The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey 14

  The taxi driver stopped the car and spoke to his passengers in accented English. “Listen, I warn to you,” he said, turning in his seat. “I do not know your plans, but they will not let you to dig here. I see the bucket and the shovel. But the castle is public grounds. The guards will — how do you say? — they will throw you up.”

  “Throw us out?” Reynie suggested.

  “Yes!” said the taxi driver, smiling. “That is it! Throw you out!”

  “Thanks for the warning,” said Cannonball. He paid the driver and asked him to wait.

  For no good reason, Reynie had been imagining an abandoned ruin of a castle with no one around, but St. George’s Castle was the exact opposite — a popular tourist site, with people streaming in and out. When he and the others had crossed the street and passed through the open gate, they found quite a lot of visitors milling about the castle grounds, which did resemble a lovely park, as Captain Noland had said. Tourists strolled through little thickets of shrubs, sat on benches, and paged through guide books, chattering and pointing at architectural features on the castle. A street musician played guitar and sang near a grove of olive trees. And surrounding everything was the stone wall, in some places low enough to sit on, in others high enough to cast long shadows over those walking below.

  “We need to find the westernmost part, right?” Constance said. “So which way is west?”

  “That way,” Reynie said, pointing toward the late afternoon sun.

  “Constance!” Sticky said in a reproving tone. “Don’t you know that the sun —”

  Luckily Sticky’s comment, which surely would have provoked a squabble, was interrupted by a garbled voice blaring from Cannonball’s radio. Signaling the children to wait, the young sailor walked off to a quieter spot and spoke into his radio. When he came back he was clearly distressed.

  “That was Captain Noland,” Cannonball said. “The crowds have caused big problems with unloading the containers, and he needs my help sorting things out. Now please don’t worry. It’s a very quick business once it gets going, and I’m only needed at the start. I should be back within an hour — two at the most.”

  “But what if you aren’t?” Kate asked. “We have to hurry, Cannonball! Our friends need us!”

  “I know that,” Cannonball said gravely. “I’m truly sorry, and so is Captain Noland. He said he begs your forgiveness.” He handed Kate his radio and the shovel. “Start without me, all right? With luck I’ll be back before you’re even finished digging. Just radio the captain if you run into trouble, and I’ll be back as quick as I can!”

  With that Cannonball dashed away, but not before Reynie saw the expression on his face. He obviously felt horrible to abandon them and would never have done so had he not been following orders. Reynie shook his head and turned away. Kate put the radio inside her bucket, and with Constance riding piggyback the children set out for the westernmost part of the wall, which lay on the other side of the castle.

  Weaving among scattered clusters of sightseers and picnickers, they hurried up a series of steps, crossed a narrow stone plaza, and followed a winding path through a shrub thicket, where their footsteps flushed several peafowl out from under the shrubs. The startled birds darted here and there among the children’s feet, clucking and flapping with great agitation before fleeing back to the very shrubs from which they’d emerged.

  “Silly, clumsy lot of birds,” muttered Kate, who had nearly tripped over two of them. “Madge would have a field day here.”

  Beyond the thicket the path led the children to the corner of the castle, and just as they turned the corner they all drew up short, blinking in dismay. The westernmost wall lay a short distance from where they stood — but that was the only short thing about it. Indeed, it seemed to stretch on and on forever. Worse, there were people everywhere: people sitting on the wall gazing out over the city and the river below; people admiring the old black cannons set into the wall at regular intervals; people wandering about taking pictures on the grassy lawn between the wall and the castle. And not only were there people everywhere, there seemed to be olive trees everywhere, too. All of a sudden, Mr. Benedict’s directions seemed hopelessly difficult. Kate took out the paper to read them again:

  Castle of Sticky’s namesake

  Against westernmost wall

  Not visible

  Need tool

  Olive trees nearby

  No cork or pine for two meters

  “Well, that’s not very helpful,” Kate said. “There are olive trees ‘nearby’ the whole wall, and hardly a pine tree in sight. Which ones are the cork trees, Sticky? I haven’t the faintest.”

  Sticky pointed. “There, that’s a cork tree. And there and there. Only those few that I can see.”

  “That makes for an odd clue, then,” said Reynie. “Why mention ‘olive trees nearby’ and ‘no cork or pine for two meters’ when that can be said of almost the entire wall? It doesn’t narrow down the location a bit. Let me see that, will you, Kate?”

  As Reynie studied the letter with furrowed brow, Kate shrugged and said, “Maybe we should just start walking along the wall and see what we find. If Captain Noland’s right, it’ll be easy to spot where something’s just been buried.” She looked around again at all the people. “The hard part will be digging without getting noticed. If we had time to wait we could sneak back in at night. Maybe that’s what Mr. Benedict thought we’d do. Otherwise I can’t see how he expected us to pull this off without getting in trouble.”

  “Neither can I,” said Reynie, still studying the letter. “Which is why I’m wondering —”

  “Get back, everyone!” Constance said. She grabbed Kate’s ponytail and jerked on it as if pulling on the reins of a runaway horse. “Back! Back around the corner! It’s Jackson! He’s here!”

  “What are you talking about?” Kate snapped, trying to pry Constance’s fingers from her hair. “That hurts, Con —”

  “Do what she says, Kate!” said Reynie, grabbing her arm. “Step back!”

  Puzzled and irritated, Kate stepped back around the corner of the castle. She set Constance on the ground — none too gently — and said, “This had better be good.”

  Constance ignored her, instead looking up at Reynie with searching eyes. “Why do you think he’s here, Reynie? Do you think he knew we were coming? What should we do?”

  Reynie put his hands on her shoulders. “Just stay calm and tell me what happened. Did you see Jackson? Or did you, you know —”

  “I just suddenly knew. I could just tell.”

  “Are you two talking about Jackson the Executive?” Sticky asked.

  “The one and only,” said Reynie. He peered around the corner of the castle, studying all the people on the wall, near the cannons, on the grassy lawn . . . And then there he was, a swaggering young man stepping out of the shade of an olive tree. Jackson. Their old tormentor, one of Mr. Curtain’s trusted Executives. He’d seemed unfamiliar at first — he wasn’t wearing the tunic and sash he’d always worn at the Institute — but it was him, all right. That sharp, knife-like nose, the strutting walk, the stocky build and bright red hair. Reynie could feel his heartbeat picking up speed. “She’s right. I see him.”

  “You’ve got to be kidding,” Sticky said in a miserable tone. “Here?”

  Constance seemed shaken up. “I probably just saw him and didn’t realize it, right?”

  “I’m sure that’s what happened, Constance,” said Reynie, trying to sound calm. “And lucky for us it did. He would have spotted us for sure. He’s patrolling the wall.”

  “Patrolling it?” Kate said.

  “That’s what it looks like,” said Reynie, peeking around the corner again. “He’s just pacing back and forth, like he’s waiting for something.”

  “Or someone,” Constance said.

  “I knew it was too good to be true,” Sticky said, taking out his polishing cloth. “And here I’d thought this part, at least, was going to be easy.”

’s face darkened. “Reynie, if Jackson’s here . . .”

  “Then Jillson’s probably here, too. I know.”

  If Jackson was dangerous alone, he was doubly dangerous with Jillson, his constant companion. The children had never determined if the two Executives were brother and sister, boyfriend and girlfriend, or simply partners in crime. They didn’t even know them by any names other than Jackson and Jillson — which could have been first names, last names, or nicknames. But none of this mattered. What mattered was that Jackson stood between them and their mission, and that Jillson, no doubt, was lurking nearby.

  “Constance,” Reynie said, “do you have a feeling about Jillson?”

  “Oh, yes, I hate her,” Constance said. “Don’t you?”

  “I meant a feeling about whether or not she’s here.”

  “Oh. No. No, I would have told you if I had, wouldn’t I? But that doesn’t mean she isn’t here. Maybe she’s just on the other side of the castle.”

  “Or maybe something terrible happened to her,” Kate suggested hopefully. “She always tied her ponytail with wire, remember? Maybe she got struck by lightning!”

  “I’ll never understand how you can joke at times like these,” said Sticky, anxiously looking around.

  “Who said I was joking?” said Kate. “Anyway, if she shows up, we can deal with it, can’t we? I’m sure I can handle her by myself — Jillson or Jackson, either one. With the three of you —” she glanced at Constance “— well, the two and a half of you to handle the other one, we can probably win if it comes to a fight. At the very least we’ll give them a run for their money.”

  “It can’t come to that, Kate,” said Reynie. “I don’t know why Jackson’s here, but if he sees us he’ll report it to Mr. Curtain, and that will wreck everything. We can’t afford for him even to suspect that we’re here — not without putting Mr. Benedict and Number Two in greater danger.”

  “So what do we do?” asked Constance. “How are we supposed to dig? How do we even find where to dig?”

  Reynie quickly returned to the letter. He felt sure that Mr. Benedict had provided an answer if only he knew how to find it. A lot of the directions seemed unimportant or unhelpful, so perhaps they were meant as distractions — like the extra words in the bottom corners of the journal pages. And what was this business about going down for their hint, then up to where the clues led them? Mr. Benedict had written the clues at the bottom of the page, and they did lead uphill to the castle, but why say it like that? For that matter, why did he say “hint” first — as if there were only one — and then “clues,” which implied more than one? Did Mr. Benedict mean to suggest a difference between “hint” and “clues”? Why would he do that?

  Sticky was growing more anxious by the second. It was well and good for Kate to conjecture about “handling” Jackson and Jillson — she was so quick she probably wouldn’t get handled in return. But he wasn’t Kate. He would almost certainly get handled, and just thinking about it was enough to make him sweat. “Reynie?” he prompted. “We need to hurry!”

  “I know,” Reynie said, still poring over the letter. “That’s what’s troubling me. I don’t think Mr. Benedict meant for us to spend hours searching for our next clue. He expected us to be able to go straight to it — and to recover it quickly, without getting caught. The secret has to be in the letter. It has to be!”

  “So find it,” snipped Constance. “Come on, Reynie, do your thing. Where do we dig?”

  Reynie stared at the letter, desperately willing the answer to come to him — and suddenly it did. He started and looked up. “I don’t think we do.”

  Constance scowled. “We don’t dig? But Captain Noland said —”

  “I don’t care what Captain Noland said,” Reynie interrupted, with a sharpness that surprised all of them. “I’ll bet we just have to scrape off some putty and paint. That’s why we need a tool. Kate can use her Army knife for that.”

  The others stared at him.

  “You left out a part,” said Kate. “What are we scraping putty and paint from?”

  Reynie handed her the letter. “Mr. Benedict says to go down for the clue. He doesn’t mean go down to the bottom of the page — he only wrote the hints down there as a distraction. He wanted to make it seem like he was just being playful: Go down for this, go up for that. But take a closer look. Go down the hints — read the first letter of each line.”

  Kate did as Reynie said. Her eyes widened. Constance and Sticky crowded against her to see what she had seen. And there was the answer, plain as day.

  Awkward Exchanges and Clever Disguises

  I can’t believe you didn’t see that sooner,” said Constance with an incredulous snort. “It’s perfectly obvious!”

  “Next time you might trouble to look at it yourself,” said Reynie, trying hard not to snap.

  Kate glanced around the corner of the castle wall. “It’s the nearest one. The other cannons all have cork or pine trees within two meters.” (She could speak with perfect certainty given her talent for gauging distances.) Pulling out her spyglass, Kate popped off the kaleidoscope lens and took a closer look at the cannon.

  “See anything unusual?” Reynie asked.

  “Not yet.”

  “Maybe it’s down inside the barrel,” said Sticky.

  “No, I think I see something now. Yes, that’s it! There’s a slightly darker area near the base of the cannon . . .” Kate lowered the spyglass and grinned. “It’s rectangular.”

  “Like an envelope,” Reynie said.

  Kate nodded. “I think you were right. A little putty and paint and he was able to hide the envelope in plain sight.” She put away the spyglass and took out her Army knife. “I can get it and be back here in fifteen seconds.”

  “Shouldn’t we do something to distract Jackson?” Sticky asked.

  “Too risky,” said Kate. She slipped her bucket from her belt and set it down, then began untying her ponytail. “Too many people around, too little time. Jillson could show up any second. I’ll just need to go when he’s facing the other direction.”

  “I agree with Kate,” said Reynie. “But listen, if he does look your way —”

  “I’m one step ahead of you, pal.” Kate shook her head vigorously, then ran her fingers through her hair, teasing it up and forward, until it stuck out on all sides and almost completely obscured her face. “Sticky, can I borrow your glasses?”

  Sticky cringed, but of course he couldn’t refuse. “Be careful with them, will you?”

  “When am I ever not careful?” Kate said. She balanced the spectacles low on her nose so she could see over the rims. “How do I look?”

  Sticky squinted. “Blurry.”

  “Weird,” said Constance.

  “Perfect,” said Reynie with an approving nod.

  Kate untied one of her shoes and peeked around the corner again. “He’s still pacing. Same number of steps in both directions. Looks left, looks right, looks left again. I do like that about Jackson. He’s predictable. Okay, I’m off!”

  Reynie took Kate’s place at the corner and watched her go. She walked quickly, but not so quickly as to draw attention to herself, and she even managed to appear slightly bowlegged. For a spur-of-the-moment disguise, it was pretty good. A wild-haired, bow-legged girl with an untied shoe, wire-rimmed spectacles — and no red bucket. If Reynie hadn’t known better he might not have recognized her himself. He glanced toward Jackson, who was still walking in the other direction. So far, so good.

  Kate swerved around a family that was approaching the cannon to take pictures, pretended to notice her untied shoelace, and knelt by the cannon’s base to tie it — which she did with one hand. In the other hand Reynie saw her knife glint. There was no time to marvel at Kate’s dexterity, though, for she was every bit as quick as she was dexterous. Already she had scraped the envelope free, tied her shoe, and was rising again, shoving the envelope and knife into her pocket with a triumphant smile. Then she hesitated. The mother in th
e family was speaking to her, holding out a camera, stepping in front of her. She wanted Kate to take the family’s picture together.

  “Oh no,” Reynie said.

  “What’s happening?” Constance hissed.

  “Get ready to run,” Reynie said. He heard the other two suck in their breath.

  Kate was shaking her head, feigning incomprehension. The mother had grabbed her arm, trying to make herself understood. Finally, with an apologetic smile and an artful twist of her arm, Kate got away. But it was a costly delay. Reynie knew it, and from the expression on Kate’s face, she knew it too. She was walking purposefully, but she couldn’t risk running. Reynie looked to see if Jackson had noticed her.

  Jackson hadn’t. But Jillson had.

  There was no mistaking Jillson. Six feet tall, greasy brown ponytail, arms like jackhammers. She had just come around the far corner of the castle, and as she approached Jackson, she was pointing in Kate’s direction. Her expression was not one of outright recognition, but it was clearly suspicious. Jackson turned to look just before Kate rounded the corner. Whether or not he recognized her Reynie couldn’t say — he had to withdraw quickly to avoid being spotted himself.

  “Did he notice me?” asked Kate.

  “Jillson did,” Reynie said. “We need to go.”

  “Jillson?” Sticky cried.

  Kate snatched the shovel from Reynie. “Move it, then! Give Constance a ride. I’ll meet you outside the gate.”

  There was no time to argue or ask questions, nor even for Sticky to retrieve his spectacles. With Constance riding on Reynie’s back and Sticky, squinting, following close behind, the three of them hurried down the winding path through the thicket, once again startling peafowl from under the shrubs. Across the plaza, down the steps, and toward the gate they ran, and as they ran Reynie looked back to see that Kate had herded several of the peafowl together and was shooing them around the corner of the castle. Even from this distance he could hear a young woman’s angry cry of surprise — that would be Jillson — followed by a great clucking, cooing commotion.