The Miss Marple Society had a reputation. Fans of crime fiction and solvers of small town mysteries, they stuck their noses into Nobody’s Business with all the breezy self-confidence of gossipy aunts cleaning your underwear drawer. An editorial in the Monroe County Gazette had called the Society, “a batty old cave for batty old women,” and club president, Maud, loved the quote so much she’d cross-stitched it and hung it on the club door.
So when George the librarian sorted through returned books and noticed a phalanx of grandmothers burst into the library, he sighed with a mixture of amusement and resignation.
“Mornin’ Maud,” he said as the women came to a stop, standing between the stacks and eyeing him like a dangerous suspect. “My condolences.”
The Society had shrunk from six members to five after Louisa Gartner had passed away some weeks ago. It had been a long time coming, but her absence was still tender as an unhealed bruise. Absent her camera and sunny smile, the Society felt unsure how to move forward without her.
“Don’t you mornin’ me, young man,” Maud said, an all-business demeanor hiding her feelings. “Explain this! From our mail this morning.”
She waved a paper at the young librarian: a postcard of the library, scrawled with a cryptic jumble of letters and numbers.
“Not sure, ma’am,” George said carefully.
“The letters are a simple Caesar cipher,” Maud continued, insisting. “When decoded, it says ‘our persuasive first book,’ so here we are. You know nothing about this?”
“Difficult to say—”
“Oh, never mind that!” Violet – ever pragmatic – cut in. She blinked at George, her eyes magnified through spectacles. “Where’s Persuasion?”
“Uhh, the classics—” and before George could finish, the would-be detectives raced into the shelves.
Ingrid reached the book first, pulling it out with knobbly fingers.
“You’re sure this is it?” she asked.
“You weren’t there,” replied Maud. She gazed at the worn old book with fondness. “Louisa and I, we solved our first mystery with this book. So yes, I’m certain.”
They flipped through. The numbers of their code referred to a page, a line, and a word. Stringing together words like this, they formed the phrase: ‘Louisa’s picture needs developing.’
“We’re on the right track,” said Maud. “It must mean—”
Quick as they arrived, the Society members flew out the library.
“What was she up to?” Maud grumbled as they walked. “With that old thief, it could be anything.”
“Not this again,” Violet said.
The Society had once received several bars of French chocolates called Chocolat d’Arc, wrapped in gold leaf by a gourmet chef, and Maud swore on her life Louisa had pilfered the last one.
“She left to ‘get some air’ during crochet night,” Maud snapped. “And then the last bar was gone. Proof!”
“Yes, but what’s the motive?” Violet said.
“It was chocolate; that’s motive enough!”
In the club room, they found Louisa’s trusty camera, her beloved Beau Brownie, in its case. She had chosen the green model – reminded her of her garden, she’d said. Maud’s fingers hovered in hesitation as she reached for it.
Violet placed a hand on Maud’s shoulder. “What is it, dear?”
“It just occurred to me,” Maud whispered, “the last person to touch this was her.”
A hush fell over the club as they regarded the little mechanical souvenir of their friend. Maud searched their familiar faces and gathered her strength.
“Come on, girls,” she said, grabbing the camera case. “Let’s solve this mystery.”
The local newspaper press was only a few blocks away, a large brick building between the butcher and the dressmaker.
A scraggly young man greeted them. He tried to turn them away but froze when he saw Ingrid.
“James, poor dear,” Ingrid cooed, sugar-sweet. “I was just thinking about you and lovely Miss Doris; how her father didn’t approve? As it happens, I’m bridge partners with Miss Doris’s mother. I’m inclined to put in a good word for my strapping young nephew – assuming he is a helpful and gracious young gentleman, that is?”
A while later James presented the Society with the picture from the camera: a smiling Louisa, pale and thin in her final days, waving from the community gardens.
The Society hurried to the gardens and found Louisa’s plot. They spotted a patch of disturbed earth with a spade stuck into it, and wasted no time digging. The spade – tink! – struck metal, and wrinkled hands dug up an old biscuit tin decorated with poppies. Maud pried off the lid and the five leaned in.
The tin sighed out the scent of paper and chocolate. For a moment, Louisa seemed to be right there beside them.
It was packed with photographs. Ingrid winning Christmas canasta, Violet handing out the latest Agatha Christie. A younger Maud beamed beside Louisa at the library, celebrating their first mystery and the birth of a new club.
“I never look good in photos—”
“Louisa was so happy that day—”
“I’d almost forgotten—”
They dug deeper and found a handwritten letter on velvety stationary. It said:
I don’t have much time, but I have enough in me for one more little mystery. Tell George thanks again for the help. I hope you had fun – I know I did. I had great fun every year and every day I spent with you.
I love you all. Here’s to the batty old cave for batty old women, with all my heart.
P.S. Maud, you were right. You went through them so fast, I saved one! Enjoy.
Underneath the letter was the glint of gold leaf: the final bar of Chocolat d’Arc.
“That old hen,” Maud said with tears in her eyes.
The women passed the letter between them sharing sad, beautiful memories. Then, carrying the tin like a treasure, they returned to the club room of the Miss Marple Society and had a pot of tea on Louisa.
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