The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey 25

  Constance nodded enthusiastically. She seemed both grateful and relieved by the suggestion. She also seemed more like a three-year-old than Reynie had ever seen her — so vulnerable and hopeful and scared — and now it was his turn to be touched.

  Before they had taken twenty paces, Kate caught up with them. “Milligan wants you to stay in sight,” she said. “I told him I doubted you intended to wander off and have a tea party, but he didn’t want to take any chances.”

  “Tell him we’re going to the bay for a swim,” Constance said, rolling her eyes.

  Kate snorted. “Funny! I will tell him that. Oh, I can already see his jaw twitching.” She turned and ran back to the forest edge.

  “Kate sure is in a good mood,” Reynie reflected.

  “I know,” said Constance, “and it’s very annoying.”

  Indeed, Kate was feeling as buoyant and cheerful as she had in a long time. She found it thrilling to see her father do his job — even when it consisted only of watching the sky, as Milligan was doing now — and to be part of a rescue mission which, in her view, could do nothing but succeed.

  “You know,” she said to Sticky as they waited, “hearing you translate that Morse code reminded me of our time at the Institute. I never could get over how fast you did that.” She chuckled. “I miss those days, don’t you? I mean, except for the terrible parts.”

  Sticky grinned and nodded. He was inclined to feel nostalgic for any time other than this one (he much preferred having been frightened then to being frightened now), and Kate’s compliment had lifted his spirits. “I especially miss the way you’d drop down from the ceiling and scare the wits out of us.”

  Kate laughed and gave him an affectionate rub on his bald head — only to jerk her hand back as if she’d pricked it on a thorn. “Youch! You’ve got some sharp stubble up there, pal!”

  Sticky shrugged, still grinning. “Sorry. Hair grows, you know.”

  “That’s what Milligan always says,” Kate muttered. “And he wonders why I never want to kiss his cheek.”

  When Reynie and Constance had returned from their task, Milligan told everyone to get ready. It still wasn’t dark enough to satisfy him, but it wasn’t going to get any darker — a full moon was rising in the east and there were no clouds. And so, having again impressed upon them the need for both silence and speed, Milligan led the children out onto the plain. To limit their time in the open, they set off at a very brisk pace. For Milligan this amounted to a trot, but for the boys it was a sprint, and Milligan carried first one boy and then the other, trading off whenever the one running got too winded. Kate ran the whole distance with Constance on her back. It was a strenuous business indeed, and even if Milligan hadn’t forbidden conversation, Kate could never have managed a word.

  For a time the mountains seemed to draw no closer, and when at last they did it seemed by inches rather than yards, but eventually, finally, the runners reached the place where the land began to rise skyward. The tunnel entrance lay at the bottom of the middlemost mountain, and they had no difficulty finding it. In the moonlight the round black opening was visible from some distance — it looked like a mouse hole at the base of a gigantic cupboard — and Milligan led them straight for it. When at last they came close (but not too close), he ordered them to stay put while he scouted ahead. The children dropped to the rocky ground — everyone but Constance was gasping for breath — and Milligan vanished into the blackness of the tunnel, his footsteps making scarcely a sound.

  “All clear,” he said when he returned. “The tunnel’s narrow, so we’ll walk single-file. Here, Constance, I’ll carry you, and you can carry my flashlight.”

  “But I don’t want to carry —”

  “Never mind. I’ll carry it.”

  Milligan marched ahead with Constance on his back and the others close behind. The rock walls and floor of the tunnel were damp and uneven, and it was indeed narrow. It appeared to have been carved by the passage of an ancient underground stream, though in places it had obviously been widened with chisels and hammers. Reynie imagined the villagers had used it as the quickest passage to the eastern part of the island. These mountains weren’t very big — in fact, for mountains they were rather modest — but it would still take hours to hike over them or go around. The tunnel, on the other hand, passed straight through on more or less level ground, and in twenty minutes Reynie was following Milligan out into open air.

  They had emerged near the foot of the mountain, yet high enough on its slope to be afforded a good view of the western half of the island — or what would have been a good view had the moon risen over the mountains yet. Even in the gloom, however, they could make out the woodland just down the slope and to the right, and along its near edge the abandoned village — two rows of dilapidated buildings ranging along either side of a broad path. The village reminded Reynie of the frontier towns he’d seen in old Westerns, or at least the main street of such towns, for it had no side roads or outlying structures but was one long, straight shot that ended as abruptly as it began. Milligan scanned the buildings and the surrounding area with his spyglass. He listened carefully. Then he led the children down the slope into the village.

  Milligan didn’t need to warn them to stay together. The old, rotting structures of the village would probably have seemed lonesome and sad in the daytime, but at night they seemed positively spectral. A great many leaned precariously to the east, buffeted as they had been by decades of westerly wind, and three or four had seen their roofs carried off by storms. The roofs all lay to the east of their former homes — vine-covered piles of disintegrating beams and rotten wood shingles.

  Milligan and the children moved down the path, looking left and right but also at their feet, for the path — though it might once have passed for a road — was rutted and overgrown now and offered poor footing. In silence they passed building after building, all with dark windows and dark doorways.

  About halfway down the path they came upon the village well. As with some of the buildings, the well’s roof had blown free in a storm — it lay off in a tangle of weeds, far from the barren posts that used to support it — and the rusty winch that was once suspended over the well’s mouth had fallen aside, still tethered to a forlorn wooden bucket with its bottom long since rotted out.

  “What a shame,” Kate murmured, for it clearly used to be an excellent bucket.

  At a word from Milligan, the group huddled together near the well to discuss what to do. There were no signs, no indications anywhere that a human had passed this way in years. If Mr. Benedict had left supplies as his message had promised, he hadn’t left any obvious means of locating them.

  “Only half these buildings show any sign of being structurally sound,” Milligan observed. “The rest are on the verge of collapse. Mr. Benedict had to know Rhonda and I would never let you venture inside the dangerous ones, so we can rule those out.”

  “That still leaves a lot of buildings,” Reynie said. “This could take a while.”

  “Maybe the stuff isn’t in a building at all,” said Kate, leaning over the stone wall of the well. She pointed her flashlight into the darkness. Twenty feet down she saw a somewhat distorted version of herself, shining a flashlight back up. “Nope, only water. At least we won’t go thirsty if we can’t find the supplies. I don’t know about you all, but that run across the plain left me a bit dry.”

  “Dehydrated,” Sticky said, his voice something of a croak.

  Reynie nodded. “Parched.”

  Milligan produced a flask from beneath his jacket and tossed it to Kate. “Three sips each,” he said. As the children shared the water, they continued discussing the best way to proceed, but no one could think of a more efficient strategy than simply to search every sturdy building until they got lucky. “I was afraid of that,” said Milligan, capping the flask. “Let’s go back and start at the east end. We’ll work our way around.”

  The first building Milligan deemed safe to enter was a house, and they move
d warily through its dark rooms, searching for clues. Judging from the number of old-fashioned, woven-rope beds in the loft, the place had once been home to a large family. Now it was home to bats and spiders, and its wooden floors were covered with the dust of decades. With a pang the children saw that Mr. Benedict and Number Two had been here — their footprints were in the dust all throughout the house — but they appeared only to have been looking around, for the house was clearly empty.

  They searched two more empty houses before entering an unusual stone and mortar building near the center of the village. The building, which appeared to be a kind of storage facility or barn (a much larger barn than the modest one on Milligan’s farm), consisted of a single large, windowless room with high rafters. What made it unusual was the surprising number of thick wooden beams that rose up from the floor to the rafters, creating the very strange impression of a forest enclosed by walls. The beams, set at equal distances throughout the room, were studded with large iron eyehooks that must once have been used for hanging things. On the dusty floor, the footprints of Mr. Benedict and Number Two roamed among the beams from wall to wall.

  Kate shone her flashlight around. “I don’t get it. Those eyehooks are all set at the same height — two feet and four feet — but why hang anything so low? You’d have to stoop to take things off a hook.”

  “Maybe the villagers were really short,” Sticky said.

  Kate snorted. “A village of elf people?”

  “The doors and windows are regular size,” Reynie said. He knelt to inspect a couple of the eyehooks, both of which bore knotted remnants of rope. “I don’t think elves lived here.”

  “I never said anything about elves,” Sticky said irritably.

  “Whatever,” said Kate, “it’s still a weird place.”

  “It’s remarkably sturdy,” Milligan said, shining his flashlight up into the rafters, then onto the heavy wooden door with its iron bolts and hinges. “Sturdiest building in the village by far. The roof would hold up even if the walls fell.”

  Reynie stood. “I think this was a storm shelter. That’s why there are no windows. That’s why it’s so solid. There are enough beams and eyehooks to string up dozens of hammocks. If a bad storm blew in — and obviously there’ve been some bad storms around here — everyone in the village could come sleep it out.”

  “A community shelter. That makes sense,” said Sticky, trying to sound agreeable, though in truth he was frustrated he hadn’t figured this out himself.

  Curious though it was, the shelter was empty, and the group moved on. The next building they searched was another house, which also lacked any sign of their friends except footprints in the dust. The house after that lacked even those, and Sticky took one look at the floor and said, “Let’s not waste time here. They didn’t come into this one.” He turned to go out.

  Reynie caught his arm. “Actually, Sticky, I’m pretty sure this is the place.” He pointed to the clean wooden floor. “They did come in here. And they swept.”

  Kate discovered the supplies in an upstairs closet, along with the makeshift broom that Mr. Benedict and Number Two had fashioned from a stick and a bundle of twigs. The house evidently had belonged to the most prosperous villager, or else to the most ardent and skillful carpenter, for it had two well-built floors, each with several rooms whose doors and shutters still hung squarely in their frames. Mr. Benedict and Number Two must have thought it the perfect place to serve as the group’s temporary home and headquarters.

  The upstairs closet lay at the end of a short hallway, and Kate stood at its partly opened door, shining her flashlight over its shelves. She had only just found the supplies and called out to the others, who’d been searching a nearby bedroom and now came running.

  A doorstop prevented the closet door from opening fully, so it was with considerable bumping and squeezing that Reynie and Constance crowded in beside Kate to take a look. Milligan simply stood behind them and looked over their heads, while Sticky hung back, too embarrassed to jockey for position. (He’d made himself look quite foolish with that footprint business, he thought, and though no one had teased him — not even Constance — he felt the embarrassment keenly.)

  “They must have made several trips hauling all this stuff here,” Kate said as she looked at all the supplies. The closet was a shallow one, little more than a wall of shelves, but those shelves were admirably stocked with water, canned food, nuts, dried fruit, powdered milk, and — most important — graham crackers, chocolate bars, and marshmallows for roasting over a fire. (The sight made the children’s mouths water; they hadn’t eaten anything in hours.) In addition to these provisions were two battery-powered lanterns and enough sleeping bags and extra blankets for everyone.

  It seemed possible that the next clue would be hidden among the supplies, so after they had all drunk their fill of water and eaten a few hurried mouthfuls of food, they switched on the lanterns and started going through what remained in the closet. It was an irritating task, for the closet door didn’t open wide enough even to let Kate hand things out to them without bumping her elbows. When she’d done this for the third time, she suggested they take the door off its hinges to make things easier.

  “Forget the hinges,” said Reynie.

  “He’s got it!” cried Constance, who’d been watching his face.

  “Got what?” said Milligan. He hadn’t seen Reynie stir an inch except to glance around at the other doorways.

  Reynie paused, blinking — he was still unused to Constance’s keen perception — then shook his head and knelt by the doorstop. “This is the most awkwardly placed doorstop in history, don’t you think? Not to mention the only one in the house. It reminds me of that table in the hotel room — and I think it was meant to. Here, Kate, help me pry it up.”

  Kate opened her Swiss Army knife and pried the doorstop loose. It turned out to be a hollow piece of wood, and tucked inside it was a note that read:

  If you seek to reach us soon,

  Peek beneath the town’s twin moon.

  “Another riddle,” Sticky said with a grimace. “I was hoping for a map.”

  “Maybe the next one’s a map,” Kate said. She read the clue again. “Or maybe there’s a secret passageway beneath this twin moon thing.”

  “Or a trail that starts at that spot,” Reynie suggested.

  “Whatever,” said Constance, “let’s just hurry up and find it. What is this twin moon?”

  They all looked to Sticky, who shrugged regretfully. “I’ve never heard of a such a thing.”

  “Mr. Benedict’s a twin,” Reynie said. “Maybe he’s referring to himself as ‘the town’s twin.’ But then what would the moon be?”

  No one knew.

  “It may be more straightforward than that,” Milligan said. “Maybe one of the buildings used to be a tavern or an inn. The Twin Moon sounds like a name for that kind of place. We should look around for an old sign, or an engraving on a door, or some other kind of symbol.” He was already heading downstairs, but halfway down he stopped and cocked his head.

  The children had moved to follow him, but Milligan shot them a warning glance and laid a finger to his lips. Had his expression not frozen them in their tracks, the scuffling sound they heard now would have. Footsteps. The sound grew louder, then stopped. There was someone at the front door. Milligan took out his tranquilizer gun.

  Suddenly Constance gasped. “Milligan, don’t! It’s —”

  Even as she cried out the door flew open, a figure burst into the front room, and only Constance’s warning and Milligan’s quick reflexes spared the intruder a dart in the shoulder.

  “— Number Two!” Constance finished.

  Kate shone her flashlight down the stairs, and sure enough, there was Number Two, looking up at them from where she’d fallen onto her hands and knees. She squinted into the flashlight beam with wild, disoriented eyes.

  “Constance?” she said, for it was Constance who had called out her name. “Have I — have I co
me home then? And here I . . .” Number Two chuckled weakly. “Here I thought . . . Oh, Constance, thank goodness! I was dreaming I was still on that terrible island!”

  Sentries on the Silo

  Number Two was delirious from hunger and exhaustion. Mr. Curtain hadn’t realized how much food she required, and she had deliberately not told him she needed more, for in order to convince him she would have had to explain why. And there was no way Number Two would reveal that she needed an enormous amount of fuel to compensate for how little she slept, because it was her near-constant wakefulness that allowed her to work away at the fastening pin in her handcuffs, hour after hour and night after night, while everyone else slept.

  “Mr. Benedict kept trying to give me some of his food,” Number Two said as Reynie spooned cold soup into her mouth. She coughed, and most of it dribbled down her chin. “I wouldn’t take it. He had little enough. I’m afraid he was angry with me for refusing him. I hope he isn’t still angry. Is he?” She looked at Reynie with worried eyes.

  “Of course not,” Reynie soothed. “He never was.”

  Milligan had carried Number Two to a first-floor bedroom, easing her onto a rope bed that Kate had covered with a blanket. Her skin had lost its pale yellow hue (it looked positively waxen in the lantern light); her clothes were wrinkled and soiled; and her short-cropped red hair looked frazzled, like an old shag carpet. Even after she had eaten a bit, the poor woman was quite out of her head. The only thing Milligan felt certain about was that she had escaped while her captors were sleeping. When asked where she’d been held prisoner, Number Two had waved her hand as if shooing a fly and said, “Oh, you know, in that cave on the island.” They asked her several times, and in several different ways, but she would be no more specific than that, and after a few minutes she slipped into a fitful doze.

  “Keep an eye on her,” Milligan said solemnly. “I’ll be right back.” He patted Number Two on the knee and went out.