The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey 23

  “I didn’t tell them everything, though,” Risker said. “I didn’t give them the message about the wind. They didn’t ask about it, so that much, at least, I kept from them,” he said, then called the Ten Men an unpleasant name.

  “One last thing,” said Reynie, who like Kate was growing extremely nervous about how long Milligan had been gone. “Why did Mr. Benedict come to you? The wharf is full of boats for hire. Why you in particular? Did he give a reason?”

  Risker’s eyes narrowed. “You ain’t Benedict’s own boy, are you? You seem to have that same kind of something going on.” He tapped his forehead. “Up here, I mean.” When Reynie didn’t answer (he thought it best to remain inscrutable), Risker shrugged and said, “He chose me because we had something in common, he said. First I thought it was because we were both born here but grew up somewhere else.”

  “But that wasn’t what he meant,” Reynie prompted.

  “No, he said his parents were friends of my granddaddy, Han de Reizeger. That was my birth name, see — de Reizeger. I changed it to Risker years ago. Your Benedict said he felt he owed something to my granddaddy and wanted to give me some business by way of showing gratitude. Wouldn’t say more than that, and I didn’t care. I was happy for the business, is all.”

  Sticky and Constance looked back and forth between Reynie and Risker, who had grown expectantly tense, his eyes fixed on the hand Reynie held over the water. Reynie nodded, satisfied, and with one last distasteful glance at the diamond, he tossed it in Risker’s direction.

  Risker was caught off guard — he hadn’t expected Reynie to toss such a valuable thing. His eyes bulged, and with fumbling hands he snatched at the diamond in the air. It glanced off his fingertips and went skittering across the floorboards toward the water. “No!” he shouted, lunging after it. A moment later he had tumbled into the water. And a moment after that he was drowning.

  “Help!” Risker gasped, floundering about. His thrashing arms sent up a terrific splash. “I can’t swim!”

  In a smooth blur of movement, Kate took her rope from the bucket and tossed one end out to him. “Grab it, Risker! Grab the rope!” Wild-eyed, Risker snatched at the rope and clung desperately to it. Kate pulled him over to the edge, and with great effort he dragged himself up onto the floorboards, panting and cursing.

  “I wondered why you didn’t just swim out of here,” Kate said as she recoiled her rope. “I guess this explains it.”

  Risker stood up, water puddling at his feet. His chest heaved, his legs were shaky, and he looked terribly confused. He wanted to throttle Reynie for being so reckless with the diamond, but now he owed Kate his life, and throttling her companion wouldn’t exactly do. Still trembling, he glanced down at the water that had nearly claimed him. With a frown Risker wiped dripping water from his eyes, blinked a few times, and looked again.

  There was the glittering stone, bobbing in the water like a fragment of ice.

  “Why, that’s no diamond!” Risker shouted. “Diamonds don’t float!”

  “What do you know?” said Reynie, whose opinion of Captain Noland had just improved somewhat. “It’s a fake!”

  “But you said it was real!” Risker growled.

  “Real, yes, but I never said it was a real diamond. I had no idea if it was a real diamond or not.”

  Risker’s jaw dropped, and Sticky and Kate stared at Reynie, mystified.

  Constance, however, was rolling her eyes. “I’m not sure which is more ridiculous,” she said. “That you didn’t know whether it was real, or that you were going to give it to him without knowing.”

  “Saving Mr. Benedict and Number Two isn’t ridiculous, is it?” Reynie replied, and with a nervous glance at Risker he said quickly, “Now let’s go. We’ve already been here too long. I don’t know what’s keeping Milligan, but —”

  At this, Kate’s face clouded with worry, and she spun back to the window as Reynie moved to join the others near the door. He’d taken a great chance with Risker (who was still gaping at him, dumbstruck), and he wanted to get out of that boathouse immediately, before the man could —

  Too late. Risker sprang forward and seized him by the arm. “I don’t like being tricked, boy!” he snapped, his face contorted with fury. “Maybe you’d like to see how it feels to splash around while everyone watches. Maybe you won’t think you’re so clever then!”

  “Before you do anything hasty, you might want to look outside,” said Kate, breaking into a grin. She’d just seen Milligan striding toward the boathouse, briefcase in hand, and as Risker peered out the window she said, “He’s with us. We told you he’d take care of that Ten Man.”

  Risker’s anger and indignation seemed to drain right out of him. “Fair trade,” he said under his breath. He let go of Reynie’s arm, then turned and leaned heavily against the wall. “At least you’ve got that shadow off my back.”

  “Plus Kate saved you from drowning,” Constance pointed out.

  “That, too,” said Risker, and after considering a moment he said, “We’ll still call it even.”

  Follow the Wind

  If the children had given Milligan a headache before, what he was experiencing now was something like the flu combined with a toothache, with lockjaw and mumps thrown in for good measure. In other words, Milligan was suffering. Not only had the children disobeyed him, they made no bones about continuing to do so as they deemed necessary.

  Milligan was at a loss. He hadn’t a great deal of experience as a father, much less as a guardian to children not his own, and he found himself sorely lacking now in the pertinent skills. To be fair, not many parents would know what to do. Not in this situation. Not with these children.

  After they told him what they’d learned from Risker (who had wasted no time heading home for a hot meal and dry clothes), Milligan said he would make arrangements for their safe return to Stonetown. He would go on to the island himself, he said. But then the children had argued. And argued.

  And argued.

  And the trouble was, he thought they had a point. As a team, they were probably better qualified than Milligan to solve whatever riddles and clues Mr. Benedict had left behind — and who knew how many more there might be? — especially since Mr. Benedict would have created them with the children particularly in mind.

  “If you don’t bring us along,” Kate was saying, “we’ll just find a way to follow you there. The best thing from a father’s standpoint would be to keep us close, so you can protect us.”

  Milligan closed his eyes and began knocking his head against the wall of the boathouse.

  “It isn’t like we want to encounter another Ten Man,” Reynie hastened to remind him. “Much less Mr. Curtain. I’d be very happy never to see that man again. We just want to make sure you can rescue Mr. Benedict and Number Two before it’s too late.”

  “Which is tomorrow,” Sticky pointed out. “Tomorrow is too late.”

  “Please, Milligan,” said Constance, who so rarely said “please” that Milligan felt disoriented to hear it coming from her mouth. “Please, you have to let us come. We’re their best chance!”

  “But how can I trust you now?” Milligan said, exasperated. “How do I know you’ll do exactly what I say? It’s the only way I can keep you safe. And that’s my top priority here — keeping you safe. Not just Kate, but all of you.”

  “We’ll make a solemn promise,” Reynie said. “If you let us come, we’ll promise to obey you completely.” He looked at the others. “Right? We really will.”

  “So long as you promise not to exclude us,” Kate said to Milligan. “If there’s no direct danger and we can help you, you have to let us. If you promise to do that, I’ll promise to obey you.”

  “No matter what?” Milligan said doubtfully.

  “No matter what,” the children said together.

  Milligan studied their faces. “What if I tell you to stop whatever you’re doing, drop to the ground, and pretend to be pigs?”

  “Then we root around for
grubs,” Reynie said.

  “We grunt and smell bad,” said Constance.

  “Do you mean feral pigs or domesticated pigs?” Sticky asked. “Because, you know, their behavior patterns are considerably . . .” He trailed off. Milligan was staring hard at him. Sticky cleared his throat. “Not that I would ask that question then. I’d be too busy snuffling and oinking.”

  Milligan continued to stare hard, and not just at Sticky. He looked down the line of children, gazing into the eyes of every single one, until he felt certain they really were committed to obeying him. “Make the promise.”

  “We promise,” the children said together.

  Milligan took off his hat and rubbed his head. He felt somehow that it was the wrong thing to agree, but he also suspected he’d feel the same way if he didn’t agree. And just as Kate had said, at least this way he could keep an eye on them.

  “Fine. I promise, too,” Milligan said, putting his hat back on. “So let’s waste no more time. I need to make a few calls and find transportation. Sit tight, everyone, and I’ll be back soon with our ride.”

  Their “ride” turned out to be a bright silver seaplane. The children, who had expected a boat, stood outside the boathouse and gaped as the plane came puttering across the harbor with Milligan at the controls, the sun glinting off its wings so that they had to shield their eyes. (Constance had been right; the downpour never occurred and the clouds had blown over.) Milligan turned the plane at the last moment so that its tail end swung round, its propeller faced the harbor, and its left pontoon gently nudged the dock. He threw open the door and shouted for them to jump in.

  “A plane?” Kate said as she scrambled aboard, her eyes sparkling with delight. “You got us a plane?”

  “Did you expect horses?” Milligan said. “It’s an island, you know.”

  The others clambered aboard and strapped themselves in. Milligan checked the instrument panel, made sure the children were secure, then steered the seaplane out into the harbor, where a crew of fishermen waved from their boat as the plane roared past. Reynie saw them through the window, but he couldn’t wave back; his hands were squeezing the armrests of his seat and he couldn’t seem to loosen them. He’d never flown in an airplane before. Nor had Sticky, who was polishing his spectacles with slippery, sweaty fingers, or Constance, whose eyes were tightly shut. Only Kate managed to wave at the fishermen (and she did so with both hands, trying to make up for her rude friends). The plane accelerated until finally, with a stomach-dropping lurch, it lifted off the water and into the air. They were up and away.

  Constance didn’t open her eyes again, for no sooner were they airborne than the plane’s vibration put her to sleep. But the others stayed awake pressing Milligan for details: How in the world had he gotten a plane so quickly? What were the calls he’d needed to make? Was one of them to Rhonda? Who else? And why did he go off by himself to make those calls, anyway? Shouldn’t the children know more about it? And wouldn’t . . . ?

  Milligan chose not to reply to most of their questions (thereby answering the one about whether they should know more), but he did say that he’d called Rhonda and told her to pass along word that the children were fine. And yes, Milligan could confirm that the Washingtons and Miss Perumal and her mother had been in a state of near-panic since the children sneaked away. And yes, they would be in big trouble when they got home — huge trouble, in fact — but since this paled in comparison to the danger they might face on the island, he suggested they concentrate on surviving the next twenty-four hours.

  “Speaking of which,” Milligan said, checking his watch, “three more should bring us there.”

  Reynie knew something of geography and had seen Risker’s map, so he knew their destination lay in the North Sea, not far off the coast of Scotland. And Sticky, who knew a great deal more, said the island went unnamed on the maps he’d seen of the region (in fact it rarely appeared on maps at all) and had never been the focus of any territorial disputes. To the rest of the world, apparently, the island was of no consequence, yet to Milligan and the children it was now the most important place on earth.

  For a long time they flew in silence, everyone lost in thought. So much had happened in so short a time there’d been little chance to reflect upon any of it. Reynie, for one, was contemplating the events of the day in order, trying to determine if anything had gone overlooked. Eventually, after more than an hour had passed, he did think of something — an obvious question he had neglected to ask.

  “Milligan,” Reynie said, “do you have any idea who the person is Mr. Benedict mentioned? I mean the one who supposedly knows about the duskwort? I can’t think of anyone closer to Mr. Benedict than Rhonda or Number Two, but neither of them knows, and you said you don’t know — so who could it be? Do you think it’s a trick of some kind?”

  “I have no idea who it might be,” Milligan replied, “but I believe the person exists. In his letter Curtain said he was positive Mr. Benedict was telling the truth. Well, I know what that’s about. A group of Ten Men recently broke into a laboratory and stole a rare chemical compound — a new kind of truth serum. It was only enough for a few doses, but I’m sure Curtain used at least one of those on Mr. Benedict.”

  “If that’s true, then why didn’t Mr. Benedict give the information outright?” Sticky asked. “Why this mysterious business about someone ‘extremely close’ to him?”

  “The truth serum is tricky. A single drop will make you answer questions truthfully, but it’s only effective for a minute. If a person were clever enough — and we all know Mr. Benedict is as clever as they come — he might anticipate the questions and invent responses that are essentially true but too vague to be meaningful. I imagine this is why Mr. Curtain is holding Mr. Benedict and Number Two for ransom. His serum is in short supply, so he’s trying a different tactic.”

  “So what if —?” Kate began.

  Milligan interrupted her. “Listen, all of you, I can’t answer any more questions right now. If you must talk, talk among yourselves. There appears to be a bit of a mechanical issue with this plane. Nothing serious, but I do need to concentrate.”

  “Oh, good grief,” said Kate, heaving a sigh. She turned to the boys. “All right, I suppose we — hey, what’s the matter with you two?”

  “An . . . issue,” Sticky mumbled, his lips barely moving. “He said . . . there’s an . . . issue. . . .”

  Kate rolled her eyes. “Calm down. He’s probably just trying to make us stop asking questions. There’s obviously something he doesn’t want us to know. So fine, let’s think about Mr. Benedict’s clue. What do you suppose ‘follow the wind’ means?”

  “A mechanical issue,” said Reynie, putting his hands on his head.

  “With the plane . . .” said Sticky.

  “Snap out of it!” said Kate, and she badgered the boys mercilessly until they did — at least enough to have a conversation, though they kept watching Milligan’s face for signs of distress. (He seemed untroubled, but then Milligan was sphinx-like in a crisis. He might appear untroubled even if the wings had fallen off.)

  “ ‘Follow the wind,’ ” Kate repeated when she had their attention. “What do you think that means? Which wind did he have in mind? And follow it where?”

  “It might not be an actual wind,” Reynie pointed out. “It might be a symbol of some kind.”

  “At the very least,” Sticky said, “we know we’ll be heading east.”

  Kate and Reynie looked at him in surprise. (Milligan, in the pilot’s seat, perked up his ears.)

  “I didn’t tell you?” Sticky said when he saw their expressions. “No, I guess I didn’t. Sorry, we’ve been busy.”

  “Tell us what?” asked Kate.

  “Han de Reizeger’s letter said that on this island a strong wind blows out of the west from sunrise to sunset every day. The villagers told him it had always been that way. It’s a curious phenomenon. He speculated it was a combination of tidal forces and thermal activity under the island, tho
ugh personally I suspect —”

  “Did you just say ‘villagers’?” interrupted Reynie, remembering why it was often better for Sticky to quote things than to summarize them. With so many details to choose from, Sticky sometimes failed to recognize the significance of a particular one.

  This time Sticky hadn’t left out much. Yes, there used to be a village on the island, he said, though at the time Han de Reizeger wrote the letter it was rapidly losing its in habitants. The villagers were forgoing that isolated, wind-blasted place for the conveniences (electricity and plumbing, for instance) of the mainland. Han had predicted that within a few years the island would be home only to mountain goats and cliff swallows.

  “Sounds like there are mountains, then,” Reynie observed.

  “How do you know that?” Kate asked, then blushed and laughed. “Oh, right. Mountain goats. Cliff swallows. Well, it sounds perfectly charming.”

  Two hours later they saw the island for themselves — a very large, oblong land mass in the middle of a watery nowhere. From a distance it had a notably two-faced appearance, for the late evening sun bathed the western half in soft yellow light, while a small central mountain range blocked the sun from the eastern half, relegating that part to something like dusk. The low mountains — of which there were exactly three — ran from south to north in the middle of the island and were dotted sparsely with trees. Seen from above they gave the island the look of some monstrous, unfathomable beast, its head and tail submerged, its spiny back spotted with moss.

  To avoid notice, Milligan had approached at a great height, and as the plane flew over the island he and Kate used their spyglasses to survey the terrain, while the boys craned their necks and squinted to see what they could. A few miles across and perhaps twice as long, the island contained such a variety of landscapes it would have made for an excellent geography lesson. West of the mountains it was divided into three easily distinguished regions: the southwest, which was given to meadow; the northwest, which was all thicket and scrub brush; and between them a belt of woodland that ran almost all the way to the western shore. East of the mountains the island consisted mostly of an exposed plain of black rock, with the exception of a little forest that ranged along the shore of a large southeastern bay.