What can possibly happen when a crime happens under the very noses of a group of very savvy eighth graders at St. BeSillius’ Catholic School on St. Frederick’s Island? When the money they raised to buy toys for children in homeless shelters in near-by NYC is stolen, the Buccaneers, as they call themselves, are outraged. Despite warnings from Father Felix and Sr. Jo-Ann, Sprocket, the leader of the Buccaneers, and her determined buddies set out to follow the clues, run down the thief, and get those toys for the homeless kids.
CHAPTER ONE: A CALL TO ARMS
How do those turtles do it? Pull their heads into their bodies? Here comes Sr. Jo-Ann. My head stubbornly remained on top of my neck.
If you think it’s easy writing a note to the kid in the seat next to you when the rattling of Sr. Jo-Ann’s rosary would announce her slow walk down my aisle at any moment, you’ve never been to Catholic school. The room is silent. You can hear pen nibs scratching across the pages of our black and white composition books, leaving a trail of ink blots.
Pen nibs, you say? Ink blots? You won’t believe this about the ink and the inkwell. Will you? This is just another aspect of toughening the backbone here at St. BeSillius’s. As I look at my permanently stained right middle finger, I wonder if I will be poisoned by some carcinogen in the ink and become St. Sprocket, patron saint of calligraphy.
The smell of chalk and old tempera paints barely covers the tinge of pine-scented urine coming from the old radiators. My mom went to this school and tells the story of kids leaning their wet behinds against the heat to let their underwear dry if they had an accident. Going to the bathroom in those days was a privilege reserved for the Pope. Thank God things have changed, and St. BeSillius had hired a nurse, and given her an office where this kind of thing could be taken care of.
A floor board squeaks. I hear the faint clink of keys as if Sister has reached into the Stygian depths of her pocket for something. I slide my ruler over the words I’ve just written, and peer cautiously from the side of my vision trying to locate Sr. Jo-Ann. My stomach bunches. She is reading Eddie O’Malley’s entire page. Eddie’s not one of us, so there is nothing out of the ordinary to see in his notebook.
My page is full of writing, but not what I think I want Sister to see. So far I’ve jotted a list: LOOK FOR CLUES, including the narvex, the sacristy, the side entrance, the choir loft, and the bushes around the church. I’ve signed it, Sprocket.
Sprocket? Is that a Christian name? Of course not, silly reader. We all have code names to protect the innocent. We are the Buccaneers of St. BeSillius, a secret society dedicated to solving the secrets and misdeeds of our little parish school and the island where it’s located.
Uh-oh. Here she comes. If I rip the page out and crumple it, she’ll just grab it. And, I’ll have to explain why there’s nothing on the page, in cursive mind you, about the characteristic that would have made George Washington a good Catholic, if only he had known better.
George was an Anglican having once been a colonial, loyal to the King of England, also a George. But, I digress.
Eddie, not the sharpest pencil in the box is getting the Spanish Inquisition treatment about his lack of inspiration on the topic. I wonder if the nuns get a special course in interrogation techniques?
Eddie, I love him dearly, is buying me time. Could I quietly turn the page and jot a quick sentence or two? I pick up the notebook and turn the page, knocking a pen full of ink onto the floor along with the ink well. As you can imagine, this was not a silent maneuver. Sr. Jo-Ann, Eddie and the whole class look at me. I feel my face burn. I get up to clean the mess and knock the composition book on the floor with my note showing plainly on top. Sister reaches for it. I’M DEAD!
The fire drills sounds. Sister turns to move the class to the fire exit, and I kick the composition book under the desk. It obliges me, closing with a snap.
“I’ll clean this later, Sister” I smile.
“And I will be checking your essay.” She smiles back.
“Yes, Sister,” I say, noting the ink slowly seeping across the pages of my notebook. The proverbial glove his been tossed onto the floor like they did in those ancient duels. I file past her.
Are you wondering why a bunch of Catholic school kids are searching for clues in what looks like a church and the yard around it?
Let me digress for a bit and fill you in on some details about why we are listing clues and what all this skulduggery (Great word, isn’t it?) is about.
Well, before I fill you in on what happened when we found those clues, let me explain who we are. We originally called ourselves The Secret Crime-Stoppers of Sts. Christopher and Michael, but I wanted a shorter title like Buccaneers of St. BeSillius. I thought calling on both St. Christopher and St. Michael was pushing the envelope of sponsorship. And who even knows who St. BeSillius is? So, just think of us as the Buccaneers.
For the past year, our class has been raising money for a class trip to visit seven churches in Manhattan and distribute toys to the children’s day care centers in those parishes. We did bake sales, car washes, leaf-raking, snow shoveling. We cleaned attics for old ladies, cut lawns and pulled weeds. Some ill-informed parents even let us do fence-painting. Don’t worry! Those shrubs will come back in a year or two.
A whole year of those earnings went into the fund. We kept it in the vestry. That’s the room behind the altar in the church where the priest keeps his vestments. The box with the money disappeared the day Father Felix was supposed to open a bank account for us. We never got the money back, never found out who did it, and we’re pi….. Whoops! Sorry. I’m just angry. Not mad. Sister Priscilla said that mad means crazy. Well, she never met my family.
Anyway, even though the sisters and priests said we should offer it up to God. I’m not sure what that means, the money, or the cursing we did? And, we should learn a lesson. Next time lock it up! And where were we supposed to lock it up?
This didn’t go down too well with some of us and one night last summer at WingNut’s beach house on St. Frederick’s Island, we decided to form our own little CSI. We voted on and accepted our official title, Buccaneers of St.Besillius. Look. You can’t beat our creativity in naming the group. We even researched St. BS. He is the patron saint of mimes.
As we gathered around the fire, we wrote up a charter including the following:
Each member is sworn to secrecy, under pain of pain.
All clues are to be shared by everyone.
All communications would be done using our code names. Mine is Sprocket.
Our meeting place would be the old fishing hut behind the Middle School.
We made a list of our code names.
Lily code name Sprocket, computer whiz.
Ryan: code name Tee Square, computer whiz.
Frank: code name Wing Nut, mechanical genius.
Leon: code name Snap Shackle, math genius.
Amalie: code name Ratchet, electronic surveillance, or just plain snoop.
We tried to think of a secret handshake but that seemed too silly, even for us.
CHAPTER TWO: TALKING DURING A FIRE DRILL
I pulled up my knee socks for what must have been the tenth time today, and hurried after the other kids, moving like cockroaches when someone turns the light on.
I caught up to Wing Nut who was practicing a skill every Catholic School kid learns, that of communicating in a ventriloquist’s voice.
“Did Sister see your note?”
“No, but it was a close call. I knocked over the ink well and the notebook is soaked in ink. The message is obliterated”.
Thank you, Saint BeSillius, I prayed.
Just as an aside, but important to this story, St. BS, as we like to call her is the patron saint of mimes. Mimes, as you know communicate through body language, gestures and facial expressions. Even though the students here at St. BS’s don’t take a vow of silence, the results of the discipline our teachers impose, is that it helps you to be a mime if you want to get a message across to your friends.
The all clear gong sounded and we headed back to class.
“What’s the plan? We’ll have to pass it along the usual route to get everyone on board.”
I thought about this. The usual route required some messages secreted behind the poor box in chapel, under statues of the Virgin and Saints, and in blackboard erasers which had to be clapped outdoors to remove the chalk dust. Sister JoAnn never seemed to notice the increase in piety or the fervor to do a good deed, or maybe she was onto us, and hadn’t figured out exactly what it was she was onto.
“Forget it. I haven’t got my plan together yet, and we meet on Friday anyway. Leave it at that.”
Best not to create any more suspicion at this point.
Wing Nut seemed to shrink by two sizes like a deflated balloon at this turn of events.
“Hey, call me tonight. Help me with the plan, okay?”
Wing Nut re-inflated, and we did a fist bump.
“There is NO talking before or AFTER a fire drill.
“Yes, Sister Superior,” we chorused, and scurried off, hoping to escape any remedy she had for breaking fire drill rules.
I turned around quick to see Sister JoAnn talking to Sister Superior, frowning and pointing to us.
Well she couldn’t stop us from what we planned to do. Too late for that.
Wing Nut and I exchanged a final knowing look and I headed back to clean up the ink, all the while trying to push my anger down, so I could think clearly and plan our moves. I wasn’t about to forgive and forget, pray for the soul who did the evil deed, and neither were my friends. We were going to find out who stole the money we raised to buy toys for needy kids and get that money back.