The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey 20

“Oh, I hate that you just said that,” said Sticky, reaching for his spectacles.

  Kate’s eyes narrowed. “You can tell us on the elevator,” she murmured, for the doors had opened now and the elevator was unoccupied. The children got on and stood close together, closer than space required, and Kate opened her bucket lid, ready to grab for anything she might need in a hurry. The doors slid closed.

  Across the lobby, Daatje watched the children go. She looked upset, so much so that Hubrecht asked if she felt all right.

  “Actually, I have a terrible headache,” she said. “Do you have any medicine?”

  “No, but we keep some in the supply cabinet, you know. I’ll bring you some.” Hubrecht cast about for the key to the supply cabinet. “The key must be in the office,” he said, looking puzzled. “Don’t worry, I’ll find it.”

  When he had gone, Daatje took the supply cabinet key from her pocket and dropped it onto the floor, where it would appear to have fallen by accident. She unfolded a scrap of paper upon which was written a telephone number — a number she dialed with trembling fingers. “Hello? Yes, this is Daatje — from the hotel . . . Yes. Someone has finally come. Just now. It is only a group of children. You may send the money you promised to my address, if you please. I . . . what? No, I cannot possibly tell you which room. Did you hear me say they are only children? No, I never agreed to that. It is against policy, and anyway . . . No, absolutely not! I’m afraid I . . . I’m afraid . . .”

  With frightened eyes Daatje glanced over her shoulder. She was still alone. “Surely you would not do that,” she whispered into the receiver. “Surely you . . . you . . . I see.” She swallowed with some difficulty. “But I insist . . . you must promise no harm . . .”

  There was a long pause, during which she chewed her bottom lip in extreme anxiety. And then in one quick breath she gave the room number and slammed down the phone, recoiling from it as if it had given her a most terrible, most excruciating shock.

  “I’ll go in first,” said Kate, despite feeling very nervous. (And Kate got nervous only when most children would feel terrified.) She and the boys were creeping down the carpeted hallway to the hotel room. Constance had remained at the elevator to hold its doors open. They were on the fifth floor. If someone disagreeable confronted them in this hotel room, they needed a means of quick escape.

  Kate listened at the door, unlocked it, and peeked into the room. With an uneasy glance at the boys she slipped inside. Reynie and Sticky waited on pins and needles. Kate’s confidence always helped keep their own fears at bay; they disliked it when she seemed uneasy. When after a long, tense minute Kate called out that all was clear, the boys exchanged looks of relief. Her voice had regained its natural breeziness. The boys signaled for Constance to follow, then entered the room.

  The door opened into a cramped entryway made all the more awkward by the ill-advised placement of a table in the door’s path, so that the door swung only halfway open. On the table, waist-high to the boys, stood a vase of silk flowers, a bowl of candies, and a note that said, “Welcome!” in Number Two’s distinct, crabbed handwriting. Reynie’s stomach twinged at the thought of what Number Two must be going through at this moment.

  Beyond the table a doorway opened onto the large main room, which was furnished with a few chairs, a bed, a sleeper sofa, and two cots folded against one wall. (Enough accommodations for the four of them, Reynie realized, plus Milligan and Rhonda, who were supposed to have come along.) Kate was checking behind the window curtains for any sign of a clue and making noisy, smacking sounds. She was chewing a particularly sticky piece of candy she’d taken from the bowl.

  Reynie couldn’t help but marvel. Walking alone into an empty room — a room in which she might face untold dangers — Kate had stopped to help herself to a piece of candy.

  “I don’t thee anything unuthual,” she said. “Bathroom’th clear, too.”

  “Maybe this is it, then,” said Sticky, looking around apprehensively. “Maybe he rented this room for us and planned to come back. Maybe there aren’t any more clues.”

  “Let’s not give up just yet,” said Reynie, hoping Constance hadn’t heard what Sticky said. He knelt down to inspect four indentations in the carpet by the wall.

  Kate had opened her Swiss Army knife and used its toothpick to scrape loose a bit of candy. “I noticed those flat spots, too. A chair or something used to be there.”

  Reynie stood up quickly. “The table by the door! It was moved for a reason. I’ll bet we have to climb on it or —”

  Constance walked into the main room, a bunch of candies in one hand and an envelope in the other. Her pale blue eyes flashed with excitement. “Didn’t any of you see this? It was hanging beneath the table.”

  “We didn’t,” Reynie said. “But Mr. Benedict knew you’d see it right away. Anyone else would be too tall. He must have wanted you to be the one to find it.”

  Constance smiled at this. It pleased her to think Mr. Benedict had arranged things that way. But her smile quickly faded as she considered what the letter might say. What if it told them to stay put and wait? What if this was the end of the road? She thrust the envelope toward Reynie. “You read it. I can’t bear to.”

  Reynie opened the envelope and read the letter aloud:

  My dear friends,

  I wanted you to have a comfortable place to rest before the next leg of your journey, which shall take you to . . . well, I leave the destination for you to figure out, but there is no great hurry. If you don’t know where to look for the answer, you can sleep on it.


  Mr. Benedict

  “The bed!” they all cried at once, then burst out laughing. It was rare for them to agree on something so quickly. Together they raced to the bed, and in a flurry of flying blankets, sheets, and pillows, they stripped it to the mattress in seconds. No envelope. They slid the mattress from the frame. Nothing.

  “Let’s try the sleeper sofa,” Reynie said, feeling worried now.

  They cleared the cushions from the sofa, and Kate, grabbing the cloth handle, tugged up and out on the hideaway mattress. It unfolded to reveal a large manila envelope, upon which Mr. Benedict had written, To be used in case of hunger, curiosity, or both.

  Kate slit the envelope open with her knife and dumped its contents onto the mattress. “Lunch money,” she said with satisfaction. She set aside the bundle of banknotes and picked up a sheet of paper. “And an address! ‘Risker Water Transport.’ It’s right here in Thernbaakagen!”

  Sticky read the address. “That street runs along the wharf. I saw it on the map. We’re not far from there. All we —”

  “What’s the matter, Reynie?” Constance said.

  Reynie was staring at the money. “The envelope was sealed. And the money’s still there. So what did she do?”

  “What did who do?” Kate asked.

  “Daatje, the woman downstairs. I thought maybe she stole money that Mr. Benedict had left us.” Reynie started to pace, only to find his path blocked by the mattress, cushions, and pillows they’d thrown onto the floor. “But she didn’t steal anything. And now that I think of it, those Ten Men that came to the hotel just thanked Hubrecht and left. They didn’t make him show them the room. Doesn’t that strike you as odd?”

  “Probably they didn’t realize anything was in here,” Kate said. “They just thought Mr. Benedict rented a room for someone to stay in. Someone who hadn’t come yet.”

  “Yes, but they would want to know who he rented it for,” Reynie said. “And the best way for them to learn that would be —” His eyes widened. “We need to get out of here now.”

  “You think Daatje told them?” Sticky said, not wanting to believe it. “You think she called the Ten Men and told them we’re here?”

  “Now, Sticky!” Kate said, grabbing his arm to haul him after her.

  But Constance stood in their way, and she wasn’t moving. She was staring toward the far wall, staring as if she could see right through it into the h
allway beyond.

  “It’s too late,” she whispered. “They’re already here.”

  Caught up at Last

  The children heard the outer door bump against the table in the entryway, and a smell of cologne suddenly permeated the room. A floorboard creaked. And then a tall man with a briefcase leaned in through the doorway to look at them. The Ten Man was dressed in a fine blue suit, had very pale white skin, jet black hair, and thin, almost colorless lips, which gave the impression that either he’d lost a great deal of blood or else had been recently unfrozen. His dark shining eyes swept the room, taking in the mattress, pillows, and bed linens on the floor. He gave the children a smile that revealed bright, perfect teeth. “Dear, dear, chickies, you’ve made an awful mess, haven’t you? Were you looking for something?”

  The children stared at him, not daring to move or speak.

  “It’s no use pretending you don’t speak English,” the Ten Man said with a wink. “I’ve heard about you four. Now, then, Constance, be a sugar and bring me the paper in your hand. I want to see it. And you, Kate — bring me whatever it is you’re hiding behind your back.” He held out his free hand, the one without the briefcase. It seemed to extend halfway across the room, so exceptionally long was his arm, and his pale, thin fingers, twitching open and shut in a beckoning manner, resembled a dying spider.

  Constance made a whimpering sound. She had looked directly into the Ten Man’s eyes, and what she’d seen had terrified her. She gripped the letter from Mr. Benedict ever tighter, her hand trembling. Beside her, Kate stood half-crouched, poised to respond to any sudden movement.

  The Ten Man made no sudden movement, however. On the contrary, his motions were relaxed, even leisurely. With a disapproving cluck, he withdrew his hand and set down his briefcase. His arms were so long he had only to bend a bit at the waist. “Well, well. I see from your eyes, my little fox, that I risk being bitten if I approach you. You’ve had your shots, I hope?”

  “Try us,” Kate said through clenched teeth.

  “She didn’t mean that,” Sticky said.

  The Ten Man chuckled. “Oh, I’ve no doubt she did. Your reputation precedes you, Katie, love. Now, do you suppose if I make an example of you, the other children will behave?” He shook his arms, exposing two large silver watches from beneath his shirt cuffs. An electric whine filled the room.

  “You don’t have to do that!” Reynie cried. “Don’t hurt her! We’ll give you the papers!”

  “Oh dear, I know you’ll give me the papers,” said the Ten Man with an expression of mock pity. He extended both spidery hands toward Kate. “But once I’ve started something, you see, I like to f —”

  Kate sprang.

  A direct attack was not what the Ten Man had expected, and he flinched in surprise as Kate lunged forward, leaping over the pile of linens and scooping up a pillow as she charged. A split second later there came a muffled THUMP THUMP as two wires struck the pillow Kate had lifted — just in time — to use as a shield.

  Reynie saw the wires flickering like snakes’ tongues as they recoiled into the Ten Man’s watches. At the same time he saw Kate bring her other hand around — the one she’d had behind her back — and swing it up toward the man’s face. Reynie had thought she was hiding the paper with the address on it. Now he saw it was a small bottle, the contents of which she splashed into the Ten Man’s eyes.

  “I hope you like lemon juice!” Kate said as the man howled and covered his face. Already she had dropped the bottle, grabbed the briefcase, and flung it across the room at Reynie, who saw it flying toward him with alarm. He was not the most athletic of children, and he felt lucky indeed when he managed to catch the briefcase before it knocked his teeth out. It was quite heavy, and Kate had thrown it with a great deal of force.

  “Reynie!” Kate cried. “Throw it out the wind — OW!”

  The Ten Man, though temporarily blinded, had used Kate’s voice as a guide, snatching her ponytail and yanking her back toward him. He thought better of this when she began to kick at his shins, however, and after a brief tussle he tossed her high into the air away from him. Kate flipped around like a cat, but even so she landed hard on her bucket, and had it not been for the mattress cushioning her fall, she would almost certainly have broken a rib. Wincing with pain, she looked up to see Reynie turning from the window, still clutching the briefcase. “Reynie! Why —”

  “The sidewalk’s too crowded,” Reynie said. “I couldn’t throw it out. It might kill someone.” He sounded half apologetic and half scared out of his wits. He had wanted nothing more than to get rid of that box of horrors, yet now he stood holding it against his chest. A humming sound came from inside the briefcase, like that of a hive full of angry hornets.

  Kate grimaced. Of course Reynie couldn’t risk it; she should have thought of that. She’d hoped the briefcase was so precious that the Ten Man would run to retrieve it, giving them a chance to escape. Instead she ought to have snatched it and fled. The Ten Man would have chased her, and the others might have gotten away. Now they were trapped — and Kate was out of ploys.

  The Ten Man had recovered from the lemon juice and was watching them from across the room. His eyes were puffy and red, and he was no longer smiling. “I was right about you, ducky. You do bite. But that won’t happen again.” His fingers moved up his necktie like a pale and hairless tarantula. With one smooth, practiced motion he slid the tie loose from his collar, revealing a thin, metallic fringe at the end like that of a bullwhip.

  “I’ve already said we’ll give you the papers,” Reynie said, speaking with some difficulty. His mouth was dry as dust. “And I’ll give the briefcase back, too. Just please let us go.”

  “Oh, tsk tsk,” the Ten Man said. “Weren’t you supposed to be the clever one? And you really think I would let you go? After such rough treatment? Oh, no, Reynard. Naughty children must be punished.” He flicked the necktie, which made a terrible snapping sound as it streaked across the room and knocked a piece of plaster from the wall near Sticky’s head. The children flinched — especially Sticky, who almost fainted — and the Ten Man’s lip curled into a sneer. “That was just to show you what you’re in for.”

  Reynie’s mind was racing. The Ten Man stood between them and the exit, and even if they managed to get past him — which was very unlikely — Reynie now saw another man in a suit, lurking in the entryway just beyond the door. The Ten Man had a partner. This observation did nothing to worsen Reynie’s terror (he was already as terrified as he could be), but it did help him understand, fully and completely, that there was no way out, and that he needed to brace himself for what was coming.

  Kate, climbing to her feet, had realized the same thing. “Fine,” she said bitterly. “Do your worst. You will get bitten again, though. Both of you will. That much I promise.”

  “Both of us?” the Ten Man said with a frown. He glanced sharply toward the entryway. “Why aren’t you guarding the eleva . . .” His eyes widened. “You aren’t Mortis!”

  “I should hope not,” said the other man.

  “What have you done with Mortis?” the Ten Man snarled, spinning toward the doorway and raising his necktie-whip.

  “I’ll show you,” the other man said, and in the same moment there came a strange whistling sound — swit! — and the feathery end of a dart appeared in the Ten Man’s shoulder.

  Angrily the Ten Man snatched the dart out. But he didn’t have time to get a proper look at it before he hit the floor.

  The other man entered the room, stepped over the unconscious Ten Man’s body, and knelt down with his arms out. Kate threw herself upon him.

  “Oh, Milligan!” she cried. “Oh, Milligan, you’re here!”

  Milligan was there, although he was rather difficult to see beneath the pile of jubilant children mobbing him in their excitement. And even when he had freed himself with a lot of hugging and head-patting and handshakes and smiles, Milligan resembled himself but slightly. His normally yellow hair was black, his blu
e eyes were brown, and his ears, strangely enough, seemed to have shrunk. His ruddy complexion was the same, and he possessed the same tall, lanky build, but at a glance he was hardly recognizable even to those who knew him.

  “I thought you were another Ten Man!” Kate said. “I can’t believe I didn’t recognize you!”

  “You were concentrating on the more immediate threat,” Milligan said. His eyes twinkled. “You sounded awfully fierce, by the way. Now listen, all of you, the police are coming and we can’t spare the time to deal with them. We need to make our exit. Quick now!” He took the Ten Man’s briefcase from Reynie, who handed it over with relief.

  “The police are coming?” Sticky said.

  “Quick now,” Milligan repeated, stepping over the Ten Man’s body.

  “You’re just going to leave him lying here?” Constance said. “You aren’t going to tie him up or anything?”

  Milligan turned to see Constance staring at the Ten Man on the floor, afraid even to walk past him. “Forgive me,” he said, coming back and picking her up. “Quick now, all of you. And please don’t make me say it again.” He carried Constance from the room.

  At the end of the hallway the children could see a man’s feet sticking out through the elevator doors, which kept sliding shut, only to bump the feet and slide open again with a ding. Presumably the feet, shod in expensive black shoes, belonged to the Ten Man’s tranquilized partner.

  “Couldn’t you have moved his feet out of the way?” Constance asked. “That ding is annoying.”

  “True, but this way the police have to use the stairs,” Milligan said, leading the children in the other direction. They hurried down another hallway and at last to an open window, beyond which a fire escape descended into a side alley. Sticky took one glance out the window and reached for his spectacles. Milligan put a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t look at the ground. Just watch your feet and keep moving. You’ll be fine. Kate, you go first and we’ll follow you.”

  Just then they heard a door bang open, followed by the sound of officers (heavily winded from their climb up the stairs) storming into the other hallway. Kate vaulted the windowsill and led the way down the fire escape steps, down and down, flight after flight, until she leaped the last few steps and landed beside a parked car. Only then did she realize it was a police car.