The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey 28

  “That’s a lovely idea, McCracken,” said Garotte, who was a bearded man with pointy ears and a flattish nose. In his dark suit he looked unnervingly like a giant bat. “Would you care for any victuals as long as I’m going? Will we have a midnight picnic?”

  McCracken chuckled. “Just the lantern, thank you, Garrotte. I’m still full from supper.”

  Given the nature of their work, the Ten Men’s pleasant demeanor was more disconcerting than anger or harshness would have been, and indeed it would be hard to find anyone more disconcerted than the children. Even Kate was in a heightened state of alarm, not only because they were captured (though that did contribute somewhat) but also because she recognized the largest Ten Man’s name — McCracken — and knew him by reputation.

  Milligan had mentioned him before. The leader of all the Ten Men, McCracken was also the most elusive (Milligan had never laid eyes on him), and Kate now had the dubious honor of meeting him before her father did. He was an imposing figure — a huge man with shoulders like bedside tables, perfectly coiffed brown hair, and piercing blue eyes — but his reputation was more imposing still. According to Milligan, McCracken was the most dangerous Ten Man of all, and now here he stood, smiling at them in the darkness.

  “You might as well open your little peepers, cookie,” he said to Constance, who had squeezed her eyes closed, trying to imagine herself elsewhere. “We can see you even if you can’t see us, you know.”

  “Leave her alone,” Sticky squeaked, his words inaudible although he had intended to shout. McCracken didn’t even notice he’d spoken. Sticky swallowed, trying to find his voice. He was experiencing something close to a breakdown, not from fear (although he was certainly afraid) but from an overwhelming feeling of shame. All thought of pride or personal safety had long since flown from him now. The only thing Sticky wanted was to save his friends from whatever lay in store as a result of his terrible blunders. Yet he had no means of saving them — his talents were of no use here — and his mind was spinning in a tumult of frustration and despair.

  Reynie was in quite a jangled state himself. What had struck him at once — and most unpleasantly — was how quickly McCracken had appraised the situation and taken control of it. In a matter of minutes he’d learned of the children in the village, deduced where they would hide, and gone into the shelter’s rafters to await them. It was McCracken who had spoken to them from the rafters, and he had spoken correctly: the children had been outsmarted, which meant McCracken was very smart indeed.

  Reynie took a few deep breaths. If they were to have any chance of getting out of this, he had better calm down and think.

  Martina Crowe, meanwhile, had mastered her anger well enough to speak and had begun barking orders at the Ten Men. To the children’s surprise, the Ten Men seemed to answer to her. None of them appeared to like it very much (though McCracken seemed amused), but whenever Martina spoke they answered, “Yes, ma’am” and did what she said. She couldn’t have gained this authority through any action of her own — Mr. Curtain must have granted it to her — but it was hers, regardless, and Martina clearly relished it.

  The first order she gave was for McCracken to chain up the children so they couldn’t run again. McCracken had obviously planned on doing that — he’d just taken a length of slender chain from his briefcase — but he only smiled and said, “Yes, ma’am,” and finished what he’d begun. Each child’s wrist had already been handcuffed to the next child’s, with Kate at one end, followed by Constance, Sticky, and Reynie. Now McCracken cuffed Reynie’s free hand to the length of chain, which appeared to be nothing more than a lot of paper clips linked together — the sort of thing a bored businessman might create while sitting through a long telephone conference. In fact (as McCracken cheerfully explained) the chain was made of high-tensile metal, perfectly unbreakable by human hand.

  “Not even I can break it,” said McCracken, wrapping the other end of the chain around one of the shelter’s wooden beams and securing it with a padlock. He winked. “And I’m good at breaking things.”

  “Stop socializing with them, McCracken,” Martina snapped. “Give me the key to the handcuffs.” She thrust her hand out peremptorily, and McCracken, with an unconcealed smirk, put the key very daintily into her palm. The children stared at the key, which seemed the perfect symbol of their predicament. They were now in the hands of Martina Crowe.

  And Martina Crowe hated them with a passion.

  Martina Crowe hated most things, actually. She hated the children in particular, but the children only represented the top of a long list. She also hated weakness and foolishness, and because she regarded most behaviors as weak or foolish, these two categories contained many subcategories, which in turn contained still more subcategories, and so on until very few things were left outside the range of Martina’s hatred. One of these few things, however, was barking orders. Martina was fond of barking orders, and especially fond of barking them at Ten Men. She also enjoyed distributing them evenly, so that no one was left out. For instance, after she’d demanded the key from McCracken, Martina looked imperiously at the bespectacled Ten Man and barked, “Find me something to sit on, Sharpe!” Then she ordered Garrotte, who had just returned with a lantern, to place it on the floor in the center of the room. And finally she snapped her fingers at the fourth Ten Man (a bald man with only a single eyebrow — the one over his left eye — which gave him a perpetually wry expression), and barked, “Close the door, Crawlings!”

  Reynie watched Crawlings bar the door with a feeling of great desolation, as if it were his own tomb being sealed. He hoped Milligan had only been delayed, but when Milligan came back — if he came back — how could he rescue them if he was locked outside? He’d chosen this building for its sturdiness, after all. And even if he did manage to get inside, Milligan would still be greatly outnumbered, and the children would be chained up and couldn’t even make a run for it.

  Crawlings joined the other Ten Men by the lantern, where Martina had ordered them to gather. Sharpe, the bespectacled Ten Man, had failed to find her a seat, and Martina gave his briefcase a covetous glance but said nothing. Evidently the briefcases were off limits to her. No doubt she hated that.

  “Well, McCracken,” Martina said, “do you want to explain how she got away?”

  “She hasn’t gotten away,” McCracken responded. He was casually picking his teeth with the sharp end of the pencil that had been stuck in the beam. Reynie had watched him pull it from the wood as easily as one might draw a thumbtack from a bulletin board. Kate had seen it, too, and her jaw had dropped.

  “She hasn’t gotten away?” Martina said with a sneer. She glanced around the shelter and threw up her hands. “I don’t see her. Where is she? Is she hiding behind one of these beams?”

  “She’s in the woods. Sharpe saw her heading into the trees, and I had him blow the tunnel entrance so she can’t cut through to the other side of the island. We can track her down that much faster now.”

  “Then why aren’t we tracking her?”

  “I thought perhaps we should deal with the little darlings first,” McCracken said. “They didn’t materialize out of the air, you know. Someone must have brought them. Better to find out right away who it was, don’t you think?”

  Martina acknowledged this with a grunt. The truth — which was clear enough to everyone in the room — was that she wanted nothing more than to focus on the children, but thought it best to establish that failing to catch Number Two would be the Ten Men’s fault and not her own. Spinning on her heel, she marched over to stand before Kate. Of all the children, Martina bore a particular enmity toward Kate, who had done the most to embarrass her at the Institute (to say nothing of the past few minutes).

  “How do you explain your presence here, Wetherall?” she demanded.

  “Magic,” Kate said, coolly returning the older girl’s stare. “How’s your forehead, by the way? You might want to put some ice on that.”

  Reynie noticed that Kate
had slipped her free hand inside her bucket. Don’t do anything stupid, he thought. Don’t get yourself hurt, Kate.

  Martina touched the swelling bruise on her forehead. Her eyes flashed. “And you might want to consider your position.” She held up the handcuff key that McCracken had given her. “Do you see this? I am in control here, Wetherall, and you are the one in chains, so if you don’t want to find yourself —”

  Kate stomped Martina’s foot, snatched the key from her hand, and butted her in the chest with her head.

  Martina staggered backward, her cry of pain cut short by the head butt, which had knocked the wind out of her. She turned toward McCracken, her eyes wide with outrage, and jabbed a finger toward Kate, who was scrabbling at her handcuffs with the key.

  “Yes, ma’am,” McCracken replied to the unspoken order. He made no attempt to conceal his amused smile, but neither did he waste time striding across the room and grabbing Kate’s wrist. “I did enjoy that, plucky,” McCracken said to Kate, “but that doesn’t mean I won’t also enjoy this.” He squeezed. Kate gave a gasp of pain and opened her hand. The key fell to the floor.

  McCracken checked the handcuffs. They were still locked tight. Martina, meanwhile, had snatched up the key and backed out of Kate’s reach. Recovering her breath she said, “I want you . . . to make . . . that girl . . . pay!”

  “Yes, ma’am,” said McCracken, opening his briefcase.

  “I thought you wanted to know how we got here, Martina,” said Reynie quickly.

  Martina looked at him suspiciously. “Don’t try to put this off, Muldoon. Your snotty friend’s going to get hurt no matter what you say or when you say it.”

  Reynie shrugged. “Okay, well, if it doesn’t matter to you — or Mr. Curtain — then I can certainly wait to tell you what’s going to happen.”

  “What’s going to . . . happen?” Martina repeated. She glared at him. “What do you mean?”

  “If we don’t return to the boat by morning, Risker will contact the authorities,” Reynie said. “So I suggest you think long and hard about whatever actions you’re planning to take now.”

  The room was quiet. Then all the Ten Men looked at one another and burst into laughter. Martina laughed, too, and she shook her head a long time before saying, “Risker? You mean that greedy coward in Thernbaakagen? Thank you for the warning, Muldoon — it will be very useful — but we’re not really worried about someone like Risker. I’m surprised he agreed to bring you here in the first place.”

  Reynie was doing his best to look crestfallen — crestfallen but defiant. “Well, he did! We paid him half the money Mr. Benedict left us and agreed to give him the rest when we got back to the boat! But if we don’t get back, he’s going to —”

  “Where is this money?” McCracken interrupted.

  “Nowhere you can get to it,” Reynie said.

  “And where would that be?” said McCracken. From his briefcase he took out an elegant, leather-clad cigar box, gave it a shake, and set it on the ground between Reynie’s feet. A strange, sharp clicking sound came from inside the box, followed by a barely audible squeal. McCracken nudged it with the toe of his well-polished shoe. “Shall I open that? Or do you want to tell me where the money is?”

  Reynie stared at the cigar box. He began to perspire. “It’s . . . it’s on the boat. Hidden in my bag.”

  McCracken clucked sympathetically. “Then Risker’s gone, my dear. He took your money and left. That’s the sort of fellow he is, you see. Oh, we’ll check to be sure, but I think you can be confident he’s forgotten you. How did you even know about Risker, hmm? How did you know about this island? Tell me quick, and I might put away my box without opening it.”

  With the other children listening in bafflement — they had no idea what Reynie was up to — Reynie told McCracken the truth. He said they had sneaked away from their families to find Mr. Benedict and Number Two. He explained about the clues Mr. Benedict had left for them as part of a surprise trip, about how they’d hoped to follow the clues until they found their friends, at which point they’d intended to contact Rhonda Kazembe. He told McCracken about everything — everything except Milligan and the final clue — and because what Reynie said was true, it was a perfectly convincing account.

  McCracken seemed impressed. “You made that trip all by your little lonesomes? My, what big boys and girls you are!” He picked up the cigar box and held it very close to Reynie’s perspiring face. “Sure you don’t want just a peek?” He chuckled and gave the box a shake; the clicking sound inside grew louder. “No? Don’t want to meet Pandora?” He shrugged and put the box back into his briefcase.

  Garotte spoke up. “What do you think, fellows? Will Risker make things inconvenient for us?”

  “I rather doubt it,” said Crawlings. “If he’s stolen the chickadees’ money, he isn’t likely to contact the authorities.”

  “Don’t be a fool,” snapped Martina, irritated to have been left out of the discussion. “We still need to report this to Mr. Curtain. Give me your radio, Crawlings.”

  Crawlings raised his single eyebrow. “Oh dear, I never said we shouldn’t report it, did I? But I’m afraid my radio’s of no use.” He pretended to look apologetic. “There’s no reception in the cave, remember?”

  Martina cursed under her breath. With a haughty toss of her hair she said, “I’ll need to take the Salamander, then. Garrotte, you drive me. The rest of you wait here. We won’t be gone long.”

  “Why not bring the children?” asked McCracken.

  “Because I said so,” Martina growled.

  She offered no explanation beyond this, but Reynie felt pretty sure he knew what she was thinking. Here in the shelter they were under Martina’s direct control. That would change once they were brought to Mr. Curtain, and Martina was in no hurry for that to happen. No doubt she had some nasty punishment in mind for them — perhaps one inflicted by the Ten Men, who must obey her — and didn’t wish to lose her opportunity. She probably hated to wait even a minute, but she wouldn’t dare put off her report to Mr. Curtain.

  “Before I go,” Martina said, jerking her thumb toward Kate, “we need to take her bucket away and search her pockets. She’s a tricky one. Here, McCracken, you hold her while I search her.”

  It was shrewd of Martina to have McCracken hold Kate, who might otherwise have relieved her of several teeth. As it was, Kate was left unable to speak or even breathe as Martina searched her — very thoroughly and none too gently — from head to foot. When McCracken released her, Kate fell to her knees, clutching her midsection and gasping for breath.

  “That’s just for starters,” Martina said with a satisfied smile. “Wait till I get back — then things will really get fun. Let’s go, Garrotte. McCracken, you keep a close eye on them, you hear me? I don’t want any chance of their getting away.”

  “They won’t be getting away.”

  “Just do as I say,” said Martina. She grinned at Kate, who was struggling to her feet, and held up the bucket so Kate could see her leave with it. Then she went out, followed by Garrotte, and McCracken barred the door behind them.

  “Why bar the door?” asked Crawlings. “We’ll just have to open it again when her highness returns.”

  McCracken grunted. “You’re a fine fellow, Crawlings, but you have yet to learn proper caution.”

  “I’m cautious enough, aren’t I?” Crawlings said. “Oh sure, I’ve had a bad scrape or two, but I’m cautious, McCracken. I’ll wager I’m as cautious as you!”

  “And yet I’m in possession of both my eyebrows, and you’re not.”

  Sharpe snickered. “He has you there, Crawlings!”

  “At any rate,” said McCracken, “there’s something about all this that doesn’t quite fit, and when I figure out what it is, I want to be ready.”

  “Shall we do an inventory?” asked Crawlings.

  “Wouldn’t hurt,” said McCracken. “At the very least it will pass the time until her ladyship returns.”

  As i
f in response to some unseen signal, the Ten Men knelt in unison and set their briefcases before them. They were in the middle of the room, where the light from the lantern was strongest, and the children — also in unison — flinched at the sound of the dreadful briefcases being unbuckled.

  Outside, the Salamander rumbled out of the village. Then all was quiet except for the Ten Men going through their briefcases. It was clearly a serious business, yet the men surveyed the contents of their briefcases with expressions of happy expectation, even jollity, as if they were selecting chocolates from a holiday tray. The children watched in horror as they laid out tidy rows of sharpened pencils; an assortment of ink pens in various colors; staple removers (which resembled nothing so much as metallic piranhas); sleek-looking calculators; stacks of brilliant white business cards; elegant letter openers tucked into monogrammed leather sheaths — and, of course, the dreaded laser pointers.

  Crawlings held up his pointer. “What do you think?” he said, wriggling his eyebrow and jerking his chin toward the children. “Shall I take just the very tip of one of their noses? I’m thinking of a collection.”

  McCracken frowned. “You’d waste your only shot on the tip of a nose? This is what I mean about proper caution, Crawlings.”

  “Oh, don’t be so serious,” said Crawlings. “I was only sporting for the kittens’ sake.” He grinned at the children. Evidently he very much enjoyed frightening them. “At any rate, you know I prefer to use this.” He lifted up what appeared to be an ordinary clipboard.

  McCracken nodded approvingly. “That’s because you’re so good with it.”

  “It’s true,” Sharpe said, patting Crawlings on the back. “I’ve never seen anyone so smart with a clip —”

  “You’re nothing but a bunch of monsters!” Sticky blurted, finding his voice at last, and the other children stared at him in shock. “Why aren’t you disgusted with yourselves? I mean, look at you! You like hurting people! You like frightening children!”