The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey 27

  Constance, smelling the cologne, fell abruptly still. She stared helplessly at Sticky, afraid to look down. Below her, the Ten Man’s shoes made soft tapping sounds on the ladder rungs.

  “There, there, chickie,” said the Ten Man. “Let me help you with that.”

  Reynie was coming slowly awake. At first he was extremely disoriented. He had been having unpleasant dreams until something had awakened him. Everything was dark and quiet. He didn’t think he was in his own bed, and in the moonlight from the window he could just make out the unfamiliar ceiling above him. No overhead light. He blinked and swiveled his eyes, too sleepy even to move his head. He didn’t see any furniture. Was he still dreaming? Where was he? The bed sagged in the middle and had no footboard, and in the gloom he could make out twin humps at the end of it. His feet. Still in their shoes, for some reason. And behind them, just beyond the end of his bed, Reynie thought he could see . . .

  A figure. Crouched in the darkness.

  He could see the eyes.

  Reynie’s skin prickled — it felt as if ants were swarming over him — and he stopped breathing. He couldn’t move. For a moment his mind was blank with fear, and then it seized desperately upon an explanation. He was dreaming. Not just a dream — a nightmare. The most terrifying, most realistic nightmare of his life. Reynie forced himself to breathe, though all he could manage were shallow gasps. It was Mr. Benedict’s nightmare, he realized suddenly. The figure crouched at the end of the bed — the Old Hag. Reynie had been thinking about Mr. Benedict, and so naturally . . . Yes, that had to be it. Still too scared to move, Reynie tried to wake himself up. A nightmare, he thought. Just a nightmare. Wake up now.

  Reynie saw the eyes blink. He shivered. It looked as if the silent creature was trying to make him out in the darkness. Oh, it was no wonder these visions haunted Mr. Benedict so terribly! Wake up, he commanded himself. Wake up! With great effort, Reynie finally managed to sit up.

  And when he did, the figure’s eyes widened and it sprang forward with a hiss.

  Reality came roaring back. He was in the abandoned village on the island. And now someone, a stranger, was trying to yank him out of the bed. Reynie fought back, but the stranger was far stronger than he was, and after a few grunts and cries and stinging slaps he felt himself heaved out onto the wooden floor, striking it first, and very painfully, with his chin. For a moment he saw pinpoints of lights in the darkness, like fairy dust. He was seeing stars. And he was still trying to clear his head when a brighter light shone into the room and fell on his attacker’s face.

  It was Martina Crowe. Her long black hair, mussed from the struggle, fell all about her face, but there was no mistaking that vindictive expression.

  There was also no mistaking the bearer of the flashlight.

  One moment Kate stood in the doorway, taking in the sight of her friend being held down by Martina Crowe. The next moment the flashlight rose high into the air, almost to the ceiling, and Kate disappeared in darkness. Reynie’s and Martina’s eyes instinctively followed the light (which was exactly why Kate had thrown it) and so neither of them understood what was happening when, in the same moment, Kate crashed into Martina and sent her sprawling. Martina thought Reynie had somehow managed to strike her a blow. To Reynie it appeared as if Martina had magically transformed into Kate, for his friend now occupied the exact space from which Martina had been so roughly expelled.

  Kate caught the flashlight before it hit the floor. “Come on,” she said, pulling him to his feet and out the door, which she banged close as Martina came hurtling across the room toward them. Wedging her foot against the crack at the bottom, Kate calmly handed her flashlight to Reynie and opened her bucket.

  Martina slammed herself furiously against the other side. “There’s no point running, you idiots!” she screeched through the door. “You have nowhere to run!”

  “Grab a blanket from the closet,” Kate told Reynie, and as he did so she took out her marble pouch. “Roll it up tight and stuff it into the crack,” she said, pointing with the toe of her shoe. “That’ll slow her a bit. Then give me the flashlight and head for the stairs.”

  Reynie stuffed the blanket as best he could into the crack between the door and the floor, jerking back once when Martina kicked the door close to his head. Kate pulled her foot away so he could wedge the last bit of blanket, then quickly put it back. When Reynie had finished and retreated to the stairs, Kate switched off the flashlight. Reynie heard a clattering sound. She was backing toward him, emptying her pouch of marbles onto the hallway floor. The door rattled again, and this time they could hear Martina’s cursing more plainly — the door was inching open. The wedged blanket would delay her only briefly.

  “Go,” Kate whispered.

  They hurried down the steps and into the bedroom where Number Two had been sleeping. The lantern still burned. The shutters were wide open. The bed was empty.

  “Oh boy,” Kate said. “Not good.”

  “What’s happened? Where is she, Kate?”

  “She woke up when Constance screamed. She was still out of her head, and she insisted on going to see what was wrong. I thought I convinced her to stay put, but —” Upstairs there was a shocking thump, followed by the sound of marbles skittering down the stairs. They heard Martina groan. “Quick,” Kate whispered. “Follow me.”

  They went out the window. Kate led him behind the house, to the side opposite the path, and together they scurried behind the buildings in the direction of the storm shelter. Suddenly a bright flash came from the direction of the mountain, accompanied by a great crashing sound like a thunderclap. Reynie and Kate flung themselves down behind a heap of wood — a blown roof — and then, recovering, looked for storm clouds overhead. They saw only the full moon in a clear night sky.

  “That was an explosion,” Reynie whispered. “What’s going on, Kate?”

  “I don’t really know. After I left Number Two I ran straight to the silo, but no one was there, so I ran to check the storm shelter. It was empty. When I came out again I saw that Number Two had opened the shutters and light was just pouring out for anyone to see. I ran back to shut them and check on her, but then I heard you and Martina fighting upstairs. That’s all I — wait, do you hear that?”

  Reynie heard it, all right. A rumbling sound, again like thunder, only softer this time and steadier. It traveled from the direction of the meadow, growing louder and louder until the rumbling seemed to come from the ground all around them. Then the Salamander rolled into view. It was coming down the village path. Reynie and Kate crouched behind the fallen roof and peeked out. A great armored beast thirty feet long and ten feet wide, the Salamander surged forward on heavy revolving treads. Its sides were the dark blue-black of gun metal and shone dully in the moonlight. A Ten Man stood in front with his hands atop a large wheel, like a captain at the helm of a ship. Behind him Reynie could just see the top of Sticky’s bald head and his wide, frightened eyes. Whether Constance was with him or not was impossible to tell.

  The Salamander rumbled on, moving in the direction of the house they had just fled. They heard Martina calling out to the Ten Man in an angry, urgent tone, and the rumbling stopped. Only then could they hear the hum of the Salamander’s powerful engine.

  Reynie looked at Kate. “If I distract them, can you —?”

  “You know I can,” she said, her eyes flashing. “Go. We’ll meet you in the shelter.”

  Reynie took off running back the way they’d come, keeping behind the buildings. When he saw the Salamander he yelled “Over here!” and kept running. He dashed all the way to the back of the last building in the village, the one facing the mountainside. There he drew up short. Another Ten Men was strolling down the slope toward the village, briefcase in hand and a contented expression on his face, as if he’d just completed a most satisfactory transaction. Behind him lay a pile of rubble that used to be the tunnel entrance. That explained the explosion they’d heard.

  Reynie pulled back into the shadow
s, flattening himself against the building’s rear wall. He listened. He heard no voices, which probably meant he was being stalked. Peeking around the corner, Reynie watched the Ten Man walking down from the collapsed tunnel. Perhaps he would unwittingly reveal something. A frown, a wave, a look of acknowledgment — anything might help Reynie know which way to run. He wanted to draw attention once more, then make his way back to the shelter, running for all he was worth. If Kate could snatch Sticky and Constance away, she was fast enough to drag them into the shelter in a matter of seconds. The question was whether Reynie could make it himself.

  The Ten Man was about fifty yards away, and in the strong moonlight Reynie could see his face fairly well. He seemed perfectly unconcerned about anything. Just another ordinary well-dressed businessman carrying a briefcase down a hill, in the middle of the night, into an abandoned village on a forgotten island. The sort of thing one saw in bad dreams. Reynie stared and stared. The Ten Man was wearing glasses, and when he glanced up the lenses glinted, reflecting the moonlight.

  Like twin moons, Reynie thought with a start, and he suddenly understood where to find Mr. Benedict’s clue.

  But even as the answer came to him, it also occurred to Reynie that the Ten Man had looked up for a reason. And was still looking up, in fact. What was he looking at? Something high up at the other end of the village. The grain silo. It had to be. Someone had probably climbed onto the roof for a better view — trying to discover Reynie’s hiding place. And sure enough, just then Reynie heard the Ten Man in the Salamander calling, “See anything?”

  “Not yet,” Martina called back. She was up on the silo, temporarily out of the chase. There would be no better moment.

  Reynie burst from behind the building and dashed over to the path. Startled, the Ten Man in glasses cried out — then laughed and shook his head as if some cute, wayward bunny had bolted its cage. He seemed in no particular hurry to give chase, but he did start moving in Reynie’s direction. Reynie didn’t look back at him again. He ran straight toward the Salamander, which was parked far down the path on the other side of the village well. Its driver, the Ten Man at the wheel, saw him coming and moved to get out. With one leg over the side, however, he hesitated, evidently debating whether to bother jumping down when it was easier to stay put and let the others handle Reynie.

  Jump down, Reynie thought. Jump down and give Kate a chance.

  The Ten Man frowned appraisingly at Reynie, unable to make up his mind.

  Kate made it up for him. Streaking out of the shadows beyond the Salamander, she was moving so fast when she vaulted up over the side that there was barely time for its occupants — Sticky, Constance, and the Ten Man — to look astonished before she’d slammed into the Ten Man and sent him toppling into the path below. He hit the ground hard, his arms and legs sprawling quite inelegantly, and as he climbed to his feet his face was cold and furious.

  Kate had already leaped from the Salamander with Constance over her shoulder and raced away up the path. She thought Sticky was right behind her. But Sticky was much slower getting over the side, and Reynie started yelling, hoping to divert the Ten Man’s attention away from him. The Ten Man ignored Reynie, however, and went for the quarry at hand, plucking Sticky from the side of the Salamander as easily as he might have taken a shirt from a department store rack. And much as he might have done in a store, the Ten Man held the skinny boy in front of him by the shoulders, as if gauging the fit. Sticky wriggled and kicked, his feet dangling. The Ten Man looked disappointed. He pulled Sticky close, pinning him with one hand while with the other he took the handkerchief from the breast pocket of his suit.

  “Hold still now, ducky,” the Ten Man said. “Let’s have a little nap.”

  Reynie had some vague, doomed notion of charging full tilt into the Ten Man if only he could get there in time. But he was still several yards away. Sticky, meanwhile, was jerking his face this way and that to avoid the treacherous handkerchief, and with a look of annoyance the Ten Man pressed his cheek against Sticky’s head to hold him still. Sticky jerked his head forward as hard as he could — and the Ten Man yelped.

  “He scraped me!” the Ten Man snarled, his eyes wide with angry disbelief. “The little duck scraped me with his head!” Surprised though he was, the man still had hold of Sticky, and no doubt he would have returned to his handkerchief-attack with renewed vigor had not Reynie, at that exact moment, charged into him with outstretched arms, lowered head, and eyes squeezed tightly shut.

  There was an instant’s confusion, during which the Ten Man swiped at Reynie’s nose with the handkerchief and missed, Sticky threw a wild punch at the Ten Man and succeeded in boxing Reynie’s left ear, and Reynie, recoiling from that painful blow, accidentally struck the Ten Man’s chin with the crown of his head. Then the Ten Man was tottering backward, stunned, and Sticky was free and running after the girls toward the shelter.

  Reynie, unfortunately, had staggered backward himself, and it took him a moment to catch his balance. By then the Ten Man had recovered and was moving to block his path. Reynie wheeled about and darted off between two buildings. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the other Ten Man, the bespectacled one, coming up the path and looking amused. He was reaching into his briefcase.

  Reynie ran behind one of the buildings and stopped to listen. No footsteps. No voices. He peeked around the corner. The Ten Man from the Salamander had regained his composure now and was nonchalantly tucking away his handkerchief, whereas the bespectacled Ten Man was sitting on the low stone wall of the well, his briefcase open on his lap, as if it had just occurred to him that he needed to go over some important papers. He glanced up at Reynie, smiled, and flicked his wrist. Something whistled past Reynie’s ear and into the darkness. For a moment he was so surprised he didn’t move.

  “You missed,” said the other Ten Man with a snort. “You owe me a pencil.”

  “Double or nothing,” said the bespectacled one, reaching into his briefcase again.

  Reynie turned and ran as fast as he could.

  The storm shelter’s door was on the path. He would have to go back out in the open. He passed one building, then another, then veered and raced out to the path again. He was now well away from the Salamander and directly across from the shelter. He didn’t see the Ten Men anymore — they must be circling behind him — and the shelter door was still open. This was his chance. But just as he started for the door, Martina emerged from between two buildings nearby, and Reynie knew the chase was over. Martina was faster and had a better angle. She was going to cut him off for sure.

  “You’re mine, Muldoon,” said Martina, her face twisting in vengeful delight.

  Reynie skidded to a stop in the middle of the path. “Close the door!” he yelled. “Close the door, Kate!”

  Kate appeared in the dark doorway, but she didn’t close the door. She was holding her slingshot, drawing a bead. Reynie felt a burst of hope — he still had a chance! With an excited, incoherent cry, he lowered his shoulders and rushed for the door. Martina lunged to cut him off . . . Kate let fly with the slingshot . . . and Martina fell to her knees, howling and clutching her head.

  “I saved one marble for you!” Kate called as Reynie ran inside. Then she saw something that made her jerk her head back. An object streaked past her nose and stuck in one of the wooden beams behind her with a loud thwack! Even in the darkness she could see it was a pencil — it must have been a very sharp pencil — and it quivered in the wood like an arrow. Kate slammed the door and threw the iron bolt.

  “We made it!” Reynie gasped, scarcely believing it. The windowless storm shelter was pitch black inside. “Sticky, Constance, are you there? Are you all right?”

  “Kate nearly broke my ribs,” Constance complained, which Reynie took as a good sign.

  “I thought I was gone for sure,” said Sticky. “I thought we all were.”

  In the darkness Reynie felt Constance grab hold of his hand.

  Kate shone her flashlight on the wood
en beam where the Ten Man’s pencil had stuck. She tried to yank it out, but it might as well have been set in cement. She couldn’t even break it off.

  “I wonder what they’re doing,” Sticky said, putting his ear to the door to listen.

  “Why, they’re waiting for us to let them in,” said a deep voice, and Reynie thought he might throw up. The voice had come from directly overhead.

  Kate’s flashlight found the Ten Men in the rafters. There were two of them, squatting on their haunches and peering down at the children with malevolent smiles, like gargoyles in business suits. They seemed gigantic and spidery, all elbows and knees, and their shadows took up the whole of the ceiling.

  “But . . . but how . . . ?” Sticky stammered.

  “It isn’t such a mystery, dearies,” said one of the Ten Men. “You’ve just been outsmarted.”

  Pandora's Box, or Things Best Left Closed

  Hold still if you like your ears,” said one Ten Man with a grin. He showed them a small cylindrical device in his hand. “I don’t want to have to use this pointer on you — it takes all night to recharge the battery.”

  The children, who did rather like their ears, were soon placed in handcuffs and made to stand against the back wall of the shelter. Meanwhile the other Ten Man opened the door to admit the rest of his crew. There were four of them in all, not counting Martina (who was holding her head and, for the moment at least, appeared too furious for words), and each was as well-dressed, calm, and cheerful-looking as his comrades. The shelter was suffused with the smell of expensive cologne.

  “Garrotte,” said the largest Ten Man, speaking to the one with the laser pointer, “be a friend and fetch us a lantern, won’t you? Now that you mention batteries, we might as well spare our flashlights, too.”