The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey 21

  “Get in, Kate,” Milligan called from above. “That’s our car.”

  “A police car?”

  “I borrowed it,” said Milligan. “Quick now, boys.”

  Reynie and Sticky scrambled down the final steps of the fire escape and jumped into the back seat with Kate. Milligan put Constance in front with him. “Keep your heads down,” he said, reversing out of the alley. As he drove past the front of the hotel he murmured, “Three police cars. Good. And that woman in the lobby must be who called. She looks distraught. Small wonder there.”

  “What woman?” Sticky asked, dutifully keeping his head down.

  “One of the desk clerks. She called the police and told them she’d been bribed and threatened, and that some bad men were on the way to the hotel. She was afraid they were going to do something to a group of children there.”

  “How do you know all that?” Constance asked.

  Milligan glanced at her. She was sitting up straight in the passenger seat — unlike the others she hadn’t needed to duck — and Milligan frowned as something occurred to him. “You should be in a child’s car seat. It’s dangerous without one.”

  Constance looked at him incredulously. “Are you joking?”

  “A bit. Still, let’s do buckle up, everyone.” Keeping his eyes on the road, Milligan reached across and pulled down Constance’s seatbelt strap, which because of her height (or lack thereof ) ran diagonally across her face. She glared at him with her one visible eye.

  “Feel free to adjust that,” Milligan said, giving her a lopsided grin. “Now, to answer your question, I knew what I did by listening to a police radio scanner. My Dutch isn’t perfect, but I know enough to do the trick. And luckily I was already in the neighborhood. The police had mentioned you on the scanner earlier today, too. They said you’d just left the science museum and should be brought into the station for questioning. You four have been busy.”

  “I’m glad you found us,” said Reynie. “Things were about to get awfully unpleasant.”

  “I’m so sorry I didn’t catch up with you sooner,” Milligan said, the regret plain on his face. “Five minutes earlier and I could have spared you that encounter — and spared myself the worry. I was detained, unfortunately, or I would have met you the moment you came ashore in Lisbon. It didn’t help matters that you’re all so horribly clever. I can’t tell you how troubled I was to discover you weren’t on the train in Thernbaakagen.”

  By now the children were all sitting up. Milligan was driving through a gritty warehouse district near the harbor. All but Constance, who was too short, could see the shimmer of the North Sea in the near distance.

  “But how did you know we were on that train?” Reynie asked. “How did you even know we were in Lisbon?”

  “It’s my job to know things,” Milligan said with a mysterious air. Then he shrugged. “Also, you left the travel journal Mr. Benedict gave you.”

  “Oh!” said Kate. “Then we’re lucky we forgot it! I told you it was a good thing, Constance!”

  “It was indeed,” said Milligan. “When I arrived at Mr. Benedict’s house, Rhonda had already discovered your note, and we found the journal soon after. It took us some time to figure out the clues, though, and by the time we did the Shortcut had launched. Still, I knew you were in good hands with Captain Noland, and that by catching a plane I would arrive in Lisbon before you, so I didn’t really worry until Joe Shooter — Cannonball, I mean — informed me you were all alone at the castle. I was ready to race up there when you radioed, Kate. I couldn’t make out a single word, but it was clear enough from the background noises that you were at the train station.”

  Milligan shook his head. “I barely missed you. I even saw your train pulling away. But at that point I had to take Jackson and Jillson in hand. Yes, they’re in custody,” he said in response to the children’s exclamations. “And we had a nice talk. They’re stubborn, those two, but luckily they’re also quite stupid. They told me more than they realized, and I quickly gathered you were in no danger on that train. So once again I didn’t worry; once again I caught a plane — the ticket agent had told me you were headed for Thernbaakagen — and once again I arrived before you. But I didn’t take into account your own wariness. I should have guessed you’d get off at a different station . . . Ah, this is perfect.”

  Milligan pulled the police car off the road and into a warehouse, which somehow he had deduced was empty despite its wide open bay doors. Shutting off the engine, he turned to make eye contact with all of them — first Kate, then the others, then Kate again. “You were brave to do what you did,” he said slowly. “And I know you did it out of love for our friends. But if you ever do something like this again, I can promise you that Ten Men and Executives are going to be the least of your worries — do you understand?” His expression was very severe, his jaw was set, and his words were clipped and terse as if spoken with much suppressed anger.

  Kate burst out laughing. Milligan’s eyebrows shot up, and Kate, seeing this, laughed even louder. “Milligan,” she said, “I’ll bet you scare the wits out of bad guys, but as a dad you don’t scare anyone very much.”

  “She’s right,” Constance said. “I can tell you aren’t really angry.”

  Milligan frowned and looked at Reynie, but Reynie averted his eyes to avoid disappointing him — for he, too, had been unfazed by Milligan’s stern admonition. Only Sticky, furiously polishing his spectacles in the back seat, showed the effect Milligan had hoped for. But Sticky was easily unnerved and could hardly be used as a measure.

  “Well,” Milligan said, his face relaxing. “At least I tried.” He jumped from the car and let them all out. Then he went to the trunk, out of which he took a large duffel bag and into which he put the Ten Man’s briefcase. Shadowing him, the children saw three other briefcases already inside. Milligan slammed the trunk closed.

  “If this place is abandoned, why are the doors open?” Sticky asked.

  “Broken,” Milligan said, reaching inside his suit jacket. He took out a small tool rather like an Army knife, and in seconds he had done something to the winch mechanism that allowed the bay doors to come rattling down.

  It was dusky gray in the warehouse now, the only light being that which filtered in through dirty windows and a broken skylight. And though the day was warm, the warehouse was cold, and Constance began to shiver. Milligan took off his suit jacket and draped it over her shoulders. The jacket hung all around her and down to her feet like a cloak.

  “Time for a quick change,” Milligan said, picking up his duffel bag. “Excuse me a minute.”

  Kate followed him into what once had been the warehouse office. She was so happy to see Milligan she didn’t want to be separated even for a minute. In fact, during the car ride she’d kept having the urge to hug him again — and now she did just that, throwing her arms around him and squeezing with all her might. Milligan winced, but as his expression was the same as that of everyone Kate hugged, she thought nothing of it until a minute later, when Milligan was changing shirts and she saw his torso covered with a shocking display of cuts and bruises.

  “What happened to you?” she cried, staring.

  “Hm?” Milligan looked down. “Oh. These. I told you, Katie-Cat. I was detained. That’s why I missed you in Lisbon.”

  Kate was aghast. “I thought you got caught up in traffic! Or, I don’t know, had an urgent, top-secret meeting or something!”

  “It was a sort of meeting,” Milligan said, pulling on a different shirt. “I’ve had lots of meetings lately. Not all go as smoothly as the one at the hotel.”

  Kate suddenly felt worried about Milligan, which had almost never happened, and it was a very disagreeable feeling indeed. She felt guilty, too, for it occurred to her that if she was this worried about Milligan, Milligan must have felt at least as worried about her. Probably more so. She was his daughter, after all.

  “Milligan,” Kate said, “I really am sorry to have worried you.”

Well, you couldn’t have had better intentions,” Milligan said, winking at her. “I appreciate the apology, though. When I heard you’d gone — well, I know you’re very capable, Kate, but I don’t suppose I’ve slept two hours in as many days. I admit it’s taken its toll. I’m not Number Two, after all.”

  At this, their faces grew somber, and Milligan laid his hand on Kate’s shoulder. “We’re going to get them back. Don’t you worry.”

  Her father’s words were an unexpected comfort to Kate — who hadn’t realized till now that she really could use some comforting — and the effect was to bring tears to her eyes. Kate had always thought crying an acceptable thing for others to do, but she didn’t particularly care to be seen doing it herself, so she leaned out of the office door, pretending to check on her friends. (The boys had opened the police car’s trunk and were peeking in at the briefcases, while Constance was hopping up and down to keep warm.) By the time Kate had blinked her eyes clear and turned back to him, Milligan had almost completed his transformation.

  Dressed in his usual weather-beaten boots, jacket, and hat, Milligan looked nothing like a secret agent and everything like someone who’d gotten a bad deal at a secondhand store. Kate was always impressed by the way his clothes so perfectly concealed his utility belt and tranquilizer gun. She thought he ought to look lumpier, somehow.

  Milligan adjusted his hat. “How do I look? More like myself ?”

  “Except for the black hair and brown eyes,” Kate said, appraising him. “And your ears look smaller. They’re — I don’t know, flatter or something.”

  “Ah.” Milligan tugged a piece of transparent tape from each side of his head. His ears sprang out to their normal positions. Then he removed the colored contact lenses, revealing his natural ocean-blue eyes — eyes the same color as Kate’s — and put the lenses away in a tiny container. “Better? I’m afraid I’m stuck with the black hair for a while.”

  Kate was grinning, partly because he looked more like her father now, and partly because she had a great admiration for disguises. “Were you trying to look like anyone in particular?”

  “Anyone but myself,” Milligan replied. “I’ve developed a bit of a bad reputation in certain circles. I have an unpopular habit of collecting briefcases that don’t belong to me. Speaking of which, the boys weren’t actually touching the briefcases in the trunk, I hope?”

  Wondering how Milligan knew, Kate stuck her head out the office door and gave Reynie and Sticky a warning look. They nodded and tried to close the trunk as quietly as possible. “They aren’t now, anyway.”

  “Good,” Milligan said, picking up his duffel bag. “I’d hate to have to speak sternly to them again. It embarrasses me to be so ineffective.”

  “What you tell me fits with what I learned from Jackson and Jillson,” said Milligan, when the children had related everything they’d found out. “My impression is that Curtain has Executives and Ten Men posted all along Mr. Benedict’s trail. They haven’t any clue what they’re looking for, because they don’t know what Mr. Benedict was up to. But they’ve been keeping an eye out for anything suspicious.”

  “So Mr. Curtain was just shooting in the dark,” Sticky said. “Hoping to turn up something he could use.”

  “Which he did,” Milligan said. “He got lucky with this duskwort business. I don’t suppose I need to tell you how serious a matter this is. Every law enforcement agency in the world is already nervous about Curtain — and that’s without duskwort figuring in. If he gets his hands on real duskwort, if he can send entire cities to sleep —”

  “It will be a dark day,” said Reynie grimly.

  “It will be a dark night,” said Kate.

  Sticky started to say that it would be a total solar eclipse in conjunction with unseasonably heavy cloud cover, but Constance interrupted him.

  “Forget all that,” she said crossly. “What about Mr. Benedict and Number Two? We only have until tomorrow to find them!”

  “Try not to worry,” said Milligan. “I intend to stop Curtain before he can harm them — and before he learns where to find that plant. There’s time enough, Constance. I promise.”

  “How can you be sure?” Constance demanded.

  “At the airport earlier I was able to confirm that Mr. Benedict and Number Two flew here from Lisbon. There was no record of their flying out again, however, so it would appear they traveled to the island by boat, and the fact that he gave you the address of a water transport business makes it all but certain. The island can’t be very far — probably somewhere in the North Sea.”

  “But the oceans are connected!” cried Constance (who had deduced this from gazing so often at her globe pendant). “A boat could have taken them anywhere! For all we know they’re on the other side of the world!” Her face had gone bright red — she was getting very upset. It seemed to her that Milligan had overlooked a key fact, and if it turned out that he was wrong, that they couldn’t get to that island in time . . .

  “They haven’t been gone long enough for that, Constance,” Reynie said gently. “Not every boat is as fast as the Shortcut.”

  Constance stared at him a moment, then turned to Sticky, who probably knew everything there was to know about ocean distances and ship speeds and whatnot.

  “It’s true,” Sticky said. “The island can’t be very far.”

  “Well, why didn’t anyone say that?” Constance growled at no one in particular, but she looked much relieved.

  Kate clapped her hands together. “So what are we waiting for? Let’s head to the wharf.”

  “We’re practically there,” Milligan said. “I need to scout it out first, though. I’ll take a look from the roof.” He headed for the rear of the warehouse, where a very steep and rickety-looking stairway led up to a high door.

  “I’m coming, too!” Kate said, hurrying after him.

  “We’ll all come,” said Reynie.

  Milligan spun around and held up his hand in warning. “No, you won’t. These stairs may be unsound. You stay here, and I’ll be back in a minute. I mean it, now. Stay put.” Composing his face into a severe expression to show them he meant business, he went up the stairs and disappeared through the door at the top.

  The children waited until the door had closed and Milligan was out of earshot. Then they went up after him.

  The Boathouse Prisoner

  The door at the top of the stairs opened onto a utility room. From there a ladder and a second door led to the wide, flat roof. The children found Milligan at the roof’s edge, peering through a spyglass he’d balanced atop the low wall there.

  “You seem to have misunderstood me,” Milligan said in an even tone, without bothering to look at them.

  “The stairs held you, so we figured they were sound,” Reynie said.

  Milligan grunted. “For future reference, I walk lightly. Don’t ever let that be your guide.”

  Reynie was unsure if Milligan was teasing him or not. He wouldn’t be entirely surprised to learn that Milligan could walk on water. “Have you found anything unusual?”

  “It’s what I expected. Several docks and boathouses, a number of seagulls, and one well-dressed fellow with a briefcase.”

  Kate took out her own spyglass and swept it along the wharf. Overhanging the entrance to one of the long docks was a sign that had been lettered in both Dutch and English. The English words read: RISKER WATER TRANSPORT — OCEAN TOURS & BOAT RENTALS. A Ten Man stood beneath the sign, his briefcase at his feet and his eyes roving up and down the wharf. Every so often he turned to glance behind him toward the far end of the dock, where a grimy old yacht was moored beside a boathouse.

  “I wonder why he keeps looking behind him,” Reynie said, when Kate had passed him her spyglass and showed him where to point it. “If he’s just keeping an eye out for whoever shows up, why watch the boathouse? For that matter, why is he standing in plain sight, unless —?”

  “Unless he’s guarding the exit?” said Milligan. “Yes. He’s keeping that ma
n prisoner in the boathouse.”

  “What man?” asked Reynie. The boathouse had a window, but from this angle he couldn’t see through it.

  “He came out a minute ago — just before you all so flagrantly disobeyed me — and picked up a carton that had been left at the door. He was staring toward the Ten Man as if he wanted to throttle him. But when the Ten Man glanced back at him, he scurried inside like a frightened mouse.”

  “So what do we do?” asked Sticky.

  “I know,” said Kate, nudging Milligan and pointing to another warehouse roof much closer to the wharf. “From over there you can get the drop on the Ten Man with your tranquilizer gun. He’ll be out like a light before he knows what hit him.”

  Milligan shook his head. “It’s more complicated than that. See how close he’s standing to the edge of the dock? I can’t risk it. He might fall into the water and drown.”

  Kate looked at him cockeyed. “Are you kidding? These guys are monsters! If that one fell into the water it would serve him right!”

  “You might think you mean that,” said Milligan. “But you’d feel differently if it were to happen and you were responsible. We’re not like them, Kate. That’s the entire point of trying to stop them.”

  “I know we’re not,” Kate said irritably. She wanted to argue but could tell it was a waste of time.

  Constance was not so easily convinced, however, and in her most strident tone she said, “So you just let them get away? Like those guys in the hotel?”

  Milligan rubbed his temples and explained, as patiently as he could, that he’d already alerted the authorities to the presence of Ten Men in Thernbaakagen. “The police at the hotel will be vigilant, I assure you. I don’t just ‘let them get away.’ But neither do I risk killing someone — not even a Ten Man — if I can think of a better option.”