The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey 33

  “Now, I didn’t see his body,” McCracken admitted. “My flashlight was shattered by then. But in the moonlight I could see a good fifty feet down, so he fell at least that far, and he was in a sorry condition to begin with. I doubt he lived, but if he did, he’s surely wishing he hadn’t. A fall like that will have broken every bone in his body.”

  “You’re going to wish you didn’t live!” Kate snarled, lunging forward. She spoke and moved with such ferocity that everyone in the cave flinched — everyone but McCracken, who chuckled as Kate’s handcuffs, still locked to the metal loop, jerked her off her feet. Reynie and Sticky grabbed onto her, holding her back for fear she’d break her arm trying to get at McCracken.

  “I’ve come to see what you prefer to do now,” said McCracken, turning back to Mr. Curtain. “I still need to track down Number Two, but first I should gather the men. Martina, too, I suppose — I saw her and Garrotte in the meadow. Milligan waylaid them on their way back to the village.”

  Mr. Curtain frowned. “I thought you said he avoided doing real harm.”

  “And so he did, but he left everyone unconscious, and Crawlings has some broken bones that will heal better if I have help to lift him properly. If you don’t care about that, I can just toss him into the Salamander with my good arm. Or, if you prefer, I can wait for the others to regain consciousness and give me a hand. Sharpe and Garrotte appeared to be coming around — they fluttered their eyes a bit when I kicked them — and I predict they’ll be awake soon. But I thought I should let you decide. I knew you hoped to leave before noon today.”

  Mr. Curtain received this news with considerable annoyance, but he appeared determined not to grow vexed. “Take S.Q.,” he said brusquely. “And hurry up. We’re almost ready to load.”

  S.Q. started to set down the metal box he’d been carrying.

  “No offense,” McCracken said, smiling at S.Q. in a way that showed he did, in fact, mean offense, “but I think it ought to be you who helps me, Mr. Curtain. As I said, Crawlings has broken bones. It wouldn’t do to have him dropped.”

  S.Q., greatly offended, dropped the metal box on his foot.

  “Fine,” Mr. Curtain said as S.Q. hopped around moaning and clutching at his foot. “I’ll come. S.Q., stop prancing and get back to work.”

  McCracken had set down his briefcase and was probing at a loose tooth with his fingertips. He pulled it out, examined it with mild curiosity, and slipped it into his pocket. “There’s something else. Milligan told the children that some friends were coming for them.”

  “Snakes and dogs,” muttered Mr. Curtain. “Did he say who? It can’t be an official rescue party or I’d have been notified. I assume no one radioed while you were outside.”

  “I did hear from Bludgins. Evidently Rhonda Kazembe has sent the pigeon back with a note. She claims to have identified the person you seek and begs for a few more days to locate him.”

  “A desperate ploy,” said Mr. Curtain, with a gesture of dismissal. “I’ve already located what I seek. But you have no word on these people who are coming?”

  “No, and Milligan didn’t mention any names. But we know where their boat will land, if it hasn’t already. The only decent place is in that southeastern bay. If you like, once my men are up we can drive over —”

  Mr. Curtain waved him silent. “Any confrontations can wait, McCracken, and it would be best to avoid them altogether. What I want from you is an assurance that our escaped prisoner cannot contact these people and tell them where Benedict is.”

  “Well,” said McCracken, “if she hasn’t already met up with them — that is, if they haven’t already sent a rescue party across the island —”

  “Most unlikely,” said Mr. Curtain. “The bay will have had an exceptionally tricky tide last night, McCracken — I know a thing or two about tides, you see — and I doubt any craft can have navigated to shore before now.”

  “Very good,” McCracken said. “Then I can assure you we’ll capture Number Two before she causes any trouble. I suspect she’s still hiding in the woods by the village. With the wind’s help we should have no trouble burning the woods and smoking her out.”

  “You had better be right,” Mr. Curtain said tersely.

  The conversation then shifted to the wheelchair, which Mr. Curtain was loath to leave behind. Because of his injured arm, McCracken couldn’t carry both the chair and his briefcase down the steep goat path to the Salamander, yet the chair was too heavy for Mr. Curtain — or indeed for any but the strongest of men — to carry that far. McCracken pointed out that Mr. Curtain wouldn’t actually be using the wheelchair much, to which Mr. Curtain replied that McCracken didn’t use his brain much, either, but still preferred to keep it with him. And so the discussion continued.

  Kate, meanwhile, was rifling surreptitiously through her bucket, trying to find anything that might help. At length she muttered, “I can’t figure out how we’re going to manage this.”

  “You mean how we’ll escape?” said Reynie in an undertone. “I can’t either.”

  “I didn’t mean that,” Kate replied, as if surprised at the very notion. “Of course we’ll escape!”

  “We will?” Sticky asked hopefully. “How?”

  “Oh, we’ll think of something,” Kate whispered, which was not quite as specific a plan as Sticky had hoped for. “What I’m wondering is how we’ll meet up with Milligan and find Number Two before those creeps do. How will we rescue her?”

  “Wait — you think Milligan is alive?” Constance whispered.

  “Obviously! I mean, I didn’t think so at first, but then I realized Milligan would never jump to his death — not when we were still in danger. He must have had something else in mind. Probably he just hasn’t been able to find us. He told us to go to that bay forest, after all. That’s where he’d have gone to look for us.”

  Reynie was less optimistic than Kate, but she did have a point. “Let me get this straight. We’re chained up in a cave with no idea what Mr. Curtain’s going to do to us, and your biggest concern is how we’re going to rescue Number Two?”

  “Exactly!” Kate whispered.

  “I just wanted to be clear on that,” said Reynie, and though he had only a small impulse to smile, this was nonetheless the best he’d felt in some time. “I think the place to start would be to rescue ourselves, Kate.”

  “I know, but we need more time! If they’re going to burn those woods —”

  “We have more time than they think,” Constance put in. “They’ll have trouble burning anything. It’s getting damp outside. Misting or drizzling. Don’t look at me like that, you know I can sense these —”

  “S.Q.!” barked Mr. Curtain. The children flinched and looked up to see him glaring at them. “If any one of our prisoners speaks again — any single one of them, S.Q. — you will report it to me on my return, and they will suffer the consequences. That’s an order, understood? No one is to speak. I will have none of this murmuring among themselves.”

  “Yes, sir,” said S.Q. He cleared his throat. “And, er, sir? Might I suggest that McCracken carry your wheelchair while you carry his briefcase? Just down to the Salamander, I mean.”

  The two men stared at S.Q., then looked at each other in surprise.

  “Out of the mouths of babes,” grunted McCracken.

  “I’ll steer my chair as far as the path,” said Mr. Curtain, already moving. “Then we can exchange burdens.” He glided swiftly away up the passage, with McCracken limping along behind him and with never a word of thanks to S.Q. — nor even a glance of acknowledgment — for having made the amazingly practical suggestion that the two of them work together.

  Still smarting from McCracken’s insult and Mr. Curtain’s cold treatment, S.Q. Pedalian had only just returned to his work when Mr. Benedict spoke to him. No one had seen Mr. Benedict wake up, and in fact he spoke now in a careful, measured tone, with a very sleepy quality, as if perhaps he hadn’t woken at all.

  “S.Q.,” Mr. Benedict said in t
his strange, somniferous tone, “I know you have much to do, but if you can spare just a moment, these handcuffs are chafing me again.”

  S.Q. turned to Mr. Benedict with a look of distress. “Oh, no, Mr. Benedict, you shouldn’t have spoken! Don’t you realize I have to report you to Mr. Curtain now? It was a direct order, you know! You’ll be punished!”

  Mr. Benedict fixed S.Q. with a steady gaze. “I realize that, S.Q.,” he said, still in that slow, sleepy tone, “and it’s quite all right. You must do what you must do, my friend. I bear you no ill will.”

  Plainly relieved, S.Q. smiled, then stifled a yawn.

  “Still,” said Mr. Benedict, “the handcuffs, as I said, are chafing my wrist most terribly. Just as they always do.”

  S.Q. stared at him, not in hesitation or even with suspicion, but as if it were taking a long time for Mr. Benedict’s words to register in his brain. The children, bewildered, said nothing. They dared not even breathe. They could see Mr. Benedict was up to something even if S.Q. couldn’t. S.Q. yawned again but didn’t take his eyes from Mr. Benedict’s.

  “You are very tired, aren’t you, S.Q.?” said Mr. Benedict.

  S.Q. continued to stare. After a moment, he nodded dumbly. “I really am,” he whispered.

  “I know you are, my friend,” said Mr. Benedict. “And so am I. You should sit with me a moment and rest. But first, please unlock my handcuffs, just as you’ve kindly done before. I would like to rub some feeling back into my wrist.”

  And then, to the children’s profound amazement, S.Q. Pedalian walked over to Mr. Benedict and unlocked his handcuffs. At first Mr. Benedict did not stir; he only thanked S.Q. and rubbed his wrist gratefully. Then he patted the ground beside him.

  “Sit for a moment,” Mr. Benedict said.

  “For a moment,” intoned S.Q., his eyes heavy-lidded, his shoulders slumped. He sat beside Mr. Benedict and leaned back against the stalagmite.

  “You should feel how these pinch,” said Mr. Benedict, and very casually, as if adjusting a cufflink on S.Q.’s sleeve, he slipped the open handcuff onto S.Q.’s wrist (the other was still attached to the metal loop) and tightened it. “There, isn’t that uncomfortable?”

  “It is a bit constraintive,” S.Q. murmured, frowning. “I mean constrictual. I mean . . .” He trailed off, his expression troubled.

  “We should take them off,” said Mr. Benedict. “Here, give me the key.”

  S.Q. gave Mr. Benedict the key.

  Leaning forward to obscure S.Q.’s view, Mr. Benedict slipped the key to Kate, who lost no time in freeing her-self and the others. Then Mr. Benedict drew the children away from the stalagmite, where S.Q. still sat cuffed to the metal loop. S.Q. blinked rapidly, as if coming awake. He stared at the children, and then at Mr. Benedict, in perfect bafflement.

  “I am sorry, S.Q.,” said Mr. Benedict. “Some part of you must understand that I mean that.”

  S.Q. shook his head violently as if to clear it. His expression darkened; his lip began to quiver. “But . . . but you can’t be serious! You can’t have lied to me!”

  “I never did,” said Mr. Benedict.

  S.Q. was stunned. “But all those other times — you never tried anything! You promised you wouldn’t! I even gave you a drop of the truth serum to be sure!”

  “Yes, but I made no such promise this time, S.Q. Nor did I promise to release you — I said only that we should take your handcuffs off. Which we should. In a better world and time, I would gladly release you. And I hope to see you again in just such a world, and at such a time. You have a bright soul, S.Q. I’m extremely sorry to leave you in this predicament, but leave you I must.” Mr. Benedict turned away with a sorrowful expression. “Come, children, we should hurry.”

  Kate hoisted Constance onto her back, and together the escaped prisoners made quickly for the passage. Behind them, S.Q. sat with his face growing darker and darker, his eyes darting back and forth as he worked through what Mr. Benedict had said. He was plainly trying not to believe what had just happened.

  “You hypnotized him?” Constance asked as they hurried up the passage.

  “Something like that,” said Mr. Benedict gravely, “although much coarser. Persuading him was possible only because he trusted me not to betray his kindness. I’ve just dealt a terrible blow to the best part of S.Q. Pedalian, children. We must all hope he recovers.” Mr. Benedict touched Reynie’s shoulder. “I hope you haven’t given up on the S.Q.’s of the world, Reynie. As you see, there are a great many sheep in wolves’ clothing. If not for S.Q.’s good nature, we’d never have escaped.”

  They were now approaching the cave entrance, from which they could hear an unearthly moaning — it was dawn, and the island’s daily wind had risen — and Reynie was just reflecting that they hadn’t escaped yet when the wind’s moaning was drowned out by a howl of anguish echoing through the cave behind them. S.Q. had finally accepted the reality of his situation. In furious outrage he screamed after them, “You’re just like Mr. Curtain said! I believed you, Mr. Benedict! I trusted you! I should have known! I should have known!”

  At the cave entrance Mr. Benedict stopped to look back. Perhaps it was a result of his exhaustion, or perhaps it was because he was the direct cause of S.Q.’s suffering, but his expression was as mournful as any of the children had ever seen it.

  “If only —” he began, but he never finished his thought, for at that moment he fell asleep.

  Sticky spared Mr. Benedict a vicious knock on the head by being in his way when he fell. Thus it was Sticky who suffered the knock, bruising his forehead on the hard ground as he fell with Mr. Benedict on top of him. Tugging free, he gently rolled Mr. Benedict onto his back and resettled the sleeping man’s spectacles before resettling his own. He shook Mr. Benedict’s arm. “Wake up, Mr. Benedict! Wake up!”

  S.Q.’s howls had stopped as abruptly as they’d started, and the only sound now was the moaning of the wind and Sticky’s entreaties as the others looked anxiously on. Mr. Curtain and McCracken had been gone no time at all. If they’d forgotten something and came back . . . Reynie cast a nervous glance out beyond the cave. Dawn may have broken, but there was no sunshine. Gray clouds scudded low over the mountain, and — just as Constance had predicted — a fine gray mist hung over everything, swirling in the wind like smoke.

  “He isn’t waking up,” Sticky said, patting Mr. Benedict’s cheek.

  “Uh oh,” said Constance. “This can happen when he’s really worn out. Sometimes we can’t wake him for hours.”

  “Well, he’s surely as exhausted right now as he’s ever been,” Sticky said. He looked up at Reynie. “This isn’t good.”

  “Let’s see if we can fashion a stretcher,” said Reynie. “We can’t afford to wait. We need to get to that bay forest.”

  “What about Number Two?” Kate protested.

  “Our best chance of helping her now is to get to the forest. Like you said, that’s where Milligan expected us to go, so that’s where we should look for him. If he isn’t there, maybe his friends will be, and we can get them to help us. But there’s no chance of any of that if we’re caught. We need to move!”

  Move, of course, was a word with great natural appeal to Kate, and she was instantly swayed to Reynie’s perspective. Still, she doubted the boys could handle the other end of a stretcher all the way to the bay, even taking turns, and there was also Constance to consider. “What we need is a sledge. We can drag Mr. Benedict and Constance both. I’ll be right back!” She sprinted down the passage into the cavern.

  The others were still trying to rouse Mr. Benedict when Kate returned. She was dragging the table that had been covered with tools and equipment. With the help of the tools, her bucket, and her Army knife (which Mr. Curtain had left on the table), she’d removed the table legs and reattached them lengthwise to act as crude runners. She’d also stripped the wiring from several floodlights and fashioned lead lines and grips with which to pull the sledge. It was quite a makeshift contraption, but no less
remarkable for the speed with which Kate had assembled it.

  “I wanted to bring those smelling salts,” Kate said, seeing Mr. Benedict was still asleep, “but S.Q. had them in his pocket and I thought it best not to go near him. He was glaring at me like he wanted to wring my neck.”

  They hoisted Mr. Benedict onto the sledge; then Constance climbed on and held him steady while the others grabbed the lines and yanked to test them. The metal runners made an awful scratching, grinding sound on the rocks, but with Kate and the boys pulling, the sledge moved fairly quickly.

  Satisfied, Kate said, “I’ll need to find the easiest route down,” and she hurried off to scale the peak above the cave, leaping from boulder to boulder as if she were one of the island’s resident mountain goats. In no time she stood high above her friends, scanning the eastern side of the island with her spyglass. She quickly determined the best route: First a short northwesterly descent to a prominent goat path that led almost all the way down the mountain; then slantwise across a long gravel slope (giving as wide a berth as possible to some treacherous bluffs); and finally across the black rock plain to the bay forest, which from here appeared as a dark shadow in the general grayness. Kate looked for any sign of Milligan but found none. The forest, the bay, and the ocean beyond were lost in the shroud of mist.

  Far below, Reynie was looking up at Kate, anxious to hear her verdict, when a curious feeling came over him. He wasn’t sure what it was. He stared and stared, trying to place it. Kate stood silhouetted against the gray, cloud-scattered sky, wind flapping her ponytail behind her. Cliff swallows, heedless of the damp, darted in and out of holes in the rocks about her, and high above them circled a bird of prey, no doubt contemplating which swallow would constitute its breakfast. Meanwhile, dark clouds raced overhead as if on a film strip run in fast-motion, and these combined with the fluttering of the swallows and the circling of the larger bird made Reynie’s stomach twist with vertigo . . . yes, vertigo, that must be the curious feeling. Or . . . no, Reynie wasn’t satisfied with that answer. What was this feeling, then? It almost seemed like déjà vu — as if he’d experienced something very much like this before.