The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey 24

  Unfortunately, even with spyglasses, Kate and Milligan observed nothing more than these geographical features. No movement in the open, no boats anchored in the bay, no sign of an encampment anywhere (they searched in vain for telltale wisps of campfire smoke). And although the abandoned village was easy to spot — it lay just west of the mountains at the edge of the woodland — there was nothing in it to suggest recent human activity. Nevertheless, everyone in the plane had the powerful feeling that there was something down there on the island — that this was indeed the place where their journey, for better or worse, would come to an end.

  “That bay to the southeast must be where Risker took them ashore,” Kate said. “It looks just like the one he drew on his map.”

  “That’s exactly where we’re headed,” said Milligan, already turning the plane. “At any rate it’s the only good place to bring the plane down. Now hang on, everyone. I’ll be making a quick descent to lessen our chances of being spotted.”

  “When you say ‘quick descent,’ ” Reynie said, “what exactly —”

  The plane suddenly plummeted downward so fast and at such a steep angle that the children felt as if they’d gone over a waterfall. Reynie was convinced Milligan had lost control; his heart rose into his throat as he wondered whether the plane would smash to bits on the water’s surface or plunge straight to the bottom of the bay. Sticky, wondering the same thing, tried desperately to faint from terror. But it is in the nature of a quick descent to end quickly — one way or another — and only a few moments later the seaplane’s pontoons were skimming the water.

  Milligan had brought the plane down just at the mouth of the bay, passing between low stony hills on either side and heading toward the bay’s interior shore. The shoreline there was lined with trees — the edge of the little forest they’d seen from above — and as the plane drew nearer he scoured the trees with his spyglass. The approach took a couple of minutes, for the wind was against them and the water was choppy, and by the time the plane had glided into the shallows and run partly up onto the shore, Milligan was satisfied no ambush awaited them. Other than a few birds, beetles, and rodents, the forest was empty.

  “Everyone out,” he ordered. “Quick now.”

  Kate woke Constance, who stared at the rocky shoreline and trees in groggy amazement (to her it seemed as if the harbor in Thernbaakagen had been magically transformed), and the children scrambled from the plane into the chill breeze. Milligan was already out, rigging a cable around a wing strut with quick, sure movements, then hurrying to the nearest tree. He had produced a set of pulleys and winches, and using these he began dragging the seaplane up onto the shore. He had only to draw it a few yards before it lay in the shadow of the trees.

  The trees did not lack for shadow. With the sun behind the mountains, this part of the island lay in a sort of semi-dusk, and it was growing darker by the moment. In the forest the air was even gloomier and spookier.

  “Do I smell gasoline?” said Kate, her nostrils flaring. Now that she’d mentioned it, the other children smelled gasoline, too. When Milligan didn’t answer, they looked at one another with concern.

  “You mean there really is something wrong with the plane?” asked Sticky, who’d been hoping Kate was right about Milligan just trying to keep them quiet.

  “Doesn’t matter,” Milligan said, grunting with effort. He wiped sweat from his eyes and continued working at his winch. “We won’t be leaving by plane. The important thing now is to get it out of sight.” He went back into the plane and emerged carrying a large, camouflage-patterned tarpaulin.

  “Did you just say we won’t be leaving by plane?” asked Reynie.

  “You need to stop asking questions now,” Milligan said, unrolling the tarpaulin.

  “But how will we get off the island?” asked Constance.

  Milligan frowned. “I said you need to stop asking questions. Remember your promise.”

  “Technically you didn’t order us to stop,” Reynie pointed out, then quickly added, “And before you do, you should consider how anxious you’ve just made us by telling us what you did. It’s going to be hard for us to think about anything else, you know.”

  At first Milligan made no reply to this. He climbed up and dragged the tarpaulin over the plane, fastening it securely on all sides so the brisk wind wouldn’t carry it off. From a distance it would blend fairly well into the background of trees and rocks. Milligan came to stand before the children again. “Listen to me, all of you. You needn’t worry about getting off the island. I’ve already made other arrangements. As soon as we’ve determined where Curtain has our friends, I’m sending you away. Now please don’t ask any more questions about it. That’s a direct order.”

  “Can we ask why we can’t ask more questions about it?” asked Constance. “Because that part seems unclear to me.”

  Milligan grimaced, took off his hat, and rubbed his head. He obviously hated what he was about to say and had hoped to avoid saying it. “Because, Constance, in a worst-case scenario — by which I mean if you are captured — it would be best for you to know as little as possible. Curtain will surely get out of you anything you’re trying to keep secret. I prefer, therefore, to limit your secrets.”

  “Oh,” said Constance, her eyes very wide.

  “I don’t intend to let that happen,” Milligan said quickly. “I’m just being cautious.”

  “Milligan,” Reynie said, “can I ask if these arrangements —?”

  “Involve the government?” Milligan finished, correctly guessing what Reynie was worried about. “No, they do not. I’ve enlisted the aid of some personal friends. If Curtain has spies in the government — and I thought it best to assume he does — they don’t know anything about it. Nothing’s foolproof, but I promise I’ve done everything I can to avoid tipping him off. You can trust me, you know, Reynie.”

  “I do trust you,” said Reynie, which was perfectly true. Milligan was one of the few people he did trust.

  “All right,” Milligan said, clapping his hat down on his head again. “Then let’s see about following this wind. We can’t be expected to head east, as Sticky suggested. That would only take us out to sea.”

  Sticky looked disappointed. “Well . . . maybe we’re supposed to head upwind instead of downwind.”

  Everyone fell silent, pondering the clue. It was the first time since they’d arrived that no one was talking or (in Milligan’s case) working, and as they stood there they slowly became aware of the island’s sounds: wind flapping the edges of Milligan’s tarpaulin and shushing in the boughs of the trees, tree trunks groaning and creaking as they swayed, birds chittering and fluttering as they settled into their roosts for the night, the bay waters lapping against the shore . . .

  And from somewhere in the forest, a faint yet unmistakable tinkling sound, like that of a chime.

  Dusk Before Sundown

  They found the wind chime hanging from a low branch a short distance into the forest. It was made of diamond-shaped pieces of thin, painted metal whose edges, according to Milligan, had been cut with a saw. They could find nothing in the tree it was hung from, no markings on the ground beneath it, no signs of any other clues at all. Reynie thought there must be something hidden in the chime’s paintwork — which at first glance appeared to be random, disconnected lines and squiggles — but when Milligan took down the chime pieces and laid them on the ground to examine them, everyone suddenly heard another distant tinkling.

  “Another chime?” Sticky said.

  “So that’s it!” Reynie said. “Now that we’ve taken down this one, we can hear the next one — the one that’s farther away. Mr. Benedict left us a trail of sound!”

  Kate started forward. “Let’s get moving, then. Who knows how many more there are?”

  “Wait a minute,” said Constance, bending to take a closer look at the chime pieces. “Let’s figure this one out first.”

  “There’s no time,” Reynie said. “The wind dies at sunset, and I do
ubt we can find the other chimes without it. It’s already hard to see in these trees, and it’s only going to get darker.”

  Constance scowled at him. “Who says the wind dies at sunset?”

  “Han de Reizeger. You were asleep when Sticky told us.”

  “Well, that’s stupid! Whoever heard of a wind —?”

  Milligan scooped up the chime pieces in one hand and Constance in the other. “Stupid or not, we need to hurry.”

  Constance, confused and annoyed, was looking around at the murky forest. “But isn’t it already after sunset?”

  “It only seems that way because of the mountains,” said Milligan, setting off in the direction of the tinkling sound. “Over on the western side there’s still light — though not for long.”

  “Dusk before sundown,” Constance muttered. “That’s ridiculous.”

  They found the second wind chime fifty yards upwind, and a third one fifty yards beyond that. There they came to the edge of the forest and, apparently, the last of the chimes, for after this they heard no more. As Milligan climbed a tree to get a better view of the open terrain ahead, the children loosened the chime pieces from the wires that held them and laid them out on the ground: thirty diamond-shaped pieces of identical size, each painted with different markings.

  “I just realized what these are,” Kate said.

  “A jigsaw puzzle,” said Reynie, nodding. “Made with an actual jigsaw.”

  Kate flipped one of the pieces over. “It’s really complicated, though. There’s paint on both sides, the edges all look the same, and we have no idea what the picture’s supposed to be. This could take hours!”

  Constance stepped closer, staring intently at the puzzle pieces. “Turn that piece over, Kate,” she said, pointing. “No, not that one, that one, near the corner. No, the different one, for crying out loud! Here, let me.” She knelt and flipped several of the pieces over. “There. That has to be the right way, doesn’t it? It’s the only way you can see the jumbled-up map.”

  The other children stared at Constance, then at the array of metal pieces on the ground. Where Constance saw a jumbled-up map, the rest of them saw a confusing mess of lines and colors.

  Reynie squatted beside her. “We can’t quite make it out, Constance,” he said, trying to seem relaxed. “Could you re-arrange the pieces for us?”

  Constance’s eyes grew round. “You mean I’m the only —?”

  “Oh, any of us can figure it out eventually,” Reynie said with a casual wave at the puzzle, “but it’ll go faster if you do it. What do you say?”

  Constance saw through Reynie’s attempt to keep her from feeling the pressure, but his easy, confident manner had a steadying effect nonetheless. She swallowed hard. “I . . . yes, okay. I’ll sort it out.” Fumblingly she took up a piece and immediately dropped it. The same clumsy fingers that couldn’t tie a proper bow in her shoelaces were now being put to a far more important test, and her nervousness had set them trembling.

  “Just take it easy,” Reynie said. “Take your time. However long it takes you will still be faster than we could manage.”

  Constance took a breath and started again, her awkward fingers struggling to produce the picture she saw so clearly in her mind’s eye.

  During this time, Milligan had descended the tree and walked out from the forest’s edge to inspect something on the ground. Kate went over to join him. The trees gave way to a plain of black rock — beyond which, almost a mile away, loomed the mountains. “Most of this ground’s too hard to take a track,” Milligan said as Kate knelt beside him. “Except for here.” He indicated a wide patch of gravel in which some kind of heavy tread had left an imprint.

  “What is that, a bulldozer track?” Kate asked, wondering how a bulldozer — or any heavy machinery, for that matter — could have come here.

  “An amphibious vehicle,” Milligan said. “I figured this was why we didn’t see any boats. Mr. Curtain has a Salamander.”

  “A what?”

  “Picture an armored boat with tank treads. Fast on land, even faster on water. Big enough to carry Curtain and a whole crew of Ten Men, with plenty of room to spare for prisoners.”

  “That figures,” said Kate, who was hardly surprised to learn that Mr. Curtain had an intimidating machine to carry him and his thugs around. He had terrorized the children at the Institute with his screeching, souped-up wheelchair, and the Salamander sounded rather like an oversized version of that wicked contraption.

  “It came from that direction,” Milligan said, pointing northeast. “I imagine they landed in the bay but had to skirt the forest, which is too thick for the Salamander to pass through. Probably they drove the island perimeter, dropping off scouts along the way. Ten Men are good trackers. Mr. Benedict and Number Two would have had no chance of hiding and nowhere to run.” Milligan ground his heel into the Salamander track, angry at the thought of his friends being hunted.

  “Where do you think they are?” asked Kate, who was feeling the same way. She imagined herself finding Mr. Curtain and pummeling him about the ears, though in reality she knew she was no match for him alone.

  “I suspect they’re holed up in the mountains,” Milligan said. “We didn’t see the Salamander from the plane, so it’s probably hidden inside a gully or a cave.”

  Sticky came over to tell them Constance was finishing the puzzle. It had only taken her a few minutes. They went back just as she was placing the last piece. Before them lay a map of the island, which must have been modeled after the one Mr. Benedict had taken from Han de Reizeger’s letter. Mr. Benedict had chosen to depict only certain parts of the island, and had done so simply but artfully, with a swath of upright arrows indicating the little forest, three swooping curves for the mountains, and a dense group of squares representing the village on the other side. A dotted line ran straight through the bottom of the middle mountain, ending at the village.

  “What’s the dotted line, do you think?” asked Constance.

  “Most likely a tunnel, given its placement,” said Milligan. He knelt and tapped his finger on the village. “This must be where you were to meet them, which makes it my next stop.”

  “Your next stop?” Reynie said. “Not ours?”

  Milligan stood. “You’ll stay here under cover of the forest. I’ve searched in all directions and seen no sign of anyone coming — and believe me, if we’d been spotted someone would definitely be coming — so here is where you’ll be safest. Just don’t use your flashlight, Kate, and keep quiet, all of you. Keep yourselves out of sight and your eyes and ears open. If I don’t return by —”

  “Milligan!” Constance interrupted in a scolding tone. “You haven’t even seen the other side yet.”

  “The other side?” Milligan hadn’t heard them discussing this part. “There’s more?”

  “Give me a minute,” said Kate, reaching into her bucket. She took out her pencil-sized paintbrush and her bottle of extra-strength glue and quickly brushed the glue over the seams between puzzle pieces. “It takes about thirty-five seconds to set properly,” she said. No one doubted the number — everyone knew Kate would have counted to be sure — and indeed, when Kate lifted the puzzle thirty-five seconds later, its pieces held firmly together. “This way we can flip it back and forth if we need to,” she said, “without it falling all apart.”

  Kate laid the map face-down onto the ground, revealing on its back a series of dashes and dots that were perfectly familiar to everyone.

  “Wouldn’t you know it?” Reynie said, smiling.

  Mr. Benedict had had them learn Morse code for their mission to the Institute, and they all could still read it. But because Sticky was the fastest translator, the others had always relied on him to handle their coded messages, and despite the time that had passed they resorted to their old habit and turned to him now. Sticky grinned — a little shyly and a little proudly — and translated the message:

  Glad you are here. In the village find supplies and a clue, for we may be
out when you arrive. The clue will lead you to us. Until soon. B.

  “Another clue!” Kate cried triumphantly. “So you have to take us, Milligan. You know you do!”

  To their surprise, Milligan looked relieved. “I’d rather keep you close as long as possible, anyway. Still, we can’t just assume the village is safe.” He considered a moment. “All right, here’s what we’ll do. We’ll cross the plain to the foot of the mountains. You’ll wait there until I scout out the tunnel and the village. If all’s clear, I’ll take you to the village and we can see about that clue. Once we’ve solved it, though, I’m bringing you back here. I want no arguments about that.”

  The children agreed and prepared to set out right away, but Milligan said they would wait for it to get darker. The darker it was when they crossed that exposed plain, the better.

  “We should also lose the map,” Milligan said. “Carrying it will slow us down, and I want to get across as fast as possible.”

  “Constance and I will hide it,” said Reynie, noticing the sad look in the tiny girl’s eyes. He knew what she was thinking. The wind-chime map was another example of the trouble Mr. Benedict had taken on their behalf — another testament to his fondness for them — and it might well be his last, for there was no guarantee he’d left the next clue before his capture. Reynie suspected Constance might like another minute with the map, a suspicion confirmed when she didn’t grumble at him for volunteering her.

  “Do you suppose we should bury it?” Constance asked as they moved a little deeper into the trees.

  Reynie shook his head. Burying the map would seem too reminiscent of a funeral, he thought, and Constance might fall apart. “Let’s just cover it with spruce needles and twigs.”