The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey 22

  “So what’s the better option?” Kate asked.

  “I’m still trying to think of it,” Milligan admitted. “I could lure him away from there — preferably to a place where I could engage him at my advantage — but then the prisoner may take the opportunity to flee, and I can’t let that happen. He may have vital information.”

  “That’s easy, then,” said Reynie. “You draw the Ten Man away, and we’ll run down and talk to the prisoner.”

  “That’s out of the question,” Milligan said. “You won’t be involved in this operation. End of discussion.”

  It was not the end of the discussion, however, for the children set at once to arguing with Milligan, pursuing him across the roof and surrounding him and pestering him like honeybees after a bear. With the Ten Man gone there’d be no danger, Reynie said; the clock was ticking and every minute counted, Kate said; if he didn’t let them do it they would die on the spot and it would be Milligan’s fault, said Constance (who could think of nothing better to say); they’d post a lookout, Sticky said, and if something went wrong they’d leave at once. The children said all this and a great many other things besides, generally speaking at the same time and raising their voices to be heard over one another.

  “Enough!” Milligan said finally, clutching at his head as if someone had bludgeoned him. “We’ll compromise. You can hide nearby and keep an eye on the boathouse. But under no circumstances will you come out of hiding unless the prisoner appears and seems ready to run. Then — and only then — you may leave your hiding place to speak with him. Is that understood?”

  The children swore they understood. And they did. They understood that if something went wrong with Milligan’s plan — if the Ten Man got away from him or radioed for help — they might never get a chance to speak with the man in the boathouse, and the consequences for Mr. Benedict and Number Two could be dire. So although they understood it was Milligan’s duty to keep them safe, they also understood that their own duty required them to disobey him.

  It had begun to rain intermittently, fat drops of water so widely spaced one could almost count them. Though it was only mid-afternoon, the sky had grown quite dark, and pedestrian traffic along the wharf had cleared out, anticipating a heavy downpour that Constance said would not develop. The children were huddled under the awning of a tourist shop that had gone out of business. Milligan was behind the shop, picking the lock to the back door. Farther down the wharf the Ten Man stood as before, heedless of the rain.

  Reynie looked out over the water, muddy gray and troubled by raindrops, the perfect mirror to his mood. Waiting is never easy, especially when one faces a dangerous task. Even a few moments can allow time to think and feel too much, and Reynie had quite a bit to think and feel. Not only was he struggling to keep his courage up and his dread at bay, but seeing how happy Kate was with Milligan around had given him a painful case of homesickness. Reynie missed Miss Perumal’s wry smile, her teasing tones, the frequent hugs from her and Pati. And he missed the feeling of being safe at home — hardly even noticeable most days, a feeling he’d begun to take for granted. How he hoped he might take it for granted again soon!

  At that very moment Sticky happened to be gazing at the water, too. Like Reynie he was every bit as wistful as he was nervous, and for much the same reasons. It was one of those rare occasions when two different people feel exactly the same way at exactly the same moment, and somehow both boys sensed this. When at the sound of the front door unlocking they turned and their eyes met, they smiled (however glumly) and nodded with a feeling of mutual understanding and appreciation. If they had to be anxious and homesick, at least they were anxious and homesick together.

  Milligan stepped aside to let them enter. Kate hustled right in, but the others needed a moment to recover from the surprise, for Milligan had considerably altered his appearance. He looked markedly shorter, his face seemed oddly puffy beneath a dilapidated fisherman’s hat, and when he grinned at them two of his teeth shone gold. Under less urgent circumstances he would have been peppered with questions about this transformation, but as it was, the children scurried silently into the empty shop. Kate was already at the far window, opening the dusty blinds a few inches and looking out through her spyglass.

  “This will work,” she said. “I can see all the way down the wharf.”

  “Good. Now remember,” Milligan said, “even if the prisoner makes a run for it, you’re not to leave this building if the Ten Man and I are still in view. If that happens, I’ll handle the situation myself. It isn’t my preference, but I can manage it as long as I’m not distracted with worrying about you.”

  “We get it, Milligan,” said Kate, who knew too well the discomfort of worrying about someone you love. Now that her father was seconds away from a dangerous encounter, she’d begun to grow very worried herself.

  “All right then, I’m off,” said Milligan. Reynie, Sticky, and Constance wished him luck, and Kate hugged him (not as fiercely as before — she was mindful of his cuts and bruises — but with a great deal of conviction) until finally Milligan had to unwrap her arms. He tweaked her chin and went out.

  With the others at her heels, Kate ran to the window and poked her spyglass beneath the blinds. Milligan was walking slowly along the wharf. The Ten Man had already seen him coming, stooped to pick up his briefcase, and slipped the other hand inside his suit coat. He kept his hand hidden there as Milligan drew near. Kate couldn’t tell if Milligan spoke or gave any kind of private signal, but the Ten Man studied him intently as he walked past — and continued to study him after Milligan’s back was to him.

  Milligan kept walking. The Ten Man glanced toward the boathouse and frowned. He checked his watch . . . then checked his other watch . . . and then, with a movement so quick Kate almost missed it, he took something out of his briefcase and slipped it inside his suit coat.

  “What was that?” cried Sticky, startled. He had squeezed next to Kate at the window and was watching without benefit of a spyglass.

  “I couldn’t tell,” said Kate. Her pulse was pounding in her ears.

  With a final glance at the boathouse, the Ten Man set off along the wharf. Milligan, at this point, was nearing the far end of the wharf, heading for a group of outbuildings. But the Ten Man’s stride was twice his, and by the time Milligan turned behind the outbuildings the Ten Man was barely a dozen paces behind him. The Ten Man stopped abruptly, contemplating the corner of the building around which Milligan had disappeared. Spinning on his heel, he turned to take a different route, circling behind the buildings from the opposite direction.

  Kate almost dropped her spyglass. “He’s sneaking up on Milligan! He’s going the other way! I have to warn him!” She whirled to race out, but Reynie was standing right behind her — otherwise he’d never have been able to stop her. He threw his arms around her and held on as tightly as he could.

  “Hold on, Kate — you don’t know what Milligan has in mind! Maybe he expected that guy to do that! You can’t risk messing up his plan! You —”

  Kate had already freed herself from his grip (Reynie wasn’t sure how, but he found himself on the ground with his arms empty) and was almost at the door when she drew up short, his words sinking in. He was right, of course. She had no idea how Milligan did what he did. She might very well endanger him when she meant to help him. Difficult as it was, she would simply have to trust Milligan to take care of himself.

  “You’re right,” Kate said with a resigned sigh. She hurried over and lifted Reynie to his feet, but when she tried to dust off his clothes he emphatically protested. “Really? You’re fine? Good, then, let’s go!”

  With Constance on her back, Kate led the way along the wharf and down the long dock to the boathouse. Milligan and the Ten Man were nowhere to be seen. Kate dashed in through the boathouse door, then stopped in her tracks, throwing out an arm to prevent the boys (who were less adept at stopping in their tracks) from falling into the empty rectangle of water that took up most of the r
oom. The children looked quickly about. There were no boats in the boathouse, only the murky water and a walkway on three sides. At a table against the near wall sat a stunned-looking man who’d been making pyramids out of canned goods.

  “Who the devil are you?” he cried in English, leaping from his chair and toppling his pyramid. A slump-shouldered man with a face as round as a clock and covered with dark stubble, the boathouse prisoner was dressed in dirty fisherman’s clothes, and his black hair, streaked with gray, hung about his face in long greasy strands. He appeared not to have bathed or groomed in days.

  “We’re friends,” Reynie said as Sticky closed the door and Kate, with her spyglass, took up her position at the window.

  “Friends? Ha! If that shadow let you in here I know you ain’t my friends.”

  “He didn’t,” said Reynie. “We snuck in.”

  The man’s bloodshot eyes widened, and shoving Reynie aside — almost, in fact, knocking him into the water — he went to the window and looked out over Kate’s shoulder. “So he’s gone, is he?”

  “Our friend led him away so we could talk to you,” Reynie said. “Don’t worry, that man won’t bother you anymore. Our friend will take care of that.”

  The man looked askance at Reynie, sizing him up. He snorted derisively and looked out the window again. “Your friend, eh? Well, too bad for your friend, whoever he is. I don’t suppose he knows what he’s got himself into.”

  With a shake of his head, the man set to pacing, mumbling to himself. “If the boy’s telling the truth, though, now might be the time . . . but it wouldn’t take him long, you know it wouldn’t, and if he catches you making a break for it . . .” He ran his fingers through his greasy hair and cursed in frustration. “No, Risker, old boy, you’d better just wait to be sure. Give it a few minutes. Yes, three minutes, maybe four . . .” He went to look out over Kate’s shoulder again.

  “Mr. Risker,” said Reynie, “please listen to me. You’ll see soon enough that everything’s all right. We’re friends of Nich —”

  “Benedict,” said Risker, waving him quiet. “Oh, I know who you are now, just took me a minute to get a fix on things. I didn’t expect a bunch of kids, is all. Plus there’s only four of you, and he paid passage for six.”

  “Mr. Benedict paid for our passage?” Constance said. “Passage to where?”

  “To his confounded island, that’s where! Same place I took him and his friend!” Risker turned from the window to glare at her. He seemed glad to have someone to glare at. “Nothing but directions with that weird bird. ‘Take them here. Tell them this and that. Tell no one else. I’ll make it worth your while.’ Blah blah blah.”

  “What’s your problem?” Constance demanded.

  “My problem,” Risker growled, “is I’ve had nothing but misery since I got back. I wish I’d never met Benedict, I can tell you. And if you meet that fellow” — he jerked his thumb in the direction of the dock entrance, where the Ten Man had stood guard — “you’ll be wishing the same thing soon enough.”

  Reynie was growing very angry. “What did Mr. Benedict do, offer to pay you more money once we arrived safely?”

  “Not enough for this!” Risker snarled. He pointed to the empty rectangle of water. “My rental boats sunk in twenty feet of water! And my yacht engine sabotaged! And here I sit with no business whatsoever, trapped in my own boathouse with nothing to eat but soup and beans!” In a fit of fury, Risker swept the canned goods from the table. The cans tumbled noisily over the floorboards and splashed into the water.

  Reynie tried to master his anger. This man was obviously in a pitiful state; provoking him would only make things worse. “We’re sorry for your trouble,” he said in a calmer voice. “But things will be better for you now, and we really need your help. Our friends are in danger, and —”

  “Join the club,” Risker said with a sneer. He squinted out the window, craning his head this way and that for a better view in each direction. “Two more minutes and I’m gone.”

  “But all we want is information!” Reynie said. “Just tell us where the island is and what Mr. Benedict told you. Then we’ll leave you alone. Is that so hard?”

  “Don’t you get snippy with me! You don’t know what I been through, do you? The last time I gave out that information I got myself electrified and cheated all at once! ‘Big reward,’ they said, but I never saw any reward, did I? This is my reward, boy!” Risker waved his arms about, indicating his boathouse prison. But even as he did, the fury seemed to pass from his face, his shoulders sagged, and he returned to staring out the window and muttering to himself. “Held out a long time, too. Even with those shockers. I held out.”

  Reynie bit his tongue. Risker was clearly ashamed, but he was the sort of person whose shame made him bitter and resentful. Saying the wrong thing would only set him more deeply against them. Reynie tried to find the right words . . .

  “So you betrayed them,” Kate said, glancing over her shoulder at the filthy man. “Why not make up for it now and tell us what we want to know? Then you can stop feeling so bad about being a traitor.”

  Risker stared at her, trembling violently, his red eyes bulging from his head. “I’ll tell you nothing!” he shouted, and this time he grew so furious he overturned his table. It toppled into the water and drifted to the other side. Risker looked around at the children, his chest heaving. He shook his head and moved toward the door. “No . . . no, I’m not even going to bother with you. Now’s my chance, and I’m taking it. You can wait and find out what’s happened to your friend. I’m leaving, and there’s no —”

  “Let’s try it this way,” Reynie said, taking something from his pocket. “Risker, do you want this or not?”

  Risker froze and fell silent, gaping at Reynie’s outstretched palm, upon which rested a brilliant diamond. Even in the murky boathouse the diamond twinkled like a dime-sized star.

  Sticky gasped and put his hands to his head in disbelief. “How did you get that, Reynie?”

  “Captain Noland gave it to him,” said Constance with a knowing expression.

  Kate was opening and closing her mouth in shocked indignation. “Reynie!” she said at last, in a severe tone. “You can’t give that away! It doesn’t belong to you!”

  “Maybe I will and maybe I won’t,” Reynie said, watching Risker’s face. The other children’s reactions were not lost on the man, whose eyes glinted hungrily as he stared at the sparkling stone. He stepped forward, but Reynie stepped back, and staring directly into Risker’s eyes he held the diamond out over the water.

  “Tell us what we want to know,” he said firmly, “and I’ll give this to you. Hesitate five seconds and I’ll drop it into the water. Your choice.”

  Risker was taken aback. “No! Surely you wouldn’t . . . can it possibly be real?”

  “Of course it’s real,” Reynie said, and it was clear he meant it. “And now I’ll begin counting. One . . .”

  “Hold on!” Risker said. “Don’t be hasty now, boy! I can tell you mean what you say. It’s real, and you’ll hand it over to me if I tell you everything, is that right? We’re in agreement?”

  Reynie nodded.

  “Good, then! Fine indeed. There’s not so much to tell, anyway. Why don’t you just step away from the water first? Don’t want to risk an accident, right? Don’t want to drop —”

  “Three,” Reynie said. “Four.”

  “I was to take you to the island and give you a message!” Risker said quickly. “I can’t take you there now, of course, but I can tell you where it is. I can tell you the exact place we were to land — the place I dropped your friends off — and the message is this: ‘Follow the wind.’ That’s all, I swear it. ‘Follow the wind.’ The rest is just details.”

  “I happen to be fond of details,” Reynie said. “Now draw us a map.”

  “I’ve got nothing to draw it with.”

  Kate gave him pen and paper from her bucket, then hurried back to the window. It seemed to her that too m
uch time had passed, and her face was taut with worry.

  Risker drew a hasty map. “I’m putting down the longitude and latitude, and I can sketch the eastern part of the island as I saw it, but I never went beyond the shore. I helped them unload their supplies — they brought enough for the lot of you — and then I left. I don’t know anything else about it.”

  “That’s a good start,” Reynie said. “Now give us the details, and do it quick. Someone will be here soon — either the man in the suit or our friend. Either way, you’d better talk fast.”

  Risker did. Their friends, he said, had come to him some days earlier. After a long conversation (during which he got the impression he was being evaluated), Mr. Benedict had asked for passage to the island, and he and Risker had come to terms. Risker would take Mr. Benedict and Number Two, then return and wait for Mr. Benedict’s friends to arrive. He would reserve his yacht for their arrival and speak to no one about the trip or the island. If all went as arranged, Mr. Benedict would give him more money later. To Risker this seemed an arrangement easily kept. What he couldn’t have known was that the men with briefcases would come knocking.

  They had a young woman with them, Risker said (from his description the children knew it was Martina Crowe), and their inquiries about Mr. Benedict were so cheerful and polite that he mentioned the island before he realized they weren’t Mr. Benedict’s friends at all. When he did begin to suspect, he clammed up, but it was too late. They knew he knew what they wanted to know.

  “Must’ve had their own boat,” Risker said. “They could have taken my yacht, easy. Instead they sabotaged it and left it sitting out there so things ain’t suspicious to the port authorities. And whenever anyone comes by the dock, that shadow down there sizes them up — I’ve seen him do it — then sends them on their way. He tells them I’m ill, which ain’t far from the truth now, I can tell you that.”

  The situation was finally growing clear to Reynie. Mr. Benedict had decided he could trust Risker, but he hadn’t known he and Number Two were being followed, and so hadn’t imagined the man would come into such a terrible predicament.