The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey 29

  He fell abruptly silent, every bit as shocked by his outburst as the others had been and regretting it extremely. What kind of fool wanted to make a Ten Man angry? He hadn’t even realized he was going to speak. With his breath coming in ragged gulps and his emotions still awhirl, Sticky braced himself for the response.

  But the Ten Men only looked over at him with expressions of mild interest, and McCracken chuckled and said, “We don’t like frightening children in particular, sweetie. It isn’t our fault you’re still a child, is it? Now, why don’t you leave the grownups to their discussion? You wouldn’t want to distract us, would you? We might grow annoyed.”

  Sharpe fanned himself with his clipboard. “You know, McCracken, I get so warm when I’m annoyed. It makes me want to loosen my tie.”

  “Very warm indeed,” Crawlings murmured, pretending to mop his bald head with his handkerchief. “I may have to take my tie off, too.”

  McCracken eyed the handkerchief. “Again, Crawlings. Proper caution.”

  “Oh, for heaven’s sake, don’t be such a mother duck, McCracken. I’m not going to blow my nose with it.”

  McCracken and Sharpe laughed at this, and Crawlings carefully folded the handkerchief and returned it to his pocket. The Ten Men resumed their dark discussion.

  Sticky was shaking so violently his handcuffs jingled. He longed to polish his spectacles, but with his wrists cuffed to Constance and Reynie it was too difficult to manage.

  “It’s okay,” Reynie whispered. “It’s going to be okay.”

  Sticky looked at him. “H-how?”

  Reynie had no idea. He looked down the line at Constance and Kate. Constance, evidently impressed by Sticky’s outburst, was staring at him as if she’d never seen him before. She seemed to be holding up fairly well. Kate, on the other hand, was still clutching her midsection, and it occurred to Reynie that McCracken might really have injured her. He was about to ask if she was all right when Kate suddenly cocked her head to the side, and Constance stiffened. They had heard something. Kate squeezed the smaller girl’s hand — as if to warn her not to speak — and turned to face the wall.

  McCracken glanced up. “What’s the matter, honey? You don’t like watching us get our things together?”

  “I think I’m going to throw up,” Kate said.

  “Ah! Mixed up your insides a bit, did I? Happens sometimes. Well, that’s a good girl, then. You do your business against the wall where we won’t have to step in it.” He went back to his briefcase materials.

  There was enough slack in the chain for Reynie and the others to huddle close to Kate and pretend to comfort her. In fact they were looking at what Kate had just detected and pointed out. A tiny drill bit was boring through the masonry between two stones in the wall. The bit made only the faintest scratching sound as it poked through the masonry, no more than an insect might have made, and this scratching was what the girls had heard. After a moment the bit withdrew, leaving a worm-sized hole, and in its place appeared a tightly rolled scrap of paper. Kate removed the paper. It was a note from Milligan:

  Stay where you are until I appear. Then run straight for the door. Do not hesitate even for a moment.

  Kate passed the note to Constance, who read it and passed it to the boys.

  “Everything all right?” Crawlings called over to them. “Lost your cookies yet, dear heart?”

  “Not yet,” Kate called back in a strangled voice.

  “Leave her alone!” Sticky shouted, forgetting himself again. He clapped his hands over his mouth, accidentally yanking Reynie and Constance’s hands up as well.

  “Easy, Sticky,” Reynie cautioned, though he couldn’t help noticing that Constance seemed to benefit from Sticky’s impudence. Each time he lashed out at the Ten Men, she looked less frightened and more like her usual defiant self.

  Sharpe snickered and muttered something to the other Ten Men about “that bald one spoiling for a handkerchief.” The others murmured their assent.

  The Ten Men had begun putting their things back into the briefcases and were talking in low voices now, which to Reynie seemed far more sinister than when they’d been speaking up for the children’s benefit. He felt his own stomach turning as badly as Kate’s appeared to be. Milligan was coming for them, but how were they supposed to run for the door? They were chained up!

  Constance looked at him and whispered, “But how are we going to . . . you know, how do we do it?”

  “Hold on,” Kate muttered. She began to cough, then to gag, and then to spit. Over by the lantern the Ten Men smirked and snorted. Kate thrust her head forward a few times like a pecking chicken, made one last, repulsive retching sound, and fell silent. For a moment she stood with her hands on her knees, breathing heavily through her nose. Then she looked over at her friends, winked, and gave them a huge grin.

  Clenched between her teeth was a key.

  Kate had switched one of her old farm keys for the handcuff key. That was why Reynie had seen her slip her hand down inside her bucket — she’d been seeking, by touch, a key that might pass for the one McCracken had given Martina. Anticipating a search, Kate had swallowed the handcuff key and dropped the farm key when McCracken grabbed her. Reynie understood all this at once, but Constance and Sticky only stared, confused. Hadn’t they seen McCracken take that key away?

  “We’ll explain later,” Reynie whispered. He was afraid the sound of the handcuffs opening would catch the Ten Men’s attention, so he told Kate to go back to retching, which she did promptly and with great gusto. As she made one horrible noise after another, with her friends gathered around as if to comfort her, Kate unlocked all their handcuffs and adjusted them to fit much larger wrists. The children would appear to be cuffed but could easily slip loose when the time came.

  But when would it come? That was the most pressing question now, for they needed to be ready when it did.

  The Ten Men were standing up, their briefcases repacked and buckled closed, and were shaking hands all around as if they’d just concluded an agreeable meeting. Milligan still had not appeared. McCracken stuck a pencil behind his ear and walked over to the children. “Guess what?” he said in a tone of cheerful excitement. He knelt in front of Constance, who shrank away, avoiding his gaze. “You’re a lucky ducky, little one! You get to help McCracken!”

  “Help you?” Constance asked.

  “Oh, yes! You see, I’ve been going over things in my mind, and I’m still not satisfied with the way your story all fits together. I think you’re hiding something from old McCracken, you naughty things, and I’m going to find out what it is!”

  “If you don’t like my story,” Reynie said, “then why aren’t you talking to me?”

  McCracken didn’t take his eyes from Constance. “Because in my experience the smallest child is the one most likely to tell you what she isn’t supposed to.” He put a finger under Constance’s chin and lifted it so that she was compelled to look up. “Am I right, little one? Do you think I might be able to convince you to give me your secrets?”

  Constance stared at the sharp pencil behind the Ten Man’s ear, and her lip began to quiver. Rather than cry, however, she screwed up her face and screamed furiously at McCracken — screamed loud enough to make him wince and step back. She screamed until her breath ran out, and then she glared at him, panting hard, her face purple as a plum.

  McCracken looked at Constance as if he were disappointed in her. “Now why would you do that, muffin? Why would you want to make old McCracken angry? Don’t you realize your little adventure is over? Don’t you see there’s no one to help you now?”

  “That’s what you think!” Constance snapped.

  McCracken wrinkled his brow. Narrowing his blue eyes, he fixed the tiny girl with a cold and penetrating gaze. Constance looked as if she’d swallowed a scorpion and was praying it wouldn’t sting her on the way down.

  “Why, I don’t believe that’s the way you’d speak about someone like Risker,” McCracken observed. “Oh no. Not tha
t sorry fellow far away in his boat. You’re expecting someone else, aren’t you?”

  “Yes, we are!” Reynie said, hoping McCracken would think he was lying out of desperation. “We’re expecting —”

  “You be quiet,” McCracken said, pointing a warning finger at Reynie. “None of your trickery.” He turned to the other Ten Men. “Any ideas about this?”

  Crawlings’s eyebrow shot up. He snapped his fingers, reached inside his suit coat, and took out Milligan’s flare gun. “The skinny bald one dropped this! I thought the children were using it to signal one another.”

  “Is that right?” McCracken said, scratching his head. “A flare gun? Well, that was silly of you, Crawlings! They wouldn’t need a flare gun to signal one another — they were all right here in the village. So who was our friend really signaling, do you think?”

  “Nobody. He dropped it before he could fire the flare.”

  “Perhaps, Crawlings, but don’t you think our blowing up the tunnel entrance will have acted as a substitute?” McCracken pursed his lips. “You’d better climb on up into the rafters. Sharpe, you unbar the door. We’ll want to make it easy to get inside.”

  Crawlings winked at the children with his right eye — the one without an eyebrow — which made his face look bizarrely lopsided. It was an unsettling sight, but far more unsettling was the way he skittered up one of the beams like a spider and disappeared into the shadowed rafters.

  The Ten Men were setting a trap.

  Reynie looked anxiously at his friends. Kate was clenching and unclenching her fists, not meeting anyone’s eye, too upset for words. Constance had begun to cry, and with a pained expression Sticky was telling her not to feel bad, that they were in this mess because of him, not her.

  “That’s true,” Constance sniffed. Then she straightened into an attitude of attention, as if she’d sensed something, and a moment later they all heard the rumbling of the Salamander outside.

  “There’s Garrotte and Martina,” said Sharpe, backing away from the door and loosening his tie.

  “Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t,” said McCracken. He turned off the lantern, throwing the room into blackness. “We’ll just wait and see who walks through that door.”

  McCracken soon had his answer: No one would walk through the door at all. In fact, to the surprise of everyone in the shelter, the door itself ceased to exist.

  The Standoff in the Shelter

  With a tremendous cracking and squealing, the thick wood of the shelter door splintered into a hundred pieces; the iron bolts tore free of their fastenings; stones toppled down all around, sending a fine powder into the air — and the nose of the armored Salamander filled the space where the door had been. Someone inside the Salamander threw a switch, and the room was suddenly flooded with light. Masonry dust hung in the light like an amber-colored fog.

  “Move!” Kate yelled, slipping free of her handcuffs and grabbing Constance. With the boys at her heels, she ran straight for the Salamander, coughing against the dust and squinting in the floodlight. She passed directly over the spot where McCracken and Sharpe had stood an instant before. Like roaches at the flip of a light switch, the Ten Men had scattered and were nowhere to be seen.

  Milligan seemed to drop from the sky. He landed a few feet in front of the Salamander, silhouetted by the floodlight, with masonry dust roiling about him like billowing smoke. He knelt and aimed his tranquilizer gun into the shelter’s strange grove of wooden beams. First to the left, then to the right. He’d seen which beams the Ten Men had disappeared behind and was covering them both. “Help the others get in, Kate! Quick now! Into the Salamander!”

  Kate was already dragging Constance past him. “Look out, Milligan! There’s one in the rafters!”

  At the words “look out” Milligan sprang forward, and in the same instant a yellow pencil appeared, as if by magic, quivering in the floorboards where he’d just been kneeling. He aimed his tranquilizer gun into the rafters but saw only shadows and wood. Behind him Kate was boosting the others over the side of the Salamander.

  “Put down your weapon!” a voice called from above.

  “In a minute,” Milligan growled.

  “You’ll do it now,” said the voice, “or the girl with the ponytail gets a nasty haircut.”

  Kate had just heaved Reynie into the Salamander when she heard this. She looked into the rafters. At first she saw nothing. Then, to her horror, she saw something that resembled a twitching caterpillar. It was Crawlings’s eyebrow, wriggling excitedly. Most of the Ten Man’s body was hidden in shadow, but he was making sure Kate could see his face and, more important, the laser pointer he was aiming at her.

  “Kate?” Milligan called. From his position he couldn’t see what she could. When she didn’t answer, he glanced back and saw her staring helplessly into the rafters. Milligan didn’t hesitate. He set his tranquilizer gun on the floor.

  “Milligan, don’t!” Kate cried, finding her voice again. But it was too late.

  “Kick it away from you,” Crawlings called.

  Milligan sent the tranquilizer gun sliding across the floor with his boot.

  “Go to the back of the room, pick up a pair of handcuffs, and lock yourself to that chain. Close the handcuffs so tightly they pinch.”

  Milligan went and cuffed himself to the chain, which was still padlocked to a beam. He yanked on the chain to demonstrate he was firmly secured, and as soon as he did so Crawlings dropped to the floor a few yards away, aiming his pointer directly at Milligan’s chest. He was smiling with pure delight. “Did I hear her right? Are you really Milligan?”

  Milligan said nothing, only leaned forward as if he wanted nothing more than to lunge at Crawlings. But the chain was stretched taut behind him — he was at its outer limit — and Crawlings called out, “Did you hear that, boys? It’s Milligan! We’ve got the famous Milligan handcuffed to a pole!”

  McCracken and Sharpe emerged and moved to the middle of the room. The corner of McCracken’s lip jerked upward, as if he were trying not to laugh. “Milligan, eh? What a pleasant surprise!”

  Crawlings stepped closer to get a better look, keeping an eye on the chain to make sure he didn’t step within Milligan’s reach. He kept his laser pointer aimed at Milligan’s chest. “You of all people! The Ten Man’s worst enemy! My, oh my! Wouldn’t it be lovely if I were the one to get rid of you once and for all?”

  Milligan mumbled something.

  Crawlings leaned slightly forward. “What’s that?”

  Nobody saw what Milligan did. Or at least not what he really did. What it looked like he did was step forward and return an embrace that Crawlings had apparently decided to give him. And then Crawlings was unconscious on the floor, and Milligan was holding the laser pointer.

  “I said this chain is longer than you realize,” Milligan muttered.

  McCracken and Sharpe stood a few yards apart from each other in the middle of the room, staring with great attention at the laser pointer in Milligan’s hand. Their smiles had disappeared, and they were holding very still.

  “That was clever of you,” said McCracken, recovering. “What did you do, gather some of the chain behind you to make it look shorter? That’s impressive sleight of hand, my friend. You fooled him completely. Well, go on, finish him off. Don’t beat about the bush.”

  Milligan ignored him. “Kate, get in the Salamander and go straight to the place we agreed upon. You can handle it. It’s more or less like a tractor.”

  “Milligan, we can’t leave you here!”

  “Of course you can!” McCracken called, without turning his head. “He has a pointer. He’ll be fine.”

  “Milligan!” Reynie called from the Salamander. “McCracken said those things only fire one shot and then have to be recharged!”

  “You heard that, did you?” McCracken said, looking coy and sheepish, as if he’d been caught stealing cookies. He shrugged. “They’ve got me there, Milligan. I did say that. Now here’s the deal. I know you must be
tempted to have young Kate fetch that weapon of yours. But if you do, I promise you one of us will do her great harm. Sorry, but that’s just the way of it. We can’t let you take us both out. One maybe, but not both. Isn’t that right, Sharpe?”

  “Just as you say, McCracken. That’s the code.”

  “So let those little dears go, then,” said McCracken. “That’s a fair deal. Let them go, and the three of us will stay here and have a nice chat.”

  Milligan never took his eyes from the Ten Men. “Kate, leave right now. That’s an order. Don’t be afraid. Our friends will meet you there.”

  “But —”

  “Now, Kate!”

  Kate climbed into the Salamander. She didn’t speak to the others — who at any rate were speechless themselves — but only blinked tears from her eyes to study the levers and knobs. None of them could believe what they were about to do. They were going to leave Milligan alone, chained to a beam, with two Ten Men. And he had only one shot.

  Kate backed the Salamander from the wrecked doorway and out into the village path. She shifted a lever and the Salamander stopped, its engine humming. Kate looked longingly back toward the shelter.

  “We should go,” Constance said in an apologetic tone. “We need to do what he said, Kate — we need to go back to the bay forest.”

  “We aren’t going to the bay forest,” Reynie said, and the others looked at him in surprise. His expression was very grim but determined.

  “Where are we going, then?” Constance asked.

  “To save Mr. Benedict. We’re his only chance now.”

  “But we don’t even know where —”

  “Oh yes, we do,” Reynie said.

  It was long past midnight, and the full moon’s reflection no longer shone at the bottom of the village well — no twin moon down there now — but as Reynie pointed out, Mr. Benedict would have counted on their solving the clue regardless of the hour, just as he would have counted on Kate’s ability to retrieve whatever he’d left for them. And indeed, it took Kate mere seconds to fetch her rope from the top of the silo (where Crawlings had untied Constance in order to capture her) and secure it to one of the posts that used to hold up the well’s missing roof. Flinging off her shoes, she climbed down into inky darkness.