The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey 32

  Mr. Curtain lifted the dropper, threw back his head, and let the drop fall into his open mouth. Instantly his eyes bulged and he wagged his head, as if he’d swallowed turpentine. “I promise,” he said, speaking quickly in a strained voice, “that if you tell me all I wish to know, I will not hurt these children. I’ll use the Whisperer to remove their memories of this event, and so they will be no threat to my plans and can live the remainder of their lives in safety. I will not offer you anything better, but that much, at least, I promise.”

  The two men stared at each other, Mr. Curtain with a look of defiance, Mr. Benedict with an assessing, contemplative expression. At length Mr. Benedict started to speak, only to be interrupted by Constance, who shouted, “He’s lying, Mr. Benedict! That wasn’t the truth serum at all! He switched the vials while you were asleep!”

  Mr. Benedict started, then looked visibly upset, as if he’d just received terrible news. In a voice so low only the children heard it he said, “I knew he was lying, dear girl.”

  Mr. Curtain was staring at Constance in amazement. “Well, well, well,” he said in an appraising tone. “Now how could you possibly know I switched the vials?”

  Constance stared back in dismay. She didn’t know how she’d known about the vials. She only knew that she hadn’t wanted Mr. Benedict to be fooled, and that her revelation seemed to please Mr. Curtain very much.

  “I did switch them, but it was long before you arrived,” Mr. Curtain was saying, mostly to himself. His fingers drummed excitedly on the armrests of his wheelchair. “And yet you knew . . . you knew. Oh, my, what a useful little girl you are, Constance. I had no idea!”

  “Ledroptha,” Mr. Benedict said quickly, “promise to leave her alone — no need for the serum — just make the promise, and I will tell you everything you want to know.”

  Mr. Curtain smiled an oily smile. “I’ll make no such promise, Benedict. I will, however, promise not to harm any of the children for the time being — but only if you answer at once. That is my offer. Shall I put on my gloves, or . . . ?”

  “That won’t be necessary,” Mr. Benedict said. “Just make the promise.”

  “I promise,” said Mr. Curtain. He gave Constance a sly look. “Am I telling the truth, my dear?”

  Constance gazed fearfully at him, then nodded.

  Mr. Curtain made a pleased murmur. He turned back to Mr. Benedict. “Now tell me quick, and no more games! Who is this person you spoke of ? And don’t you dare ask which person! You know who I mean: the one ‘extremely close’ to you — the only one who can secure the information for me! That’s exactly what you said! Now who is this person?”

  Mr. Benedict looked frankly at his brother. “You.”

  “Me?” said Mr. Curtain, taken aback. His eyes narrowed, and he put his hands over his mouth, breathing into them as if they were cold. It was evident he was attempting to stay calm. “What do you mean, me? How could I possibly secure this information for myself ?”

  “You could have done so at any time simply by letting us go, which was the offer I made you repeatedly,” said Mr. Benedict. “Had you released us, I would have revealed the information.”

  Mr. Curtain threw his hands into the air. “But you said you didn’t know!”

  “I said no such thing.”

  Mr. Curtain’s wheelchair bucked forward, and with surprising agility he leaped from his seat and landed inches away from Mr. Benedict. He shook his finger in Mr. Benedict’s face. “And what if I had threatened to hurt your companion? You wouldn’t have revealed it then?”

  “I most certainly would have,” said Mr. Benedict. “But it would still have been you who secured the information with your threats.”

  “So you phrased it that way to prevent further questioning!” roared Mr. Curtain, finally understanding. “You knew I didn’t want to waste any more serum! You knew I wanted to save it!”

  “That was my understanding, yes.” Mr. Benedict returned his brother’s furious look with a calm, inscrutable gaze.

  The children watched hopefully. If Mr. Curtain was angry enough, he might fall asleep, and they could try to make an escape. Maybe . . .

  But after only a moment of outraged quivering, Mr. Curtain relaxed. He smiled, nodded, and put his hands behind his back. His wheelchair came up behind him like a well-trained pet. “Good enough,” he said, taking his seat. “In the end, your treachery has worked in my favor. You must be terribly disappointed in yourself, Benedict. Now I shall have my duskwort and my Whisperer, and these children are proving useful as well. . . .” He turned his wheelchair and cast a probing glance at Constance.

  “Ledroptha,” said Mr. Benedict. “Shall I show you what I discovered now, or would you prefer to wait?”

  “Yes,” said Mr. Curtain, turning eagerly back to him. “Show me at once.”

  “I’ll need you to turn off the lights, then.”


  “The floodlights. Turn them off. There’s a control box on the table.”

  “I know where the control box is,” said Mr. Curtain. “And I have left the lights on for good reason — so that nothing you did would go unobserved.”

  Mr. Benedict gave him a patient smile. “I was aware of this, of course. But if you wish to see what I’ve been hiding from you, then off they must go.”

  Mr. Curtain regarded him coldly. “Before I turn them off, do I need to make clear what punishments the children will suffer if this is an attempt to trick me?”

  “I don’t believe such an explanation is necessary, no. I assure you I intend to do nothing at all while the lights are out.”

  Mr. Curtain backed his wheelchair to the table and picked up the control box. He examined it carefully, then — just to be safe — rolled over and handed the box to S.Q., who’d been watching the proceedings in dutiful silence and at a dutifully safe distance. “Very well, Benedict. Let us hope you haven’t needlessly endangered your young friends. S.Q., flip the switch!”

  S.Q. did as he was told, and the cave was thrown into perfect darkness. But the darkness lasted only a moment, for the walls, stalagmites, and stalactites soon began to glow with luminescent streaks of green.

  “What you’re seeing is a form of translucent moss,” said Mr. Benedict. “It is what makes the rock appear slimy and wet in the light. In the darkness, as you can see, it is iridescent.”

  For a long time Mr. Curtain sat in startled silence. Then he laughed. Softly at first, then louder and louder — and screechier and screechier — until the walls of the cavern reverberated with the great screeching peals of Mr. Curtain’s triumph.

  Old Friends and New Enemies

  The hours that followed were wretched ones indeed. Mr. Benedict and the children were compelled to watch as Mr. Curtain and S.Q. diligently scraped duskwort from every surface within reach. It was Mr. Curtain who had brought the black metal boxes stacked beneath the table, the children discovered. Although he’d had no idea of the plant’s appearance or location, he’d long been a scholar of the duskwort legends, and some years ago had secured — in a dark corner of the world — a scrap from an ancient book offering instructions for the transport and preservation of the fragile plant. Evidently nothing more elaborate was required than darkness, moisture, and a certain degree of heat, and Mr. Curtain had devised special containers to meet these conditions. Whenever he or S.Q. opened a metal box to slide in another layer of the precious moss, steam wafted out as if from a modern-day witch’s cauldron.

  “To think,” said Mr. Benedict, watching his brother stretch to reach a high patch of duskwort on a stalagmite, “if we had worked together, Ledroptha, we might have accomplished a great deal. We each knew things the other did not.”

  “And still do,” said Mr. Curtain, standing on the seat of his wheelchair to reach the duskwort more easily. (The wheelchair, in response to an unseen signal, eerily circled the stalagmite as if it had a mind of its own.) “But as you’ve now witnessed, I’m perfectly capable of making you reveal the things I desir
e to know. I see no advantage in ‘working together,’ as you put it.”

  “The advantage,” Mr. Benedict began, “would lie in —”

  “I do not care to hear any more of your opinions,” interrupted Mr. Curtain, peeling away a strip of slimy moss. “Foolish opinions distract me, and I have no time for distraction.”

  “You do seem rather in a hurry,” Mr. Benedict observed.

  “What did I just tell you about your opinions?” Mr. Curtain snapped. “Once again you betray your simplicity, Benedict. How do you think I have avoided capture if not from choosing never to tarry, never to linger? Take the present case: Even if I did not receive word from your Miss Kazembe, I fully intended to leave this island today.”

  “And abandon the duskwort?” Mr. Benedict asked, sounding mildly surprised.

  “Again, Benedict. Simplicity of thinking. I intended to leave S.Q., of course, to continue searching for it while I investigated the matter elsewhere. One way or another I would have found the duskwort, I assure you.”

  At this, S.Q. paused in his work. From his stunned expression it was clear he’d had no inkling of this plan to leave him alone on a deserted island.

  “As usual, however,” Mr. Curtain went on, “I have achieved my goals in the most efficient manner possible. Still, it never serves to stay in one place for long. Therefore I proceed, as always, with due haste.”

  “If you’re in such a hurry,” Kate put in, “why don’t you force us to help you gather the duskwort?”

  Mr. Curtain uttered his screechy laugh. “I have quite enough help, thank you, Miss Wetherall! And I should have quite enough duskwort even if I were compelled to leave most of it behind. No, I believe it’s better if you remain locked up.”

  “I can’t see why you don’t just dump us off the mountain,” Kate said. “Now that you have your stupid plant, we’re not much use to you.” (Her friends squirmed uncomfortably at these words, even though they knew Kate was trying to create an opportunity for escape.)

  But Mr. Curtain, who also knew what she was up to — subtlety had never been Kate’s strong suit — only screeched again and said, “On the contrary, you may be useful indeed! I’ve been giving the matter some thought, you see, and the fact is that once I have a proper distillation of the duskwort, it should be simple enough to keep you asleep — helplessly, quietly asleep — except on such occasions as I deem appropriate. Say, whenever I require more information. Benedict has already proven himself quite weak where you children are concerned.”

  “Well, I suppose that isn’t the dumbest idea you’ve had,” said Kate, just to show pluck, for Mr. Curtain’s suggestion had made her feel sick with dread. “There are rather a lot of us to keep hidden, though. Do you have some kind of shrinking machine, too?”

  “Properly stacked, Miss Wetherall, I should think you would all fit nicely in a single locked closet.” Mr. Curtain pursed his lips, pretending to consider. “But you’re right, it may prove too much of an inconvenience. I’ll need to reflect upon it. What do you say, Benedict? Would you prefer to be gotten rid of entirely, or to sleep your life away in a closet?”

  “I am partial to long naps,” Mr. Benedict said. “But I’ve never been gotten rid of before, so it’s difficult for me to say.”

  Mr. Benedict’s implacable calm seemed to ruffle Mr. Curtain, whose smirk faded, replaced by an icy stare. “Then it’s lucky you will not be the one who chooses. Now do be quiet, all of you. I’ve had enough of your distractions. I hate to interrupt my work again, but I assure you — and this is a promise — the next person who utters a word will receive my full attention.”

  There was no doubting Mr. Curtain’s sincerity on this point — or what he meant by “full attention” — and the remaining hours of the night were spent in awful silence, under threat of those shiny silver gloves, with no sounds at all save for those of Mr. Curtain and S.Q. working away.

  Reynie’s mind was also working away — and furiously, at that — but to no good effect. He had tried countless times to think of a means of escape. Tried and failed. And meanwhile he was imagining all sorts of things he would prefer not to imagine, such as the terrible reunion of Mr. Curtain and his Whisperer, and what would happen to Rhonda, Miss Perumal, and all the others whose nosy questions Mr. Curtain would never tolerate. Nor, unfortunately, did Reynie’s imagination stop there. Instead it wandered bleakly on, out of Mr. Benedict’s house and into Stonetown, where Reynie saw a crew of Ten Men stalking the slumbering streets, every last resident having been sent to sleep by a “proper distillation” of Mr. Curtain’s duskwort. Try as he might, Reynie could not avert his mind’s eye, and so he saw with frightful clarity the ease with which Mr. Curtain’s men carried away all those who dared oppose their master. There would be no struggles, not even a cry of complaint. Just a city waking up in the morning with one less opponent of Mr. Curtain.

  Mr. Curtain would have what he’d always wanted. He would be in absolute control. All that was required was that he change his name to Nicholas Benedict. Most people would never guess what was happening.

  The children would be out of the way by then, of course. That much was certain. The question was what Mr. Curtain was going to do with them. Reynie couldn’t think of any possibilities that didn’t make him sweat.

  His only hope — however slim — was that Milligan might save them, and as night drew nearer to morning, Reynie clung to it with increasing desperation. When Mr. Curtain mused aloud that it was taking his Ten Men much too long to track down the escaped Number Two (“the woman,” he called her), and sent S.Q. out of the cave with a radio to contact them, Reynie tensed in expectation. Perhaps Milligan was waiting outside and would ambush him! But S.Q. returned with the report that the radio waves were silent. This news caused Mr. Curtain to furrow his brow suspiciously, and it gave Reynie some reason to nurse his fragile hope a bit longer . . .

  But that hope fell apart completely just before dawn, when McCracken came limping into the cave.

  Kate let out a gasp, then burst into tears, for the Ten Man’s appearance could mean only one thing. The other children looked at one another in despair, and Mr. Benedict, his own eyes brimming as he heard Kate’s devastated sobs, reached out to comfort her — then slumped sideways against the stalagmite, asleep.

  McCracken observed all this with amusement as he limped over to await Mr. Curtain, who at the sound of his approach had retreated — in perfect, creepy silence — to the other chamber. S.Q. had likewise disappeared, but the Ten Man stared shrewdly at a nearby stalagmite as he called out, “Code Seven, Mr. Curtain! No need for an ambush!” In a patronizing tone he added, “S.Q., I’ll remind you that Code Seven means ‘all clear.’ Your boot tips are plainly visible, at any rate.”

  As S.Q. emerged from his hiding place looking sheepish, Mr. Curtain rocketed into view at such a speed that his wheelchair seemed certain to slam into McCracken. He skidded to a stop at the last instant, however, and McCracken acknowledged his entrance with an admiring bow. If Mr. Curtain had actually struck him with the chair, McCracken would have been sent flying, and as a Ten Man he had great esteem for impressive displays of force.

  It was lucky for McCracken he hadn’t been sent flying, for he was already in a terrible state. He was using his necktie as a sling for an injured arm, his face was bloody and streaked with soot, his elegant suit was tattered and scorched, and his briefcase positively bristled with tranquilizer darts. His expression, however, revealed an obvious satisfaction, and when he spoke it was in his usual calm, deceptively pleasant way, as if he’d simply come to report on the weather.

  “We ran into a spot of trouble,” McCracken said, in response to Mr. Curtain’s look of disapproval. He nodded toward the children. “Where’d you find the chickies?”

  “They found me,” Mr. Curtain said coldly, “having stolen my Salamander, which was in your care. And I’ve captured and held them, which was more, apparently, than your imbecile crew could manage. Do remind me why I pay you.”

nbsp; McCracken grinned, revealing a number of missing teeth. “We’re good for your morale. Anyway, you didn’t have to deal with Milligan.”

  “Benedict’s agent? He’s on the island?”

  “Ohhh . . . so they didn’t tell you,” said McCracken, lifting an eyebrow.

  Mr. Curtain shot the children a venomous glance. “They did not. Milligan, eh? I suppose his involvement explains why I haven’t heard from Jackson or Jillson.”

  “No doubt,” McCracken agreed. “But you needn’t worry about further interference. Milligan’s been dealt with.”

  “I take it you dealt with him yourself,” said Mr. Curtain, looking the Ten Man up and down. “You’re in a pathetic condition.”

  “Not just me. It took the lot of us. I must say Milligan was like no one I’d ever fought. Fast as a tiger and clever as a fox. But he never had a chance, really. The man had an absurd reluctance to do anyone real harm. You should have seen the lengths he went to just to avoid killing Crawlings, who was doing everything he could to dash him to pieces. Once I discovered that weakness, it was only a matter of time until I finished him.”

  “So you did finish him?” Mr. Curtain asked. “Skip to the end, McCracken. And you, S.Q., stop standing there like a lamppost and get back to work.”

  “The end was rather a disappointment,” said McCracken as S.Q. hurriedly resumed scraping and packing. “Our fight had taken us high up on the middlemost mountain, where I had backed him onto a cliff at the edge of a ravine — the other men were out of commission by this point — and he was enduring a shocking number of hornet stings rather than come out from behind a boulder he was using to shield himself. But I was gradually moving into position to finish him off, and when he realized this, he chose a less painful end. He jumped.”

  Reynie put an arm around Kate’s shoulders, but she scarcely noticed. She had stifled her tears now, mastering herself in order to listen to McCracken’s account. She stared at the Ten Man, radiating fury.