The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey 2

  “I see,” said Reynie. “Naturally. Queen of the birds.”

  “Don’t give me that look! It’s an excellent name whether you like it or not. Isn’t it an excellent name, Madge?” Kate gave the falcon a strip of meat from a sealed pouch inside her bucket. She urged Reynie to stroke the bird’s feathers (Reynie nervously obliged) and then sent her off again. “Milligan gave her to me for my birthday — it only took a dozen hints and a month of begging — and I’ve been training her. She’s very smart.” Kate lowered her voice, as if Madge, already a hundred yards away, might overhear. “Which, between you and me, is kind of rare for a bird of prey. Of course I’d never tell her that.”

  Reynie was watching the falcon sail away over the farm. It was just like Kate Wetherall to show you something so dramatic and then act as if you shouldn’t be surprised. “I thought you needed a license to own a falcon,” he said, “and go through years of special training.”

  “Oh, you do,” said Kate, slipping the leather glove back into her bucket. “I did all that when I was in the circus. One of the animal trainers was a falconer, and he let me be his apprentice. I learned all sorts of things from that guy . . . but we can talk about that later,” she said, dismissing the subject with an impatient wave of her hand. “You were going to tell me about Sticky. Have you heard from him lately?”

  Reynie produced a folded sheaf of papers from his pocket. “Actually, he sent me this a few days ago. It’s an account of our mission — for posterity, he says, assuming the mission’s ever declassified. He said I could show it to you. He wants our opinion.”

  “You mean he wrote about everything that happened? Like a story?”

  “Well . . . something like that.” Reynie unfolded the papers and handed them to Kate, who immediately sat down in the hay to read. There were five pages, covered front and back with tiny, cramped print, and the title alone was almost as long as one of Kate’s letters. It read:

  The Mysterious Benedict Society’s Defeat of the Terrible Brainsweeping Machine Called the Whisperer (along with its inventor, Ledroptha Curtain, who was revealed to be the long-lost identical twin of Mr. Nicholas Benedict, for whom the Society is named): A Personal Account

  “Holy smokes!” Kate said.

  “The title?”

  Kate nodded and continued to read:

  In the event that you, the reader, are unaware of Mr. Curtain’s foiled plan to become a powerful world ruler using the mind-altering effects of his Whisperer, this account will inform you of it.

  The account commences with the forming of the Mysterious Benedict Society. Through a series of tests it was determined that George “Sticky” Washington (the author of this account), Reynard Muldoon (whose full name is now Reynard Muldoon Perumal, as he has been adopted), Kate Wetherall, and Constance Contraire were sufficiently skilled to enter Mr. Curtain’s Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened (the acronym being L.I.V.E.) and act as secret agents for Mr. Benedict. At the aforementioned Institute these children discovered many disturbing things. Then they disabled the Whisperer, although Mr. Curtain and his closest assistants (his Executives, as they were called) unfortunately avoided capture. But I see I have already come to the end. Allow me to back up and make a proper introduction to the course of events . . .

  The account went on like this, backtracking and sidetracking and circling around as Sticky labored to produce an accurate summary of their adventures. An entire paragraph, for instance, was devoted to the origin of the word “terrified,” another to the curious sense of isolation that can occur on islands (as opposed to peninsulas), and still another to a consideration of cruel punishment in schools. By the time Kate reached the second page, her shoulders were sagging. With a sigh, she flipped to the last page and read the final sentence: “And that is the end of the account.” She looked up at Reynie. “Is it . . . um, all like this?”

  “I’m afraid so.”

  “But how could he make the most exciting, the most dangerous, the most important event in his life — in anyone’s life — so . . . so . . .”

  “So dull?” Reynie offered.

  Kate flopped back onto the hay and started giggling. “Oh, I can’t wait to see him!”

  “Don’t give him too hard a time. He may be coming out of his shell, but he’s still sensitive, you know.”

  “I’ll be sure to hug him before I tease him,” Kate said.

  Reynie cringed. Kate’s hug would probably hurt Sticky much worse than her teasing.

  “Well, enough lying around,” said Kate, who had been lying around for perhaps three seconds. She sprang to her feet. “Aren’t you going to say anything about my bucket?”

  “I was about to,” Reynie said. “I see you’ve made some modifications.”

  Kate hurried over to show it to him. The bucket’s clever new lid opened easily but closed securely, which kept her things from spilling out as they sometimes had done in the past. What was more, inside the bucket Kate had attached several pouches that closed with snaps, straps, and zippers, so that everything could be snugged into a designated place. Her rope lay coiled in the bottom as always, tucked neatly beneath the pouches.

  “Impressive,” Reynie said, examining the hidden catch that made the lid spring open.

  Kate beamed. “Milligan designed the lid. He pointed out that a utility belt would be less cumbersome than a bucket, but I reminded him that you can’t stand on a utility belt to reach things —”

  “Or fill it with water and drop it on pursuers,” said Reynie, remembering how Kate had done just that to escape Jackson and Jillson, Mr. Curtain’s most thuggish Executives, who had menaced the children at the Institute.

  “Exactly! And Milligan saw my point, so he offered to help me improve the bucket instead of replacing it. Look,” she said, stepping up onto its closed lid. “No more emptying it and flipping it over. That saves time, you know.”

  It was hard to imagine Kate doing anything more quickly than she already did, but Reynie acknowledged the improvement. “And what are you keeping in it these days? I mean other than falcon snacks and whistles.”

  Pouch by pouch, Kate showed Reynie the bucket’s contents. Luckily, she said, Milligan had recovered some of the things she’d been compelled to leave behind at the Institute — her spyglass (which she disguised as a kaleidoscope), her Swiss Army knife, her horseshoe magnet, and her flashlight — and she also had replaced some of the items that had been lost or ruined, such as her slingshot and marbles, her spool of clear fishing twine, her extra-strength glue, and her penlight. In addition, she’d recently added a pencil-sized paintbrush and a bottle of lemon juice.

  “I had to wait to tell you in person,” Kate said with a mischievous look. “You know the lemon-juice trick, don’t you? From now on I’ll brush secret notes onto my letters, and those government snoops won’t be able to see them. All you have to do is hold the paper over a candle and the words will appear.”

  Reynie chuckled. He was familiar with the lemon-juice trick but had never had an opportunity to use it. “And what’s in the last pouch?” he asked, pointing to one that remained unopened.

  “Oh, just these,” Kate said, somewhat drearily, producing a ring of at least two dozen keys of all different sizes and varieties. “Keys for the house. Keys for the truck. Keys for the barn padlock, the henhouse padlock, all the gates and cupboards and sheds, you name it. Milligan believes in keeping things secure.” She sighed and stuffed the keys back into their pouch.

  “What’s the matter?” Reynie asked.

  “Nothing, really,” Kate said. “Nothing important, at least — and I think that’s the trouble. I love the farm, you know, and I’m glad to be here. It’s just that sometimes it feels a little dull. After all the exciting things we went through, the important things we accomplished — well, everything since then has seemed a bit ordinary. We were secret agents, Reynie!” Even as she spoke the words, Kate’s eyes lit up in a very familiar way. Then she laughed at herself. “It’s kind of hard to get excit
ed about having the key to the root cellar. That’s all I mean.”

  “Well, you’re not alone,” Reynie said. “Since Miss Perumal adopted me, things have been great, but I still feel restless all the time — like I should be doing something urgent and can’t say what.”

  “Really?” Kate said, and for a moment the two friends regarded each other in silence. It was a look that communicated everything they shared: the dangers, hardships, and triumphs of their mission, of course, but also the knowledge — as isolating when they were alone as it was thrilling when they were together — that they understood things about the world that no one else did, things they might never speak of except to each other.

  “I suppose it’s just a normal letdown,” Kate said at last. She walked over to the corner of the hayloft. “Anyway, it’s not that bad. And I do what I can to keep things interesting.”

  With that, she leaped high into the air and pulled a cord hanging from the rafter above her. A trapdoor fell open beneath her, and with a playful wave Kate fell through the hole and disappeared. Reynie heard her land with a thud on the earthen floor below. “Come on!” she called up. “Let’s go pick some apples.”

  Reynie shook his head and went to use the ladder. Kate did keep things interesting, after all, and there was no point pining for bygone adventures. If anything, Reynie should be grateful — he was grateful — that being with his friends no longer meant being in danger. Who needed danger, anyway? Certainly not Reynie!

  But whether Reynie needed it or not — and though he had no way of predicting it — danger most certainly awaited him and his friends.

  And it would not be waiting long.

  The Unseen Warning

  Kate and Reynie spent the rest of the morning doing chores. It was enjoyable work, especially since they were engaged the whole time in conversation. As they picked apples from the few trees giving fruit, Kate told Reynie about her last school year (classes were easy enough, but there was far too much sitting in desks). As they filled the water troughs, she described what a terrible state of disrepair the old farm had been in when she and Milligan had returned to it. And as they oiled the gate to the animal pen, she related how Milligan would sometimes come home from a mission in the middle of the night, wake her up, and talk with her for hours.

  “Which is fine by me,” Kate said, working the gate hinge to be sure it was entirely smooth and squeakless. She cast Reynie a sly look. “He tells me all sorts of top-secret things.”

  Reynie raised his eyebrows. “Like what?”

  “I’d better wait and tell you and Sticky at the same time,” Kate said. “He’ll want to hear it, too, you know.” She considered a moment, then added reluctantly, “For that matter, I suppose we should wait until Constance is with us, too.”

  “Then at least tell me about that,” Reynie said, pointing toward two hens he had just seen come around the corner of the barn. The hens were harnessed to a tiny wagon filled with grain, and — with chickeny little stutter-steps and a great deal of clucking and flapping — were towing the wagon toward the henhouse.

  “Chicken delivery,” Kate said with a nod of satisfaction. “One of my pet projects.” She glanced at Reynie to see if he caught her joke, but he seemed too preoccupied by the feathery spectacle to have noticed.

  “A chicken-drawn wagon,” said Reynie (who was politely pretending not to have heard Kate’s joke). “Now how did you manage that?”

  “Oh, training the chickens was easy,” Kate said. “The hard part was training Madge not to hunt them — I lost two hens before she caught on.” She paused a moment to honor the memory of the unfortunate hens, then continued brightly, “I told you I learned a lot from that animal trainer, remember? I’ve been training the farm animals to do chores. Milligan’s often away, so we need a lot of help around here. Might as well use what we have, right?”

  “I think it’s brilliant,” said Reynie with perfect sincerity. “The chickens feed themselves, and the livestock open and close their own gate.”

  “You saw that?” said Kate, looking pleased. “Yes, they come and go whenever Moocho sounds the farm bell.” She pointed toward the orchard. “Speaking of Moocho, there he is now. Hey, Moocho! Here’s Reynie!”

  Kate had mentioned Moocho Brazos in her letters, so Reynie knew a few things about him. He knew, for instance, that Milligan had wanted someone to help out on the farm, as well as to look after Kate when he was away on missions, and that Kate had persuaded him to hire one of her old circus friends. But now, as the swarthy figure of Moocho Brazos emerged from the apple trees, Reynie realized that Kate had neglected to mention a detail or two. She certainly didn’t need to fill him in now, for it was perfectly clear from Moocho’s enormous muscles, slicked-down hair, and handlebar mustache that he’d been the circus’s Strong Man.

  Moocho was toting a heavy tub full of apples that Reynie and Kate had picked earlier that morning. They’d left it at the far edge of the orchard to be retrieved by Moocho — in the farm truck, Reynie had supposed, not having conceived that anyone could carry it more than a few steps. But Moocho had gone on foot, and in his hands the apple tub looked no more substantial than a bowl of cherries.

  “So you’re the wonderful Reynie Muldoon,” he said as he came up. “I’ve heard so much about you.” Given his daunting appearance, Moocho’s soft, melodious voice was every bit as unexpected as his attire — a flowery apron worn over coveralls and house slippers. He set the apple tub down and gave Reynie’s hand a gentle squeeze. “Very pleased to meet you.”

  “Overslept, have you, Moocho?” Kate said.

  Moocho yawned as if on cue. “We were up so late waiting, you know.”

  “Madge and I were up late. You went to bed at nine.”

  “Which, as you know perfectly well, is long past my bedtime,” Moocho said, “so no scolding, young lady. Unless, of course, you don’t care to eat any of my apple pies tonight.”

  Kate immediately repented of her teasing, then told him about the broken-down car. Moocho offered to fetch Miss Perumal and her mother in the farm truck, but Reynie said he expected them to arrive soon. The mechanic had promised the car would be fixed before lunch.

  “Well, if they aren’t here by then I’ll go for them,” Moocho said, scooping up the apple tub and starting for the house. “We can’t let them eat in town — the café is dreadful.”

  Reynie watched him go, still marveling at how effortlessly he carried the tub. “I see why you asked Milligan to hire him. He must do the work of several people.”

  “Oh yes, I suppose he does,” said Kate. She grinned. “But wait till you try his pies. Then you’ll know the real reason.”

  Noontime found Reynie and Kate perched high atop the farmhouse roof. They had gone up to replace a broken shingle and to right a listing weather vane, and afterward they had lingered to survey the countryside. The view was excellent from that height, and Kate was pointing out the distant mill pond, scene of her earliest memory (that of swimming with Milligan), when a faraway sound caught their attention. They turned to see a plume of dust rising over the lane in the distance.

  “That must be Amma and Pati,” Reynie said, but Kate, fixing the dust plume in her spyglass, gave a little gasp and cried, “They’re all here, Reynie! I mean Sticky’s here, too!”

  Reynie took the spyglass — Kate was thrusting it upon him with such zeal he feared she would knock him off the roof — and sure enough, down the dusty lane came Miss Perumal and her mother in the station wagon, followed by an old sedan: the Washingtons had arrived earlier than expected.

  Kate scrambled nimbly to the edge of the roof, gripped the sides of the ladder, and slid down it like a firehouse pole, bypassing the rungs altogether. By the time Reynie had descended in more conventional fashion, the farmyard was full of automobiles, the Perumals and Washingtons were chatting with Moocho Brazos (who had hurried out to greet them), and Kate was helping Sticky up from the ground and dusting him off.

  To Reynie’s surprise, Sticky look
ed exactly as he’d looked a year ago: a skinny boy with light brown skin, anxious eyes (though perhaps the anxiety came from not yet having recovered his breath), and a completely bald head. The baldness was the surprising part. The last time Reynie had seen Sticky, all his hair had grown back; it had since disappeared. His spectacles were missing, too, but this was only because Kate was just now picking them up from where her hug had knocked them free.

  Clutching his ribs, Sticky gave Reynie a feeble smile. Then the two boys laughed and hugged and clapped each other on the back. All around them, the adults were chattering about faulty carburetors and making good time on the highways and bumping into one other unexpectedly in town. Mr. Washington was getting a wheelchair out of the trunk for Mrs. Washington, whose troubled knees kept her from walking much, but who nonetheless took a few painful steps to embrace Reynie and Kate. A short woman with walnut-colored skin, narrow shoulders, and a rather pouty mouth belied by the kindness in her eyes, Mrs. Washington couldn’t stop shaking her head as she turned the children’s faces left and right in her hands.

  “You both look years older already,” she said ruefully, as if she couldn’t bear the thought. Mr. Washington came up with the wheelchair, and his wife lowered herself into the seat and dabbed at her shining eyes. Mr. Washington, who resembled a larger version of Sticky — tall, slender, and bespectacled — was not much for words, but he smiled fondly and greeted the children with reserved pats on their shoulders.

  Meanwhile, Miss Perumal (her arms crossed protectively over her ribs) had come over to hug Kate. “Don’t you look wonderful, dear? Oh! And I see you’ve put a lid on your bucket! How clever!”

  Kate beamed — she was always flattered when someone complimented her bucket — and only her desire to steal away and talk privately with the boys prevented her opening the bucket and showing Miss Perumal its entire inventory. They were already going to have to wait much too long to be alone, for first the luggage had to be brought in, and lunch eaten, and the dishes cleared away, and the guests situated in their rooms — all of which was perfectly pleasant but took ages to accomplish. By midafternoon the three young friends were casting nearly constant, yearning glances at one another, and when Miss Perumal finally asked them to make themselves scarce so the adults could speak in private, they lost no time in bolting for the door.