The Skull and Scones Society
“Is the pie done yet?” Bottle-blonde Teeny stood on her tippy toes and looked toward the oven. Even up on her toes like that, she barely broke five feet tall. And her big blue eyes were wide with anticipation. “I’m really, really hungry for the best pie on earth.”
“If you ask me that one more time, you’re not getting any.” Miss May replied with her trademark blunt tone of voice. My aunt, a tall and sturdy woman, was famous for her stern but loving nature. Although she was always generous with her pie, and although she and Teeny had been friends for about fifty years, I could tell she resented Teeny’s constant questioning.
“Miss May, you wouldn’t withhold pie just because Teeny’s being annoying,” I said.
“Watch me,” Miss May replied.
“Hey! I’m not annoying,” Teeny said on a slight delay. “How dare you speak to your elders that way, Chelsea Thomas. Where’s your gratitude? We took you in after heart break.”
“I took her in,” said Miss May. “Not you. And I don’t think it’s cool to bring up the heart break like that. The girl was in a rough spot.”
“Thank you, Miss May,” I said. “And I didn’t say you’re annoying, Teeny. Just that you’re currently being annoying. Very different. Take Steve the dog, for example. Steve’s not annoying by nature, usually he’s quite wonderful, but when he wakes me up by stepping on my face at 5 AM…”
“Oh so now I’m a dog?” Teeny crossed her arms.
“No. Steve the dog doesn’t sit at the table and beg for food,” Miss May said. “He also doesn’t dye his hair.”
Teeny opened her mouth in stunned offense, as if Miss May had called her the worst names imaginable.
“I think everyone’s just hungry for pie,” I said, trying to de-escalate the situation.
“We’re hungry for pie and we’re freaked out about this secret society wreaking havoc on our small town!” said Teeny.
“Why’d you have to bring that up?” said Miss May. “We agreed not to talk about the secret you-know-what until we had pie.”
Let me rewind a few hours. As the local amateur sleuths in our small town of Pine Grove, New York, Miss May, Teeny and I often solved crimes around town. Usually those crimes were murders, usually involving unsavory characters and their just desserts. But earlier that day, we’d taken on a case that was putting us all on edge.
It started innocently enough. We were out on a walk after getting our daily dose of sugar with some coffee in it. I like to think I was the first one to spot the anomaly in town, but Teeny was the first to comment on it.
“Is that statue of some old guy by the gazebo… wearing a tutu?”
“It’s a statue of Abe Lincoln,” I said. “And that is definitely a tutu.”
“OK, Little Miss American History,” Teeny said with an eye-roll.
“I mean, I’m not being a know-it-all. Abe Lincoln is very distinct-looking. Also, he gave that big speech in town back in the day. And his statue is in front of the big sign… for the Abe Lincoln Museum.”
“Oh, that museum stinks,” Teeny said. “It’s just a bunch of stuff about Abe Lincoln.”
Miss May and I shared a look and held in our giggles.
“I mean, it’s not a great museum,” I said. “It has terrible, mysterious hours. It’s tiny. And no one goes there. But I wonder, when you went in, what were you expecting if not stuff about Abe Lincoln?”
“I don’t know, dinosaur bones? Picassos?”
“That must’ve been disappointing,” I said, not able to stifle my chuckle this time.
“I know you’re making fun of me,” Teeny said. “But it wasn’t even good stuff about him. No juicy gossip about Mary Todd or anything. And all his clothes were so boring, the guy had no fashion sense. And he talked and talked and talked. There’s a million copies of his speeches in there. We get it, Abe. Shut your hole!”
“Speaking of fashion sense,” Miss May said, “why do we think ol’ Honest, Boring Abe is wearing a ballerina skirt today?”
“Let’s go look,” I said.
Boy, did I regret that suggestion. Because turns out, ol’ Honest, Boring Abe was not wearing any ol’ honest, boring tutu. He was wearing a tutu with a note pinned to the waist.
And the note said, “THIs IS YoUR WARnING. DO aS WE SAY Or YOUR TOWN WILL bURN TO THe GROUNd. — THE SKULL AND BONES CLUB”
Fast-forward back to the kitchen table. Miss May, Teeny and I were sitting in Miss May’s farmhouse, which was situated at the Thomas Family Fruit & Fir Farm. What’s a fruit and fir farm, you might ask? Well, mainly it was an apple orchard. But we also grew peaches, pumpkins, Christmas trees and a bunch of other stuff. My aunt and her right-hand man KP ran the farm. And I’d been helping her out (or more accurately, she’d been helping me out) since I got left at the altar and lost my interior design business in NYC. But we don’t need to go into that.
Anyway! So there we all were, waiting for pie with varying levels of impatience. We’d all worn ourselves out earlier, theorizing about the meaning of the menacing tutu note. So we’d agreed not to deliberate more until we had some pie-based fuel. But I was starting to worry that the waiting was going to make Teeny’s head explode, so I was glad when there was a loud knock on the door. It was a welcome distraction.
Especially welcome because it was Detective Wayne Hudson, the dreamy, I mean, handsome, I mean, er, professional local cop for whom I had what one might call something of “a thing.” I had a thing for him. And he had a thing for me. We were a thing.
Anyway! I opened the door for Wayne just as the oven ‘dinged’ to signal ready pie. Miss May slid the crusty, bubbling goodness out out of the oven with a stern glance at Teeny.
“It still has to cool,” Miss May said.
Teeny rolled her eyes and Wayne stepped into the kitchen with a smirk. “Did I arrive just in time for fresh pie?”
“Great timing, as always,” I said.
Although Wayne didn’t usually solve murder cases, per se, he did have a habit of showing up to bail me out of dangerous moments. Sure, being a black belt in karate had helped me on more than one occasion. But Wayne was good backup.
“Something tells me you didn’t just show up because your apple pie radar was going off,” Miss May said. “Otherwise you’d be here every morning.”
“No, I’m here —”
“Because of Abe’s floofy skirt?” Teeny asked.
“Tutu,” I muttered, unable to hold in my irksome tendency to correct people.
“I know it’s a tutu!” Teeny said. “And I have excellent hearing for someone my age, don’t you think?”
“Shockingly good,” I said. “But yeah, Wayne. To answer your question… we saw Lincoln’s dainty ballet skirt. We saw the note. We don’t have any good theories.”
“I have a great theory,” Teeny protested. “There’s a time traveler who wants the Lincoln museum to be full of dinosaur bones instead of boring Lincoln clothes, and —”
“Teeny’s theory is based on an episode of North Port Diaries,” I said, looking pointedly at Wayne. “Well, the time traveler thing is from the show. The dinosaur bones thing is Teeny’s personal preference. Wishful thinking, you could say.”
Teeny often liked to apply lessons from her favorite mystery shows to our cases, but rarely did they translate into anything useful.
“I’m just saying. These vandals call themselves Skull and Bones,” Teeny said, “maybe it’s cuz they want dinosaur bones. It’s not crazy. Also, yes, way more people would go to that museum if you got a T-Rex in there. Tell me I’m wrong.”
“You’re probably right. But uh… where does the time travel come into play?” Wayne asked.
“Oh, just forget it,” Teeny said. “My ideas are too advanced for this crowd.”
“Mmm,” Wayne nodded as if contemplating important evidence.
“So we don’t have any good theories,” I said. “Do you?”
“Well, not exactly,” said Wayne. “But the Pine Grove PD is on it. We think these vandals are going to strike again. Actually, I think that. The rest of the department seems to think this was a practical joke. Chief Flanagan directed me to remove the skirt and get on with my day. But to me, that note is a serious arson threat. I want to figure out who wrote it and what they want before anything catches on fire.”
Just then, Miss May’s smoke detector went off. The beeping was so sudden and loud, we all shrieked.
“…too late?” I said.
“Oh nothing’s on fire,” Miss May said. “Sometimes a little apple goo leaks onto the bottom of the oven and it smokes. It’s fine.”
Miss May opened the oven to reveal a small fire. She beat it out with a dish cloth and turned back to the conversation. “I agree with you, Wayne. I think if the tutu was just a prank, the pranksters wouldn’t have left such a foreboding message.”
“Is the pie ready yet?” Teeny piped up.
Miss May huffed but Teeny’s persistence paid off, because a few moments later we were all sitting at the table with warm slices of apple pie in front of our faces.
“I tried calling Liz to ask if she knew anything about the Skull and Bones Club,” I said, referencing the editor and sole reporter of Pine Grove’s newspaper, The Gazette.
“And?” Wayne asked.
“No record of any secret societies in town,” I said. “I mean, I guess if they’re secret they wouldn’t want to be in the paper or anything. But still. I’m surprised Liz hasn’t heard of them.”
“Unless she’s a member!” Teeny said with a gasp.
Normally I’d dismiss Teeny’s exclamation as one of her over-zealous ideas. But for some reason, I could totally imagine Liz being a member of a secret society. After all, Liz was determined to be a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, and she was not above trying any unconventional means to climb the ranks. In fact, it was totally within Liz’s wont to go undercover in a secret society to try and learn their inner-workings and write a mind-blowing exposé.
“Teeny, that’s the smartest thing you’ve ever said,” I said.
Teeny glared. “I’ve said so many smart things, Chelsea.”
“But you’ve set a new record today.”
“I feel like I’m missing something,” Wayne said.
“Is it ice cream on your apple pie? Cuz I sure could use a scoop of vanilla with some sprinkles,” Teeny said.
“No. I’m missing something with this Liz connection.”
Wordlessly, Miss May stood, crossed to the freezer, got out a pint of local vanilla, and placed it down next to Teeny. I smiled, then returned my focus to Wayne.
“Liz is always getting big ideas for stories. Stirring up controversy. Going undercover. If there’s a secret society in Pine Grove, Liz would definitely know about it. And she’d definitely lie about knowing.”
“So what are we waiting for?” Wayne asked. “Let’s go talk to her.”
“Hang on a minute!” Teeny said, mouth full. “We gotta finish our pie.”
So we finished our pie. Then we all had another slice. Then we left.
Miss May was usually the lead sleuth, not because there was any sort of official hierarchy in our trio but because she had been a prosecutor in NYC and had a sharp eye for justice. But on our ride over to Liz’s office in Miss May’s yellow VW bus, my aunt was unusually quiet.
As we parked outside the newspaper offices and Teeny and Wayne piled out, I leaned over to Miss May. “You OK?”
“Yeah, fine. I’m fine. Just… what did you think of the pie?”
“The apple pie, was it… maybe not as good as normal?”
“It was delicious. Expertly baked. Flaky crust. Sweet but tangy apple filling. Perfect in every way.”
“But was it the best pie you’ve ever had?”
“What’s going on?” I asked. It was unlike my aunt to lack confidence in anything, especially her unparalleled baking skills.
“I’ve been in a bit of a slump at the bake shoppe. I know everything is still tasting alright —”
“More than alright. Amazing. Delicious. World class. Everyone had seconds of the pie.”
“— but, I haven’t made anything new in a long time.”
“Are you two coming or what?” Teeny called from the entrance to the building.
“I’m being silly,” Miss May said. “We can talk more about it later. Or not. It’s all good.”
I knew my aunt was trying to be the strong, silent type. I was well-versed in that dynamic. Wayne also tried to be the strong, silent type. Maybe I had a type. But I was working to get them both to open up more. Maybe not quite as open as Teeny. But somewhere in between.
Miss May and I climbed out of the van and the four of us headed into Liz’s office.
What we found was unexpected…
Liz was a woman prone to going deep undercover for stories. We’d seen her in costumes, with accents, once she’d even worn a fat suit to keep her identity hidden. But for some reason, the sight of her sitting behind her own desk, smoking a pipe and wearing a fake mustache, sent us all into fits of giggles. Even Wayne laughed, and he was not a giggler.
“What’re you all laughing at?” Liz demanded. With her cherubic, moon-shaped face and long, shiny black hair, Liz usually appeared around town looking neat and business-like. So her strange disguise sent another ripple of laughter through us. “Is my mustache crooked?”
“No. You…your mustache looks great.” I took a step toward her, trying to get a better look at the pipe she was smoking. I recognized the quality craftsmanship from my interior design days, as I’d often paired such pipes with crystal ashtrays and antique matchbooks when staging upscale parlors and smoking rooms. “Is that pipe vintage?”
“It belonged to my grandfather. I’m trying to embody his essence so I can write a story about him for my memoir, which I’m going to release after I win my first Pulitzer.”
“Oh, OK,” I said, making a mental note to inquire more about Liz’s grandfather later. “We actually have a question for you…”
Wayne handed Liz his phone, which he’d opened to a photo of the tutu’d statue from the Lincoln Museum. “Have you seen this man?”
“Abraham Lincoln? Yeah. It’s too bad that museum is so blah.”
“Thank you!” Teeny said, throwing her hands in the air.
“But have you seen him in the tutu?” Wayne asked.
Liz took a puff from her grandfather’s pipe. “No comment.”
“That means yes,” I said.
Liz lowered the pipe, glaring at me.
“Here’s the thing,” I said. “If anyone in town is a member of a secret society, it’s you. So why don’t we skip the whole part where you deny this, and instead you tell us everything you know about the Skull and Bones Club.”
“I’ve never heard of the Skull and Bones Club,” said Liz. “I don’t know why they would dress Abe Lincoln in a tutu and threaten arson, I don’t know what their demands are, and I have no way of gathering more information on the topic.”
“How’d you know they were threatening arson?” Miss May asked.
“I read the note. It was on public display,” Liz replied quickly but I swear I saw a flash of panic pass over her face before she answered.
“Mm-hmm,” Miss May said, eyebrows raised.
“Liz, come on,” I said. “You don’t want all of Pine Grove to be burned to the ground, do you?”
“That’s one of those things that’s out of my control,” Liz said. “An act of God, if you will. Deus ex machina.”
“Don’t start putting spells on us,” Teeny said.
“That’s Latin, it means —” I started, but Teeny glared at me.
“I know Latin. I studied it in high school,” Teeny said. “I also know people use old-timey languages to cast spells.”
“OK. I think we’re getting off-track here,” Wayne said. He was trying to be stern but he was obviously amused. “Liz. If you know of a plan to destroy Pine Grove by fire, do you feel no sense of personal or moral duty to stop that from happening?”
“They’re not going to actually do it,” Liz said.
Wayne and I exchanged a glance. “So… you’ve talked to the Tutu Vandals?”
“Ohh, that’s good, that’s a good moniker. Tutu Vandals. And juxtaposed with Skull and Bones, that’s great for media coverage. ‘Secret society wants to be taken seriously but is dubbed with silly name.’” Liz looked at our expectant faces and sighed. “OK. Fine. Say I did know something about this Skull and Bones Club. I would never tell you. But I would theorize, perhaps, that this is a very old institution. Skull and Bones? Sounds like something from the early 20th century. Maybe… it’s full of older members who feel like the whole concept of a secret society is dying out. Maybe, in an effort to recruit new people, young blood, this secret society decided to pull a stunt and generate some interest. Maybe they think it’ll get in the paper, kids will post it on their social media… and the club will get some new members. Maybe it’s obvious to anyone with half a brain that they have no intention of burning down a town.”
“That’s a whole lot of maybes,” Miss May said. “Can we get a single definitely? Like, what is the club demanding? And who is their leader?
“’Fraid I can’t offer that kind of intel, ladies and gentle-Wayne.”
“I’m not that gentle,” Wayne said. “Especially when someone is threatening to light my home on fire.”
“Ugh, everyone is taking this so seriously.” Liz rolled her eyes and puffed her pipe. “As my late grandfather would say, lighten up why don’t you? It’s only life.”
“I guess we are discussing a crime involving a tutu,” I said. “It’s kinda funny. Right?” I looked over at Wayne. He crossed his arms and glowered.
“I’ll say this. And then my lips are sealed.” Liz pretended to lock her mouth and toss out the key. Then she pretended to retrieve the key and re-open her lips. Then she spoke. “If this club wants new members, they’d probably leave some sort of calling card, some way to find them, for those who knew how to look. Don’t you think?” She locked her lips again, then unlocked them to smoke her pipe, then coughed, then locked them again. It was all somewhat comical, but I was the only one who chuckled.
“This was less helpful than a trip to the dentist when you’re having foot problems,” Teeny said.
“Is that… something you’ve done?” I asked.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Teeny replied.
Outside in the parking lot, we discussed our next move.
“Back to the statue, right?” I said. “I mean, that’s where a ‘calling card’ would be. We must’ve missed something.”
“I don’t think we need to go all the way back to Lincoln.” Miss May pointed across the street. The lamppost outside the town coffee shop, The Brown Cow, appeared to be wearing a tutu.
“The Tutu Vandals strike again,” I said. “Let’s see what they have to say now.”
Upon closer inspection, there wasn’t much to closely inspect. There was a tutu taped to the lamppost. But there wasn’t any note and there were no further clues to go on.
“Not much to see here,” said Wayne.
“That’s not true,” said Teeny. “I think the tutu gives this lamppost an irresistible girlish charm.”
“Well, I’m taken. So I’m not interested in girlish charm,” said Wayne, giving me a playful nudge in the side. “Also, I totally disagree. Lampposts cannot be girlish.”
Miss May squatted down and took a closer look at the tutu. “Hmm. Lincoln’s skirt was of quality design. The kind of thing a ballerina might wear while performing on stage. But this tutu is so cheap. It looks like it was purchased at a party store.”
Wayne sighed. “Probably a copycat crime. Most likely some bored kids with nothing better to do.”
Brian, the owner of the The Brown Cow, exited the coffee shop with a huge smile plastered across his face. “I see you three have discovered my new advertising strategy.”
Miss May looked at the lamppost, then back to Brian. “You did this?”
“I heard people were coming to town to get a peek at sexy Lincoln, so I figured I’d jump on the proverbial bandwagon. Already had a few customers who were drawn in by the tutu. Pretty smart, right?”
I groaned. “Uch. So this was a total red herring.”
“More of a pink herring,” said Brian. “I don’t have to take it down, do I?”
“You can leave it up,” said Wayne. “It’s fine.”
“And you just earned all four of you free coffee!” said Brian.
“For life?” said Teeny.
“For right now,” said Brian. “Come on in.”
After Brian made each of us our favorite coffee drinks, we headed back over to the Lincoln Museum to get a second look at the scene of the crime. Liz had implied that the Skull and Bones Club had placed a tutu on Lincoln to attract new members to the society. If that were true, it stood to reason there would be a clue somewhere on that statue that would lead us, along with potential new members, to the society. If Liz had been wrong, however, then a mad arsonist was on the loose somewhere in town. Either way, we needed to solve the mystery. Fast. So I walked with a quickened pace, eager to get a new look at the statue.
We arrived to find Lincoln wrapped in a perimeter of yellow police tape, indicating that the statue was off limits.
I reached for the tape but Wayne caught my hand. “Slow down, Chels. I can’t let you cross police lines. At least not while I’m here watching.”
“So go away,” I said. “I want to get a closer look.”
“How about I get a closer look, and the three of you stand back and help from a distance?”
Miss May chimed in. “Hang back here with us, Chelsea. Wayne’s right. We need to respect his authority.”
“How are we gonna snoop around from back here?” Teeny pouted. “That’s like…impossible.”
“Tell me how you’d snoop, and I’ll do it for you,” Wayne responded.
What followed, as you might imagine, was very silly: Three ladies shouting out commands to a police officer about how to look in the folds of a tutu worn by a bronze replica of Abe Lincoln.
“Lift up the tulle,” I said. “No, no, the tulle is the gauzy outer part. The underneath is more of a satin/taffeta fabric, I think.”
“Taffy?” Wayne asked.
“Taffeta. It’s like… You know what, I’ll explain later. Is there anything under the tulle?”
There wasn’t anything under the tulle. There wasn’t anything anywhere in Abe’s skirt. The note didn’t seem to have any more writing on it. As far as Wayne could tell, even with our extremely in-depth guidance, there was nothing we’d missed on our first investigation of Lincoln.
“Hang on!” Miss May said, right before Wayne was about to give up. “What if the note has some sort of code within the writing. Are there any weird letters or strange capitalizations or anything of that ilk?”
Wayne snapped a photo of the note with his phone and we all looked. There was, in fact, something strange about the message.
“I didn’t notice before,” I said, “but the note is all in caps except for a few letters.”
It read like this:
“THIs IS YoUR WARnING. DO aS WE SAY Or YOUR TOWN WILL bURN TO THe GROUNd.”
“Sonar bed,” Miss May said. “The lowercase letters spell sonar bed. What do we think that means?”
“Maybe it’s a scramble?” Wayne said. “I don’t know of any sonar beds anywhere—”
“Bats!” I cried out.
Teeny shrieked, ducked, and covered her head. “It’s the middle of the day! If they’re out they’ve got rabies!”
“No, sorry, I didn’t mean… there aren’t any bats here now. But. Uh, bats use sonar. And they sleep in caves. So, a sonar bed might be a bat cave.”
“That’s either annoyingly stupid or annoyingly smart. Either way I’m annoyed and my hair is messed up,” Teeny said. “Plus, I hate caves. Dark. Humid. Boring.”
I was tempted to make a remark about Teeny’s freak out over the non-existent bats. But we were honing in on a good clue and I didn’t want to lose focus. “Miss May. You’ve lived here forever. Do you know about any bat caves in Pine Grove?”
“I know a place,” said Wayne. “It’s not technically a cave. But it would make a good meeting spot for a secret society. Or a date. I might have learned about it when I was researching date spots around Pine Grove. For no particular reason.”
My face flushed warm. “Oh? You know a girl who… would like to go watch bats on a date?”
“Seems pretty weird,” Teeny said. “Only person I know who would like that is probably Wednesday Adams or… Ohhhh. It’s Chelsea. Chelsea would like that. OK. This makes sense now.”
“So where is this bat bed?” Miss May asked. “And do we think we can get there fast?”
A few minutes later, we were all crammed into Teeny’s pink convertible, speeding toward Wayne’s fabled bat bed. The others were excited and seemed to think we were on the cusp of a major breakthrough. But I was hung up on the coded message we’d found in the note on Lincoln’s tutu.
I repeated the code to myself over and over. “Sonar bed… Sonar bed… Sonar bed…” We were missing something but I couldn’t figure out what.
“Why do you keep whispering that to yourself?” Wayne asked. “Do you think we mis-interpreted the code?”
I bit my bottom lip. “I don’t know. It’s just…not everyone would think of sonar bed as a hint about bats. Which makes me think this Skull and Bones society is looking for a certain type of new recruit. Somebody who likes puzzles, enjoys word games, crosswords, that kind of thing…”
“A nerd,” Teeny said from the driver’s seat.
“Sure, a nerd,” I said. “And that makes me think, if they’re looking for nerds, then whoever’s in charge is probably also a nerd.”
“Who do we know that’s an old nerd?” Miss May asked.
We all turned to look at my aunt.
“Me? I’m not a nerd. I’m a former lawyer who’s obsessed with books and apples. OK I hear it. Fine. Maybe I’m a nerd but I’m not the leader of a secret society.”
“But you know all the other old nerds in town,” I said. “Like… oh my goodness! Like Tom Gigley!”
Tom Gigley was the white-haired town lawyer. He was also the frontman in a band called The Giggles. He loved grammar. He loved biographies of presidents. And he knew a ton of town history.
“Oh, come on, you think Tom is in a secret society?” Miss May asked.
“He’s surprised us before,” I said, thinking of Tom’s penchant for writing angry emails to his cable company.
“We’re almost there,” Wayne said. “It’s that big barn up ahead.”
I started to blush again at the sight of the barn. It was a classic red barn, situated in a beautiful field beside a weeping willow, which was positioned at the edge of a gorgeous little pond. The place was objectively a very romantic spot for a date.
“You can uh… I read somewhere online that you can uh, bring a picnic and sit under the big willow tree and at sunset the bats uh, leave the barn and it’s pretty cool, apparently. So I read,” Wayne said.
“Oh my god, Wayne Hudson has a heart, would you look at that?” Teeny said. “A big mushy cop heart.”
Who knew a person could blush so much? I must’ve looked like a red delicious at peak ripeness.
“Let’s hope it’s not actually mushy,” Miss May said.
“Oh, you know what I mean,” Teeny said. “I’m not saying the guy has applesauce for a heart. Don’t act like I have a mushy brain. Now where do I park for this bat barn?”
“Maybe near all those other cars?” I pointed to a small dirt patch near the field, where indeed a handful of other cars were parked, including Tom Gigley’s massive luxury sedan.
The presence of Gigley’s car was enough to possibly incriminate him. But the more incriminating thing was Tom Gigley standing in front of the barn, holding a torch.
He saw us coming from the dirt parking patch and his eyes widened. Wayne reached for his handcuffs.
“Now, don’t be rash, Detective Hudson,” Miss May said. “We all know Tom, and we all know he’s more bark than bite.”
“I’m just being cautious,” Wayne said. “I know Tom’s a good guy but he’s holding a flaming object and he’s wearing a t-shirt with a Skull and Bones on it.”
Indeed, Tom Gigley was wearing what appeared to be a handmade shirt with a crude skull and bones drawn on it. I couldn’t help but chuckle at how unimposing Tom seemed, despite how he probably wanted to appear. Skull and Bones seemed like it was going for a tough, mysterious, even spooky image. But Tom looked like an overgrown kid.
“Oh, it’s you guys,” Tom said, with obvious disappointment in his voice.
“What are we not good enough to join your secret society?” Teeny asked. She crossed her arms over her chest. I chuckled, because although Teeny would never in a million years have tried on purpose to be part of a secret society, if she thought that the secret society was excluding her, she’d dedicate her life to becoming a member.
“No, it’s not that,” Tom said. “Although we were looking for uh… younger members, no offense!”
“Deep offense taken,” Teeny said. “Go on. Why are you so disappointed to see us, other than our old age?”
“Well it’s just… you’re not here to join, are you? You’re here because you cracked the code and you think we’re a danger to Pine Grove.”
“Are you?” Wayne asked.
“No!” Tom sighed. “Of course not. Skull and Bones has always been an innocuous, underground group of intellectuals and philosophers.”
“See? Nerds,” Teeny said.
“But we’re dying out. Literally. Our members keep dying of… being over ninety years old. So we’re trying to bring in some fresh faces. I’m assuming you all pretty much had this plan figured out already, though, right?”
“We had a working hypothesis,” Miss May said. “Although it took us a minute. And we had some help from… other sources.”
“Liz!” Gigley said. “She promised to help publicize our cause in creative, non-obvious ways if we let her be a member. But I knew she was going to cause trouble.”
“Speaking of trouble… why’d you threaten to burn down the town?” I asked. “If you just wanted to get new people to join?”
“Because these days, you gotta be loud if you want people to pay attention. I mean, it goes against everything I stand for to deface a statue of a great American leader with a froofy skirt, but… we needed to do something big.”
“Well did it work?” Miss May asked. “You got some new people in there?”
Just then, Petey, one of the waiters at Teeny’s restaurant, emerged from the barn.
“Are we gonna start this initiation or what?” Petey asked.
“Et tu, Petey?” Teeny asked, mouth agape.
“Oh, hey Teeny! Are you gonna join too? Your mom’s gonna be so surprised!”
“My mom is in Skull and Bones?” Teeny said.
“I didn’t know she ever moved from behind the register at Grandma’s,” I said. “I guess we all contain multitudes.”
“Yeah, yeah, but some of us have places to be so can we get this shindig underway or not?” Petey asked, checking his watch.
“Am I under arrest?” Gigley asked.
“I suppose not,” Wayne said. “If I didn’t like you, I could definitely arrest you for a lot of things. But. Seems like this was all pretty innocent. Very mysterious and impressive, of course. But innocent.”
“Alright. Let’s spill some blood, then,” Tom said. We all stared at him. “Oh! Not real blood. Sorry. Forgot you were still here. It’s just corn syrup and food coloring. For dramatic effect.”
With that, Tom ducked into the barn. Teeny followed him, muttering something about how she wasn’t going to be the only person at her restaurant who was left out of a secret society.
Miss May chuckled and walked after Teeny. “This, I gotta see,” she said. “Teeny being initiated into Skull and Bones. It’s too good.”
“If we all join, it’s gonna be mostly cooks and bakers,” I said. “They’ll have to rename it Skull and Scones.”
I laughed at my own joke. No one else did. But Miss May did smile. “Hey that’s not a bad idea. I can make spooky skull-shaped scones for fall. With figs for eye sockets! Delicious and fun. Thanks for the inspo, Chels.”
I was happy to have unintentionally solved my aunt’s baking slump with my bad pun. I stood up a little straighter as Miss May patted my shoulder and walked inside after Teeny.
That left me and Wayne standing outside as the sun set behind us. Suddenly a cloud of bats whooshed out of the barn. It happened so fast, and with such a wild abandon, that we both stood in stunned silence, just watching.
After the bats had dispersed and were fluttering and swooping over the pond, Wayne looked down at me with his green-blue eyes.
“So? Good spot for a date?” Wayne asked with a slight sideways grin.
“Very romantic,” I said, smiling up at him. “I think whoever you bring here will… love it.”
“Great,” he said.
Then we stood there, smiling, as the day faded and the bats danced across the dark blue sky.
It felt good to solve another mystery in Pine Grove. But I knew… there would be plenty more to come.
What you’ve just read is an exclusive story from The Apple Orchard Mysteries! If you’ve already read some of the series, I hope you enjoyed this extra time with Chelsea and the ladies. Feel free to pick up wherever you left off by selecting the appropriate book below. And if this was your first introduction to the Apple Orchard Mysteries, start with Book One: Apple Die.
You’ll love these cozies because everyone loves the story of women who find strength through solving mysteries!