George Keith Król
Deluded Delinquents
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The Case of the Deluded Delinquents @Copyright 1986, 2002 Alopex

This case occurred the month after the Assistant Assassin. I had a joyous time writing it in 1986, when it takes place. My inspiration stemmed from an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer about VisionQuest, a stressed institution at that time. In August, I had time to write it while the article was still fresh in my mind.
I had dropped the character Don Hough from my mysteries in 1980, and I wanted to bring him back.  I thought at the time, it would not be prudent, because I figured he had to come back as a private detective (never expecting that it would be 2002!), so he needed more seasoning.  Therefore, I created Don Hanson as a substitute -- a trade of a Irishman for a Scandinavian! 

Don Hanson liked his job as a counselor to a group of delinquent teenagers. Five months ago he had graduated with a degree in law enforcement. His Big Brother experience had led him to that pursuit. Already he found himself in the role as protector to some of the boys. Each showed some amount of response. Of course, Don had his favorites, although he did his best not to reveal it to any of them. One of his favorites lay sleeping in the same tent in a nearby cot.
Ironic, thought Don, how easy it is to think optimistically about human beings when they are asleep. Don and James Brian McQuinn had met in June and hit it off immediately. In fact, Don had been treating Jame as his brother. Neutral observers had found them inseparable. Both exhibited blond, curly hair -- Jame had the more flaxen -- blue eyes, and, since their initial encounter, altruistic optimism.
But these were not Don's dominant thoughts this cold morning in November. The plummetted temperature had brought freezing air into the tent, so Don's contemplations accompanied smoky breath. Today the group was going to hike through the naked woods. Even that trip had a relatively low importance, because what troubled Don was the future of the program, Nirvania.
Back in the summer of 1982, Bill Minton started Nirvania to give juvenile delinquents another chance instead of jail for nonviolent crimes.  Nirvania provided incentives to take on responsibility for themselves and the program.  The agenda called for both carrots and sticks to nudge the delinquents from recidivism.  Over the past four years, the program grew tremendously.  The local chapter shrank in comparison to the whole structure.  Instead of a sign of success, omenous clouds appeared on the horizon.  Over the past year, accidents had plagued the program nationwide.  Rumors of incompetence rampaged through the structure.
Now the rumors had become vicious.  An agent provacateur had infiltrated the program.  The prospect of losing the program worried Don as he sat outside the tent.  The frigid morning wind played with his golden brown curls.  He recalled the letter he had sent to his friend Keith in Wilkes-Barre yesterday.
In it, he asked Keith to find an investigator to put these rumors to rest.  Rather naively, Don did not know how to pull off a covert investigation to keep from warning potential adversaries.  Still, the stakes were high enough to call for help.  Already Nirvania suffered a tarnished reputation from unexplained deaths and ruinous lawsuits.  Again the rumors indicated that Nirvania stood in a precarious position -- one more disasterous incident and Don would be seeking employment and losing his little brothers!
But it was time to arise; Dawn had broken, and the couselors were arousing the boys.  A canticleer crowed in the distance.  Winter had begun to set in on this Saturday morning.  In a way, Don was glad to lead his group from camp for the day.  Perhaps he would feel better if his thoughts hid in the mental woods of reality rather than in metaphysical speculation.

Don had not the only impromptu tasks that day.  Keith read his letter just past noon, and he sprang into action.  My first impression came from the noisome ring of my telelphone.  I had just put in many hours juggling my front desk job and helping a local entrepreneur in his bookstore.  Little did I know that I would be booked until Thanksgiving!
After ten rings, I stumbled to the desk and answered the conveyance; I was still asleep!
"George, how'd you like to join an extracurricular outing club?"
"Okay, Keith, what gives?"
"My friend, Don, works for Nirvania, and he just wrote to me asking for help to save the organization.  Surely, you've read about the deaths in this program for juvenile rehabilitation."
"I sure have.  In fact, I know someone else who offered to give me a rather handsome stipend to so some snooping in the program."
"Great, George.  Can you arrange to meet me there today?"
"Gracious, Keith.  First, I must call Pete to accept the job, if it's still open.  He had asked me to do it three weeks ago, the day I came back from Pittsburgh.  Of course, I was far too exhausted to accept.  I'll try right now and call you back."
Within a minute, I was talking to Pete Lawson, a tall, blond lawyer representing Nirvania in its lawsuits.  Pete was deternined to prove Nirvania the vicitim of corrupt officials, enough to exculpate the whole organization.
Pete had come for my help through a business contact in State College.  His comely physiognomy simulated mine; and we became close despite our disagreement over criminal law!  Pete had made arrangements for my covert activities, and he realized it would be better with Don's cooperation.  The only complication was that Keith would come, too.  I passed it off as an overall positive situation.
 
Saturday the Tentysecond had another surprise in store for us.,  The Nirvania camp was nestled in the mountains surrounding State College, so I caught two hours' sleep before I bean my realtively short trek.  Keith left Wilkes-Barre immediately and began a trip halfway across Pennsylvania.  Thus, it was already dusk when we met at the camp.
I could not see Keith's car when I parked near some recreational vehicles.  Ostensibly I arrived with Keith as -- you guessed it -- a counselor.  I decided the best way to start the investigation was with Don Hanson.  However, I decovered when I reported for duty that Don had not returned with his group.
"Was Hanson supposed to be back before dark?" I inquired one of the couselors.
"Yes, and it's strange because he usually comes back well before dark.  No one is allowed to stay out of camp overnight since the first of October."
"Excuse me," I interrupted.  "I see someone who might help me."
I had seen Keith arrive, looking dapper in jeans, a denim jacket, and a lumberjack shirt.  He was his usually demure self, which I had come to enjoy so much.
"Hi, buddy," I saluatated.  "What took you so long to get here?"
"The traffic was heavy," he replied aloofly.
"Come on, Keith," I commanded sternly.  "Give me a hug!"
I had found seven months earlier that Keith found it difficult to express himself.  Apparently group therapy did not open he emotional reservoir, so I had been trying to do so to a man with whom I felt fraternal love -- I once was so shy and reserved myself!
After we had embraced each other, I steered Keith to the main tent.  Every other group had returned a half hour previously.  Now I was becoming worried.  It seemed more than a coincidence that Don disappeared right after he had called us for help.  I already admired the man before I even met him.
"What could possibly be the reason that Don's late?" I asked a visibly concerned Keith.
"Whatever it is, if Don can handle it, they'll be back as soon as possible."  

No sooner had Keith spoken, when we heard a group's coming out of the woods.  Keith pivoted and hailed Don as we saw him emerge from the background.  Don recognized Keith, and concern swept from his face.  He held up his index finger to signal us to wait.  "Meet me in my tent in five minutes," came the command.
Keith saw my perplexity and whispered, "He has to report to the counselor chief first.  Then we can expect a complete story on what's going on in this part of Nirvania."
I nodded, and we sauntered to Don's tent.  We soon found our wait long.  A benighted outside became our background.  After a tedious halfhour, Don entered from the night.  Worry dominated his handsome face, for I could see forehead lines run up to his curls.
"Okay, guys," he broached.  "I'm afraid the situation has just deteriorated.  Maybe we're too late to try to save this organization."
"We'll be the judge of that conclusion," I rebuked.  "Why don't you just start at the reason you called for us out here?"
Don appeared to relax.  "Well, as you know, Nirvania lies precariously on a precipice.  The last lawsuit concerning wrongful death left the organization near bankruptcy.  Nirvania canceled plans to expand into Ohio, raised its fee past one hundred dollars a day per child, and suffered a moral loss.  The group commander, a Richard Purdy, just told me that he might execute his threat -- to quit and to shut down the central Pennsylvania division."
"I take it that this threat came from why you were late getting back today," I deduced.
"Right -- and the reason why is what's so frightening to the whole program.  Some smart ass began spreading a rumor that the next death would occur here this weekend.  Unfortunately, it was almost reality today.  Someone had left bear traps along the path.  What alerted me was when my walking stick tripped one."  
"Couldn't that have been accidental?" surmised Keith.
"No, because the next I tripped an iron grating, which just missed one of the children.  We are no longer dealing with negligence or incompetence, but deliberate catastrophe."
"I think it's a safe conclusion," I agreed.  "We must think of survival.  Obviously someone wants to add to the gravamen of the delinquents.  Have any of your group said he wants to leave or to report the incident to the authorities?"
 
"None of my striplings would do such a thing!" reacted Don defensively.  "They trust me with their lives."
"And I have the feeling that they just may have to do that," I assuaged prophetically.  "Unless we want to risk a panic -- or give in -- we won't shut down operations."
"Which means?" Don asked.
"Which means there'll be other sabotage attempts."
"But how can we stop these attempts?" Keith worried.
"I really don't know at this juncture," I admitted.  "What did Purdy say when you told him of the incident in the woods?"
Don's azure eyes lit up.  "I didn't tell him.  I merely state that one of the youths had wandered off while we were having lunch.  I don't know if he bought it."
"Would you say that Purdy is perspicacious?" I asked.
"No, but I think he hides it."
"Given that Purdy must have some skills dealing with people to get to be in charge of this unit, I'd say he knows you're hiding something," I concluded.  "Was anyone else there?"
"No, but I suspect that Mike Harris was outside eavesdropping."
"Don, who's this Mike Harris?" inquired Keith.
"He's a short, blond weasley little man with a huge mustache."
"Is that a judgment call?" I quizzed.
I"m afraid it is," sighed Don.  "He's the nephew of the founder, and I think he's incompetent."
"After today's event, I'd say incompetence ceases to be a great factor," I reminded Don.  "Unless I have more proof, I'd say we have our hands full of this mystery."
 
Keith and I slept in our own tent that night.  It was six o'clock too soon for me.  Reveille has a shattering effect on both my nerves and my sleep.  I quickly appreciated how early I had retired the night before.
Sunday the Twentythird dawned cheerlessly.  The trouble with late fall is that one does not have enough time to inure oneself to winter.  It certainly doesn't help to go from indoors to outdoors in one day!  My intestine growled angrily as I awoke in a flimsy sleeping bag.  Ack! I thought.  Am I going to tolerate this pap the next few days?  Waking Keith proved fun because of his aversion to showing emotion.  However, even his stoical demeanor showed strain.  I couldn't tell whether he showed more anguish or anger.  My mother had the same trouble waking my brother every morning.
As I went to leave the tent, I noticed a group headed for one tent.  It's strange, I thought, because this spectacle did not look normal.  They were adults chattering nervously and curiously over why they were so summoned.  As I overheard the passing conversation, I discovered the abnormality.
"Why are the counselors having a meeting on a Sunday morning?" I asked Don as he passed.
"Your guess is as good as mine," came the bewildered answer.
 
 

This is the model for James Brian McQuinn
jbquinn.jpg
I built a story around a real event.

"While we were asleep last night, someone threw a brick through the store window of a NaNa food market about a kilometer away," Don replied to my hour-old question as he stepped into our tent.
"So what?" I answered.
"So Purdy thinks one of the children did it."
"And what is his probably cause to believe that one of the children did it?"
Purdy said that Harris saw one of them leave camp an hour before the event occurred."
"Did Purdy reveal whom Harris said he saw leaving camp?" Keith joined in.
"I had the feeling that Purdy would not tell, but that Harris did accuse a specific juvenile."
"What about the NaNa people?" I queried.
"They only came after the alarm went off, right before the police arrived," Don informed us.
"So the NaNa people don't know who smashed the window," Keith deduced.
"Or why," I added.
"Purdy did not do anything else except promise to probe for the culprit," Don continued.  "However, he did propose we go on today's hike in larger groups.  Purdy did not mention the threats my group encountered yesterday."
"Then Purdy may suspect that the agent provacateur is in this area, and that this person is responsible for the window-smashing," I surmised.
"Knowing Purdy for the past five months, I'd say you've articulated my thought," Don concurred.
"How large is your group today?" Keith asked.
"It's you two plus another counselor.  Normally, the new counselors pair with the experienced one, but in this case, Purdy doubled the groups."
"Who's the other counselor?" Keith requested.
"Here he is."
 
A sandy-haired, average-height man entered the tent.  His lentingenous physiognomy offset his red and black checkered jacket.  I couldn't state that he was amicable or aloof, but I just knew that we would get along famously.
My first impression proved correct later, but at that moment, Don introduced us to Leo Scott.  After the obligatory handshakes, Scott sat down with us to continue the conversation.
"Leo, did you get anything else about the vandalism?"
"No, Don, I guess we're still in the dark about its significance to our group."
"When are we leaving for this anabasis?" Keith inquired practically.
"Good, question, pal," Don lauded.  "It's time we left."
The four of us rose simultaneously to the peril of the tent, due to the inadequate space.  We simpered at the situation and queued to duck out the shelter.  Don and Leo went in diametrical directions to garner the children, leaving Keith and me to our contemplations.
"The trouble with this case is that we haven't had the time to interrogate anyone either.".
"No, Keith, that is the case. We must find a way to use it to our advantage."
 
Don took some precautions as we hiked that morning.  All four of us took walking sticks to poke out booby traps to no avail.  I thought it was more due to the alternate path we took.  Don took extra caution with Jame.  I could see that Keith was favoring some of the boys.  I could feel those "big brother" instincts kick in myself!
I succumbed to the beauty of late fall,  In contrast to the colorful display in October, there was a somber, sublime ambiance.  In fact, the darkness, the cold, and the humidity suggested snow.
My instincts proved correct, for soon the icy flakes were falling on our heads.  I shivered when a few touched my freckled nose.  It was a sloppy, wet snow.  The blizzard nearly blinded us, and it forced us to huddle.  By this time, it was late afternoon, and we had stopped only once to eat lunch.  Soon we were quite weary, trying to stay together and to find shelter.  The blanched background revealed in the tenebration a cabin.  Keith spotted it first, and we floated toward it thankfully.
The cabin provided something else besides snow to see after several hours.  It took a few minutes for our eyes to adjust before we could examine our surroundings.
"Look," remarked Leo.  "Here're some logs still in the fireplace."
"Unfortunately," remarked Keith.  "We don't seem to have any food in this place."  Don and he finished searching the cupboards before Don had to admit it, too.  The place had just enough room for the twenty of us.  A few rickety charis sat around an uneven table.  There was neither bedroom nor bathroom.  I supposed an outhouse existed on the other side of the cabin.  The wind whipped outside as Jame gathered combustables to put under the wood in the fireplace.
"How far off are we from our route?" I whispered to Don.
"I don't know -- I've never been here before."
"What do you suggest?" Leo queried.
"Obviously, we're going to have to stay here overnight," Don answered.  "Tomorrow we'll have to get ourselves back.  No one expected this storm, and we were supposed to sojourn somewhere else tonight.  Thus, it will be some time before anyone at the main camp of Nirvania suspects problems."
"Expects problems?" Keith tried to echo.
"Keith, We simply must do with what we have.  I suggest we all get some sleep because we are staying the night" I tranquilized my little buddy.

Author's note: No, I was not thinking of Leo DiCaprio.  I based this character on two guys I knew in 1986, long before I'd heard of Leonardo.

Despite our peril, we all succumbed to exhaustion within the hour.  Jame's ingenuity had a roaring fire going, so we were reasonably warm.  I awoke in the morning dark to dying embers.  Snow piled against the windows, and my intuition told me we were worse off.  I felt despair grab the pit of my intestines as the wind whipped the snow around outside.
The wind whistled through the door as I pressed my ear to the crack.  Someone moaned near my feet, nearly startling me.  At least the blizzard stopped, I thought.  I began to muse our predicament.  Thoughts of my deteriorating comfort kept invading my train.  My instestines growled again. reminding me that I hadn't eaten since yesterday noon.  I knew that the only way I could assess the situation outside was to wait until daylight.
We had been drifting in the wilderness for hours the day before, so I estimated that we were several kilometers off our route.  I contemplated the reaction of the people back at the Nirvana camp.
"What's up, buddy?" Keith asked with a warm hand on my shoulder.
"How many groups went out yesterday?" I whispered.
"Don said there were five groups in toto.
"Then", I sighed.  "We're on our own here."
Cloudiness obscured the waxing light.  My watch told me that it was already past seven.  I began to balance the chance of our finding our way back versus our starving to death.  I also felt the collective responsibility of sixteen juveniles and three counselors.  Our survival depended upon our coming up with a solution soon.  Although Keith couldn't see me, I intuitively knew he felt the same.
Light was spilling through the windows.  Morpheus still held Don and Jame at the far end of the cabin, for I could see the light reflect off blond curls.  I took a larger look outside by pulling the door ajar.  Keith's hazel eyes indicated that he wanted to join me.
Fortunately the weather was not cold.  I guessed the temperature lay just below freezing.  Although the sun hadn't arisen, the snow kept the area nearly daytime bright.  The snow crunched beneath our feet, and the snow was about a decimeter deep.  We marched straight ahead a hundred meters when evergreens took over the terrain.  I began to reason why someone would build a cabin at that point.  Another hundred meters provided the answer to my inquest -- A lake appeared in our path.
I surveyed the scene.  The lake ran to the horizon with nothing marking the other side.  Snow ran across several icefloes, making a crossing dangerous.  The sun brightened a patch of clouds to the left to give me a sense of direction.
"Well, George, what do you think?"
"I think we may be looking at our only chance to get out of here!"
 
"Across the lake?" Keith asked incredulously.
"According to the sun, we're facing south.  All yesterday afternoon, I noticed that we headed north toward State College.  We don't know how far the town is from here, but I'd guess some twenty kilometers.  I would surmise that we're no more than ten kilometers from camp."
"How do you know that?  We walked several hours in the storm yesterday."
"It's like this, pal.  We never came to this lake, yet we came in this direction.  We must have been circuling this water for hours!"
Keith swallowed hard when I revealed this thought.  The storm had left us chasing our tails.  The new snow had covered our spoors.  We finally came close enough to the cabin to see it.    The evergreens girded the lake -- no paths led to the lake.  Hence, our path had avoided the lake itself.
"Can't we chance going back to the path we took to get here?"
"That's what I intend to suggest for today.  However, our time's running out, and tomorrow we may have to set up a signal in that lake.  Of course, I assume they're looking for us."
"What makes you hedge, George?"
"Look, we don't know what's going on at Nirvania.  Our adversaries may be willing to sacrifice all of us to get Don, you, and me."
Keith gulped again.  "I need a cigarette."
Keith pulled a pack out of his jacket.  As he lit his smoke, I pulled out a cig from the pack in my jacket.  Keith flashed his gelasins as he lit my smoke.  I patted Keith on his back, and he returned the caress.
"I fear that soon you'll need food more than tobacco.  Our task today will be to find our way back."
Keith and I drearily shuffled back to the cabin.  By this time, the guys were stirring in the light.  Don lifted his head, then rolled over to face us as we walked into the room.  Wordlessly, he rose and tiptoed toward us.  We stepped outside, and I told him my thoughts.
"What do you suggest?" Don asked earnestly.
"You and Keith, follow the paths to find out if they converge, which I'm quite sure they do.  Then look for the path we took to get here."
"What are you going to do in the meantime?" Keith requested.
"I'm going to find a way to cross that lake." 

The sun shone magnificiently as I searched through the evergreens.  Actually, I expected to find some kind of boat simply because the cabin existed.  I envisioned someone must have a boat in the cabin with the lake so near.  Where would I put a vessel for the winter?  I returned to the cabin and had another thought.  I took a branch and knocked the snow off the cabin.  About halfway along the back, a handle appeared.  I pulled the latch up, and there was a rowboat!  After pulling out the oars, I jostled the vehicle loose.  It looked useable.  It'd been an hour since we parted, so I replaced the equipment.
Back at the cabin, our crew remained asleep.  The brilliant light touched near Leo's freckled face, so I expected he'd be awake soon.  It was past eight o'clock when Keith and Don retruned.
"You were correct, George," Keith reported.  "We were wandering in a circle."
"The storm destroyed our tacks, and Keith and I couldn't agree which path we took."
"That's the other reason why I asked you both to backtrack.  I know we have to gamble -- no I have a better idea of the odds."
"Hey, you guys, What's going on?" Leo called from the doorway of the cabin.
Quickly we related what I had suspected, and they had confirmed.  Leo's blue eyes looked downcast.  "What'll we tell the boys?"
"As little as possible," Don replied.
 
"I wish we knew how far from camp we are," Leo vocalized our collective thoughts.
"I wish I knew how much time we have to get back to camp," I added.  "We last ate nearly twentyfour hours ago, and we don't know whether they've sent a rescue party.  We must cover both questions now."
"What do you mean, George?" Leo queried.
"Don, you and I will set up a signal in the lake, then we'll explore the other side for the path back to camp.  Keith, you and Leo, try to find some wood and food.  The boys can help you."
"We're going to need another in the boat to look out for obstacles," Don insisted.
"Any suggestions?" I asked perfunctorily.
"I'll get Jame," Don smiled at us.
The two blond curlipates helped me push the boat into the lake.  We carried a stick with a vermillion flag  to place on an island nearest the side of the cabin.
Using a felt marker, Jame wrote "Nirvania" on both sides of the flag.  A slight breeze caused me to shiver under my tuque.  Don and I rowed to the islet in five minutes.  Employing a shovel from underneath the cabin, I dug a decimeter-deep hole for the stick and shoved it in a little farther with my heavy shoe.
That task finished, we rowed to the other side.  We were about a hundred meters from the opposite side when we heard a crack of gunfire.  Jame, who had been leaning over the edge of the boat, recoiled into it as a stream of water squirted after him.  Someone had fired a shot at us!
 
The phrase "sitting duck" had real meaning as panic seized us.  Another shot zinged over our ducked heads.  Fortunately we began drifting toward an island some twenty meters away.  A third shot hit the boat, sending a shower of splinters over Jame's prone body.  The momentum of that bullet accelerated our departure.  We glided behind the island one eternal minute later.  I peered through the rocks and branches, but no figure emerged from the source of the fire.
"What'll we do now?" Don asked anxiously.
"Simple," I replied.  "We'll use this island as a shield and drift away from that side."
"Won't that eventually bring us out in the open?"
"Yes, and out of range."
 
We rowed in a rapid retreat.  No more shots came at us, but it was obvious that someone didn't want us there!  Was it someone who didn't want us on his property?  Or was it someon who didn't want us to get back to Nirvania?"
"Don, did you and Keith notice any deliberate obfuscation of the path?"
"What do you mean, George?"
"Did someone cover our tracks so that we can't find our way back?"
Don paused from rowing.  So did I, as not to interrput his contemplation.  The wind and current kept our momentum intact.
"Come to think of it, you're right!  The snow piled irregularly in a few places.  I remarked to Keith that it looked as if the wind was particularly strong last night.  However, the snow did not pile up like that around the cabin."
"I'm afraid my fear is reality.  Someone's out to extirpate us."
Jame stared at us.  "Someone's trying to kill us?"
"Jame, don't repeat this speculation to anyone," Don warned.  "The only way we're going to get out of this messs is to hang together."
"Keith and Leo must know," I reminded.  "Else they may be off guard the next time adversity strikes."
With that thought, we resumed rowing as the dangerous end of the lake sank into the horizon.  We passed the flag as I debated whether to take it down.  No, someone may be looking for us.  We'll need all the help we can get.  Such was my biggest mistake in this case.
 
 
 
  

When we attempted to cross the lake, someone
delinquentboat.jpg
began shooting at us! @C 1986, 2002 Alopex

"It's obvious that we're going to have to find civilization," I exhorted when we four counselors met as soon as we'd returned from the lake.  "Our best bet is to head north to State College.  It must be no more than twenty kilometers away.  We could reach it in four hours at a decent hiking pace."
The others agreed.  We also agreed to get a good night's sleep before the endeavor.  We split the nightwatch into four equal parts.  I kept the first watch for two and a half hours, then I woke Keith for the second watch.  At about five, Leo woke me from a dreamless sleep.  Half-consciously I heard his reason:
"George, I hear a helicopter!"
A distinctive whirr of rotatory blades waxed decibels from the direction of the lake.  Leo and I both ran out of the cabin, through the firs, and toward the water.  The searchlight of the helicopter detected our signal.  Before either of us had a chance to signal, a flashing light plummeted to the ait.  The explosion startled us so much that we instinctively fell aground.  I nearly rolled over Leo before I had my balance.  Then I realized how precarious the cabin was and that our companions had heard the explosion; I hoped they were deft enough to sally the structure.
Given that there wasn't much to burn, the conflagration died down rapidly.  By this time, the helicopter floated above us.  I had a sick sensation of flaming embers falling on my head, but I knew that our foe didn't know we were there.  Leo and I scurried to the cabin in time to see several firebombs fall on the wooden structure!
I grabbed my blond buddy, and we fell down just as the explosions ripped through the building.  I could see Leo's freckles stand out as he face turned ashen in the flaming light.  He wasn't the only one feeling sick.  I felt like vomitting myself.  We held each other in a fraternal embrace.  I vowed then to hunt down these unconscionable killers!
 
Author's Note: Yes, I am skating along the line of friendship and sex with this paragraph, but I don't care!
 
"George, we're over here!" yelled Don.
I couldn't believe my ears, but there was the whole rest of the troupe some twenty meters away at a right angle to the burning structure.
"What's the meaning of leaving us like that?" Keith asked lugubriously.  "You forgot your backpack.
I embraced him before I took the pack.  Don had save Leo's gear, and he seemed to have answered my unspoken question.
"After yesterday's encounter with a sniper, it took me a second to decide to get out of there.  We just made it.  A minute's notice doesn't allow time for further thinking."
"Well, it's back to business.  Let's channel our energies toward State College," I concluded. 
"Won't the fire atrract attention?" Keith inquired.
As if to answer, the helicopter returned.  It played its searchlight for us.
"If it does, it won't help us!" I shouted above the din.  "Let's get out of here!"
Under the cover of darkness, we scampered through the slate grey and white of bare trees and soft snow, hoping we were inconspicuous enough to evade the scrutinizers.
 
My heart still pounded after we were will away from the area.  Fortunately, the skies had cleared, and we could tell we were northbound.  The difficult terrain continued for over an hour, but dawn broke so we could move faster.  The sun shone on the deciduous branches when we saw a backroad.  A surge of adrenalin eliminated a touch of sleeplessness in my brain as we clambored onto the primitive road.
"Which way, George?" Keith asked when we reached the perpendicular way.
I searched my memory for the better probability.  I recalled Route 26 ran north around there.
"Let's go eastward and hope to hit Route 26."
My surmise rewarded us ten minutes later.  Don suggested hitchhiking, but I pointed out that there were twenty of us.  Besides, it was better we stayed together.  Soon we passed a sign that State College was two kilometers away.  Melting snow along the shoulder soon gave way to some emporia and sidewalks.  I found a phonebooth and arranged for Nirvania to pick up the juveniles at my house.  I asked them not to tell anyone about that morning until we had more facts.  I was now msing for the best way to expose the corruption.  I also called Pete and asked him to check out criminal records on all the personnel at Nirvania.  I was looking for ammunition to get the creeps who had just assailed us.
 
Note: It is 1986, so personal computers were still rare.  Krol would have no access to the internet at home.
 
We reached my place in ten minutes.  I had written the names of the major players in Nirvania on a scrap of paper, so I had just sat down at the terminal when the telephone rang.
"George, you'll be interested to know that Purdy has a record from San Diego."
"Right, Pete.  How about the others?"
"Clean before they came to Nirvania; however, several have fallen since then."
"Would Harris be one?"
"And Murphy."
"I think Keith and I have more investigating to do today.  We'll come back with the kids, but I expect plenty of trouble."
Trouble came sooner than expected.  Don met the bus in the parkinglot while I searched electronically.  He returned with a blanched visage when the bus left.
"Someone took drug tests last week, and Jame's resulted positive," he told us as he sat down on the couch.
"Positive?" Keith echoed.  "For what?"
"The driver didn't know."
"Well," I ventured.  "It appears the perpetrators want us to come back."
"For another shot at us?" Keith followed worriedly.
"Yes, and we really have no choice.  Ineluctably, we have a mystery to solve," I concluded.
"There's only one problem," Don cautioned.
"Uh, oh," I blurted.  "We have no way to get back to Nirvania!"
"And they have time to destroy any evidence," Keith added.
I returned to my phone, called Pete, and told him of our predicament.  He sought what he could do while we waited.
"It looks as if our cover's blown, and we'll need extra manpower to subdue our foes," Don disapproved.
"How're we going to conceal our numbers?" I played devil's advocate.
"George," Don said, placing his right hand on my right shoulder.  "I know these people.  We should surprise them, then we should subjugate them with logic and numbers."
Just then Pete called back with transportation to Nirvania.  I wondered why the busdriver hadn't asked why we weren't coming.  Along the way, I asked Don about the driver.
"Oh, yes," Don assured me.  "He's a regular at Nirvania.  His names's Bruce DuBois, average height, dark hair and beard."
"Why didn't he wait for us?"
"Probably he thought we had a way back.  Besides, you couldn't feed all of us, so he probably took them back to eat at camp."
Pete's assistant left us off at the nearest road to camp.  We decided upon a policy of "watchful waiting": Act as if nothing unusual had happened, and wait for them to make the first move.  Such defensiveness proved useful in similar situations when I didn't have a clue to the mystery.
Purdy called Don to his tent soon after we returned.  We waited with bated anticipation for a half hour.  Don looked perplexed upon his return.
"Purdy didn't know why it took so long to get back," he reported.  "Apparently, no one told him that we were lost in the blizzard."
"What?" Keith cried incredulously.  "Do you think he's telling the truth?"
"Unless he discovered a method of prevarication, I'd say yeas," Don shrugged his shoulders.
"That would mean that Purdy had nothing to do with Nirvania's woes," I deduced.  "What did he say about Jame's drug test?"
"Nothing," Don said, looking even more bewildered. 
"I'm afraid that we're going to have to trust Purdy," I intoned.  "It just became necessary."
 

I could perceive that the others were not following my mental progression.  "Come on," I commanded.  "It's time to tell Purdy why we're here."
Don showed a worried face, while leo just stared aghastly.  Keith saw that I was onto something and cheerfully supported me with hazel eyes.  Keith subsequently arose and followed me out of the tent.  Don and Leo brought up the rear.
"Okay, buddy," Keith contemplated me as he caught up to my trot.  "How do you know Purdy's innocent?"
"If you were in charge of a chapter of Nirvania, would you try to murder twenty of your people to eliminate a few?"
"Suppose he would do it!"
"No, Keith.  Remember Purdy threatened to resign.  He had a criminal record it's true, but he's been clean since coming here.  I think the absence of his knowledge of the result of the drug test proves that Purdy's innocent.  He could have used the excuse to fire Don and suspend the program, rather than to try to kill us.  I'm sure he doesn't even know why we're here, and I'm certain that we need him as an ally."
We ducked inside.  "Mr Purdy?" I asked a blond, mustached man, sitting behind a desk.  "My name's George Krol, and this's Keith Cahill.  I have much to tell you."
Purdy seemed pleasantly surprise.  He listened intently as I narrated the events of the past few days.  Don and Leo joined us, and we convinced him.
"So how do you expect to get the saboteurs out in the open?" Purdy inquired cautiously.
"I'm fearful that they already have made that move," I answered as Mike Harris ran into the room.
"Bad news, Chief," Harris said, ignoring us and giving Purdy a slip of paper.  Purdy nearly turned white.  "I think you should read this," he said while handing me the sheet.
"We have the sixteen children from Hanson and Scott's group.  Fire them and close down Nirvania within the week," I read aloud.
"What did Jame test positive for?" I shot at Harris.
"I never did find out," Harris answered weakly.
Then Purdy went into a funk.  "What's this about?"
"It seems that Bruce DuBois told me when he picked up the juveniles at George's place that Jame had tested positive for some drug," Don revealed.
"Mike", Purdy growled.  "Why didn't you tell me about this?"
"More importantly, how did you know about the drug test?" I threatened.
Harris blanched, turned, and ran.  Keith tried a tackle and missed.  I helped my little Celtic buddy up as the other three ran passed us.
"Nice try, Keith.  Let's go for another."
 
As fast as we were, we could only catch up to the other pursuers.  I saw that harris already had reached the parking area.  We watched him jump into a van and take off.  Purdy, Don and Leo piled into Purdy's truck.  Keith and I raced for my Renault.  We hopped into the grey vehicle and were right behind the truck in hot pursuit.  The backroad did not allow for much speed, but my Renault had an advantage in handling.
"Slow down, George!" Keith shouted when we just missed sideswiping the truck.  I nestled my foot to the floor when I realized I had no brakes!  Keith reflected my visage when he, too, realized that there were no brakes!  I immediately shifted into first gear, slackening our speed.  Fortunately, the emergency brake worked.
"Whew!" I sighed as we halted.  "Let's see what the problem is."  
The brake fluid remained full, but the cylinder lay disconnected!
"Neat trick," Keith complimented sardonically.
I reached under the front seat for my wrench set.  I had the cylinder reconnected in ten minutes.  Then I pumped the brakes to get the fluid back into the calipers.  I knew that my mechanic would have some work to do when I returned home.  The brakes worked, but for how long remained another mystery.
We returned to Nirvania cautiously.  We realized that any chance we had of catching the culprits through pursuit was gone.  I had just parked the car when I hit on another angle.
"Let's look for clues in Harris's tent."
The early afternoon sun broke through the clouds, making it easy to locate Harris's tent.  The nameplate quivered as we approached.  Keith grabbed my left arm.  "There's someone in there!" he whispered.
 
Keith and I crept to the entrance.  I motioned for Keith to flush him out.  Keith slipped inside while I readied to pounce.  however, I heard no confrontation.  I remained in position until I heard Keith shout, "George, he's leaving the backway!"
Abashedly, I realized that I had not considered another egress.  When I met Keith at the other end of the tent, we could see a figure fleeting away.  By the time we were loping at full speed, the fleeing figure was already a hundred meters away, halfway to the parking area.  Happily, by the time the figure reached the lot, we had made up half the distance, enough to see our friends pull into the same lot.  Don and Leo needed not to hear our shouts; they converged on the figure.  Purdy brought him down with a tackle.
"We caught him in Harris' tent," Keith explained when we reached the party.  Purdy look stunned.  Don stared at the figure and looked at us.  "It's Bruce DuBois!"
Before I could ask, DuBois leered at Don.  "If you want to see Jame alive, you'd better let me go."
Don stepped forward with clenched fists.  "If you harm my little brother..."
I held him back.  "No, Don.  Let's hear what DuBois has to say."
I turned to the cowering wretch.  "If we let you go, then what, DuBois?"
"If you let Harris and me escape, we'll tell you where we drove the children."
"Given that we do let you go, how about telling me from what you're going to escape?"
"Well, Krol, let's start with kidnaping, then add extortion, embezzlement, and assorted crimes."
"I take it then you were the one who dropped the bombs earlier today."
DuBois looked puzzled.  "What bombs?"
"Then you didn't shoot at us on the lake?"
"No, I was here all day today."
"I'm afraid so, George," Pudy confirmed.  "He was here at five when we reveilled."
"How about Harris?"
"He was here also."
"Don, we have a third crook here."
"How about my release?" DuBois demanded.
"Who's your other accomplice?"
"Are you letting me go, Krol?"
"As soon as you tell me your other accomplice."
"All I'll say is that he works for Nirvania."
"Correction he used to work for Nirvania."
"Wait a minute, George," Keith interrupted my altercation with DuBois.  "Didn't you say someone named Murphy had a criminal record since coming to Nirvania?"
"I had thought it was Harris' alias."
"Nonsense," DuBois chuckled.  "But it is an alias of my accomplice.  By the time you figure it out, we'll be out of the state."
Now I was panicky.  DuBois could be right; I didn't have a clue.  Then I remembered something.
"Who's your best mechanic?" I asked Purdy.
"Why, Daniel Murray.  He's also a skilled pilot.  You don't suppose -- "
"Where's his tent?"
"I know," replied Don.  "Let's get there."
We raced for the tent with Don in the lead.  We also left DuBois to escape -- or so he thought.  During the scuffle, I had dropped a homing device in his shirt pocket.  I was betting that he hadn't noticed.
We arrived at an empty tent.  I stood outside the entrance.
"Of course, Murray -- Murphy, I should have known," I moaned with hands on hips.
"I'm afraid our pigeons flown the coop, and I do remember that he wasn't at reveille this morning." Purdy confessed.
"This Murphy character must be ruthlessly unconscionable," I stated.  "He tried to exterminate not only us, but also sixteen innocent juveniles."
"Speaking of flown pigeons, DuBois is probably one by now," Leo reminded us.
"Shall we hunt said pigeon?" I kidded.
"Okay, boys, pile in my truck," Purdy charged us.
"No," Keith insisted.  "Leo and I will follow in my car.  You guys will be crowed enough in the cab."
"Keith," I accepted.  "You make fine sense."
 
We resumed the chase the way Keith'd outlined it.  My homing device was in full operation.  We were soon within a kilometer of DuBois's car!
We trailed the signal for only ten kilometers when the blip stopped moving.  In wild anticipation, Purdy halted the truck about a hundred meters away.  Both vehicles pulled aside into as much camouflage as possible.  Soon we were creeping through the hibernal approach to the source of our hunt.  We just approached the clearing when I noticed where the signal was the strongest -- the inert Nivania bus!
I climbed in first to find the device on the driver's seat.  As I whirled around, I saw the juveniles tied to the seats.  Out came my pocketknife, and I began untying the captives.  The others soon piled into the bus, and we finished the task in five minutes.
"One thing's for sure," Keith said, breaking the tranquil atmosphere.  "This DuBois's quite honest.  Even though he knew we were following him, he still led us to the children."
"Not quite," Don corrected.  "Jame's not here!"
"Is anyone else not here?" I responded rhetorically as I began a head count.
"They took only Jame," one of the juveniles told me.
"We have to get you all back to Nirvania.  I doubt if they fed you," I announced.  "Who's going to drive the bus back?"
Leo volunteered while I pondered our next move.  "Why do you suppose DuBois was in Harris' tent?" I asked.
"There's only one way to find out," Purdy chimed.
  
 

We drove back in a parade of three vehicles.  This time I sat in Keith's car to uncrowd Purdy's truck.  I figited when I pondered about how to conclude the case.  When we arrived at the camp, Leo led to way to feeding the children.  Purdy helped organize the task while Don, Keith, and I headed for Harris' tent.  We sleuths soon detected why DuBois had been there.
"Look," Don shouted.  "Here's a copy of Harris' letter hiring DuBois to act as an agent provacateur."
"Here's a key to a depot," Keith added as he searched the desk.  "We intervened just in time to prevent DuBois from using it."
"Wait a minute, Keith," I interrupted.  "That key is to a motel room!"
"George's right," Don confirmed.  "Usually a locker key's sticking out of a cylinder with the number on the cylinder.  This key 's regular one with the number on the plastic tag."
"The last time I saw that kind of tag was at an Inn Holiday.  Where's the nearest one from here?"
"There's one about fifteen kilometers away, off Route 26," Don informed us.
"What're we waiting for?" Keith beamed, flashing the gelasins in his rosy cheeks.  With that rhetorical question, we jumped into Don's car this time.  The fifteen-minute drive seemed endless.  I stared at the key, hoping it would lead us to not only the solution to the mystery, but also to Jame.
Don parked at the far end of the lot.  We nonchalantly walked to the entrance and went directly to the upstairs room, 215.  Don knocked at the door.  A muffled voice inside said, "It's about time you got here, Harris."
We exchanged glances and readied the overtake.  Don shoved his foot in the doorway as soon as the door opened.
"What's the idea?" protested the voice.  "Oh, it's you!"  Then the resistance behind the door collapsed.  Don nearly hurt himself as he fell inward.  Keith and I stepped over our prone pal.  We simultaneously saw Jame gagged and bound to a chair and a man disappear out the fire escape.  I rushed to Jame as Keith ventured the window.
"Duck!" Don yelled on his knees.  "He's got a gun!"
Instinctively, Keith did duck from the window and pivoted as a shot reported its danger.  Keith pulled his denim jacket up as the bullet shattered the farthest pane from the shot.  I buried Jame's face in my chest as I too uplifted my jean jacket to protect us as flying glass and splinters exploded into the room.
"Call the State College Police," I commanded Keith.  "Don, see if you can catch an apercu of the car."
I was finished loosing Jame when Don returned crestfallen.  "I couldn't even catch the model."
"But we can find out what Murray's car is," I interjected.
Keith relayed the message to the police to check the registration.  "How do you know it was Murray?" he asked after cradling the telephone.
"It's fairly obvious that after we survived the fun, Harris and DuBois intended to skip the country with Murray.  My guess is that Murray came back here to meet Harris when Harris left Nirvania.  They did not figure that we'd figure what was happening so fast.  The only thing left to discover is Murray's motive to destroy Nirvania."
"Do you suppose Harris will come back?" Don queried.
"I doubt it," I surmised.  "Harris probably skipped the state, leaving Murray this vulnerable.  We do know that they intended to meet here.  The question is why."
"Maybe to meet DuBois and arrange their escape with the juveniles still hostage," Keith ventured.
"That would explain what DuBois was looking for in Harris's tent if that's what he was doing there," Don suggested.
"Aren't you guys forgetting something?" I interjected as I helped Jame stand to shake off his hypokinesis.
"I heard Murray tell DuBois to make sure he grabbed the money before he left Nirvania," Jame said while rubbing his wrists.
"Which means that it's time to search DuBois's tent," I thrusted the obvious.
 
It didn't take long for us to find checks, cash, and instruments enough to convict all three in the tent.  After I called police headquarters to pick the evidence up, Purdy joined us in his tent.
"You guys saved Nirvania!" he exclaimed.  "There's enough money there to put us back in financial health."
"Yes, but you still have problems of incompetence," I warned.  "That situation made you vulnerable to these peculators."
"As a reward for your part in this catharsis, I am going to put Don in charge of personnel," Purdy smiled broadly.  "If he does a good job, we'll move him up to the regional level.  Will you accept, Don?"
"I sure will, Mr Purdy," Don accepted.  "After all, this is my chosen career!"
"What do you say we go to my place to celebrate?" I proposed.  "We can also find out if the police catch our crooks."
"You might say the deluded delinquents," Keith cracked.  "Did we ever fool them!"
"May I take Jame?" Don asked Purdy.
"Why, sure," Purdy allowed.  "The way he's progressed, I'll give good odds that you two'll be working together as counselors in a few years."
 
Once we came home, I announced why I'd suggested the session.  "I want to go over the last few days with you for loose ends."
"Give us what you have, George," Don commented.
"The way it stands, Harris began the embezzlement of Nirvania funds, intending to bankrupt the firm.  So, while he gets rich, the system collapses, supposedly due to incompetence.  It was a great scheme.  There is incompetence in Nirvania, and lawsuits threatened to bankrupt it.  Harris used his position as the nephew of the founder to doctor the books."
"What brought you to suspect Harris?" Don asked while stroking his chin.
"It was elimination.  When you had the problems, I suspected the next accident would happen at this local chapter.  After our experience in the woods, I knew I was correct.  Given that Purdy was in command, but unaware of the situation, I shifted to the second in command, Harris."
"How did you suspect embezzlement?" Keith shot out.
"Money is a strong allotheism.  Outside of foreign intrigue -- and even that has pecuniary implications (the traitors, Walker family, for one) -- I couldn't think of any other motive of such urgent primacy to risk killing an entire troupe.  Of course, I didn't know I was right until we had caught DuBois in Harris's tent."
"What about my drug test?" Jame quizzed.  "I don't remember taking one."
"It was perfect, considering the drug hysteria which swept the nation a few months ago.  (Even President Reagan took a drug test to sucker others to waive their rights.) I suppose the perpetrators thought they'd practice some local fascism.  I merely used it to trip up Harris.  DuBois actually betrayed them all by mentioning it to you.  I suppose DuBoise has a trace of sadism enough to hurt Don."
"Do you think Murray bombed us?" Keith asked.
"Actually, I have no idea, and that goes for who shot as us.  For all I know, we could have been trespassing."
A knock on my door interrupted my train of thought.  I answered it because I sat nearest the door.
"Mr Krol?" a stranger in a grey overcoat asked while standing in the doorway.
"Yes, what can I do for you?"
"I'm Bill Minton.  I'd like to congratulate you for saving Nirvania."
I grinned.  "Come in Mr Minton, and meet the whole group."
We were through with the handshakes when the telephone clanged.  It was Pete with good news.
"George, the locals caught all three.  They found Murray's car, followed, and bagged them at a tryst."
"Pete, I'll be very happy to repeat this to everyone here.  If you need me again, I'm here."
"By the way, Murray denies bombing your troupe."
"No matter.  We have the case solved."
 
Minton left an hour later and drove Don and Jame back to camp.  Keith and I decided to rough it out in my double bed that night.  Of course, we staggered our sleep, for I went to work that Tuesday night.  Fortunately, I received a fee for this caper because I'd lost a few days, and the motel did not need me that Thanksgiving weekend.
I hugged Keith goodbye and watched him drive off, back to Wilkes-Barre.  State College had become a dead town since the football team won the previous week for an invitation to a bowl.  I agreed to meet my mother at her sister's place for Thanksgiving.  Little did I know that the northeastern suburbs of Philadelphia would provide my next case some five months later 

Group picture of the main characters as I conceive
delinquents.jpg
them: Don, Jame, George, & Keith

Author's Note: At the time, I was working in a warehouse, which led to the "Case of the Worrisome Warehouse", which took place in April 1987.  I had thought to bring back Don and Jame a few years later, a thought which I'd never panned out.
Note I deliberately left a few loose ends in this story.  Krol is not so infallible that he gets everything solved, just the important things!