The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey 26

  Constance watched him go. “He sure seems grim. But isn’t it good news that she’s escaped? And didn’t he say she was going to be all right? And now we know that Mr. Benedict really is okay, so . . .” She turned to the others, who averted their eyes. “Hey, you all look grim, too. What’s going on?”

  After a pause, Reynie said, “Whoever was guarding Number Two will wake up and find her gone. If it hasn’t already happened, it certainly will by morning.”

  “Which means they’ll come looking for her,” Kate said.

  “And find us,” said Sticky, who had begun to polish his spectacles.

  “I see,” Constance said, rather wishing she didn’t. She made a dry, gulping sound. “Do you . . . do you think they’ll know to look here first?”

  “Maybe not,” said Reynie. “The only footprints we’ve seen belong to Mr. Benedict and Number Two, so the Ten Men and Mr. Curtain must have caught up with them somewhere else. My guess is Number Two came back to the village because she knew there was food here — but Mr. Curtain probably doesn’t know that. If he knew they’d been here, I think we’d see signs of a search.”

  Constance felt somewhat reassured. “So the Ten Men won’t necessarily know where to look.”

  “They’re excellent trackers, though,” Kate said helpfully.

  Constance gave a small moan and put her face into her hands.

  Reynie felt like doing the same thing. The irony of their situation was pretty bitter, after all. Number Two’s escape might well have ruined her chances of being rescued — and it had put the rest of them in jeopardy, too. Whatever Milligan’s plan had been, he would have to alter it now to protect the children. Or try to protect them, at any rate. Reynie shivered and glanced at Sticky, who was just tucking away his polish-ing cloth.

  “Sometimes I wish I wore spectacles,” he said.

  “You can always use mine if you like,” said Sticky, and they exchanged feeble smiles.

  Milligan soon returned with a report that he’d made a quick pass through the village to look for the “twin moon” but had met with no luck. “So here is what we’re going to do,” he said, and his tone and expression made it clear there would be no arguments this time. “I am going to search for that cave. You are going to stay here. One of you must attend Number Two at all times. If she gets her wits about her again, find out where the cave is — or where the twin moon is, for that matter. Just learn whatever you can. If I don’t locate the cave myself in a few hours, I’ll be back to check on you.”

  “What if you do find it?” Kate asked.

  “Then I probably won’t return before morning. If that happens, I want you to head back to the forest by the bay. Make sure you’re hidden in the trees before it gets light out. If Number Two is strong enough, bring her along; otherwise leave her here and I’ll see to her. I know you don’t like that idea,” Milligan said, seeing their disturbed expressions, “but it’s what you must do. Number Two prizes your safety every bit as much as I do. And at any rate, it’s an order.”

  Still more orders followed: they could use the lanterns, but they were to keep the shutters and doors closed so the light wouldn’t be visible from outside. They must also keep a lookout — he would show them the best place — and send up a signal flare if there was any sign of danger. And if that should happen, they must all run to the storm shelter — taking time for nothing else — and bar the door until Milligan returned for them.

  “The shelter can’t keep Ten Men out for long, but it should hold them off until I get back,” Milligan said. “Don’t worry, if you’re keeping a good lookout, I’ll see your signal flare in plenty of time.”

  “Won’t the flare draw their attention, too?” Sticky asked.

  “If you see Ten Men,” Milligan said, “it will mean they’re coming to check the village regardless. This way I’ll know you’re in trouble.”

  The children had been frightened for some time now, but with every word Milligan spoke — even the ones he meant to be comforting — their apprehension increased. When he unexpectedly turned off the lantern, their hearts quickened, and they reached for one another in the darkness. The window shutters opened, revealing Milligan’s silhouette in the moonlit frame.

  “I want to show you the lookout spot,” Milligan said, beckoning them over to the window. He pointed down the path to the west. The last building in the village was also the tallest, a sort of wooden tower with a ladder attached to its outside wall. “Two of you will take a post on top of that old grain silo. The structure is sound and the roof’s in good shape. If you’re careful, you’ll be perfectly safe.”

  Kate immediately volunteered to go. Reynie said he would join her.

  “We’ll take turns,” Constance said. “Sticky and I can take a shift in a couple of hours.”

  Sticky stared at her, then said slowly and mechanically, like a robot, “Um, yes, that is a great idea, Constance.” It was a difficult thing for him to say. The rooftop of that silo seemed awfully far from the ground, and awfully exposed.

  “It is a good idea, actually. You’ll want fresh eyes.” Milligan closed the shutters and turned on the lantern, then knelt down and gathered the children close to him. “Listen, all of you, this is going to work out fine. Just be brave and steady, and we’ll get through it. One way or another I’m going to find Mr. Benedict. By tomorrow morning you’ll be far away from danger, and by tomorrow night we’ll all be together — including Mr. Benedict and Number Two — safe and sound. All right?”

  The children nodded, and they all wished one another luck. Then Kate and Reynie followed Milligan out of the house and down the village path. Behind them the full moon was just peeking over the mountain; when they had climbed the tall ladder to the silo roof, they could see almost half of it.

  “I’ll check these woods to make sure they’re clear,” Milligan said, indicating the swath of trees that ran alongside the village and away to the west. “You won’t need to watch them. Keep your eyes on that empty stretch of ground just to the north, between the woods and the thickets. Anyone coming from that direction will have to cross in plain view.” He turned and pointed. “Same thing to the south. The meadow is wide open, see? If anyone comes, you’ll be able to see them from far off. That leaves only this mountain,” Milligan said, indicating the middle mountain looming over them, “but there’s no good cover on its lower slopes. No one will surprise you coming down that way.”

  “What about the tunnel?” Kate asked. “If they come through there they’ll be on us before we know it.”

  “They won’t,” Milligan assured her. “Number Two is in no condition to have traveled very far or very fast. She has to have come from this side of the mountains — otherwise we’d have spotted her on our way here. So this side is where they’ll begin their search.”

  What Milligan said made sense. Still, Reynie stared nervously at the dark hole in the rock. He couldn’t help but imagine something emerging from that blackness, and he shuddered at the vision. Now was not the best time to have a good imagination.

  Milligan put a hand on Reynie’s shoulder. “I would booby-trap it just to be sure,” he said, “but it’s your escape route. The tunnel’s the fastest way to the other side. All right? Now let me show you how to send a signal.” Milligan took a flare gun from inside his jacket. It was about the size of a water pistol and just as simple to operate. “Flip the safety switch here, aim at the sky, pull the trigger. Got it? I’ll see the flare and come at once.”

  Milligan kissed Kate on the forehead and tousled Reynie’s hair. Then he grabbed the rails of the ladder and slid all the way to the ground — just as Kate had done from the barn rooftop a few days ago. Was it really only a few days ago? Reynie thought. It seemed like something from a previous life.

  Milligan disappeared into the trees, and Reynie and Kate turned solemnly to their duties. They stood back to back in the middle of the silo roof. Reynie looked south over the meadow; Kate looked north to the open stretch of ground beyond the woods
. The moon had fully risen over the mountaintop now, bathing everything in ghostly light.

  “There he goes,” Kate whispered after a while. Reynie turned to see a figure darting across the open ground at the far edge of the woods. Suddenly the figure stopped and waved in their direction with a wide, slow sweep of his arm. Kate returned the gesture. From this distance Milligan appeared as tiny as an insect, and as he turned and ran farther north he grew smaller still. Soon he had vanished into the thickets.

  They glanced at each other but said nothing. Both felt the weight of their duty upon them. Reynie watched south. Kate watched north. The island seemed preternaturally still. The trees did not stir, nor was there the faintest breeze. It was as if the wind exhausted itself by day and so must rest at night. Thirty minutes passed, then an hour. In tense silence the two young sentries stared out upon the moonlit landscape, hoping against hope that what they were looking for would not appear.

  Two hours later Constance came down the village path toward the silo. Kate had been worrying about this, and in a whisper she told Reynie she thought Constance was too little and clumsy to climb up to the roof, to say nothing of how easily distracted she was. What if she stopped paying attention? But Reynie had given this some thought as well, and his opinion was that if Constance committed herself, they could rely on her. Besides, what was there to distract her on top of the silo?

  “If you say so,” said Kate, who generally deferred to Reynie’s opinions, “but I’ll feel better if I help her up and give her a safety line. Can you cover for me?”

  Reynie spent the next couple of minutes looking anxiously south, then north, then south again. He was afraid to look away from either direction for more than a second at a time, and as a result he appeared to be doing vigorous neck exercises when Constance appeared at the top of the ladder.

  “What in the world are you doing?” Constance said. “You look ridiculous!”

  As Reynie explained, Kate took out her rope and tied it around the little girl’s waist, tethering it to the top of the ladder so that she couldn’t possibly fall more than a few feet. They must have discussed this precaution down on the ground, for Constance raised no arguments, though she did complain that the rope was pinching her. Reynie continued looking back and forth, back and forth. He was much relieved when Constance took over Kate’s post and let him concentrate on the meadow. Kate went to fetch Sticky, who had stayed behind with Number Two.

  “No change?” Reynie asked Constance. They were standing back to back.

  “She opened her eyes once and begged me to do my own laundry,” Constance said. “I told her I prefer that she do it, which is what I always say. I didn’t want to make her more confused than she already is. She sighed and went right back to sleep.”

  Before long Sticky came up the ladder. Without taking his eyes from the meadow, Reynie handed him the flare gun (he’d decided the flare gun was a responsibility he would not trust Constance with) and passed along Milligan’s instructions. Sticky nodded and took up Reynie’s post, crossing his arms to keep himself from reaching for his spectacles. Now was not the time to be polishing them, no matter how strong the urge.

  Reynie wished them luck and went down the ladder. He took his time heading back along the path, glancing around to see if anything clue-related caught his attention. Nothing did, but that might have been because Reynie had a hard time concentrating. Spending two hours at rigid attention was exhausting, especially at the end of a long and tiring day — and Reynie was pretty sure this had been the longest, most tiring day of his life. Between dawn and dusk they had visited the museum library, run from the police, faced a Ten Man, outsmarted Risker, and flown to this island, where the difficulties and danger had only increased. Reynie knew full well that at this very moment, Ten Men might be prowling the island, searching for Number Two, but he was suddenly so weary and bleary that he didn’t even have it in him to be anxious. He supposed that was one benefit of exhaustion.

  Kate took one look at him and sent him upstairs with one of the lanterns. “Go get a blanket and lie down. I’ll wake you if anything happens. Honestly, Reynie, you’re dead on your feet!”

  Reynie couldn’t argue. He could hardly even mount the stairs. In a sort of dream state he took a blanket from the closet and staggered into a bedroom. Some part of his brain was just alert enough to consider sparing the lantern batteries, and he turned off the lantern and opened the shutters to let in the moonlight. Then he threw his blanket onto the old-fashioned rope bed and fell in after it. The ropes and fastenings were loose, so the bed sagged pitifully — he would not “sleep tight,” as the old saying went — but Reynie couldn’t have cared less. Tight or loose, he could sleep through a train wreck. He could sleep through a tornado.

  He could even sleep through the sound of Constance’s screams, which is exactly what he did.

  Pleasant Dreams and Other False Comforts

  At the moment Reynie was crashing into sleep, Sticky was on the silo roof trying not to do the same thing. The impossibly long day had caught up with him, too. It hadn’t occurred to Sticky that he would be in danger of falling asleep — not when he was on lookout duty, not when he was so afraid of what might happen. And yet, staring at the same spot minute after minute in the quiet night, he found his eyelids growing heavier and heavier, and Sticky became aware of how truly sleepy he was. Was this what Mr. Benedict felt like all the time? He began to pinch himself every so often. Then, after a while, Sticky would realize he had forgotten to pinch himself and his eyelids were drooping dangerously, and with a jolt of fear he would stiffen and blink and stare hard over the meadow. With his pulse pounding in his ears — an unnerving sound that reminded him of footsteps — Sticky would try to determine how long he’d been unfocused. A second or two? A few minutes? Longer? He would glance at the full moon, but unlike Kate he was no judge of distances or proportion. The moon seemed to be more or less overhead, just as it had been ever since Sticky came outside.

  Please don’t let me have missed anything, Sticky would think, taking deep breaths to calm himself. And soon, as he began to see that everything was all right, his fear would fade, his breathing would steady — and Sticky would fall right back into the same predicament. Pinching, drowsily forgetting to pinch, then starting awake with wide eyes and a flash of panic.

  Eventually Sticky realized he was posing a danger not just to himself but to his friends as well, and though his pride withered at the thought of giving up, he began to consider how to manage it without looking like a coward. He was afraid the others would think he was fibbing about his sleepiness — Constance, after all, seemed to be having no trouble staying awake — but even if he came up with a decent excuse, to fetch Reynie or Kate he would have to abandon his post. This seemed entirely too dangerous, for he didn’t feel he could trust Constance to cover both directions. He had already tried talking to Constance to keep himself awake, but she had shushed him at once. “I can’t concentrate if you talk,” she hissed, and he could tell she meant it. Conversation might help him, but it would distract her, which would leave them vulnerable to the north.

  Sticky racked his brain. Pinching himself wasn’t working. Hopping in place was too noisy and might distract Constance. What could he do? Sticky’s weary mind, searching for an answer in the best way it knew how, presently settled upon an image from a book. A man had tied burning twigs to his fingers; when the twigs burned down to his skin the pain would wake him. That wasn’t a bad idea, Sticky thought, his eyelids sagging. What book had that been? It was unusual for him not to remember. He certainly remembered where he’d been when he read it, though — safe at home with his parents. It was winter; he was wearing extra socks. Sticky closed his eyes and watched himself turning page after page, engrossed in the story. It was pleasant reading there by the window. Then his father came into the room and asked what he was reading.

  “I can’t remember,” Sticky said aloud. His eyes flew open. He’d been dreaming.

  “Remember what??
?? Constance asked. “Never mind. Don’t tell me. Just keep quiet, for crying out loud. You startled the snot out of me.”

  Sticky’s breath was coming hard and heavy. He stared out into the night. The meadow seemed oddly bleary, more like an abstract painting of a meadow than an actual one. His spectacles had slipped too low on his nose. Sticky quickly settled them higher and stared out again. Was anything there? No, thank goodness. The meadow was empty. The nearby mountain slope was empty. There was nothing to see, and Sticky felt the overwhelming relief of someone who has made a terrible blunder and gotten away with it.

  That can’t happen again, he scolded himself. You’re just lucky they didn’t come. In fact, you’re lucky you didn’t fall off the roof. It would have been a very nasty fall, too. What was it — twenty feet down? Thirty feet? Kate would know. Sticky took a careful step forward and peered down over the edge of the roof.

  A Ten Man stood looking up at him.

  Sticky gave a strangled cry and leaped back in terror. His leap carried him straight into Constance, who had been turning to see what was the matter, and in horrified disbelief Sticky saw her tumble backward and fall off the roof. She screamed as she went over, then screamed again — though only for a split second, for Kate’s rope, catching her about the middle, cut her off with a jerk. At first Sticky didn’t realize what had happened. He thought Constance had hit the ground. Then he heard her feet banging against the side of the silo, and he scrambled forward to haul her up. Sticky snatched at the rope, forgetting the flare gun in his hand until he had already let it go. No, no, no! he thought as he watched it fall. It landed near the Ten Man, who had come around the silo to look up at them with a bemused expression, as if contemplating two bickering sparrows in the eaves.

  The Ten Man picked up the flare gun and slipped it inside his suit coat. He took out a radio and said, “I have activity in the village.” He said something else Sticky couldn’t hear, for Constance (who had just recovered her breath) kept yelling at him to pull her up. The Ten Man put away the radio and began to climb the ladder. He moved elegantly — the briefcase seemed not to impede him in the least — and the scent of his cologne rose up before him.