Author's note: Welcome, welcome, welcome! Thanks for stopping in! As you probably already realize, this is the second part of a series. The first part is Four Strangers at a Street Corner. If you've read it, then great! You're all set to go! A few leftover questions from that one are even going to get answered in this story. If haven't read it, don't worry. Everything you absolutely need to know to understand this story will be explained. You'll just get a little bit fuller picture if you read the first one. If you like, you will have plenty of time to catch up on reading that one in between chapters of this story, since I will be continuing my posting schedule of one chapter per week on Friday.
There are a few things I want to point out before I get started. This story takes place fourteen years after Four Strangers, which means that Frank and Joe are pretty close to the age they typically are in the books (a tad younger just because of the time of year this story takes place and my private headcanon of when their birthdays fall – if you're interested, for the purposes of this series, Frank was born on January 10, 1995 and Joe was born on March 24, 1996). So if you're really paying attention, you'll notice that that means that this story still doesn't take place in the present. It actually takes place in the latter half of 2012. That isn't super important to the storyline, though; it's more just a detail that I've thrown in for my own bookkeeping.
I also want to point out that I have this story rated as a T. This is for violence only, but honestly there's not going to be that much violence in this story. So, yeah, not the super high body count there was in Four Strangers. However, there might be a few other things that you may or may not have a hard time with. For instance, one of my goals in this series is to really do some character development and really get inside the characters' heads. Not just Frank and Joe, either, but also Fenton, Laura, Aunt Gertrude, and as many of their friends as possible, with the focus in this series being on Callie, Iola, Tony, and Phil, primarily. Sometimes, that means allowing them to have some difficult conversations, including religious ones. If that makes you uncomfortable, you might want to stop reading now, but I promise that it's all important to the story and to seeing these characters grow into who they need to be.
Finally (I really will stop after this), there are going to be some characters in this story that you may not recognize who are not OCs. First off, in this chapter, there is Jerry Gilroy, Jim Foy, and Jones Nonam. Jerry and Jim are both in the blue-spine series. In fact, Jerry is identified as one of the original chums, although he stops making appearances shortly after about book 10. Jim appears in two blue-spine books, once as a major character and once as a very minor one. In the books, he's Chinese-American, whereas here he's a Chinese exchange student staying with the Hoopers. That's going to play a role later on. Jones is from the currently published Hardy Boys Adventures, where she's Frank's girlfriend. I know you almost certainly don't ship Frank and Jones, but bear with me on this one and just wait and see where it goes. Two other characters worth mentioning are Captain Olaf who is also from the Hardy Boys Adventures (he's chief of police there, but I've demoted him here so that Collig can still be chief) and Oscar Smuff, the bumbling wannabe detective from the blue-spine series who was mainly there for comic interludes. They've both got small roles to play at least, but it would be best if you waited to see what those specifically are.
Now, enough of me chattering on. To the story! Enjoy!
School of Thought
A Less Than Pleasant Evening
"The last real night of freedom," sixteen-year-old Joe Hardy announced with a touch of melodrama as he and a few members of the "gang" headed down to the beach on an evening in late August.
"There's still tomorrow and Sunday night," his older brother, Frank, pointed out. "Even once school starts, it's not like you won't be able to do anything else."
"Speak for yourself," Joe grumbled as memories of long evenings of homework and reading presented themselves to his mind's eye.
"Eh, let's not talk about gloomy things, like school," Biff Hooper recommended. He was a tall, powerfully-built boy who was in Joe's grade and had been one of the Hardys' friends for years.
The other members of the group eagerly went along with his suggestion. They were upholding their yearly tradition of going down to the beach on the last Friday before school began. It was a definite benefit in living in the small town of Bayport, which was situated on Barmet Bay on the East Coast.
The "gang", as they sometimes called themselves despite the fact that there was no resemblance to a gang in their group, was made up mostly of boys. In addition to Frank, Joe, and Biff, there were also Tony Prito, Phil Cohen, Jerry Gilroy, Chet Morton, and Chet's younger sister, Iola. The only two who were missing were Phil and Tony. Phil was Jewish, and it being the beginning of the Sabbath once the sun had set, he always stayed at home with his family to observe the day and had never actually come on the Friday night swim. Tony's absence was more surprising. He was simply MIA and no one was sure why.
Despite there being two missing, there were more than enough extras to make it a larger than usual group who was heading down to the beach. There was Jim Foy, a Chinese exchange student who was staying with Biff's family. Iola had invited her close friend, Callie Shaw, along, and Frank had asked his sort-of-girlfriend, Jones Nonam, to come. Both girls were relatively new to Bayport. Callie had lived there a little over a year now and everyone knew and liked her. Jones, on the other hand, had just moved to Bayport two months before. She and Frank had met at the summer science fair and had hit it off, so they had gone on a few dates in the last couple of weeks. She had yet to meet some of Frank's friends. The last addition to the group was Sally Marsh, another friend of Iola's who had a massive and poorly hidden crush on Biff, who seemed to be the only one unaware of the situation.
The teenagers had worn their bathing suits underneath their regular clothes, and so it was only a matter of minutes before they were in the water. The plan was to swim for a while and then to make some campfires and have a dinner of hot dogs. The atmosphere was relaxed and everyone was eager to have fun.
They soon began to tire of swimming and retreat to the beach, where they sat down to watch the fading light over the water. The sunset was behind them, but a trace of its colors was reflected in the sea.
Iola, in particular, was looking out over the water in appreciation. She shivered as a gust of gentle sea breeze tossed her dark hair back over her shoulder. "You know, I'm half-tempted to wake up early tomorrow and come out and watch the sunrise. It's always great from here."
"Not me," Chet announced. "I'm sleeping in while I still have the chance."
Joe was somewhat of the same opinion as Chet that all opportunities to sleep in should be taken seriously, but at the same time, going to watch the sunrise with Iola was certainly appealing. He thought about offering to come with her, but he thought better of doing so in front of everyone else.
Callie leaned back in the sand until she was lying on her back. "I don't know about coming out early enough for the sunrise, but this seems like a great place to look at the stars."
"I'm sure it is," Jones said, "but stars aren't nearly as filling as hot dogs. Let's eat, shall we?"
"At least somebody else has some sense around here," Chet said, standing up. "I'll go start the fires. Why don't some of you fellows lend a hand?"
Joe, Biff, and Jim followed him and before long, they had two campfires going nicely.
"Now," Biff said, bringing his shoulders back, "we're going to teach you a great American tradition, Jim: roasting hot dogs over a fire. It's the only way to eat hot dogs, really."
"Where are the sticks?" Chet asked, looking around him. "We can't roast hot dogs without sticks."
"I guess we'll just have to sharpen some," Joe replied.
"You mean, sticks from trees?" Jim asked with some surprise.
By this time, the rest of the group had wandered closer.
"It's not very sanitary," Jones spoke up, "but the fun factor makes up for the unsanitary factor, so it's totally worth risking a few germs."
Sally looked a little skeptical. "I'm not so sure. Anyway, I don't have a knife or anything to sharpen a stick. Would you do it for me, Biff, please?" She fluttered her eyelashes ever so slightly.
The eyelash-fluttering was lost on Biff, though. He simply shrugged and said, "Sure."
Behind his back, Jerry was shaking his head that anyone could be as clueless as Biff was about Sally. "We'll have to go gather some up," was all he said aloud. "It looks like you guys threw all the ones you found in the fire."
"Hey, you need kindling to start a fire," Joe told him.
"And you need sticks to roast hot dogs, is all I'm saying," Jerry replied, although his tone was just as joking as Joe's had been.
"Let's go find some, then," Frank proposed.
"I got a better idea," Chet said. "Since Frank and Joe are experts at finding things, how about they go up into the trees and get some."
Joe rolled his eyes. "Fine. The two of us could do it faster than the rest of you put together, anyway."
"I don't know about that," Iola teased him. "Just for that, I'll help and we'll see who finds more sticks. They have to be good ones, too."
"I'll help, too," Jones volunteered. "In fact, let's make this a contest. Boys against girls. There's ten of us here, so each team has to find five suitable sticks. First one to do it wins."
"You're on," Joe agreed.
"If this is going to be a contest, you've got to start it fair and square." Biff drew a line in the sand with his foot. "This is the starting line. You've all got to wait until I say 'go'. A false start gets a five-second penalty."
The Hardys, Iola, and Jones took their places behind the line and then took off running toward a stand of trees behind the beach as soon as Biff shouted, "Go!" Frank and Joe reached the trees before the girls, given their advantages of longer legs and staying in excellent shape for the various sports teams that they played on. However, once they all reached the woods, they had to slow down so that they could look for sufficiently long, straight sticks, though Frank and Joe went farther than either of the girls did.
"So," Jones said after a few minutes and after looking around to make sure the boys were out of earshot. "Do you mind if I ask you a personal question, Iola?"
Iola glanced up at her, her forehead wrinkled in a questioning expression. "That depends on how personal the question is. What is the question?"
"How come you and Joe aren't going out, considering you're both single and you've clearly got a mutual thing for each other?"
Iola was glad that it was dark enough that Jones probably couldn't see the blush that crept into her cheeks. "What makes you think we have a mutual thing for each other?" she countered.
Jones chuckled. "I'm a teenage girl. I can tell a mutual thing when I see it."
"You really think so?" Iola asked.
"Definitely. Teenage girls are hypersensitive to this kind of thing."
"No, I mean, you really think Joe…" Iola cheeks were burning by now and she felt too awkward to finish the question.
"Look, I haven't known any of you guys for very long, but obviously I've spent some time around Joe in the last few weeks, and I can say definitely that you come over to the Hardys' house more often than any of their other friends, and Joe's more eager to go to your house than any of their other friends'. Then, too, you both get so much more awkward around each other than when you're apart." Jones clicked her tongue. "That's a telltale sign if anything is."
Iola took a moment to think this over. "I wonder if any of the others have picked up on that."
"I don't know. Most of them are boys, so I doubt they would have noticed unless one of the others has a thing for you, too."
"As someone who has spent far more of her time with boys than with other girls, I can testify to the fact that boys are not so insensitive as popular rumor has it." Iola bit her lip. "I kind of hope popular rumor is right this time, though. Don't tell anybody about this. We'd be teased for the rest of our lives about this. I mean, we've been friends since practically before we can remember."
Jones made a motion as if she was pulling a zipper across her lips. "My lips are sealed. Your secret is safe with me. Especially since I would also be humiliated for life if I happen to be wrong, and there's about a five percent chance of that."
Iola chuckled and shook her head. "Good. Now let's find some good roasting stick before the boys beat us."
A little farther in the trees, Frank and Joe were using the flashlights on their phones for the same task.
"I don't see why everyone can't come and look for their own sticks," Frank commented as he picked one up that looked long and straight enough.
"It's Biff and Chet," Joe reminded him. "Like they're going to do any work when they can shuffle it off on someone else." He grinned.
"Not unlike someone else I know," Frank teased him.
"Hey, can I help it that you're pretty easy to give a snow job?"
"That's what you think," Frank replied. "I see through it every time. It's just that nothing would ever get done if I didn't play along with you every once in a while."
The teasing came to an abrupt end when they heard the crackle of someone walking in the woods ahead of them and both boys froze to listen. Although it had grown since the Hardys had moved there fourteen years earlier, Bayport was still a small town and the chances of someone walking in the dark woods being a threat were minimal. Even so, Frank and Joe had inherited an instinct for keeping an eye out for danger from the father, Fenton Hardy, a retired NYPD officer turned private detective. In recent years, they had cultivated that instinct by solving several mysteries, many of them involving dangerous criminals.
This time, however, the someone out walking in the woods was not a threat after all. As it turned out, it was two someones, and Frank and Joe recognized them as soon as they had flashed their lights on them.
"Hey! What's the big idea?" Tony Prito complained, trying to shield his eyes from the sudden glare with his hand. His sister, Lisa, who was with him, did the same.
"Sorry," Frank replied, lowering the flashlight beam away from the teenagers' faces. "We thought you weren't coming, Tony."
"Is that any reason to blind us?" Lisa burst out.
Tony chuckled nervously. "I hope you don't mind that Lisa decided to tag along."
"More like had my arm twisted," Lisa said.
"Uh, Lisa, they're going to take you seriously if you keep talking like that," Tony warned through gritted teeth.
Frank and Joe glanced at one another momentarily. Tony was the same age as Frank, and Lisa was a little younger than Joe, although she was in his class at school. Unlike Iola, Lisa had never really tagged around with Tony and his friends, probably because, also unlike Iola, Lisa had two younger sisters whom she usually spent time with. Even so, Lisa was hardly a stranger, and the Hardys had always gotten the impression that she was a friendly, pleasant sort of person and that she and Tony got along well together. This was certainly not how she typically acted.
"It's no problem," Frank assured them, hoping that Lisa's presence would be as unproblematic as he indicated. Maybe she was just in a bad mood. "We're just looking for some sticks for roasting hot dogs. Or marshmallows. We brought some of those along for you."
Being Catholics, the Prito family did their best to avoid eating meat on Fridays. While Lent was the only time of year that they absolutely had to avoid meat on Fridays, they were willing to follow the bishops' recommendation of doing so throughout the year.
"Thanks," Tony said. "We'll go say hi to everybody else. Come on, Lisa."
He took her elbow and steered her down toward the beach.
"Wow! What's with her?" Joe asked as soon as they were out of earshot. "If she didn't want to come so bad, I wonder why Tony dragged her along? She's going to be a major downer for the rest of the night."
Frank couldn't help but agree. It wasn't long before twelve sticks were found, since two more had to be added for Tony and Lisa, although there was some disagreement on which team had won the competition, since each had found their last stick at almost the same time. In the end, they agreed to consider it a draw.
They returned to the beach to find everyone waiting for them. They handed out the sticks and those amongst them who happened to have pocketknives set to work sharpening the ends. Before long, everyone was roasting a hot dog or a marshmallow (or in Chet's case, a couple of each) over one of the fires, talking and joking as they did.
Frank and Jones happened to end up next to Lisa. Lisa stole several confused looks at Jones, whom she hadn't met before, but she didn't attempt to talk to her. Jones looked at Frank with a silent question of "What is her problem?" to which Frank could only shrug.
Finally, Jones turned to her with a smile. "Hi, I'm Jones. We haven't met before, have we?"
"I'm Lisa." The words were almost stuffy and certainly not particularly friendly, although she did follow it up by saying, "This must be your first year of going to Bayport High."
"Well, actually not," Jones replied. "I'm not going to Bayport High. I'm homeschooled."
Lisa frowned. "You know, I've never understood homeschooling. How are you supposed to ever stand up for anything when you spend your childhood hiding under a rock and getting no social skills?"
Everyone within hearing distance froze. Frank was about to protest, but Jones raised her hand and signaled him not to. Then she put on a smile that would be more appropriately described as a smirk and turned back to Lisa.
"Oh, I know," Jones said in a voice that was practically oozing sarcasm. "It's terrible. I'm so awkward that when I meet someone new or something and ask something like 'Where do you go to school at?' and then they say, 'The public school,' I usually say something rude and awkward like, 'That's cool. How do you like it?' instead of the vastly more preferable and polite response of 'Ew. You're different than me. You must be a total idiot.' I mean, it's not like people are different from each other and have different needs and can learn and thrive in different environments. Not to mention the fact that I live so far under a rock and have so few friends that I'm spending my Friday night hanging out on the beach with a bunch of other kids. It's just awful. I don't know how my parents can be so cruel to me."
Long before Jones had finished her monologue, nearly everyone was chuckling and chortling. The only ones who weren't were Frank, who was staring daggers at Lisa, Tony, who looked like he wished the ground would just swallow him up about now, and Lisa herself, whose face was a startling shade of red in the firelight.
"That's not what I said at all," Lisa burst out. "I was simply asking a question. There's no need for you to be so rude."
All laughter promptly stopped and an uncomfortable silence replaced it.
Callie was the first to shift her position. She didn't like confrontations like this, and she felt that it would probably be best for all involved if Lisa left the group to cool off for a minute. That was why she generously said, "You know, I think it's dark enough to do that stargazing I was talking about. Lisa, do you want to come with me?"
Lisa turned up her nose more than ever at Jones. "I think I'd better. I don't think I'm too welcome here anymore."
"I'll come, too," Iola offered. She was none too eager to see her best friend get ripped apart if Lisa should decide to turn her bad mood toward Callie.
The three girls wandered a little ways off, leaving the rest of the group around the two campfires. The uncomfortable silence continued to reign for a few more moments before Tony broke it.
"I'm sorry, Jones. I don't know why she said that."
"It's okay," Jones assured him. "Maybe my response was a little harsh."
"Are you kidding?" Biff asked. "That was great."
Frank noticed the pained look in Tony's eyes and thought it would be best to change the subject. He turned it toward football practice, which had already started. Joe, Biff, and Chet were all on the team, and so he asked them how practice was going, even though he had already heard a great deal about it from Joe.
That kept the conversation in a more amiable vein for nearly fifteen minutes. Then they heard the unmistakable sound of someone giving a tirade where the girls had gone. They looked at one another, and a few seconds later, they could see Callie and Iola coming toward them, with Lisa following behind by a few yards.
Iola was talking angrily the whole time, every once in a while throwing a few words over her should at Lisa. "I don't care. I really don't. They don't know anything more about it than you do. It's an art not a method of seduction, but if you can't get that through your thick head, I don't want to talk about any more. You can just stay away from me." By this time, the girls had reached the group. "Chet, get that car of yours started, if you can. I want to go home."
"Me, too," Callie agreed. "I've had about enough of this party."
Chet scratched his head. "Gee, Iola, what's the matter?"
Iola pointed a finger at Lisa. "Her. Her and her stupid ideas that she's trying to push off on us."
"There's nothing stupid about the truth," Lisa replied coolly, her arms folded over her chest. "You're the one who's not listening to facts. You don't even have a decent argument other than to just get angry and defensive."
"Angry and defensive!" Iola seemed to almost choke on the words. "Was I angry and defensive? You're the one who called me a…"
"Hold on," Callie interjected. "Just cool off, both of you. Iola and I will go home and…"
"It happens to be the truth," Lisa cut her off, completely ignoring that Callie had been talking. She was almost smug, as if she had won whatever argument they were having. "If you can't handle it, that's not my problem. As I said earlier, though, it looks like I'm not welcome here, so I want to go home, Tony."
Tony started at suddenly being addressed. He narrowed his eyebrows for a moment before he said, "Then go home. I didn't ask you to come just so you could insult all my friends."
"More like ordered me to come." Lisa huffed. "Fine then." She turned on her heel and marched away.
Chet let out a whistle. "Wow. What's wrong with her?"
Tony shook his head. "I'm sorry, everybody. This is the worst she's ever been. She's just mad because she didn't want to come."
"Then why did you bring her?" Frank asked.
"I had to do something." Tony pinched the bridge of his nose. "I think she's completely lost her mind. She's been flipping out all summer, ever since she met those…people." The way he said "people" was much the same as he might have said any number of stronger and more colorful words.
"What people are those?" Joe asked.
"I don't really know, if we're going to be honest," Tony said. "She won't let any of the rest of us meet them or give us any names. All we know is there's some people she goes and hangs out with every other Friday or so and then comes back with these crazy ideas."
"Like that dancing is evil," Iola said, the heat still in her voice.
Tony sighed and nodded. "That's one of her pet ones. To be perfectly honest, I think she's joined a cult."
"I didn't know there were any cults around here," Jerry said.
"They can pop up just about anywhere," Joe pointed out. "It's even easier now with social media. Groups can start taking on cult-like qualities without ever even meeting each other in person. But, Tony, if you think Lisa joined a cult, why haven't you and your family stopped from meeting with these people?"
"We've tried," Tony said. "Have we ever tried. That's why I brought her tonight. I think she was supposed to go to a meeting, and that's what she's so mad about. I shouldn't have let her go like that. She's probably headed to that meeting right now." He glanced at the Hardys. "Say, Frank, Joe, do you think you could do anything about it? These people must be up to something underhanded, and if we could prove it to her, it might knock some sense back into her."
"I don't know," Frank replied. "If it really is a cult, most cult leaders are in it for the power. I mean, you look at a cult and the leader has complete power over their followers. Their followers might realize this, but they let it happen because they're convinced that their leader is, well, practically a god. Any attempts to prove to them that they're actually a crazy person with a god complex just comes across as attacks by the unfaithful on the chosen one, or whatever the wording of their ideas is."
At Tony's crestfallen expression, Joe added, "Of course, there are also plenty of cult leaders who are simply trying to swindle money out of their followers or something like that. If that's the case, there might be some hope. At any rate, investigating and finding out exactly what these people are all about can't hurt anything."
"Right," Frank agreed. "It's not going to be easy with school starting up and we can't make any promises that we can help Lisa, but we'll investigate."
Tony breathed a sigh of relief. "Thanks, guys. If you can just get to the bottom of this, I'm sure Lisa will see the light."