The Sign in the Smoke CHAPTER ONE
A Summer Retirement
BESS PEERED DOWN INTO HER cup and then thrust it back at the girl who’d handed it to her. “Could I get just a smidge more marshmallow?”
“More marshmallow?” her cousin George asked, swirling her plastic spoon through her own pile of Strawberry Cheesecake Explosion. “If you get any more marshmallow, Bess, all of your organs are going to stick together.”
My boyfriend, Ned, cleared his throat. “I’m pretty sure that’s not how the human digestive system works,” he said, watching as the ice cream scooper handed the cup back to Bess, “but you are going to have the mother of sugar highs.”
Bess tilted her head at him. “After eating an ice cream sundae? You don’t say.” She smiled at the ice cream scooper, plunged her spoon into a fluffy cloud of marshmallow, and shoveled it into her mouth, closing her eyes in pleasure. “Ohhhh, yeah. That’s the stuff. Besides”—she opened her eyes—“we’re celebrating here. At least, Nancy, George, and I are. Aren’t we?”
“We sure are,” I agreed, stepping up to the counter. “Can I get a strawberry sundae with Oreo chip and whipped cream?”
Ned smiled at me. “Good combination.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I spent all winter planning the ultimate sundae combo.”
Bess took another bite of her sundae and moaned. “And we can spend all day eating ice cream now, guys,” she said happily. “Because as of midnight last night, it’s officially summer?!”
“For twelve beautiful, short weeks,” Ned put in.
Bess glared at him. “Buzzkill.”
“And then comes fall,” Ned said, taking a lick of his own rocky-road-with-sprinkles cone. “Then winter. It’ll be snowing before we know it!”
“My point is,” Bess said, raising her spoon in the air, “that we girls have three months of gorgeous weather stretching ahead of us. Three months. What are we going to do with it all?”
I took my sundae from the ice cream scooper and handed over my money. “Um, if I were to guess? I’ll probably end up solving a mystery or something.”
“You’re so predictable, Nance,” George scoffed, rolling her eyes.
I took a bite of my sundae. Ooh, it was perfect. I’d done it. I’d created the ultimate sundae. “I dunno,” I said, shrugging at George. “Maybe I’ll take the summer off from solving mysteries. Take up knitting or something.”
Now it was Bess’s turn to roll her eyes.
“What?” I asked.
“I’ll believe that when I see it, is all,” she explained. “How are you going to manage it? Mysteries tend to find you, you know. I think the only way you could pull that off is to stop talking to people at all.”
George nodded, chewing on a nugget of cheesecake. “Or go on a really long trip,” she added.
“Where you don’t speak the language,” Ned put in, pausing from licking his cone.
“You guys!” I said, getting frustrated. “I’m serious. I mean, kind of.”
“You want to stop solving mysteries?” Bess asked, looking incredulous. She slapped a hand over my forehead. “Are you feeling okay?”
I dodged out from under her. “Not permanently,” I said. “But it might be nice to just relax this summer. Enjoy nature. Maybe play some sports.”
I expected Bess to laugh again, but instead she looked thoughtful. “I think George might be right,” she said slowly. “I think to do that, you might have to leave town. And I have an idea!” She put her sundae down on a nearby table and then swung her purse off her shoulder so she could start digging in it. Normally this was a twenty-minute process, minimum, so George and I looked at each other and sat down to continue eating our ice cream. But just as I had the perfect mouthful of strawberries, ice cream, and whipped cream, Bess pulled out a glossy brochure and waved it at me.
“Um,” I said, struggling to swallow what I had in my mouth, “okay.”
I took the brochure. The cover showed a beautiful lake surrounded by woods and cabins, and blocky text spelled out CAMP CEDARBARK.
I raised an eyebrow at Bess. “I think we’re a little old for summer camp, don’t you think?”
Bess, who’d sat down with us and was inhaling her sundae, sighed. “Not as campers,” she said. “As counselors. Think about it, Nance. You want to relax, enjoy nature, maybe play some sports?”
“Yeah.” George snorted. “There’s nothing more relaxing than looking after six children who belong to someone else all summer long!”
Bess frowned at her. “Shush. You like kids.” She turned back to me. “And it wouldn’t be for the whole summer. Camp Cedarbark does little mini-sessions, each one week long! Besides, it’s not just any camp, Nancy. I used to go there when I was a kid!”
I squinted at the brochure. “I thought you went to Camp Lark-something?”
“Camp Larksong,” Bess confirmed. “But they closed five years ago, two years after my last visit! Now a Camp Larksong alum has finally bought the place and restored it. They sent this brochure to all the former Camp Larksong campers, encouraging us to get involved or send our kids.”
“Kids?” asked Ned.
Bess shrugged. “Well, Camp Larksong was in business for twenty-three years, so . . .” She turned to me, her face as eager as a puppy’s. “What do you think?”
I raised my eyebrows. “You’re serious?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?” Bess stuck out her lower lip in a pout. “I have so many happy memories of this place! I was sort of thinking of applying to be a counselor on my own, but it would be so much more fun with you guys!”
George looked at her cousin. “You really think I could take care of a bunkful of children and not lose my mind?”
“You’d have help,” Bess admonished her. “We’d each be assigned a CIT, counselor-in-training, who’s a few years younger. And of course, we’d all be there to help each other. Besides”—she pointed an accusing finger at George—“you like children. You’re a great babysitter! Remember when you watched cousin Gemma for the day and taught her how to code?”
George’s lips turned up. “Well, she was an exceptional kid. She had a natural talent!”
“I guess we’d have activities to keep them busy, George,” I said, trying to imagine the three of us relaxing by the lake in the photo. “It’s not like we’d be starting from scratch.”
“And the activities are really fun,” Bess went on. “I know neither of you went to summer camp, but it’s the greatest! Swimming and hiking and playing capture the flag and . . .”
I looked at George. Bess was right, I’d never been to summer camp . . . but it did sound really fun. And definitely more exciting than sitting in our backyard rereading Harry Potter with my feet in a kiddie pool, which was basically last summer. (When I wasn’t sleuthing, that is.) “It would only be a week or two,” I said quietly.
Bess looked at me, her eyes bulging in excitement as she realized she’d gained an ally. “Ten days,” she squealed. “The mini-sessions are just one week of camp, and three days’ training. That’s not so bad, right? Even if you hated it, it’s only ten days.”
The silence that followed was broken by a crunch! We all turned to see Ned finishing up his waffle cone. “I’m sold,” he said after he swallowed. “But unfortunately, I’m using the summer to bang out my science requirements. You’re on your own, Nance.”
Bess smiled at him. “You weren’t invited anyway,” she said. “It’s a girls’ camp. What do you say?” she asked, looking eagerly from me to George.
“I’m . . . in,” I said, smiling in spite of myself. A week at camp! It was the last way I thought I’d spend my summer, and yet it was somehow perfect. I looked back down at the photo on the brochure. It looked . . . peaceful.
Bess squealed and turned to George, squeezing her arm. “It’s on you, cuz,” she said, looking George in the eye. “You know this would be fun. Come on. Everything I suggest for us turns out to be fun!”
I held up my hand. “Actually . . .”
Ned raised a finger in the air. “Yeah, I’m gonna have to object to that one too.”
Bess pretended to glare at me. “We’re still all alive, anyway,” she pointed out. Then she turned back to George. “Cuz, will you make my summer? Come on, say you’re in.”
George took the brochure from me and looked down at the photo. A slow smile crept across her face. “Okay,” she said. “But if I get a bunkful of princessy mean girls, I am coming for you in the night, Bess.”
“I can live with that,” she said quickly. “I’m fast. I know how to hide. Anyway, yay!” She grabbed me suddenly around the waist with one hand, pulling in George with the other. “Group hug! We’re headed back to Camp Larksong!”
Six weeks and endless application forms later, I sat on my bed, cramming in my last two T-shirts into my camp duffel bag. Our housekeeper, Hannah, had helped me sew labels bearing my name onto all my clothes. Eight shirts, six pairs of shorts, two pairs of jeans, pj’s, one casual dress—I was officially ready to go!
And not a minute too soon, because as soon as I zipped up my bag, I heard the toot of Bess’s horn in the driveway. I hefted my bag onto my shoulder—whoa, I hope I don’t have to carry this far—and maneuvered it down the stairs and into the front hall. Dad and Hannah, having heard the horn too, were standing there waiting to say good-bye.
Dad grinned at me. “I can’t believe you’re going to camp,” he said, shaking his head. “You were never a camp type. You were a stick-your-nose-in-a-book type.”
“It looks really fun, Dad,” I said. “Besides, it’s a great excuse to spend some time outside and get to know some new people.”
He nodded. “I know you’ll have fun,” he said, and leaned in for a hug.
“Don’t forget to eat,” Hannah advised as I finished up Dad’s hug and went to hug her. “You’ll be running around a lot!”
I chuckled. “Well, I can guarantee the food won’t be as good as yours,” I promised. “I’ll miss you both. Write to me?”
Dad pulled out some folded paper and a preaddressed envelope from his shirt pocket. “Ready to go,” he promised. “Don’t worry, you won’t miss any of the big news from River Heights.”
“I love you both,” I said, opening the door and squeezing through with my bag.
“Love you, too. Have fun,” Dad said, leaning out to take the door from me and waving in Bess’s direction. “Don’t get in too much trouble.”
I grinned back at him. “When have I ever gotten in trouble?”
I hauled my bag out to Bess’s coupe and loaded it into the trunk, then climbed into the passenger seat. Bess was all smiley and pumped up, and couldn’t stop talking about all the fun we were going to have at Camp Cedarbark. She explained that at Camp Larksong, each week ended with a special campout on a hill by the lake, with a sunset sing-along and ghost stories around the campfire. She’d read on Camp Cedarbark’s website that they were planning to continue the tradition.
We swung by George’s house, where she was waiting in the driveway with her parents. After lots of hugs and kisses (George is an only child, and her parents love her), George climbed into the backseat and we were off.
“Aren’t you excited?” Bess asked, peering at her cousin in the rearview mirror when we were stopped at a traffic light. “Aren’t we going to have the best time ever?”
“Yeeeeeeah,” said George slowly. But she didn’t look like she thought we were going to have the best time ever. She looked a little . . . concerned.
“Is something up?” I asked.
“Not exactly,” she said. But she still wore a confused expression. “It’s just . . . I Googled ‘Camp Larksong’ and ‘Camp Cedarbark’ last night.”
The light changed, and Bess punched the gas with a little too much force. We lurched forward. “Don’t tell me you found some nasty review,” she said. “I’ve been looking at them every few weeks myself. Everyone says they’ve had an amazing time there.”
“It wasn’t a nasty review,” George said, shaking her head. “It was a newspaper article. The headline was ‘Tragedy Closes Camp Larksong.’ It was dated five years ago—the year you said the camp closed.”
Bess frowned. “That’s strange. I never heard about any tragedy. What did the article say?”
George hesitated. “That’s just the thing—I couldn’t access the article. It was taken down a year ago. I just found a link to the cached page.”
Bess looked thoughtful as she pulled onto the highway. Camp Cedarbark was about two hours away from River Heights. For a moment, we were all silent as she merged into traffic and we all thought our separate thoughts.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” Bess said after a minute or two, startling me. “If there were really some big tragedy, I would have heard about it, right? I kept in touch with some of my fellow campers for years. Nobody mentioned anything.”
“I guess,” George said, but she was staring out the window with a pensive expression.
Things got quiet again for a while, and I tried to lose myself in the landscape whooshing by and ignore the little worried voice inside my head.
The voice that said, Please don’t let there be a mystery to solve at Camp Cedarbark!