The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey 18

  “Holy smokes!” Kate said, glancing around to see if the others caught her little joke. They didn’t, though, and she had to admit it wasn’t worth repeating, so she only added, “That’s some powerful plant.”

  “Powerful but fragile,” Sticky said. “Duskwort only grows in certain unique conditions, and if it’s removed from its native environment, it disintegrates. I know this from the journal. The Benedicts had found some specimens the year before — Anki doesn’t say where — and taken one back to their lab to study. It quickly turned to dust, but not before they felt pretty confident it could cure narcolepsy, or at least eliminate the worst symptoms. The duskwort would just need to be mixed with certain other chemicals — common chemicals any scientist could easily obtain.”

  “And they knew where to find more of it,” Reynie said. “But they never created the cure. So what went wrong?”

  “Unfortunately they were in for a disappointing shock,” said Sticky. “They went back and retrieved another specimen, only to discover that this second plant wasn’t duskwort at all — it was just a clever mimic. It looked exactly like duskwort and lived in exactly the same conditions, but its most important chemical properties were different. In other words, it was useless. Worse than useless, actually, because it was much hardier and more aggressive, which explained why duskwort was so rare — if it even existed anymore, now that they’d accidentally destroyed the only known specimen. They believed this mimic plant — Anki calls it ‘thwart-wort’ in the journal — took over the duskwort’s habitat, killing off all the duskwort in the process. The Benedicts went back and scoured the place where they’d found the duskwort, but no luck. Nothing but thwart-wort.”

  “So how could they be sure their friend — this Han guy — had found real duskwort?” asked Constance.

  “The Benedicts had shown him their research,” Sticky said. “So Han knew what to look for. He used a microscope to study the plants right where he found them. He expected it all to be thwart-wort, and some of it was, but mostly it was duskwort. Lots and lots of duskwort, in fact.”

  Reynie wrinkled his brow. Something had been bothering him during Sticky’s account, but he hadn’t been able to lay his finger on it until just now. If the Benedicts had truly found duskwort, wouldn’t it have been the scientific discovery of the century? Why, then, hadn’t they published papers about it? Why hadn’t they even announced it to the press?

  “So what does duskwort look like, anyway?” Kate asked.

  “I don’t know,” Sticky said.

  Constance gave an incredulous laugh. “You don’t know? But I thought you knew everything! I find that awfully hard to believe, George Washington!”

  “I don’t care what you believe,” Sticky growled. “I really don’t know.”

  “Calm down, everyone,” said Reynie with another anxious wave at Sophie. “Constance, he’s telling the truth. I know you’re upset, but if you calm down and look at him, you’ll know it.”

  (Constance was already looking at Sticky, but she was glowering, and glowering tends to obscure one’s vision of deeper things. She did her best to relax, and sure enough, she saw the truth in Sticky’s defiant, angry expression. He really didn’t know.)

  “It finally makes sense to me,” Reynie said. “The fact that Anki doesn’t specifically mention where they found the first specimen. The fact that the Benedicts didn’t announce what they’d found, even though it was an amazing discovery. The fact that these papers were hidden away. It all adds up. They were keeping it a secret.”

  “Not just the Benedicts,” Sticky said with a sullen look at Constance. “Botanical historians have always considered duskwort one of the great mysteries. In the few ancient texts that refer to it, someone has always removed any description of what the plant looks like or where it’s found.”

  “Just as the Benedicts did with Han’s letter,” Reynie said, pointing to the space cut out of one page. “I assume it’s his description of the duskwort that’s missing, am I right?”

  Sticky nodded.

  “But why keep it a secret?” Kate asked. “If it’s so important —”

  “Think about it,” Reynie said, looking grave. “Only a smidgen of this plant put an entire village to sleep. So what do you think would happen if it fell into the wrong hands? Like you said, Kate, this is one powerful plant. Nobody has ever wanted the wrong person to find it.”

  “The Benedicts knew, though,” said Sticky. “And they only shared the information with their most trusted friend. Han sent them maps, by the way, but the maps aren’t here. I assume the Benedicts destroyed them, too.”

  “Maps of what?” Kate asked.

  “Of the island where Han found the duskwort. He sent one map that showed where the island was located and another of the island itself — including the exact location of the duskwort. He describes the island a bit in the letter, but he doesn’t name it or say anything that would pinpoint the place. Otherwise I’m sure the Benedicts would have cut that part out, too. The island could be anywhere in the world.”

  “And Mr. Curtain wants to find out where it is,” Constance said. “And he thinks Mr. Benedict knows. Or at least that someone ‘extremely close’ to Mr. Benedict knows. Isn’t that what his letter said?”

  “More or less,” Reynie said. “And you know what? Now that I think about it, Mr. Benedict really might know where it is. If he does, then the question is whether he made it to the island or not. We’ll have to see —”

  “Reynie,” Kate interrupted, “how could Mr. Benedict possibly know where the island is? The maps are gone!”

  Reynie was about to explain when the library door opened and the bald, bandaged man they’d seen in the courtyard entered the room. The man glanced at them without interest and went to the librarian’s desk, where he engaged in a murmured conversation with Sophie. Suddenly he whipped his head around to stare at them with bulbous eyes. He hastened to their table, followed by an anxious Sophie.

  “I am Mr. Schuyler,” the man said in curt English. “And who, may I ask, are you?”

  “Students,” Sophie said, coming up. “They are exchange students, Mr. Schuyler.”

  Mr. Schuyler gestured with his pipe toward the journal and the letters. “Why are you looking at these?”

  “They heard about the trouble,” Sophie interjected. “They were simply curious. They are children, Mr. Schuyler.”

  Mr. Schuyler seemed to consider this declaration with suspicion. At length, however, he grunted, gnawed on the stem of his pipe, and said, “I suppose I can tell you a few things, then. It is a rather interesting story.” He pulled out a chair, forcing Sophie to step back to avoid having her knees knocked, and sat heavily in it. “Where shall I begin?”

  “How about the beginning?” Reynie said.

  “Ah. The beginning is very troubling,” said Mr. Schuyler. “You see, these papers legally belong to our library, but an American man — the son of the papers’ original owners — argues that he has claim to them. I had told him he is free to pursue the matter in court, and if the court decides in his favor, he shall have the papers. In fact, I have no doubt the court will decide in his favor. But until that decision has been made, the papers must remain in the library! That is simply the way of it.

  “This man, however, comes to the desk one morning and asks to see these papers. It is a free and public library, so of course he is given the permission to do so. Afterward he tells me who he is and asks if I have ever seen him before. I tell him I have not, which is true. Sometimes he uses a wheelchair, he says. Has nobody in the library noticed him before? I assure him that I have not, and Sophie assures him that she has not, either. Do you agree this is what happened, Sophie?”

  Sophie opened her mouth to speak.

  Mr. Schuyler went on, “Yes, that is what happened. And when we finally convince him that he is not so famous as he believes, he and his companion — a sort of yellow-colored woman with red hair who reminded me of a pencil — do you not think that is a clever
comparison, Sophie? That she looked like a pencil? I believe I said so at the time — What was I saying? Oh yes. He and his companion left. But five minutes later I receive a phone call from him, and he tells me that he only took what was rightfully his. That is all he says, and he hangs up.

  “Perhaps you do not know what he meant, children, but I did,” said Mr. Schuyler. “I went straight to the journal and the papers, and I immediately discovered that he has taken two documents that were among the letters, and he has cut out a piece of one page! He has stolen and damaged library property!”

  Reynie absorbed these details with keen attention, for Mr. Schuyler had just confirmed what Reynie had suspected. Mr. Benedict did know where the island was. It was he — and not his parents — who had removed the two maps. He also had cut out the part missing from Han’s letter. Mr. Benedict’s parents had hidden these documents in a secret location, after all. They probably hadn’t thought it necessary to destroy the sensitive information contained in them.

  “The man has committed criminal acts,” Mr. Schuyler was saying, “and I can prove it. He was not so clever as he thinks!” He pointed to a security camera high on the wall behind the librarian’s desk. “You see? I have the evidence. And will you believe, children? He returned to the library the very same day! Well! What do you think happened?”

  “You called the police,” Reynie said, privately admiring Mr. Benedict’s ingenuity, for it was plain to him what Mr. Benedict had done. First he’d determined whether Mr. Curtain had ever seen these papers (that was why he’d asked if the librarians recognized him). Then he’d tried to make sure that if his twin ever did come to the library, he would be arrested.

  “Indeed,” said Mr. Schuyler. “I called the police. Nor was it the first time I had called them that day, for earlier the men with the briefcases had come. You have heard about these men?”

  “The Ten Men?” asked Constance, and the other children tried not to show their alarm. Constance instantly realized she had spoken imprudently, but it was too late.

  Luckily Mr. Schuyler was too interested in hearing himself speak to pay close attention to what a tiny girl said. “Ten men?” he repeated absently. “No, you have heard wrong. There were only two. Although they were as dangerous as ten, perhaps even more. They arrived soon after the American man and the pencil woman had left. I was in the courtyard — my position requires much coming and going from the museum, you see —” (The children understood this to mean Mr. Schuyler often went into the courtyard to smoke his pipe and read the paper.) “— and I saw them enter the gate, but I thought nothing of them until I heard the screams.”

  At this Mr. Schuyler turned to give Sophie’s hand a comforting pat, but Sophie quickly withdrew her hand, so Mr. Schuyler patted the arm of his chair, as if this were a perfectly normal thing and just what he’d intended to do.

  “The men demanded to see any materials connected to the name ‘Benedict,’” Sophie interjected, “as well as anything that had been requested by previous visitors to the library that day. I knew what they must be seeking, but as I told you, I was at first too frightened to speak. And then —”

  “Yes, the screams were terrible,” Mr. Schuyler continued, as if Sophie hadn’t spoken at all, “but they did alert me to the situation, and when these men came out again, I charged at them from behind the bench —” (From this the children gathered that Mr. Schuyler had peeked over the top of the bench, behind which he was no doubt cowering in terror.) “— but one of them pointed a deadly device at me. My reflexes are excellent, and I ducked my head, though not quickly enough to avoid injury.” Gingerly he touched the white bandage on the crown of his head. “I suffered a great loss of blood, and of course, all of my hair.”

  The children raised their eyebrows, and Kate stifled a snicker. Judging from the size and placement of the bandage, there couldn’t have been more than a half-dozen hairs on Mr. Schuyler’s head to begin with. But it did appear he had sustained injury.

  “They said I should be glad I was not taller,” Mr. Schuyler reflected. “Then they laughed and went away, and I called the police.”

  “Actually, it was Eda who called the police, Mr. Schuyler,” said Sophie quietly. “You called the ambulance. Because of your injury.”

  Mr. Schuyler made an irritated gesture with his pipe. “The details are unimportant. And it was most certainly I who called the police the next time, children, when the American man returned. He was using a wheelchair now, just as he’d told me he sometimes does, and he was accompanied by an awkward young man with large feet, as well as a teenaged girl with long, shining black hair and a very rude temperament. Very rude indeed! I do not care to repeat what she called me when she left.”

  Reynie and the others exchanged furtive glances. They hadn’t the least doubt that Mr. Schuyler was describing S.Q. Pedalian and Martina Crowe — the other Executives who had fled the Institute with Mr. Curtain. And of course the man in the wheelchair had been Mr. Curtain himself.

  “The American man,” Mr. Schuyler went on, “asked to see all the materials he had examined that morning. He said he understood there had been an unfortunate incident at the library and wished to verify that the materials were still here. As if he had not committed a crime himself! As if he had never called me on the telephone admitting to it! The nerve of this man!”

  Mr. Curtain certainly didn’t lack for nerve, Reynie thought, but this was an instance of cunning rather than bravado. Clearly he’d wanted to find out why Mr. Benedict had visited the museum library, and when his Ten Men failed to secure the answer, he had resorted to duplicity.

  “Well, as you might suppose, I was clever,” said Mr. Schuyler. “I gave no sign of distress, the better to lay my trap. He seemed in a hurry this time, and he wanted to photocopy everything — every single page of the journal and letters — to take with him. I told him that with such delicate materials we must use a special machine, and a librarian must make the copies. This is actually true, but that does not make my plan less clever. Not when you consider that as Sophie made the copies, I secretly called the police and told them to come at once, but not to use their sirens. Do you see what I was up to, children? This way there was no warning! When the copies were finished, and the man and his companions took the elevator to the lobby, they were met by the police. It was all very clever, I assure you.”

  “So what went wrong?” asked Reynie, for they all knew perfectly well that Mr. Curtain had escaped.

  Mr. Schuyler spluttered his lips in disgust. “Despite all I had done, the police let the man escape. He leaped from his wheelchair — greatly surprising them — and did something . . . well, it isn’t known exactly what he did. He appeared simply to touch the police officers, and they dropped to the floor and lay helplessly for several minutes. The villain fled with his companions, not to be seen again.” He shook his head and looked over his pipe at the children.

  “That’s a remarkable account, Mr. Schuyler,” said Reynie, when it became clear Mr. Schuyler expected such a comment. “These are very curious and frightening incidents. May I ask one more question about them?”

  Mr. Schuyler pretended to check his watch, then sighed indulgently, as if he did not care to keep talking and talking but would do so for the children’s sake. “Very well, young man. What is it?”

  “The documents that were stolen. What were they?”

  “The documents? Oh, they were maps of some kind.”

  “Maps?” Reynie repeated, though of course he already knew that. He was hoping Mr. Schuyler might have some clue about where the island was located. “Maps of what, exactly?”

  Mr. Schuyler seemed to dislike this question. Frowning, he tapped his pipe impatiently against the table top. “We do not know. The materials had been filed and recorded more than a year ago, and no one had reviewed them since.”

  “Who filed and recorded them?” Reynie persisted, glancing between Mr. Schuyler and Sophie. “May we speak with that person?”

  Sophie looked a
t Mr. Schuyler, and Reynie understood. Obviously Mr. Schuyler was that person. And obviously he had not examined the maps.

  “I cannot be expected to commit to memory everything I see!” said Mr. Schuyler in an exasperated tone. “I am quite busy with my duties here, children.” He rose abruptly from his chair. “In fact, I have duties to attend to at this very moment. Good day, all of you. I hope you will cooperate with the police. Please behave with the proper respect.”

  “The police?” they all cried.

  Mr. Schuyler smiled. “Oh, yes, you must wait here for them, of course. The police wish to question anyone in connection with the attack. You have asked to see these papers, so you must be questioned. Sophie, you have called the police, I assume.”

  Sophie started. “Not yet,” she said with an apologetic look at the children.

  “Not yet!” Mr. Schuyler exclaimed indignantly. “Very well, if you cannot be troubled to call —”

  “I will do it right away,” said Sophie, hurrying to her desk.

  Reynie leaped to his feet. “Please, Mr. Schuyler. Will you consider —”

  But Mr. Schuyler wouldn’t let him finish. “No,” he said firmly. “I will not.” He turned and stalked past the librarian’s desk into one of the back rooms.

  With the telephone in her hand, Sophie watched him go. She listened a moment, then turned to the children. “There is something wrong with this telephone,” she said quietly. “It is not working. I will try again in one or two minutes. Do you children wish to use the bathroom? It is downstairs.”

  “The bathroom?” Sticky said.

  Kate grabbed him and whispered, “She’s letting us go, Sticky. Move it.”

  They went quickly to the door, pausing just long enough to cast grateful looks toward the young librarian.

  “Thank you, Sophie,” Reynie whispered.

  “Good luck, children,” Sophie whispered in reply. She watched them leave with an expression of great concern, no doubt wondering whether she’d done the right thing in letting them go. They were children, after all. Whatever they were doing, wherever they were going now — would they be safe?