The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey 16

  A blonde girl with a bucket.

  Jackson stopped in his tracks. “I just saw Kate Wetherall get onto that train!”

  “So did I,” said Jillson, who’d forgotten that her job was to look away from the trains and into the crowded station. And because she wasn’t looking in that direction, she failed to see a businessman emerge from the crowd and come to stand behind her and Jackson.

  This businessman was not the young fellow Jillson had shoved aside earlier. This businessman carried a briefcase, and he wore an expensive suit, expensive cologne, and two expensive watches — one on each wrist. Had Jillson seen this man earlier, it would never have occurred to her to shove him.

  “Kate Wetherall,” Jillson was saying. “Well, well, well. It did look like her. But can we be sure? I don’t want to report it if we’re not sure. He hates it when we make mistakes, you know.”

  “Can we be sure?” Jackson mimicked with a sneer. “What other girl in the world carries a bucket wherever she goes, Jillson? It was Kate Wetherall, without a doubt. Let’s find out where that train is headed, and then . . .”

  Jackson stopped talking. He stiffened. He had caught the scent of expensive cologne. Jillson, noticing Jackson’s odd demeanor, likewise stiffened. Together they turned and discovered the businessman standing behind them. The man looked serious, but his eyes displayed an obvious satisfaction, even pleasure. Setting down his briefcase, he placed one hand on Jackson’s shoulder, the other on Jillson’s.

  “Good work,” he said. “Now come with me.”

  Promises and Reprieves

  Because the train journey would take all night, the children had reserved a sleeping compartment, and the first thing Constance did upon entering it was fling herself upon a lower bunk to rest. This was not the irritating behavior it used to be when the others hadn’t known Constance’s age. For a three-year-old, even riding piggyback all afternoon could prove exhausting, to say nothing of being constantly worried and in constant distress. In truth, all of them were worn out — even Kate. But Kate was not one to let fatigue slow her down much. The moment she closed the door behind her, she popped open her bucket and took out Cannonball’s radio.

  “It’s quieter in here,” she said. “With luck we’ll still be in range.”

  Reynie stood at the compartment window, his hands in his pockets. The train was still in the city, and he could see the setting sun reflected in the windows of passing buildings. It would soon be dark. The children would soon have left far behind them the city, the port, and the ship that had carried them here. In his pocket Reynie could feel the present Captain Noland had given him. He’d never looked closely at it, but with every passing minute he felt more convinced of its significance.

  “May I see that radio, Kate?” he asked.

  Kate gave him a quizzical look. Something in Reynie’s tone had struck her oddly. It wasn’t a tone he had ever used with her, and she couldn’t guess what it meant. She handed him the radio. “What’s going on? You sound funny.”

  Reynie opened the window and tossed the radio out.

  “What in the world?” Kate cried. “Why’d you do that?”

  Constance sat up to stare at him, and Sticky ran to the window to look out, as if the radio might have fallen somewhere he could reach. It hadn’t, of course, and he stared after it, shaking his head in disbelief.

  “I don’t want him to know where we are,” said Reynie. “The captain. I don’t trust him.”

  Sticky was still gazing forlornly out the window. That radio — their one connection to adults who might protect them — had been a source of comfort. “I wish you’d discussed it with us first, Reynie.”

  “I’m sorry. I was afraid you would argue.”

  “You were being crafty!” Kate said. “That’s what your tone meant. No wonder I didn’t get it. I’ve heard you be that way with other people, but never with us. I have to say, I don’t like it.”

  “Sorry,” Reynie said again. His tone was weary. He sat down on the bunk opposite Constance’s. His body felt leaden, as if he’d gained a hundred pounds.

  “Reynie,” said Constance quietly.

  With a feeling of great reluctance, Reynie looked up. “Yes?”

  Constance’s pale blue eyes were shining with tears, and in them Reynie detected something like alarm. “The way you’re feeling about Captain Noland right now? I don’t ever want to feel that way about you.”

  Reynie felt tears spring to his own eyes. He looked away.

  “Don’t ever do that again,” Constance said. “Promise me.”

  Reynie swallowed hard. He forced himself to meet her eyes again. Then he looked at Kate and Sticky, who were gazing at him wonderingly and with not a little hurt of their own. It would be awful for them to feel they couldn’t trust him, Reynie knew. For Constance it would be even worse. But it would be worst of all for him.

  “I promise,” Reynie said.

  And from the way Constance smiled, he knew that she knew that he meant it.

  Reynie awoke early the next morning with a prickling of uneasiness. He had neglected to consider something, but his mind hadn’t settled on whatever it was. Opening his eyes he discovered Sticky awake and likewise looking troubled. He stood at the compartment window, staring out at the gray sky with a furrowed brow.

  “Our last full day,” Sticky murmured when he saw Reynie was awake. “Tomorrow’s the deadline.”

  Reynie nodded gravely. “Where are we?”

  “Holland. I just saw a sign.”

  They had slept through most of Portugal and all of Spain, France, and Belgium. This came as no surprise to Reynie, for extreme weariness had sent all of them crashing into sleep the evening before — they hadn’t even made it to dinner. The others had already been yawning when they tried to question Reynie about Captain Noland, only to be interrupted by the arrival of the conductor asking for their tickets. Surprised to find the children traveling alone, the conductor had required some made-up explanations, and by the time of his exit they were all completely done in. They scarcely managed to mutter goodnight before collapsing into their bunks.

  At the sound of the boys’ voices the girls came awake, Constance looking grumpy with one eyelid half-matted shut, Kate looking quite refreshed as she stretched and tied her ponytail. They rose and joined Sticky at the window, gazing out at the flat, unfamiliar landscape. None of them had ever been to Holland before. There truly were windmills here, and canals, and as the train entered a city they saw lovely old buildings that seemed impossibly narrow, as if they’d been squeezed from the sides. Sticky said the staircases in the buildings were often so narrow and twisty that upstairs furniture had to be hoisted by ropes and brought in through windows. Constance said she was too hungry to care about furniture — that it could be assembled by elves, for all she cared — and that if Sticky wanted to offer useful information, perhaps he could tell her where to find the dining car.

  “Good morning, Constance,” said Reynie.

  They were all hungry — famished, in fact — and in the dining car they ordered so much food that their waiter raised his eyebrows and asked to see their money first. They had more than enough to stuff themselves silly, however, and so they did. Afterward Sticky said he had something to do and would join them later.

  “He’s looking for someone to show off to,” said Constance as they returned to their compartment.

  “Go easy on him,” said Kate. “He can’t always help himself, you know. I imagine if you know as much as Sticky does, it’s hard not to let some of it slip on occasion. Don’t you think, Reynie?”

  Reynie was at the window, deep in thought. “Hmm? Oh, yes, probably so.”

  “Okay, what’s on your mind?” Constance asked him. “You look funny. I mean more than usual.”

  “I’ve been feeling uneasy about something,” Reynie said, “and I just realized what it is. If Captain Noland heard you on the radio, Kate — which we can’t be sure about — then it wouldn’t take much detective work for h
im to figure out where we’re headed. You said we were at the train station. If Captain Noland described us to the ticket agents, they could tell him we bought tickets for Thernbaakagen.”

  Kate shrugged. “So? I know you don’t trust him, Reynie — and maybe he isn’t the most reliable person we know — but he’s Mr. Benedict’s friend. He has no reason to try to stop us.”

  “Maybe not,” said Reynie, who couldn’t shake the worry that the captain’s loyalty might be swayed — for the right price. “But even if he wants to help us, can we trust him to make the right decision? What if he decided to tell the police? He might think we need protection. For all we know, the police are waiting at Thernbaakagen to take us into custody. If that happens, we’ll never be able to help Mr. Benedict and Number Two.”

  “You have a point,” Kate admitted. “What are you suggesting?

  “We should get off the train,” Reynie said. “Just to be safe. We get off at the next-to-last stop, before we reach the main station.”

  Kate and Constance thought this a sensible plan. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to be cautious. But they still wanted to know why Reynie was so doubtful about Captain Noland.

  “It doesn’t matter now, does it?” said Reynie, who felt sad, and not a little guilty, for mistrusting Mr. Benedict’s friend. Maybe he couldn’t help how he felt about the captain, but he could at least avoid speaking ill of him.

  “I suppose it doesn’t matter,” said Kate in a stern, unforgiving tone, “seeing as how you chose to cut off all contact with him.”

  Reynie looked at the floor. “I really am sorry for behaving that way. I know it was inexcusable, and —”

  Kate snickered and slapped his arm. “Good grief, Reynie, I was just giving you a hard time! As if anyone could hold a grudge against you!”

  “I could,” said Constance, glowering at him. Then she, too, slapped his arm, apparently for the fun of it.

  Reynie hurried out to find a train schedule, and consulting it together the three of them determined to get off at a town called Naansemegen, which lay just at the outskirts of Thernbaakagen. From there they would take a bus or taxi to their hotel. They still had enough money for that, Reynie said, and he was about to suggest they buy a street map of the area when to their great surprise Sticky arrived carrying just such a map.

  Apparently — or so Sticky reported when they pressed him — he’d written out a request in every language common to western Europe (despite his slight misrepresentation to the captain, he truly did know how to read most languages, if not how to speak them) and shown it to passenger after passenger until someone finally gave him the map. “I promised to return it before the next stop,” he said. “Meanwhile I figured we all could take a look.”

  Reynie noticed that Sticky did not say what he might have said, which was that he could easily memorize all the streets and intersections on the map by himself. No doubt he intended to do just that — or had already done so — but was trying to be careful about how he presented himself.

  “I also learned something else,” said Sticky. “There’s a science museum in Thernbaakagen. I can show you where it is on the map.”

  “Outstanding!” Reynie cried, eagerly spreading the map on the floor. “You’ve been busy, haven’t you?”

  “I did have to ask a lot of people,” Sticky said.

  “You think it’s the same museum Mr. Benedict was going to?” asked Kate, peering over his shoulder at the map.

  “It seems pretty likely,” Reynie said. “Why else would he lead us to this particular city?”

  After Sticky had shown them where the museum was located — it lay near the outskirts of the city — he traced his finger along a main thoroughfare, then tapped it at an intersection near the middle of the map. “Our hotel is here. Downtown.”

  Reynie nodded. “So we should go to the museum first.”

  “What’s all this stupid talk about the museum?” Constance snapped. “What about the next clue?”

  “For all we know,” Reynie replied, trying hard to be patient, “Mr. Benedict never had a chance to leave the next clue. Maybe there’s something for us at that hotel and maybe there isn’t. We have no idea when or where he was captured. The museum is a lead, Constance. We need to go there, and because it’s closer we should go there first, to save time.”

  Constance blinked a few times as Reynie’s words settled on her. “I see,” she said. “That hadn’t occurred to me.” And with a quivering lip she shuffled to her bunk and lay down with her eyes closed, her fingers wrapped around her pendant.

  The others looked at one another in confusion. What was so upsetting about having a lead? Wasn’t that good news?

  “Constance, what’s the matter?” Kate asked. “We’ll be there soon, you know.”

  “I know,” Constance murmured.

  “So what’s the problem?”

  “The problem is what if there isn’t anything at the hotel?” Constance cried. “And what if we can’t find out anything at the museum? Then it’s all over! We’ll be at the end of the road, and we won’t have saved them!”

  Reynie felt like kicking himself. He should have been more careful choosing his words. Constance had been worried enough as it was.

  “Listen to me, Constance,” said Kate in a commanding tone. Constance fell silent at once and listened with grave attention — as did the two boys. It wasn’t like Kate to speak so seriously.

  “Look at Reynie,” said Kate.

  Constance looked at Reynie, who wasn’t sure why he was being looked at but did his best to appear confident and resolute.

  “Look at Sticky,” said Kate.

  Constance did, and under her searching gaze Sticky felt a tremendous urge to polish his spectacles. He resisted, instead giving her a small, sober nod.

  “Now look at me,” said Kate.

  Constance did — and was almost startled by what she saw. Kate seemed to have doubled in size. She had drawn back her broad shoulders and set her jaw, and something in her stance called to mind the contained ferocity of a lioness. But it was the fierceness in Kate’s bright blue eyes that had the most striking effect. The sort of look that made you thankful she wasn’t your enemy.

  “It’s not going to be over,” Kate said firmly, “until we say so.”

  When the train pulled into the station, a well-dressed man carrying a briefcase stood in the shadows, waiting. He watched the passengers deboard, keeping an eye out for a blonde girl with a bucket. No such girl appeared. The man’s face darkened, and he stepped out of the shadows and boarded the train. Passing methodically through the cars, he checked every seat, every compartment, until he reached the last one. The train was empty. Turning on his well-polished heel, the man strode quickly back to the front, where he found the conductor telling jokes to one of the porters. The conductor saw the look in the man’s eye and stopped talking, his smile frozen upon his face. A minute later the man exited the train with the information he needed.

  The children had gotten off in Naansemegen.

  At that very moment, the children in question were sailing down the streets of Naansemegen on bicycles. They had been looking for the bus stop outside the station when Sticky noticed a sign advertising bicycles for rent. There had been no need for debate, nor even any hesitation. The sun was shining; they had enough money; they rented the bicycles.

  Constance rode in a metal basket on the front of Sticky’s bike, her legs dangling over the basket edge. The metal pinched her and she felt considerably squashed, but she wasn’t complaining. She’d never ridden on a bicycle before and was experiencing, for the very first time, that rare and wonderful sensation of soaring that can occur — especially on a cool, sunny day, and especially when no pedaling is required. For Constance the ride was like coasting down one long, gentle hill, with the breeze fluttering in her ears. She even rather liked her helmet, a sparkly red dome that made her look like a lollipop.

  It was impossible not to smile.

  Reynie, Sticky, and Kate
were smiling, too. They couldn’t help themselves. As their bicycles picked up speed, the worries and fears that had burdened them for days seemed to lift away, rising like vapor into the blue sky. However brief their ride might prove to be, it was a reprieve, an escape from their serious concerns, and it was perfectly glorious.

  There was a great deal of bicycle traffic in Naansemegen — more so even than automobile traffic — and so whenever possible the children cut through parks, alleys, and side streets. Kate, naturally, was in the lead, and from time to time she would whip her bike around to face the others, beaming at them as she rode backward, then whip it forward again and speed ahead.

  “That’s why I’m riding with you,” Constance said to Sticky, who had already guessed as much. If he were Constance, he wouldn’t have wanted to ride with Kate, either. But it wasn’t lost on Sticky that Constance had insisted on riding with him specifically. He’d taken her demand as a gesture of friendship, a sort of peace offering, and so despite the extra effort it required of him, he had agreed without complaint.

  Riding behind them, Reynie could hear Sticky and Constance talking, and he felt encouraged. The last thing those two needed was friction between them — more friction than usual, at any rate. Not when the hardest part of their journey still lay ahead. For Reynie had a strong suspicion that things were about to get extremely difficult indeed, not to mention more dangerous. Jackson and Jillson obviously had been posted at the castle to look out for something, which suggested still more sentries would be posted along the trail of clues.

  Reynie frowned. Just like that, the old dread had settled back down upon him. Not ten seconds ago he’d been enjoying the bike ride and feeling pleased to see Sticky and Constance getting along. Now he was thinking about the Ten Men again. The reprieve had been very brief indeed.

  “Left!” called Sticky.