Amazingly, the meeting happened, thanks to Tom. Parents were indignant. Parents mentioned that in Britain people were innocent until proven guilty. The Head said that we had a history of mischief so it was hardly surprising that we should be under suspicion. The Police advised caution and said that this wasn't mischief, it was a criminal act, and there was no reason to assume we'd done it. And anyway as the wheel nuts had been professionally tightened after a tyre change two weeks previously and checked by the garage a week later, it wasn't likely that any of us had the strength to undo them. And where would we have hidden the spanner to do it anyway?
None of us had been expecting help from the Police, so looked gratefully at the Sergeant who'd been press-ganged into coming to talk.
"But..." started the Head.
"But nothing," retorted Tom's mum, a lady as short and tubby as Tom was tall and thin. It must have been something about the family - not the girth but the ability to take command of a situation. Tom was a natural leader to us. He didn't set out to act that way, it was just that we relied on him to be right. "They have done nothing. I know Tom wouldn't, and he wouldn't make or remain a friend of anyone who was silly enough to go to those lengths. I trust them all and if the school really knew them, they'd trust them too. They may be mischievous but they're not evil. Look elsewhere, Headmistress! Your usual suspects are not to blame in this case. Look for some unusual ones. I'm sure the Police are looking outside the school too."
The Headmistress subsided. She had little option in the face both of the Police and of Mrs Bishop's impressive appearance and manner. News spread round the school that we were off the hook.
Two weeks later a man was arrested. It seems that the teacher who owned the car had refused his offer of marriage and he wanted to get his own back or prove himself, or something.
We all learnt from it. Parents learnt their sons weren't naturally bad; the Head learnt that we weren't evil, and we learnt that teachers had private lives.
But we made a joke about being The Usual Suspects, despite our parents' disparaging looks. Gradually the joke spread to teachers and students alike. If something went wrong, anything from a chair disintegrating in class to a fire in the town, someone would say "Oh, it's the Usual Suspects," and we'd all laugh. Nobody really suspected us, not now, and of course it wasn't us.
Well, the chair might have been.
"We've gone right round in a sort of U-bend," Steve announced. He was the one with the map, as usual.
"We must all be round the bend to be doing this," muttered Alex. I rather agreed with him. But we had to keep going. Camp must be somewhere on this river, though it was considerably bigger than the stream from our lake, even given the gorge we had discovered lower down.
Steve fell over.
Now, although not a new occurrence, this meant that he was concentrating on the map more than where his feet were. That meant we were in danger of getting more lost than we currently were. We stopped. It seemed kind. And we needed his skill.
Having retrieved map and compass, and rubbed bits of himself that were more damaged than before, he spoke.
"Got it. In a moment a stream heads off to the left and goes up to the top of the Estate on the other side. Some way after that the stream we found ages ago and followed for a bit branches off, this time to the right, and goes through the wall - you remember? That leaves ours, and we know we can cross that."
"Yes," said Tom, "by climbing up beside it, over the boggy bit, and down the other side."
We digested that.
"You mean we've got to follow it all the way, past the camp, then down again?" I was not happy with the prospect of all that walking. "That's about it," he said. "Sorry."
"Anyone got anything to eat?" Tom was feeling the pressure.
We looked around. At school one of us usually had something in a pocket somewhere, maybe a bit fluffy, but still edible in case of need or boredom. This time none of us had anything.
We'd have mutinied if had been any point. We knew we had a long, exhausting and still prickly walk ahead of us. Resigned to it, we set off.
"Anyone seen Lars?" Arif said after about ten minutes of struggling. We had diverted away from the river by some distance so as to avoid a particularly nasty large clump of high thorn trees (Blackthorns, I discovered later. They live up to the name.)
We looked around. No sign of the dog.
"Damn," said Alex. "Well, he'll find us."
"I'm not leaving him here," said Arif firmly, and called as he'd heard Nils do: "Hondje! Hondje!" Close to it sounded - well, just foreign, but I could understand why at a distance it came over as "O - e".
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