The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey 11

  “The navy’s where I met Nicholas Benedict, in fact,” said Captain Noland. “He and I — why, what’s the matter?”

  Captain Noland had opened his eyes to discover the children staring at him uncomfortably. They had agreed they must tell him the truth or risk getting nowhere, but now that the time had come, they were anxious. What if he decided to send them back home on the first plane from Lisbon? Or what if he wanted to help them but couldn’t? What if there were no more clues to be had?

  “We need to speak with you about Mr. Benedict,” Reynie said after a pause. “He’s —”

  Just then, the cabin seemed to lurch. The children nearly fell from their seats, and the coffee pot and serving tray slid across the table. Captain Noland leaped forward and caught them. The cabin righted itself just as quickly as it had gone askew.

  “We’re heading into some rough seas, I’m afraid,” said Captain Noland, as if the children could possibly have failed to notice. “Don’t worry, it’s nothing very serious, and it won’t last the night. By morning we’ll . . . Wait, what were you going to tell me about Nicholas?”

  It took a few minutes for the children to explain, and by the time they had finished Captain Noland was sitting on the little chest, his chin in his hands, looking quite stricken. “I can’t believe it. He called me from Lisbon only last week. He said he and Number Two were having a fine trip.”

  “They’re in Lisbon, then?” Reynie asked hopefully.

  “They were,” said Captain Noland. “They were leaving that afternoon. He called to make sure everything was properly arranged. You see, I’d invited Nicholas to be a guest on this maiden voyage months ago, and he asked if I would bring you children as guests instead. I was happy to do so. In fact, I was to play a role in the surprise he planned for you.”

  “How so?” Kate asked.

  “By presenting you with a sealed envelope he sent me several weeks ago. He said he intended to make certain arrangements, and if he succeeded, I was to give you the envelope when we reached port. When he called from Lisbon, he confirmed I should deliver it, along with some official paperwork to ease your passage between countries.”

  “Do you have the envelope with you?” Reynie asked.

  “In my cabin,” said Captain Noland. “When we’ve finished here I’ll get it, and we can open it together. I know you meant to do this alone — and I admire your courage — but for your own safety I can’t allow it. I won’t send you back, but I am going to help you.”

  “It isn’t that we don’t want help,” Reynie said, “and we certainly wouldn’t mind some protection. But Mr. Curtain is suspicious and extremely smart. His henchmen — the Ten Men — they’ll be on the lookout for any kind of rescue attempt, and —”

  “I understand you,” Captain Noland said. “We mustn’t involve the authorities, must operate in secret as much as possible. That’s all right, Reynie. I’ll do whatever’s necessary. You probably don’t know this, but I owe Nicholas my life. So tell me again, what exactly —”

  He was interrupted by a knock at the door. “Captain, are you in there?”

  “I asked not to be disturbed!” Captain Noland called.

  “You said except in case of emergency, sir,” said Cannonball, poking his head in. “Which it is.”

  Captain Noland quickly stood up. “What’s happened, Joe?”

  The young sailor closed the door, and standing with his back against it (there being no place else to stand) said, “Well, sir, you know how Mr. Pressius was going on to the other . . . um, the other owners about his scads of diamonds? About how the jewels themselves are worth more than the Shortcut and all her crew?”

  “I seem to remember that,” the captain said dryly.

  “Well, after you excused yourself, Mr. Pressius told Mr. Thomas about the . . .” Cannonball hesitated, glancing at the children.

  “Speak freely, Joe.”

  “Aye, sir. He told Mr. Thomas about the fakes.”

  “Mr. Pressius has brought along a chest of plastic diamonds,” Captain Noland explained to the children, “which he seems to think may serve as decoys in the event of a robbery. I believe he took the idea from a movie.” The captain kept his face impassive, but the children got the distinct impression that he found Mr. Pressius perfectly ridiculous. “Now, Joe, tell me what happened.”

  “Aye, Captain. Well, Mr. Pressius said the fakes were so good — the best cheap fakes ever made, he said — that he bet Mr. Thomas couldn’t tell the difference. Of course Mr. Thomas didn’t like that, as he figures himself an expert on everything —”

  “Where’s the emergency in all this?” asked Captain Noland.

  “Getting to it, Captain. So what happens is Mr. Thomas and Mr. Pressius insist I take them down to the security hold to open the chests. I didn’t know what to do — you said to keep them happy, and seeing as the diamonds do belong to Mr. Pressius —”

  “You did the right thing.”

  “Thank you, sir,” said Cannonball, looking relieved. “Only, the trouble is that Mr. Pressius wins the bet. Without a magnifying glass, it’s extremely hard to tell the difference between the real diamonds and the plastic ones.”

  “Why is that a problem?” asked Captain Noland.

  “Because . . . well, sir, did you happen to notice a kind of a joggle in the ship a few minutes ago? A bit of a lurching? Well, Mr. Thomas and Mr. Pressius were holding the open chests when that happened — they were carrying them across to where the light was better — and seeing as neither of them has his sea legs yet, why . . . the, uh, the diamonds and the decoys, they . . . ahem. They sort of spilled out.”

  “Spilled out?”

  “Exactly, sir. And mixed together. All across the floor of the security hold.”

  “The idiots!” cried Captain Noland, putting a hand to his forehead. “Don’t tell me. Mr. Pressius refuses to do the sorting himself. He wants you to do it.”

  “Yes, sir. Under heavy guard, of course. He said I’ll need to examine each one with a magnifying glass. He’ll inspect the diamonds when I’ve finished, he said, but he certainly isn’t going to do the initial sorting himself. That’s grunt work, he said. Said it wouldn’t have happened, anyway, if the ship had been sailing properly.”

  “Of course that’s what he said. And what did you tell him?”

  “I said I had to speak with you first. Said you might prefer someone else do it, as it’s likely to take several hours, and I’m needed to —”

  “Everyone is needed!” Captain Noland snapped. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’m sorry. The fact is I can’t spare anyone for several hours, Joe. We’re shorthanded as it is. The crew is already working double duty, sacrificing their sleep, and now we have rough seas thrown into the bargain. What’s more,” Captain Noland said, with a significant look at the children, “our friends here have alerted me to an urgent situation that requires my attention.”

  Cannonball was wringing his cap in his hands. He stared at the floor. “Sorry, Captain. I should never have —”

  “It isn’t your fault, Joe. It’s the owners’ fault. First they compel me to reduce the crew, and now this.” Captain Noland’s face contorted with bitterness; his tone was desolate. “And yet if the Shortcut arrives late — if the least little thing goes wrong —”

  “I know,” said Cannonball with an anxious look. “I know what it would mean for you, sir. It would be . . . well, if there’s anything I can . . . you know that I . . .”

  Captain Noland’s expression softened. He put a hand on Cannonball’s shoulder. “It’s all right, Joe. We’ll just have to do what we can and hope for the best. Now, help me think. I’ll need you on the bridge soon, so who should I assign? Who can I possibly spare?”

  Kate raised her hand. “Why not let me do it? I have good eyes and quick hands. I could make short work of it.”

  “I could help, too,” Sticky offered. “We all could.”

  Cannonball brightened. “Now, there’s an idea! What do you thi
nk, Captain? Set the young ones to sorting?”

  “It’s very good of you, children,” said Captain Noland, “and I thank you, but Mr. Pressius would never stand for it. You know he wouldn’t, Joe. Now, please, we need to hurry. Who can I send?”

  Cannonball’s face fell. “You’re right, of course. He wouldn’t hear of it. All right, then, what about Jenny Briggs? No, wait, you’ll need her on the . . . What about Matthew Tanner?”

  The captain shook his head. “Tanner took on Pratt’s duties. What about Kavanaugh? Or is he —”

  “Excuse me,” Reynie interrupted. “Captain Noland?”

  The captain scratched at his beard, evidently straining to be patient. “Yes, what is it, Reynie?”

  “You said the fake diamonds are plastic, right? If that’s true, then you ought to just pour everything into a tub of water — the fake ones and the real ones together. The plastic ones will float to the top.”

  Captain Noland and Cannonball blinked. Then looked at each other. Then burst out laughing.

  “Reynie Muldoon, you’ve just earned yourself a spot on my crew!” roared Captain Noland. “Put them in water and see what floats — now, why didn’t I think of that? My whole life depends on things that float! Joe, will you —?”

  “Already on it, Captain!” said Cannonball, and pausing just long enough to tousle Reynie’s hair, he hurried out.

  “I can’t thank you enough,” said Captain Noland. He started to refill Reynie’s coffee cup, then saw it was still nearly full. “Please, drink up! And help yourself to those treats, all of you. They’re entirely deserved. Reynie may well have saved me from a fate I can hardly stand to consider.”

  Constance had begun stuffing gumdrops into her pockets to prevent the others from eating them. “What would that be?”

  “Why, dismissal, of course,” said Captain Noland. “This maiden voyage is an important trip! The owners will make money only if the Shortcut proves it can deliver what they promise — a reliable transatlantic shipment in two days. If it fails, they’ll want to blame something other than the ship design, and it certainly isn’t going to be themselves. No, there’s no doubt about it. They’ll send me packing.”

  “Surely you could find another ship,” said Kate. “Why do you want to work for these jerks, anyway?”

  Captain Noland gave her a weary look. “It’s complicated, Kate. If I were dismissed from my command of the Shortcut — if the owners claim that I’ve surprised them with my incompetence — well, you can see it would be difficult for me to secure another position. Meanwhile, I’d be left high and dry. And that is something I cannot tolerate. No, I need to be at sea.” The captain’s sincerity on this point was unmistakable. Even as he’d spoken the words “high and dry,” his eyes had begun to dart back and forth, and his jaw quivered.

  “Enough of that, however,” said Captain Noland, composing himself. “We have more pressing matters to consider. I should return to the bridge now, but I’ll bring you that envelope when I can. Shall I bring more coffee when I come? I’ll gladly brew a fresh pot.”

  The children begged him not to trouble himself on their account. And so, with a promise to return as soon as possible, Captain Noland took his leave.

  As the children rifled through the treat tins, they felt somewhat encouraged. If Mr. Benedict had called from Lisbon, they were on the right track, and with the captain’s help they might even figure out where to go next before they reached port. This was their great hope, for when they arrived in Lisbon they would have only two days left to find their friends.

  The room had begun to sway again. The movement was less dramatic than that original lurch, but even so Reynie experienced an unpleasant rolling sensation, as if the ocean waves had found their way into his belly. Abandoning his half-nibbled mint cookie — eating seemed like a terrible idea all of a sudden — Reynie began to put away the tiny folding table, which was threatening to tip. Kate moved the treat tins to the floor, munching happily as she decided what to choose next. She seemed unfazed by the motion of the cabin.

  “So are we going to talk about what Constance did?” asked Sticky (who like Reynie had sadly given up on the cookies). “You know, the way she knew Captain Noland was at the door before he knocked?”

  Constance rolled her eyes. “Reynie was right. I was dreaming. Forget about it.”

  “Even if you were dreaming,” said Sticky, “you predicted someone was coming.”

  “I think it must have been a coincidence,” said Kate, getting up to help put the table away. Reynie was having trouble keeping his balance and kept banging his shins against the chest. “Wouldn’t you say so, Reynie?”

  Reynie dropped heavily to the floor. He was feeling worse by the second. “I’m not sure,” he admitted. “Has anything like that ever happened before, Constance?”

  Constance shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t know.”

  “What does that mean?” Sticky said exasperatedly.

  Constance made a face at him. “It means it’s happened before, but how can I possibly know whether it’s a coincidence or not? Unlike some people, I don’t happen to think I know everything.”

  Sticky, stung by this comment, took out his polishing cloth and made no reply.

  “Why don’t you just tell us what you do know?” Reynie asked gently. “What does Mr. Benedict say about . . . about your gifts?”

  Constance gazed at her shoes, evidently considering how — or whether — to answer him, and after a few moments Kate seemed ready to prompt her. Reynie, sensing Constance’s emotional confusion, warned Kate with a subtle shake of his head. He was pretty sure Constance hadn’t noticed, yet no sooner had he done it than she looked at him with a grateful expression. It made Reynie very uneasy, as if she’d read his thoughts. Could that be what happened? More likely she was just developing a sense of intuition, like Mr. Benedict (and like Reynie himself, for that matter). But what if . . . ?

  “Mr. Benedict hasn’t said much about it,” Constance said, “except that I can do patterns and stuff, which might explain everything or . . . or maybe not.”

  “What do you mean by ‘patterns and stuff’?” asked Sticky, trying not to sound demanding this time.

  “It’s like . . . like . . .” Constance spluttered her lips. “One thing I’m not good at is explaining things.”

  “How did Mr. Benedict explain it to you?” said Reynie.

  Constance thought about this. “Okay, he said it was like how when most people look at a familiar word, they don’t have to spell it out letter by letter. Even with long words like, um — what’s a really long word, Sticky?”

  “Epidemiological,” Sticky suggested.

  “Okay, it’s like when Sticky sees that word on paper. He already knows it, so he doesn’t have to figure it out letter by letter. Right, Sticky? You just recognize it by the pattern of its letters. I can do the same thing, only with more complicated stuff.”

  “Like what?” asked Kate.

  Constance seemed embarrassed. She began to pick at her fingernails, and in a barely audible voice she said, “Like weather, and, you know, stuff like that.”

  Reynie raised his eyebrows. “Weather?”

  Constance mumbled something about not feeling very well. This happened to be the truth (nor was she alone in this, for Sticky and Reynie were both holding their bellies now), but the others would not be put off, and so finally she explained, “I can predict it, apparently. I hadn’t realized I could until Mr. Benedict pointed it out. He started asking every morning if it was going to rain that day, and I would make what I thought was a dumb guess — only my guesses always turned out to be right.”

  “How can that be?” Sticky asked.

  Constance shrugged. “Mr. Benedict says people’s minds are noticing things all the time, even when we don’t realize it. Sights, smells, temperature changes — all sorts of stuff. We notice it without consciously thinking about it. He says we may not be paying attention, but our brains are recording and processing it all the same, a
nd these . . . these observations, or whatever you want to call them, make up a pattern. So if you’re good with patterns, the way Mr. Benedict says I am, you can sometimes predict things.”

  “Because you recognize the pattern,” Reynie said. “I get it.”

  “But I don’t see how this explains what happened,” Sticky said. “What kind of pattern could predict the captain’s knocking on the door?”

  “Maybe Constance’s mind came to recognize the sound of footsteps in the passageway,” Reynie suggested, “while to the rest of us that particular sound was still mixed in with the unfamiliar noises of the ship. A lot of the ship sounds must follow patterns, after all. It could be as simple as that.”

  Sticky considered this. “Highly developed, unconscious pattern recognition,” he murmured. “Okay, I buy that.”

  “But couldn’t it also be that she’s psychic?” Kate asked. “Did Mr. Benedict ever mention that possibility, Constance?”

  Constance, who now felt very ill indeed, said irritably, “You know it’s possible, Kate. Now stop asking stupid questions.” She crossed her arms and closed her eyes, partly because she was so queasy and partly because she disliked being questioned — especially about this particular subject.

  Psychic ability would be an awful lot to cope with, Reynie thought, especially for someone as young as Constance. The prospect seemed to trouble her extremely. But Reynie said nothing, for at the moment he was troubled extremely by the sensation that his stomach was filled with wobbling gelatin.

  Kate was unwilling to let the matter drop, however. “I’ll stop asking questions when you start answering them, Constance. Has Mr. Benedict ever said anything about your being psychic, or hasn’t he?”

  Constance moaned. “If I tell you, can we please stop talking about it?”

  “It’s a deal,” said Kate.

  The boys said nothing. They were both quite nauseated and were trying to hold very still. Unfortunately, with every minute that passed the cabin seemed to sway with greater energy, as if the room itself were a swinging hammock. The captain’s little chest was sliding back and forth, first bumping the door, then the wall opposite. Kate took out her rope and tied the chest to a bunk.