The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey 19

  It was a question shared by the children themselves.

  And the answer was no.

  The Phone Call, the money, and the Fateful Envelope

  Reynie was confident now that Mr. Benedict and Number Two had gone to the island, wherever it was, and that Mr. Curtain had followed them there. Whether the children could follow them there, too, remained to be seen, but one thing was certain: if they failed, it would not be from a lack of hurrying.

  “I’m sorry! I have to rest!” Reynie gasped, steering his bicycle off the road and into a patch of grass, where he shakily dismounted and flopped onto his back. His legs burned from calf to thigh, his lungs were heaving, and he could barely see for all the sweat stinging his eyes. They had been pedaling madly ever since they left the museum.

  Hearing a strange, raspy sound nearby, Reynie wiped his eyes and turned his head to look. Sticky lay wheezing in the grass a few yards away, one leg under his bicycle, like a cavalry soldier whose horse had fallen on him in battle. Too winded to speak and too exhausted to dismount, he’d followed Reynie into the grass and simply let himself crash.

  Kate came back to see what was the matter. She sat on her bicycle — by some miracle of balance she kept it upright without pedaling — and Constance sat in the basket. Both girls seemed disappointed.

  “We need to hurry, you know,” said Constance, who otherwise wouldn’t have agreed to ride with Kate.

  “I think . . . I’m done for,” Reynie panted. “You go on . . . without me.”

  “Are you joking?” Kate asked, astonished.

  Reynie nodded and hauled himself into a sitting position. He found he couldn’t breathe as well this way, however, and so he fell onto his back again. Constance frowned disapprovingly. Meanwhile, an old woman walking a miniature poodle had stopped to let the dog sniff at Sticky. Sticky could only blink at it and gasp. The old woman clucked, said something to the children in Dutch, and moved on.

  The route from the museum to the hotel was a long, straight shot along a major thoroughfare, but to avoid attention (since the police might be looking for them) the children had kept to side streets. They were in a quiet neighborhood now. The patch of grass the boys had collapsed upon was actually a tiny park — a dreary one, unfortunately, scarcely larger than a parking space, with a single rotting bench and a single blighted elm tree.

  “I’ve been thinking,” Kate said as the boys recovered. “What if Mr. Benedict meant for Thernbaakagen to be our last stop? What if he and Number Two took a quick trip to that island with the idea of returning before we got to the hotel? After all, he didn’t know about the island until he got here. It wouldn’t have been part of his original plans.”

  Reynie had considered this but had kept the question to himself. He hadn’t wanted to discourage Constance. Sure enough, now that Kate had mentioned it, Constance’s troubled expression grew darker still.

  “He may very well have tacked the island onto our trip,” Reynie said quickly. “In which case he’ll have left a clue at the hotel. And even if he hasn’t, we might be able to track down Han de Reizeger — the Benedicts’ friend. He’d be very old by now, but —”

  “Oh,” Sticky said, looking uncomfortable. “Um, sorry. Han was already very old. He died a long time ago. Mr. Benedict’s aunt mentioned that in her letter.”

  “She did?” Constance said, turning on him. “Why didn’t you say so earlier?”

  Sticky clenched his teeth. “Because Mr. Schuyler came in before we got to it, Constance.”

  “Can you tell us what it said?” Reynie asked.

  “It was in English, actually,” Sticky said. “Shall I quote it? Or would you rather I —?”

  “Absolutely,” said Kate. “Quote away.”

  And so Sticky recited the letter:

  My dear Anki,

  I write in English this time, not only to show you how proficient I’ve become — I am a regular American now — but to encourage you and Dr. Benedict to practice it yourselves, as it has always struck me as ridiculous that you speak ten languages between you yet render your English so clumsily.

  But forgive me. I meant first to offer condolences for the loss of your friend Han de Reizeger. It must be a comfort to you that he was so very old. And had he not lived a full and adventurous life? And did he not die traveling the world as he had always hoped he would? If only everyone could be so lucky!

  I do regret the financial troubles mentioned in your last letter, Anki, but I cannot help you. I realize you’ve not gone so far as to ask openly for my help, but I thought the request implicit in your letter, and I am sorry to refuse it. As you should know, my own precarious situation prevents me. I scarcely have enough to pay rent, nor have I ever since Thiedric died these many years ago. But what is this trip you wish to make, anyway? If it is so urgent, must you keep it a secret from your own sister? It only seems proper that a request for traveling funds be accompanied by an explanation.

  Regardless, I beg you not to attempt the experiment you mention. Sure, the government will pay you handsomely if you achieve success, but are you not concerned about the possibility of an accident? Is this not why others have refused? You may say that most lack your qualifications, but surely in all of Holland there are other scientists who might attempt such a thing.

  Personally I believe it is in the nature of explosives to be explosive, and I do not see how you can make it otherwise. No matter how “noble the purpose,” as you say in your letter, no matter how many lives might be saved, I assure you no one could induce me to attempt such a thing! That, I suppose, is why I did not become a scientist myself. (That, and the fact that science is such a dull business — so much Latin and so many symbols. )

  I am relieved, at least, that you intend to wait until the baby has come. But what is the hurry? The baby, the experiment, the mysterious journey — you write as if all must come so quickly! Take your time, Anki! It has never failed to annoy me, I must confess, the way you always write with both hands going at once, as if there were never a moment to be lost. Such haste is hardly proper in a woman to exhibit, however scientific she might think herself to be.

  The children were appalled. It was a very disagreeable letter, and as Sticky finished quoting it — the rest was devoted to outrageous prices and noisy neighbors — Reynie wondered what Mr. Benedict must have thought of it. Knowing him, he’d probably found his aunt’s superior tone amusing; Mr. Benedict was not the sort of person to waste a good chuckle on indignation. But then again, Reynie reflected, he must have been disappointed to find yet another example of such unpleasantness in his family.

  “I suppose,” said Kate when Sticky had finished, “they hid her letter because it mentions Han and the secret trip they were planning. They were being awfully careful.”

  “Why not just destroy it?” Constance said. “A nasty letter like that! Why on earth would Anki keep it?”

  Kate snorted with laughter. Of the few letters Constance had ever sent her, not one could be considered pleasant, exactly. “Probably for the same reason I keep your letters, Connie girl.”

  Constance screwed up her face, uncertain if Kate’s comment was an insult or an admission of fondness. In fact, she rather thought it might be both.

  Strictly speaking, Thernbaakagen lay not on the coast but beyond it. Like so many towns in Holland, it occupied land that the clever Dutch had reclaimed from the ocean. Bordered by the North Sea and crisscrossed by innumerable canals, the town seemed more water than land, and a great deal of its commerce depended on that fact. Fishing, shipping, and water transport had made Thernbaakagen, if not a large city, then at least a thriving, busy one, and the Hotel Regaal sat in the heart of its downtown.

  Reynie, Sticky, and Constance could see the hotel sign from their busy corner two blocks away — but they weren’t looking at the sign. As they waited for Kate to return from a scouting run, they stood a short distance away from a snack cart, staring with watering mouths at all the food. The smell of fried potatoes, especially, made
Reynie almost giddy with longing. But they had spent the last of their money on the bicycles.

  One of those bicycles came barreling out of traffic now, ridden by a bespectacled girl with wild hair who hopped the curb and narrowly missed striking the snack cart. The owner of the cart leaped away, fearing for his toes, and said something in terse, disapproving Dutch.

  “That’s what the old woman with the poodle said,” Constance muttered to herself, and Reynie, hearing her, realized she was right.

  “I saw lots of well-dressed people with briefcases,” Kate reported, handing Sticky his spectacles and taking back her bucket, “but no Martina or S.Q. I think we’ll just have to chance it, don’t you?”

  “I suppose we have no choice,” Reynie said, and catching the attention of the snack cart owner he asked if the man would keep an eye on their bicycles.

  Upon hearing Reynie speak English, the man’s disapproving expression faded — as if for some reason he disliked Dutch children but found American ones tolerable — and he said gruffly that he would do so but that they must hurry; he could not spend his afternoon minding bicycles for children. Reynie thanked him, and with another curt nod the man handed Reynie a cone-shaped packet of hot, sliced potatoes — they resembled thick French fries — covered with a mayonnaise-like sauce. “I saw you looking,” he said. “Now go and hurry back.”

  The children walked slowly toward the hotel, hungrily sharing the potatoes and keeping a wary eye on the people that passed them. The sidewalk was swarming with pedestrians, many of them in elegant, professional attire, and every time a businessman in a suit looked at the children their hearts skipped. Never had walking down a street been so nerve-racking. They were all relieved when they reached the hotel.

  The Hotel Regaal had seen better days — its lobby furniture was rickety, its floors were scuffed, and a musty odor hung in the air — but despite having been upstaged by more modern hotels, it was doing its best to retain a semblance of past splendor. The rickety furniture was polished to a shine, the scuffed floors were immaculately swept, and the front desk clerks were well groomed and professional. One of them, an older man with slicked gray hair, said something in Dutch when the children came in. The other clerk, a frail, pallid, severe-looking woman with dark circles under her eyes, nodded her agreement.

  “There it is again,” said Constance, frowning.

  This time Reynie had noticed it, too — the phrase uttered first by the poodle woman and then the snack cart owner. The coincidence seemed too significant to let pass. With the others behind him, Reynie approached the clerks and asked if they spoke English. Instantly a look of understanding appeared on both faces.

  “Of course we speak English,” said the gray-haired man, not unkindly. He had bright red cheeks and a goatee so thin and small it looked like a thumbprint on his chin. “And how may we help you children?”

  “May I ask what you just said about us?” Reynie asked. “We’ve heard others say it, too, and we’re curious.”

  “You are attentive children, then!” said the man, sounding both amused and impressed. “I said that you should be in school! These others you mention must have thought, as I did, that you were Dutch children, and that you were truant. But you are American, yes? On a school trip of some kind?”

  “Something like that,” said Kate.

  Reynie felt foolish and not a little uneasy. Traveling across town the four of them must have been much more conspicuous than they’d hoped. There was no help for that now, but it was all the more reason to find the clue and leave as quickly as possible. “Is there a message here for us?” he asked. “A message from someone named Nicholas Benedict?”

  The man broke into a delighted grin. “Benedict, you say? Here you are at last! Did you hear about this mysterious arrangement, Daatje?” he asked his partner, who only looked away, as if she preferred to be left alone. “I suppose not,” the man said and turned back to the children. His enthusiasm was undiminished, not least because of the relief so evident on the children’s faces. “My name is Hubrecht, children, and I am very pleased to meet you! I do have something from Benedict. Yes, indeed I do!”

  The children waited, but Hubrecht only looked at them with an encouraging smile. He appeared to be waiting for something himself.

  “May we, um, see it?” Kate asked. “Please?”

  Hubrecht glanced left and right, and then in a comically conspiratorial manner he leaned forward and whispered, “First you must show me . . . the item.” He wiggled his eyebrows dramatically.

  “The item?” said Sticky.

  “Oh, yes! Your Mr. Benedict has rented a room, and I am to make it available to anyone who mentions his name — provided I am shown a certain item. Do you have it? He said you will not have come here without it. I cannot say more.”

  “Not another riddle,” Sticky said wearily.

  Reynie scratched his head. “All right, what is it Mr. Benedict knew we’d bring?”

  “My bucket?” Kate asked. “I do always have it with me.”

  Hubrecht smiled and shook his head. He glanced at Constance as if expecting her to guess, but Constance had noticed a wad of gum stuck under the edge of the desk and was making unpleasant gagging sounds, so Hubrecht looked politely away.

  “If Mr. Benedict’s sure we’ll have brought it,” said Reynie, “it’s probably something we’d have to have with us to get here.”

  “Maybe it’s clothes,” Sticky ventured.

  The others stared at him.

  “Oh yes, it must be clothes, Sticky,” Constance said as Kate suppressed a snort of laughter. “Show him your clothes and see if that gets us into the room.”

  “It’s not such a dumb idea,” Sticky said defensively. “Without clothes we’d have been arrested by now, right? We couldn’t have come here then, could we?” But Hubrecht was shaking his head.

  Embarrassed, Sticky gave Constance a sharp poke in the ribs for mocking him. Constance cried out and responded with a kick to the shin; then, pleased with the result (Sticky was grimacing and hopping), she quickly tried for another.

  “How about a train schedule?” asked Kate, ignoring the scuffle. “Or a ticket?”

  Hubrecht shook his head. Again he glanced at Constance, as if he expected her to have the answer — and this time Reynie understood why. She did have the answer, and Hubrecht had spotted it.

  “Your present!” he said, pointing to Constance’s globe pendant. (Constance stopped trying to bite Sticky’s hand and looked down in surprise.) “We couldn’t have come here without it!”

  Hubrecht clapped his hands. “That is it! A small world — just as your Mr. Benedict said! Very well, children, you shall have a key.” He reached beneath the desk. “This is a scavenger hunt of some kind, yes? What fun! I have been wondering when someone else would come.”

  Reynie took the room key from Hubrecht. “When you say ‘someone else,’ do you mean another person came before us?”

  “Oh, yes! It is a contest, correct? The adults against the children, maybe? Never fear! You are the first to be given a key. No one else has entered the room — not even hotel staff. These were Mr. Benedict’s instructions.”

  “Who else has come?” Sticky asked.

  “Two very nice gentlemen. It was the same day your friend Mr. Benedict rented the room. They asked if he was staying here. He was not — he and his young associate had simply inspected the room and gone away, leaving the key with me — but because the gentlemen had mentioned his name, I abided by his instructions: I offered them a room, compliments of Mr. Benedict, if only they would present a certain item. I thought perhaps it would be in one of their briefcases. They had no item, however, so they thanked me and went away. Polite men, elegantly dressed, the sort who used to frequent this hotel in its finer days. I was left to wonder who else might come. Then, as the days passed, I began to think no one would! Did you think so, too?” he asked his partner, the woman he’d called Daatje, who now seemed to be paying attention.

started. “I knew nothing about this, Hubrecht.” Reynie thought she seemed upset. She was staring at them, not with malice, exactly, but her expression was decidedly unpleasant. Did she feel left out? Obviously Hubrecht found Mr. Benedict’s arrangement charming and enjoyed being involved. But it wasn’t Hubrecht she was staring at. Perhaps she disliked children.

  Reynie wanted to believe this but found that he couldn’t. He felt pretty sure Mr. Benedict would have left money in the room for them — at least enough to buy a meal or two — and he had a sneaking suspicion that Daatje had stolen some of it, perhaps even all of it. She might easily have done so, knowing the room was unoccupied. Perhaps she’d meant to blame poor Hubrecht or some other member of the hotel staff. That was the look she wore, Reynie decided. A guilty look. It made him very uneasy.

  You’re getting ahead of yourself, he thought. Let it go for now. You’ll find out soon enough.

  But then he noticed Constance.

  She was staring at Daatje, staring with a most intense, penetrating look. And the longer Constance stared, the darker her expression grew, until she was positively glowering. Daatje had noticed and was squirming in her seat, avoiding eye contact, as Hubrecht told the children where to find their room. As Kate and Sticky thanked him and headed over to the elevator, Reynie had to take Constance by the arm and lead her away from the desk.

  “What’s the matter?” he said in an undertone. “What did she do?”

  “I don’t know,” Constance growled, looking back over her shoulder. “But it’s not good.”

  “That’s all? Not good?”

  “By which I mean extremely bad,” said Constance.

  “That’s what I was afraid of.”

  “What are you two talking about?” Sticky asked.

  “Tell you when we’re alone,” Reynie said. “But keep your eyes open. Something’s not right.”