The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey 31

  “Not again,” Reynie mumbled, still dazed.

  “Oh yes,” said Mr. Curtain. “Again.”

  The children were handcuffed to one another in order of their capture. Kate was cuffed to one of the metal loops in the stalagmite — Mr. Curtain had been sure to deal with her first — and Reynie was cuffed to Kate. Next came Sticky, who despite having seen what those silver gloves had done to his friends had charged at Mr. Curtain in an attempt to save Constance.

  “Run, Constance!” he’d yelled. “Run and don’t look back!”

  Moments later Sticky was on the ground, shocked senseless, and when he came around again he was handcuffed to Reynie. Together they watched bleakly as Constance was brought back from the cavern entrance, where S.Q. Pedalian had been waiting. She was sniffling and crying and had gone perfectly limp, and S.Q. was compelled to carry her.

  “There, there, Constance,” S.Q. was saying in a genuinely concerned tone. “Don’t be upset. This is all just a misunderstanding. I mean you’ve just misunderstood. I mean you’ve been naughty. Do you understand?”

  “That’s enough, S.Q.,” said Mr. Curtain, removing his silver gloves and slipping them inside his suit coat. “Just cuff her to Mr. Washington there and say no more.”

  It was odd for the children to see the former Executive in regular clothes — gone were the spiffy tunic and sash — but in all other respects he seemed the same. He was tall and gangly, his feet were enormous, and he appeared to be acting against his kindhearted instincts out of some dim-witted loyalty to Mr. Curtain. With the mechanical, efficient movements of one who has performed the same task countless times, S.Q. cuffed Constance’s wrist tightly to Sticky’s. Constance winced as the metal pinched her skin, and S.Q. winced in sympathetic response. But he remembered Mr. Curtain’s order and said no more.

  Mr. Curtain regarded the captive children as if contemplating a magnificent piece of art. His cheerful expression had an unsettling effect, for it made him seem more like Mr. Benedict than himself. “Thank you all so much for coming,” he said. “I really could not have asked for a better gift.”

  “It was the least we could do,” said Kate. She was quite scared, but she’d rather die than show her fear to the loathsome man who had just shocked the daylights out of her. He had also taken away her Army knife, and with it her hopes of prying out the metal loop.

  Mr. Curtain clapped his hands. “Such bravado! Of course, I expected no less from you children. And, as I hope you now realize, I did expect you. Many of my former Executives hold government posts, you see, some of them quite close to Benedict. When you children went off on your own, I was informed at once. My informants were baffled by your disappearance, but your intentions were no great mystery to me. The only question was whether you would succeed in finding your beloved Benedict. Oh, how I hoped you would!”

  “Where is Mr. Benedict?” Reynie demanded. “Or are you such a coward that —?”

  “Reynard! For shame!” Mr. Curtain waggled his finger disapprovingly. “Do you really think I’m unprepared for your tactics this time? Last time, you’ll recall, you betrayed me, which is the only reason you caught me off guard. This time I know you for the conniving and deceitful little wretch that you are. You won’t fool me into getting angry, Reynard. I won’t be disturbed into falling asleep. Au contraire!”

  “What?” said Constance, who with some effort had stopped crying. She glared at Mr. Curtain. “What do you want?”

  “What do you mean, what do I want?” asked Mr. Curtain, who seemed confused by her question.

  Constance scowled. “You said, ‘Oh, Contraire!’ So what? What is it?”

  Mr. Curtain burst into his too-familiar laughter, which sounded like nothing so much as a wounded screech owl. “It’s just as S.Q. said, Miss Contraire! You misunderstand!” He shook his head in mock sympathy. “Never mind, my dear. The point is, I am perfectly undisturbed, and I shall remain so. Oh yes, I shall remain in control of my faculties, which means that you shall remain in my power.” He tapped his fingertips together. “However, I do grow fatigued. I believe I shall fetch a chair.”

  With a mysterious, expectant smile, Mr. Curtain put his hands behind him and stood at attention, as if waiting for something. Before the children had time to wonder what it was, they witnessed one of the most disturbing things they had ever seen.

  Mr. Curtain’s wheelchair appeared without sound. It shot out of the other chamber like a rocket, speeding around the stalagmites toward its owner, but its wheels made absolutely no sound on the cave floor, and its motor and gears were quiet — even, somehow, more than quiet. The effect was like watching a silent film, except that this was real life. The only noise the children heard was the jingle of their handcuffs (for they were all shuddering). The wheelchair was some kind of rolling nightmare, and strapped into its seat was the real Mr. Benedict. His hands were cuffed to the armrests, his head lolled forward on his neck, and his spectacles were in danger of falling from his nose. He appeared to be fast asleep.

  “As you see, I’ve designed an excellent remote control,” said Mr. Curtain, showing them a tiny control box he’d been hiding behind his back. “S.Q., put him with the others. Be careful, now — I’m convinced he sometimes only pretends to be asleep.”

  S.Q. removed Mr. Benedict from the wheelchair, propped him gently against the stalagmite, and handcuffed one of his wrists to the other metal loop. As S.Q. worked, Mr. Curtain was taking his accustomed place in the wheelchair, which appeared to be his old one — a complicated machine with multiple knobs, buttons, and pedals — but which obviously had undergone certain alarming modifications.

  “I imagine he worked himself into a sleeping fit trying to warn you,” Mr. Curtain said in an amused tone. “He’s been in a sorry state of distress ever since Martina reported you were on the island, and his distress only increased when S.Q. spotted you coming up the mountain and I arranged to take advantage of your foolishness. Oh, he protested at the top of his lungs! Or I should say he appeared to. I had activated my new device by then, so his annoying cries went unheard.”

  “Noise cancellation?” murmured Sticky in surprise. “But no one’s ever achieved it on such a scale . . .” He fell silent, not having meant to speak in the first place.

  Mr. Curtain had overheard him, though, and he raised his eyebrows. “I see you’ve kept up with your reading, George! Yes, I’ve installed a brand new device — one of my own invention and thus vastly superior to anything else of its kind — that nullifies all sound in its immediate vicinity. I’m well-versed in the manipulation of invisible waveforms, as you know. Indeed, compared to my Whisperer, this project was no more challenging than . . .” Mr. Curtain trailed off with a chuckle. “But I digress. The point is, you couldn’t hear Benedict shouting, and I’ve no doubt he upset himself to sleep.”

  “How come we can hear you talking?” Constance said. “It would be nice if we couldn’t.”

  Mr. Curtain twitched, which was the first sign of annoyance he had shown. “I deactivated the device, Constance, with the push of a button. If you were more attentive, you would know that.”

  “I’m attentive enough to see you’re as nasty as ever,” Constance retorted. Her long-anticipated reunion with Mr. Benedict, occurring under such upsetting circumstances, had produced in her a very agitating mix of relief, concern, and fear — emotions she naturally expressed with angry defiance. In fact she was about to deliver an insulting rhyme when Mr. Curtain silenced her with a threatening look.

  “S.Q.,” Mr. Curtain said, “be a good fellow — by which I mean not quite such a blundering fool — and take a few steps away from Miss Wetherall. I dislike the way she’s eyeing the key in your hand.”

  Having locked Mr. Benedict near the children, S.Q. had lingered unthinkingly close by. At Mr. Curtain’s warning, he shoved the key deep into his pocket and backed away from Kate with a look of disbelief. At the Institute he’d been fond of the children, and despite all that had happened, S.Q. found that he was com
fortable with them — and far too trusting. He shook his head angrily. “You should be ashamed!”

  “I was only admiring how well you handled that key,” Kate said. “I think you’ve gotten less clumsy, S.Q.!”

  S.Q. brightened. “Do you think so?”

  “S.Q.!” Mr. Curtain snapped. “Be silent, and bring the smelling salts from the table.”

  “Should I bring the serum, too?” S.Q. asked, hurrying to the table.

  “Absolutely not. As I’ve told you repeatedly, you are never to touch it. The serum’s too precious to trust in your awkward paws, S.Q. You should know that.”

  “I was just thinking about what Kate said, about how I seem to be —”

  Mr. Curtain rubbed his forehead. “She was lying to you, S.Q. It was the key she was admiring, not your skill with it. Now wake up Benedict, move away, and for the last time, be silent.”

  S.Q. obediently passed the smelling salts beneath Mr. Benedict’s nose. Mr. Benedict sniffed, started, and suddenly looked up. His green eyes, normally so clear and bright, were terribly bloodshot and rimmed with red — he seemed exhausted beyond measure — but they flashed with joy when they fell upon the children, only to grow troubled when he perceived their predicament. “Ah,” Mr. Benedict said ruefully, pushing up his spectacles with his free hand. “How good it is to see you, my friends, and how I wish you hadn’t come.”

  “They’ve come to save you, Benedict!” cried Mr. Curtain. “They sneaked into my Salamander and raced to your rescue! Aren’t they doing a fine job?”

  “I think they’ve done admirably,” Mr. Benedict said; then turning to S.Q., he added, “S.Q., you know I don’t mind having you close by, but I imagine my brother would prefer you to stand a bit farther away from his prisoners.”

  “I’ve told you never to call me that!” Mr. Curtain snarled as S.Q. hastily retreated. “You are not my brother! A brother would not have ruined years of my work! A brother would not have taken away that which I prized most! My brother? No, Benedict, you are decidedly not my brother!”

  “And yet we do look rather alike,” Mr. Benedict pointed out.

  Mr. Curtain pressed his lips so tightly together the color left them; and his knuckles, too, went white from clenching the arms of his wheelchair. Spinning around so that his back was to Mr. Benedict — the chair moved noiselessly; he must have triggered its silencing device — Mr. Curtain took several deep breaths. (No one could hear him, but his shoulders rose and fell dramatically with each breath.) The fact of his kinship to Mr. Benedict was clearly upsetting to him, just as it once had been — and perhaps still was — to Mr. Benedict. A year had passed since each had discovered a long-lost brother and a formidable enemy at the exact same time, and Mr. Curtain had evidently spent every moment of it cultivating his bitterness.

  Regaining his composure, he turned back to face Mr. Benedict. His mouth began to move, but no sound came out. With an irritated grimace, he pressed a button on the controller in his hand and started again. “Very well,” he said. “I will acknowledge that you are my brother — a brother who ruined my ambitions and is thus the very worst kind of traitor. Are you satisfied?”

  Mr. Benedict opened his mouth to speak, but Mr. Curtain cut him off.

  “That was a rhetorical question, Benedict. I do not care in the least if you are satisfied or not.” He rolled his eyes and moved a little closer in his wheelchair. “And now to business. Since you have slept through recent developments, Benedict, allow me to apprise you of the situation. I had hoped these children would know about the duskwort, but by their own account they do not. Therefore —”

  Mr. Benedict interrupted him. “I’ve told you repeatedly, Ledroptha, that if you’d only release Number Two and me, I would make sure you were informed about the duskwort. That offer still stands. Once my friends and I are safely out of reach, I promise to have the information sent to you.”

  “I know what you offered,” Mr. Curtain said irritably. “And yet even if I trusted you, Benedict, the offer wouldn’t exactly suit my plans. I am not going to let you go. I am not ever going to let you go.”

  “Won’t I grow awfully cumbersome?” Mr. Benedict said. “I hate to be a burden.”

  Mr. Curtain sneered. “You joke, but the jokes will soon end. No, you will not be cumbersome. I don’t intend to let you go, but I don’t intend to keep you around, either. I intend to replace you.”

  It was with obvious delight that Mr. Curtain explained his carefully laid plans. The months he’d spent watching, waiting, preparing. How he’d ordered the theft of the truth serum — the better, he explained, to extract key passwords and information that would help him pass for Mr. Benedict. Under his new identity, Mr. Curtain would regain access to his Whisperer — and with it the ability to manipulate the memories and opinions of others. In short order, those officials who opposed the “new” Mr. Benedict’s ambitions would find themselves unceremoniously yanked from their posts, with no memory of having opposed him at all. And with the help of his former Executives, so well placed in government, Mr. Curtain — known to everyone else as Mr. Benedict — would rise swiftly to a position of unequaled power.

  In a way, Mr. Curtain explained in a mocking tone, Mr. Benedict had done much of the work for him. He had but to take advantage when the opportunity arose. “My associates were ready to pounce the moment you strayed beyond your protection. But then I learned that you’d made plans for travel without disclosing the reasons to anyone. This, I thought, was suspicious behavior, and I determined not to apprehend you until I had learned more. And oh! What I learned was well worth the wait, don’t you think? Duskwort! The most precious plant imaginable! And you — of all people — unwittingly prepared to lead me right to it!” Mr. Curtain uttered a clipped screech of laughter that sounded like a hiccup.

  “Ledroptha,” said Mr. Benedict, “why are you telling me this now?”

  Mr. Curtain ignored him. Speaking directly to the children, he continued, “When I caught up with him here, I knew the duskwort was close by. Benedict and his assistant — I refuse to call her by her ridiculous code name — clearly intended to use this cave as a temporary laboratory. They had everything they needed: a comfortable location sheltered from the wind, a microscope, good lighting. To my great annoyance, however, I discovered that I’d arrived before they had gathered any of the plants for study. I could never have guessed their pace would be so tortoise-like! Here they were, ludicrously unaware of the duskwort’s precise location or even of its appearance — just sitting on their hands and waiting for some mysterious associate to contact them with the necessary information.”

  Mr. Curtain gave Mr. Benedict a contemptuous glance. “Luckily,” he went on, “after wasting only a few drops of my truth serum, I realized the most efficient way to find this person would be to appeal to the protective instincts of Benedict’s friends. It was a perfect plan — no, a plan beyond perfection! I would receive the information I sought, then return to Stonetown in triumph! I would have the duskwort and my Whisperer! Can you imagine?”

  The children shuddered. They could imagine only too well. Mr. Curtain’s dream was everyone else’s nightmare.

  “Of course,” Mr. Curtain said, “I would have to revel in private. In public I would be compelled to grieve for my assistant, that poor nervous woman who would have failed to ‘escape’ with me. I’m sure you can understand why your friend couldn’t return with me — not knowing who I really was. No, I’m afraid she would have met her untimely demise at the hands of that cruel Mr. Curtain. Or else — I haven’t decided yet — she would remain his prisoner, hidden away somewhere in a far corner of the world, where all the government’s top agents would be dispatched to search in vain. This, of course, is why my men are tracking her down even as we speak. I may be undecided about her fate, but I certainly can’t have her running loose.”

  “Ledroptha,” said Mr. Benedict gravely. “It doesn’t have to be this way.”

  Mr. Curtain looked at him askance. “Oh, but I c
hoose for it to be this way. And the arrival of the children has simplified matters. You asked a minute ago why I’m telling you all this now. The answer is that I needed to be cautious. I did not care to give you information you might use against me. You had already proven yourself too untrustworthy for my truth serum to be effective — you always managed to say something technically true but completely unhelpful. But that was when the serum was administered without — how shall I put it? — without additional ingredients. And now those ingredients are in my possession.”

  Mr. Curtain took out his shiny silver gloves. The children instinctively recoiled. Grinning at their reaction, he patted the gloves against his knees. “I suspect that with the children here you’ll be more inclined to tell me what I wish to know. What say you, Benedict? Shall I put on my ‘kid gloves’?”

  Mr. Benedict looked at his brother with an expression of profound concern. “Ledroptha, you can’t possibly —”

  “Do not tell me what I cannot do!” Mr. Curtain shouted. He quickly closed his eyes and took a deep breath. After a long moment he opened his eyes again. “You can say what you please,” he said in a calmer voice, “but if your answers are not helpful to me, the children will pay the price.”

  Mr. Curtain shot forward in his wheelchair — narrowly missing the children and Mr. Benedict — and retrieved a small vial and dropper from the nearby table. He spun the chair around and rolled over to Mr. Benedict. “Let’s get started, shall we?”

  Mr. Benedict gazed steadily into his brother’s eyes. “How can I know that you won’t hurt the children anyway?”

  “A fair question,” said Mr. Curtain, drawing a single drop of liquid from the vial. “Allow me to put your mind at ease.”