The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey 30

  “I have it!” Kate called after splashing around only a moment. She soon climbed back up with a sealed glass jar. It had been anchored beneath the water, she said, with a short length of cord and a heavy rock. And inside it was a map.

  After all the confusion and mystery, the final leg of the children’s journey seemed strangely straightforward. The map was simple and easily read, and on it, near the top of the southernmost mountain, was a boldly marked X. There wasn’t even a need to decide on a route; they could just follow the Salamander’s tracks across the meadow.

  “Find a seat,” Kate said after she’d helped everyone into the Salamander. She took her position at the wheel. The Salamander’s interior was rather like that of a normal touring boat, with storage compartments lined beneath the gunwales and two short rows of uncomfortable benches. Reynie, taking a seat on the front bench, kicked something over on the floor beneath. Kate’s bucket.

  Kate took it from him without a word. The bucket’s recovery was small consolation, but she did seem to stand a little taller with it belted to her side. She took a last look at the ruined shelter door, beyond which, in the moonlit gloom, Milligan remained trapped with the Ten Men. She grimaced and turned away. She grabbed the wheel, shifted a lever, and the Salamander started forward with a powerful lurch.

  Reynie, Sticky, and Constance flew backward off their benches.

  “Hang on!” Kate called, her ponytail streaming out behind her.

  The Salamander roared out of the village and into the meadow, where its floodlight plainly revealed the twin tracks of crushed grass. Kate steered into the tracks and followed them. She swerved only once — to avoid the prone bodies of Martina Crowe and Garrotte the Ten Man, both of whom lay unconscious but otherwise unharmed in the middle of the meadow, where Milligan had ambushed them on their way back from reporting to Mr. Curtain. The other children never saw what Kate saw. Nor did Kate ever tell them how tempted she had been not to swerve. But she did, and the Salamander rumbled on.

  Soon they were rising up the lower slope of the mountain. The slope grew steeper and steeper, and before long the other children were covering their eyes, afraid to look, for the view from the Salamander floor (they hadn’t managed to recover their seats) was of nothing but moon and sky. There seemed to be no ground beneath them at all.

  Kate stood at the helm, her teeth gritted and every muscle tense. She had a better view than the others and was straining to make out the Salamander tracks, which had grown much harder to find as the meadow gave way to rock. (It would make for a bad end if she unwittingly veered off the route and into some hidden ravine.) Kate was also paying close attention to the feel of the machine beneath her. The Salamander’s engine was working at full capacity, yet their speed had slowed considerably and the treads had begun to slip. When the slope grew even steeper and the Salamander’s progress slowed to a crawl, Kate shut off the engine. They were very near the mountaintop. From this point it would be faster to hike.

  The others opened their eyes and felt their stomachs drop. They appeared to be suspended in the sky. Kate was studying the map by flashlight. “The cave’s not far. Let’s go.”

  Outside the Salamander they discovered a goat path, which made their climb easier. The air here was sharp and cool, and vegetation was scarce. A few mountain flowers and weeds poked out between the cracks of boulders, and a few stunted, twisted trees stood in patches of sandy soil, but mostly there was only rock. Reynie was wondering how a plant as fragile as duskwort had ever existed in such a place when Kate broke in on his thoughts.

  “We’re here,” she murmured, pointing.

  There was no mistaking the cave. Bright light poured from its entrance as well as from smaller openings in the rock above it, giving the appearance of an enormous stone jack-o’-lantern with a candle inside. The light even appeared to flicker as a candle would. It took Reynie a moment to realize that the flickering effect was created by someone passing back and forth across the light source, somewhere down inside the cave.

  Reynie gave an involuntary shudder. He had hoped never again to see Mr. Curtain. Yet now, twelve months and thousands of miles later, the time had come.

  Elsewhere on the island, in the storm shelter of the abandoned village, a most unpleasant negotiation was coming to an end.

  When the children had fled in the Salamander, they had thought they were leaving Milligan chained to a beam, alone in the darkness with two Ten Men. They weren’t entirely correct, however, for even as Kate was descending into the well to retrieve the map, the Ten Man known as Crawlings was regaining consciousness. He lay on the ground near Milligan’s feet, blinking groggily and drooling, trying to get his wits about him. The shelter was dark, illuminated but faintly by the moonlight shining through the ruined doorway. Crawlings became aware of McCracken talking. Then he heard the rumble of the Salamander on its way out of the village. With a groan he hauled himself to his knees, rubbed his eyes — and saw Milligan holding a laser pointer. His laser pointer. Crawlings leaped to his feet, looking wildly about.

  “Hold still,” Milligan said, and Crawlings froze.

  “Welcome back, Crawlings,” said McCracken’s voice from behind him.

  “What — what’s going on?” said Crawlings, not taking his eyes from Milligan.

  “Let’s see,” said McCracken. “You allowed yourself to be knocked out, yielding your weapon to the enemy in the process, and Sharpe and I were compelled to stand here while the children escaped in the Salamander. I hate to say it, Crawlings, but Mr. Curtain will not be pleased.”

  “I should say he won’t,” said Sharpe.

  Crawlings spat onto the floor. He was fully awake now and furious at having been humiliated. “Well, why are we just standing here? There are three of us, aren’t there? That pointer only has one shot.”

  “We were just discussing this,” said McCracken. “I was explaining to Milligan that the pointer is extremely sophisticated, a chemical-based laser weapon Mr. Curtain designed for us, and that perhaps he should think twice about attempting to use it. For instance, does he even know he’s pointing it the right way? He wouldn’t want to accidentally shoot himself, would he?”

  “You forget I’ve collected a few of these,” said Milligan.

  “Oh, that’s right,” said McCracken with an easy smile. “I’d forgotten. Still, when the time comes to shoot, you’ll want to be careful. You don’t want to miss and set one of the beams afire — or the roof, for that matter. Seeing as how you’re chained up, a fire would be inconvenient for you.”

  “I’ll keep that in mind,” said Milligan.

  “What’s the point of any of this?” Crawlings said irritably. “He can’t stop all of us and he knows it.”

  “He wants to give the children a head start,” said McCracken. “But Crawlings’s point is well taken, don’t you think, Milligan? Really, now. You’re wasting everyone’s time. What’s the use of prolonging the inevitable?”

  “Maybe I enjoy it,” Milligan said. He aimed the laser pointer directly at McCracken. “But if you’re in such a hurry to resolve the situation, go ahead and make a move.”

  McCracken frowned. “Oh, but Milligan, remember what will happen! You’ll fire your one shot, and perhaps — perhaps — you’ll be lucky enough to disable one of us. But there will still be two of us left to deal with you, and . . . well, we will deal with you, Milligan. Won’t we deal with him, boys?”

  “With pleasure,” said Crawlings, whose head ached terribly from whatever Milligan had done to him.

  Sharpe snickered. “Oh yes, indeed. We’re great dealers!”

  “But I have an idea you’ll like, Milligan,” said McCracken. “If you toss over that pointer, we’ll forgo any unpleasantness and simply deliver you to Mr. Curtain. Who knows? Maybe you’ll get lucky — maybe he’ll have some use for you. That’s your best chance of survival, at any rate. Believe me, it won’t be easy for us. We’ll be making quite a sacrifice not to punish you for treating us so impolitely.”

  “A big sacrifice,” muttered Crawlings.

  “A giant one,” agreed Sharpe.

  “But if you don’t toss over the pointer . . .” McCracken shrugged. “Well, it’s not going to be pretty.”

  “No, it’ll be ugly, all right,” said Sharpe.

  “Really ugly,” said Crawlings.

  “How ugly, exactly?” said Milligan, as if he thought it a fascinating question. “As ugly as you?”

  Crawlings scowled, his eyebrow slanting inward. He tightened his fists and glanced longingly at his briefcase.

  McCracken was chortling. “Even uglier than Crawlings, I assure you, Milligan! And I’m afraid it’s time to make your decision. I’m going to count to three, and then we’re all going to move. You can toss over the pointer or use it as you see fit. The choice is yours. Are you ready? Here we go. One . . . two . . .”

  “I’ve made my decision,” Milligan said.

  “Thought you might,” said McCracken with a condescending wink. He held out his big hand. “Toss it carefully, please. Those things are expensive.”

  But Milligan didn’t toss the pointer at all. Returning McCracken’s wink, he spun around and fired at the chain — cutting it clean through.

  “Crafty!” exclaimed McCracken, already reaching into his briefcase. The other Ten Men, recovering from their surprise, began to shake their arms, exposing their silver wristwatches. “Crafty but pointless. We’re standing between you and the door.”

  Milligan had no intention of trying to escape, however. He feinted one direction, then leaped across the shelter and snatched up his tranquilizer gun.

  “Another bold move!” came McCracken’s voice as Milligan ducked behind a beam. There was an electrical hum in the air from the Ten Men’s watches. “But you’d still have done better to surrender. It is three against one, you know!”

  “Not for long,” Milligan growled, and he jumped out from behind the beam.

  So began one of the fiercest and strangest battles ever fought, a battle that involved all manner of business supplies, elegant clothing and accessories, and no shortage of trickery and taunts. It was a battle that would rage for hours, and which, when at last it came to an end, would leave the abandoned village entirely in ruins and only one man standing to survey the wreckage. It was also a battle that would leave the young members of the Mysterious Benedict Society in even greater danger than before — for alas, the one man left standing wasn’t Milligan.

  The Cave at the Top of the Mountain

  At the exact moment the terrible battle with the Ten Men was beginning in the abandoned village, Reynie and the other children stood outside the entrance of the mountaintop cave. The air emanating from within was damp and strangely warm, and had a faintly sulfurous odor. Inside, at the end of a narrow, tunnel-like passage, the cave opened into a much larger space, a cavern in which stalactites and stalagmites bristled from above and below. The children could see everything quite well, for the cavern was illuminated by a series of floodlights erected on metal stands. Nothing moved. No voices sounded. But the children had seen the flickering shadows; they knew someone was down in there. Reynie recalled how the island, when seen from a height, had resembled a monstrous beast. Now they were walking right into its mouth.

  At the end of the passage, where the cavern opened up, the children stopped to study their eerie surroundings. The stalagmites here rose out of the ground every dozen or so steps; the stalactites, even more numerous, crowded the cavern ceiling and hung so low that an adult could have reached up and touched their pointed tips. Everything, from floor to ceiling, appeared slimy and gray; everything glistened in the bright floodlights. And the soft buzzing of those lights was the only sound the children could hear — until they heard a man cough.

  They swiveled their eyes toward one another, hearts hammering. The cough had been simple and short, a normal-sounding cough, and had come from close by. Signaling the others to stay put, Kate crept several steps further. She paused. Reynie saw her eyes widen. Holding a finger to her lips, Kate beckoned them to join her. The children moved forward on tiptoe.

  There, in a sort of clearing among the stalagmites, was Mr. Benedict.

  He sat several paces away from them, with his back against the only stalagmite in the clearing. His head was down, his eyes were closed, and his hands were behind him in what looked to be a very uncomfortable position. A metal loop had been driven into the stalagmite beside him; Reynie guessed that it was to this loop that Number Two had been handcuffed, and that Mr. Benedict was probably cuffed to one just like it. That would explain why his hands were behind him at such an awkward angle. Seeing Mr. Benedict made Reynie’s heart swell — there was that familiar head of white hair and that familiar green plaid suit, both rumpled as ever! — but his burst of happiness instantly gave way to concern, for who knew what sort of condition Mr. Benedict was in?

  Despite the surge of emotions they felt at the sight of Mr. Benedict, the children kept their composure. Silently, with all their senses on alert, they glanced around for sign of Mr. Curtain. Not far from Mr. Benedict stood a narrow work table covered with equipment — a microscope, several vials and stoppered bottles, and various oddments and tools — and beneath it was a stack of perhaps fifty black metal containers that resembled shoe boxes. Whether all this belonged to Mr. Benedict or Mr. Curtain was impossible to tell, just as it was impossible to tell if there was a key on the table, a key that might release Mr. Benedict. Reynie strained his eyes looking for one, but he was too far away, and it seemed too risky to go over there right now. Someone had been moving around in this cavern, almost certainly Mr. Curtain, and the children had yet to spot him. They mustn’t let themselves get sneaked up on.

  Reynie cast a nervous glance toward the passage behind them, then began to study the cavern floor, searching for human-shaped shadows. Was Mr. Curtain hiding behind a stalagmite, ready to burst out at the right moment? Kate tugged his arm and pointed. Far off to their left was an opening in the cavern wall, beyond which there appeared to be a separate chamber, equally well lit. It, too, was thick with stalagmites and stalactites, and at first glance had seemed part of the cavern in which they stood. Reynie felt a rush of hope. If Mr. Curtain was in that other chamber, they might be able to free Mr. Benedict without ever encountering his wicked brother.

  “What do you think?” Kate whispered to Reynie.

  It was a soft whisper, but even so, Mr. Benedict’s eyes sprang open. The effect was disconcerting — no matter that he was their friend and they were here to rescue him — and the children, startled, almost cried out.

  “You’re here?” Mr. Benedict whispered, his expression incredulous. “But how —?” He cut himself off and whispered urgently, “Never mind! Listen to me, children. There’s little time. You must destroy the duskwort! We can’t let Ledroptha discover its whereabouts!”

  “But we have no idea where it is!” Kate whispered. “You’ll have to show us!”

  Mr. Benedict frowned. “You don’t know? But I thought . . . Never mind. It’s all right. Just — wait. Hold still a moment. Be quiet now. There he goes.”

  The children, frozen in their spots, swiveled their eyes all around. A movement beyond the opening in the cavern wall caught their attention — and then they glimpsed what appeared to be a human head and torso floating past in the other chamber. A prickling sensation traveled up everyone’s spine. Constance gave a muffled whimper. The ghostly sight would have been frightening even if they hadn’t known what it actually was. But they did know. There had been no mistaking Mr. Curtain in his wheelchair. They’d seen that long, lumpy nose and shock of white hair, and the gliding motion was undeniably that of something rolling across the ground. Yes, they had all seen it, and yet, strangely, none of them had heard it. Reynie thought this must be a trick of acoustics, some bizarre effect peculiar to the cavern.

  Regardless, Mr. Benedict had somehow sensed the wheelchair passing by; and he seemed to sense, too, when it was safe to speak again. He
nodded at the children. “It’s all right,” he whispered. “But he’ll come back any moment. You must hurry!”

  Reynie’s arms were covered in goose bumps. “What should we do?”

  “Untie my hands,” Mr. Benedict said. “Hurry now, and we’ll escape together!”

  Reynie hesitated. Something seemed amiss, but in the urgency of the moment he couldn’t immediately identify it. Kate, though, had already taken out her Army knife — cutting through a rope was obviously faster than untying it — and she began hurrying toward Mr. Benedict just as Constance yanked on Reynie’s arm. Reynie, looking down, realized that she’d been trying to speak but had been too terrified to make a sound. Her eyes were huge. She was frantically shaking her head.

  With a flash of horror, Reynie understood the reason for his misgivings: Mr. Benedict would never have asked them to untie him — not when lingering here so clearly jeopardized their safety. No, Mr. Benedict would have told them to run. Reynie dashed after Kate, waving his arms. Not daring to cry out (for fear of a Ten Man lurking in the other chamber) he whispered, “Kate, stop! Stop!”

  Kate heard him and looked back, which was exactly the worst thing she could have done. She had already drawn too close to Mr. Curtain — for it could be none other than Mr. Curtain leaping to his feet with such a look of malevolent triumph — and before she understood what was happening, the wicked man had seized her.

  Reynie charged in at full tilt. But no sooner had Mr. Curtain grabbed Kate than he let her go, and as Kate slumped to the floor with a stunned expression, Reynie noticed the shiny, silver gloves on Mr. Curtain’s hands — one of which shot forward and took him by the arm. Instantly he felt as if a fireworks display had been launched inside him; his body seemed composed of a million white-hot sparks. It was astonishingly painful, and Reynie’s relief was intense when the fireworks faded, leaving what appeared to be a clear black sky. Or no, not sky . . . Reynie opened his eyes and saw Mr. Curtain’s blurry, smiling face floating above him. He heard Sticky’s voice as if from a great distance, telling Constance to run. Then he felt something cold, hard, and metallic tightening around his wrist.