The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey 35

  The others found this no comfort at all, however, and Reynie glanced despondently at the sledge — the prized burden that ensured they’d never make it to the bay. He found himself staring into the eyes of Mr. Benedict, who was sitting up straight and yawning.

  “I must have . . . ah, I see,” said Mr. Benedict, running a hand through his hair. He looked at Reynie in chagrin. “I chose a terrible time to sleep, I’m afraid.” He appeared to grasp their predicament at once, for before Reynie could even think of what to say, Mr. Benedict had lifted Milligan from the ground and, with a rallying cry to the children, set off into the forest with the injured man in his arms. The others exclaimed and hurried after him, Kate slinging Constance up onto her back almost as an afterthought.

  “Be careful!” she cried. “He’s badly hurt, Mr. Benedict!”

  “So I can see, my dear, but I have no doubt he’ll recover,” Mr. Benedict puffed as they ran through the trees. “Your father is the most resilient man I’ve ever known. He’ll be fine.”

  Reynie wished he shared Mr. Benedict’s confidence. At the moment it seemed unlikely that any of them would be fine. Already the Salamander had reached the forest edge and veered off to go around — it was too big to pass through the trees — but not before Reynie heard a telltale pause in its rumbling that indicated a Ten Man or two had been dropped off to follow them. The Salamander would skirt the forest and meet them at the shore, whereas any retreat through the woods was now out of the question. Their escape had become, just as Reynie had predicted, an all or nothing situation.

  A few desperate moments more and the haggard, gasping group emerged from the trees and stumbled onto the rocky shore of the bay. There was the beached seaplane, still covered by Milligan’s tarpaulin. There, in the far distance, was the Salamander, rumbling around the edge of the forest and turning toward them. And there, in the choppy waters of the bay itself, was . . . nothing.

  Sticky took one look at the empty water and fell to his knees.

  Mr. Benedict stared out at the mist-shrouded bay with a perplexed look. “I take it something is amiss.”

  Reynie, stricken, covered his face with his hands. “I did what I thought . . . I mean, I hoped . . . oh, I can’t believe I hoped —”

  Mr. Benedict made a gentle shushing sound. “Whatever you chose, Reynie, I’m sure it was the right thing. Now you must brace yourselves, my friends, for —”

  “Hold that thought,” said Kate, pointing at the bay.

  They looked, and so awesome was the sight that for a moment all thought of danger fled their minds. Seen through the mist, the dark hills at the mouth of the bay appeared to be moving, as if they were the legs of the ancient Colossus. But this was a trick of the eye. In fact a gargantuan shape had loomed up behind them, was even now rushing between them, and now — to the thrill of the stranded, desperate watchers on the shore — the enormous, magnificent body of the Shortcut hove fully into view, splitting the waters of the bay.

  As the ship appeared, its horn blasted with such shocking volume that most of the onlookers covered their ears. The onlookers included those in the Salamander, who had hardly needed the horn to call their attention to the Shortcut’s arrival. Every single one of them was gaping in awe, and even the unflappable McCracken had swerved wildly away from the water before looking back in disbelief. And well he might have disbelieved. So disproportionate was the great ship to the bay, so vastly out of place, it might have been a whale in a bathtub.

  “This way!” Mr. Benedict shouted.

  Though less than a second had passed since its appearance, the Shortcut was already bearing down upon the shore. The children ran after Mr. Benedict, toward the side of the bay opposite the Salamander. Never once did they tear their eyes from the ship, which was churning up gigantic waves — not only of water but also of mud, for the Shortcut’s keel was furrowing the bottom of the bay like a farmer’s plow.

  Captain Noland, just as Reynie had asked him to, was grounding his precious ship to save his friends.

  Moments later the Shortcut had come to rest, and the island bay and its shore resembled the scene of some unimaginable disaster. Pieces of the destroyed seaplane were strewn everywhere on either side of the ship, whose bow jutted well into the forest, having crushed any number of trees in its path. On one side of the ship, the Ten Man called Garrotte was digging himself out from a mountain of mud — it was he who had pursued Mr. Benedict and the children through the forest, and he’d been just about to catch up with them when the ship crashed ashore, nearly drowning him in water and muck. Behind Garrotte the Salamander was moving toward the ship at the behest of a furious Mr. Curtain. On the other side of the Shortcut, the group of castaways it had come to rescue were likewise hurrying toward the ship, from whose deck Cannonball and a handful of other sailors were tossing down lines.

  Footholds and handholds had been cleverly knotted into the lines, two of which supported a stretcher, and almost before they knew it the children, Mr. Benedict, and Milligan had been whisked up and away onto the deck high above.

  “There’s no time!” Reynie declared the moment he set foot on deck. “We have to get everyone into the security hold!”

  “Don’t worry, Reynie,” said Cannonball, who in his excitement was grabbing all the children and hugging them in turn. “Captain Noland’s already given the order. He’s coming from the bridge to lead you down. My friends and I intend to stay and fight them off, but —”

  “That’s out of the question, Joe,” said Mr. Benedict, with unusual severity. “I admire your bravery, but you’d stand no chance. You won’t even slow them down. You must come with us.”

  By this time Captain Noland had joined them — his expression a curious mixture of joy and shock at what he’d just done.

  “I commend you on a perfect landing, Phil,” said Mr. Benedict, and the captain laughed and embraced him.

  With Cannonball and another stout sailor carrying Milligan on the stretcher, they all hurried from the deck. Even as they were starting down the ladder, grappling hooks began to sail over the deck railing, finding purchase with ominous clangs. Mr. Curtain and his Ten Men were coming aboard.

  “The Royal Navy has two patrol boats on the way,” Captain Noland said as he led them down into the belly of the ship. “They’ll be here in half an hour.” At the door of the security hold he ushered everyone else inside before coming in himself. Then, with a spin of the handle and the throwing of a bolt, the heavy metal door was secured.

  “Children!” cried a familiar voice, and Number Two emerged from the crowd of sailors and security guards crammed into the hold. Her hair was concealed by a winding bandage, and she was scarcely strong enough to hug them all — Reynie and Sticky each took her by an arm — but her face glowed at the sight of them.

  Mr. Benedict was eyeing the locked door. “Half an hour, did you say, Phil? Are you certain of that?”

  “Yes, they just radioed to tell me. They aren’t far.”

  Mr. Benedict pursed his lips. He turned to face the small crowd. Everyone’s face betrayed great apprehension and not a little confusion. Captain Noland hadn’t had time to explain anything to his crew, who knew only that some menace was approaching from above. The extra security guards hired by Mr. Pressius, thinking themselves under attack by pirates, were arguing in urgent, agitated tones about whether or not to hand over the decoy diamonds. Mr. Benedict raised his hands to gain their attention, then very quietly said, “I advise complete silence, everyone. Our pursuers must find this hold before they can attempt to enter it. Let’s not give them any help.”

  Instantly a hush fell over the room, and a period of tense, silent waiting began. They could all hear the distant thumps and bangs from overhead as Mr. Curtain and his crew made their way methodically through the ship. The security hold was several levels belowdeck, and there were many passageways and cabins to search. Mr. Curtain was taking no chances of letting his quarry slip by him. Ten minutes passed. The noises grew louder. Twenty minutes pas
sed. Still louder. Twenty-five.

  And then the frightened assembly in the hold heard voices outside the door, followed by a burst of screechy laughter.

  “There’s no longer any need for silence,” Mr. Benedict announced. “Move away from the door, everyone. Press into those far corners as well as you can. Joe, will you bear a hand with Milligan?”

  Everyone squeezed as far away from the door as they could; they were pressed so tightly together it was difficult to draw breath. Milligan lay in his stretcher near the front of the crowd, with Kate kneeling beside him, her arm thrown protectively over his chest. Behind them Reynie, Sticky, and Constance were holding tightly to Number Two’s arms (or in Constance’s case, to her legs), while Mr. Benedict stood with his arms folded, regarding the door as if it were a puzzle.

  “What do they want, anyway?” one of the security guards whispered. His face was white with fear.

  “Our friends,” said Cannonball.

  “You mean . . . ?” said the guard, his eyes widening. “You mean if we let them have this bunch” — he waved his hand to indicate Mr. Benedict, Number Two, and the children — “they’ll leave the rest of us alone?”

  The children caught their breath. Mr. Benedict raised an eyebrow.

  Captain Noland spun on the guard, fixing him with a steely gaze. “On this ship,” he said through clenched teeth, “we do not sacrifice the innocent to save our own skins.”

  “Hear, hear!” growled Cannonball, and a chorus of approving voices rang out from among the rest of the crew, as well as from some of the other security guards.

  Reynie and the other children (except Constance, who was staring at the door with a frown of concentration) looked gratefully about at all these frightened people willing to risk themselves for strangers. Mr. Benedict raised his hand and offered a friendly wave of appreciation. If he was disturbed by the fact that someone had just suggested throwing him and the children to the wolves, he didn’t show it. Nor did he seem surprised by the courage and decency of the others. He simply made his wave, then knelt beside Constance, who was still staring at the door.

  “What are they doing, my dear?”

  “Something bad,” Constance whispered. “They have a plan to get in, and they know we’ll be hurt, but they don’t care. Oh!” Her eyes grew very wide. “They intend to —”

  But what Constance said next was overwhelmed by the sound of a loudspeaker outside the ship.

  “Attention! You in the ship! Come onto the deck with your hands up!” boomed a voice over the loudspeaker. The Royal Navy had arrived.

  Everyone cheered, and from beyond the door came the sound of loud cursing and arguing, followed by thumping noises as Mr. Curtain and his crew rushed away from the door and up the several levels to the deck. At this the cheering grew still louder and more boisterous — so much so that it was some moments before Constance, who’d been frantically repeating herself over and over, could make herself heard.

  “— to blow the door open!” she was shouting. “They set an explosive!”

  There was a sudden collective intake of breath, followed by a moment of shocked silence, and then pandemonium broke out as several people nearest the door tried to move farther away from it, while those in back tried hard to not to be crushed against the wall. The only ones to move toward the door were Captain Noland, who unlocked it as quickly as he could, and Kate Wetherall, who sprang forward the moment he did.

  Stuck to the outside of the door what appeared to be an ordinary business calculator was emitting a faint, electronic beep. Kate’s sharp eyes immediately made out the display: 31.

  The 31 changed to 30. Then to 29.

  Snatching the device from the door, Kate turned and bolted up the passage. Captain Noland shouted after her, “No, Kate! Let me!” But Kate was already scurrying up a ladder, quick as a monkey. She raced along the passages as fast as her weary legs would carry her. As long as she didn’t slip, she thought, she had a fair chance of reaching the deck in time. And once on deck . . .

  A strange thing began to happen then. As Kate ran down passage after passage and climbed ladder after ladder — and as the calculator continued its menacing countdown — her mind began to sort through a great jumble of images and thoughts. She saw the Ten Man in Thernbaakagen, the one who had intended to lash them with his whip. She saw Mr. Curtain standing over her with those wicked, shiny gloves, and she heard him speaking gleefully of what he planned to do to Mr. Benedict. But more than anything she thought of Milligan, of what McCracken and the others had done to him. Was this her life flashing before her eyes? If so, why did she have the odd feeling that she was making her mind up about something?

  She was almost to the deck now. She glanced at the calculator readout: 15. 14. 13.

  Kate flew up the final ladder and over to the railing, where her eyes were met with a scene of utter chaos. Two Royal Navy patrol boats were coming around the ship’s stern, loudspeakers booming and floodlights crisscrossing every which way through the mist. The Salamander was directly below, its occupants — Mr. Curtain and the Ten Men — looking up at Martina Crowe, who had become tangled in a line on her way down and was hanging by her foot some ten feet above them, screaming for Mr. Curtain to help her. All of this Kate observed in a split second.

  In the same split second, Mr. Curtain saw Kate at the railing with the calculator in her hand. He gave a visible start. “Move!” he ordered McCracken. “Leave Martina! Leave her, I say!”

  McCracken sent the Salamander roaring backward, its treads spewing mud and water, but Kate was in perfect position. It would be so easy to stop them. A well-placed throw — and Kate was nothing if not a good shot — and the calculator would land directly in the Salamander’s path. The explosion would wreck it. Sure, it might kill the wicked men inside, but those men had had no qualms about such matters when they’d stuck the explosive on the security hold door, had they? If anyone deserved to be sent sky-high with their own evil contraption, it was these men, and no doubt about it.

  Kate saw Garrotte flick his wrist. She leaped to the left — a razor-sharp pencil whistled past her shoulder. You just made it even easier, she thought, cocking her arm to throw. The men in the Salamander, powerless to do anything else, bent down and shielded their heads with their arms. They were sitting ducks. This would be the easiest thing in the world . . .

  Except that Milligan was right.

  Kate was not like Mr. Curtain and his nasty associates. Not at all. Back on that rooftop in Thernbaakagen Milligan had told her as much, and she saw now what he meant. Seeing those men there, helpless to stop her from doing what they themselves would never hesitate to do, Kate realized — with a certain degree of disappointment but also a degree of pride — that she could never do it, could never do something that would make her more like her enemy and less like her father. And so, instead of throwing the calculator into the Salamander’s path, she flung it out over the bay, where it splashed into the water. An instant later the Shortcut trembled with the concussion of an underwater explosion, and from the spot where the calculator had splashed a geyser of water shot twenty feet into the air. The patrol boats, though a safe distance away, rocked back and forth in the waves caused by the blast.

  From the Salamander a cheer erupted, followed by laughter, and Kate watched as the machine moved rapidly away on the bay shore, where the patrol boats were helpless to stop it. The Ten Men were clapping — applauding her decision with scornful delight. As the Salamander rumbled away, Mr. Curtain smiled and blew Kate a kiss.

  Kate made sure he saw her wipe it off.

  Apologies, Explanations, and Most Agreeable Notions

  I don’t like it,” Constance said. “How am I supposed to find anything?”

  “You mean you used to be able to find things in here?” Reynie asked.

  “That’s not the point,” said Constance.

  The young members of the Mysterious Benedict Society were sitting in a circle on the floor of Constance’s bedroom, which during t
heir absence had been thoroughly cleaned and tidied. Indeed the whole house had been scoured, and many of its drafts sealed up and leaky faucets fixed, for the Washingtons and Perumals, having no other outlet for their anxious worry, had kept themselves busy. Constance had been back only a week, which was hardly enough time to return things to their proper state of disorder, and she’d complained about her room every chance she got.

  “It’s a little better, isn’t it?” Kate said, pointing to the pile of laundry on Constance’s unmade bed. “You haven’t washed anything since we got back, and your top drawer is completely empty except for a moldy corn dog. I don’t even want to know why that’s in there.”

  “Why were you going through my drawers?” Constance demanded.

  “Looking for this,” said Kate, waving the travel journal Mr. Benedict had given them. “And I see you cheated — you took another turn.”

  Constance stuck up her nose. “When inspiration calls,” she said, “I have no choice but to answer.”

  The children had begun making entries in the journal — just as Reynie had promised Constance they would — and the first entry had been made by Constance herself, who composed a rather disgusting haiku about the trials of seasickness. Kate had followed that entry with a page of lemon juice scribblings she insisted mustn’t be revealed for ten years, and Reynie had written a lively, two-page summary of their adventure — an account that ended with the revelation that Mr. Curtain had not escaped with fifty boxes of duskwort, as the children had at first believed.

  It was thwart-wort, Reynie had written, every last bit of it, and Mr. Benedict knew it. He and Number Two had scoured that cave before Mr. Curtain ever showed up. Half a century was more than enough time for the few specimens Han de Reizeger had seen to overcome the duskwort. Mr. Benedict kept this information to himself, correctly guessing that should Mr. Curtain ever be forced to choose between confronting his enemies or making a quick escape with his precious moss, he would choose the latter. And so it was thwart-wort, not duskwort, that Mr. Curtain salvaged from that mountain cave, and even though he and his men would manage to slip away in the mists, he had yet to discover his final disappointment.