Horace suspected even a hint of infidelity on my part, he would strike me from his will."
"Aren't you entitled, as his wife, to half?"
"As his wife, yes."
"I see. Is Tony aware of your reasons for not divorcing Horace?"
"I haven't told him as much in so many words, but he's not stupid. I suspect he knows."