The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey 4
This was an understatement, to say the least. Reynie recalled with frightening clarity Mr. Curtain’s eerie silver glasses and his high-powered, customized wheelchair — props he used to conceal his condition. The man might look exactly like Mr. Benedict, and he might possess a similar degree of genius, but his approach to the world couldn’t have been more different.
On this particular occasion, Reynie had found Mr. Benedict alone in his book-crowded study. As usual, Mr. Benedict had greeted him with great warmth, and the two of them had sat down together on the floor. (Mr. Benedict had a condition called narcolepsy and was subject to bouts of unexpected sleep, often triggered by strong emotions. In those rare instances when he was not fretfully shadowed by Number Two or Rhonda Kazembe, he protected himself from painful falls by keeping low to the ground.) As had happened so many times before, Mr. Benedict had discerned immediately that Reynie had something on his mind.
“Though as I’ve previously remarked,” Mr. Benedict said, smiling, “this is not such a feat of deduction as it might seem, since you, my friend, always have something on your mind. Now tell me what it is.”
Reynie considered how to begin. It was all so complicated, and he could find no good starting point. Then he remembered that Mr. Benedict always seemed to intuit what he meant, whether or not Reynie had managed to express it properly. And so he said simply, “I see things differently now, and it’s . . . it’s bothering me, I suppose.”
Mr. Benedict gazed at Reynie, stroking a bristly patch on his chin that he’d missed with his razor. He exhaled through his lumpy nose. “Since your mission, you mean.”
“You mean to say,” said Mr. Benedict after reflecting a moment, “that you’re disturbed by the wickedness of which so many people seem capable. My brother, for example, but also his Executives, his henchmen, the other students at the Institute —”
“Everybody,” Reynie said.
“Or . . . or almost everybody. I certainly don’t think that about you — or about any of us who’ve come together because of you. And there’s Miss Perumal and her mother, of course, and a few other people. In general, though . . .” Reynie shrugged. “I thought with the Whisperer out of commission — with Mr. Curtain’s hidden messages no longer affecting people’s minds — well, I thought things would start to seem different. Better. But that hasn’t happened.”
“You aren’t doubting what you accomplished, I hope.”
Reynie shook his head. “No, I know we stopped terrible things from happening. It’s just that I hadn’t expected to start seeing things — to see people — this way.”
Mr. Benedict made as if to rise, then thought better of it. “An old habit,” he said. “I occasionally feel an urge to pace, which, as you know, is ill-advised. If I dropped off and brained myself against the bookcase, Number Two would never let me hear the end of it.”
Reynie chuckled. He was well aware of Number Two’s fearsome protectiveness.
Mr. Benedict settled back against his desk. “It’s natural that you feel as you do, Reynie. There is much more to the world than most children — indeed, most adults — ever see or know. And where most people see mirrors, you, my friend, see windows. By which I mean there is always something beyond the glass. You have seen it and will always see it now, though others may not. I would have spared you that vision at such a young age. But it’s been given you, and it will be up to you to decide whether it’s a blessing or a curse.”
“Excuse me, Mr. Benedict, but how can it possibly be a blessing to know that people are untrustworthy?”
Mr. Benedict looked at Reynie askance. “Rather than answer that, allow me to call attention to the assumption you’re making — the assumption that most people are untrustworthy. Have you considered the possibility, Reynie, that wickedness is simply more noticeable than goodness? That wickedness stands out, as it were?”
When Reynie looked doubtful, Mr. Benedict nodded and said, “I wouldn’t expect you to change your mind so quickly. You’re used to being right about people — we all know you have marvelous intuition — and it’s difficult for you to question the conclusions you’ve drawn. But as I do with my pacing, Reynie, you must guard against old habits leading you astray.” Mr. Benedict crossed his arms and regarded Reynie shrewdly. “Let me ask you: Have you ever had a dream in which, having spied a deadly snake at your feet, you suddenly begin to see snakes everywhere — suddenly realize, in fact, that you’re surrounded by them?”
Reynie was surprised. “I have had that dream. It’s a nightmare.”
“Indeed. And it strikes me as being rather like when a person first realizes the extent of wickedness in the world. That vision can become all-consuming — and in a way, it, too, is a nightmare, by which I mean that it is not quite a proper assessment of the state of things. For someone as observant as you, Reynie, deadly serpents always catch the eye. But if you find that serpents are all you see, you may not be looking hard enough.”
Reynie had mulled this over — was still mulling it over, in fact, and not a little doubtfully — but had let the subject drop as he and Mr. Benedict played a game of chess. Reynie had never beaten Mr. Benedict; in the relatively few games they’d played, however, he had learned a great deal from him — and not always about chess. As often as not, their games were interrupted by long discussions of other matters, and this time was no different. Mr. Benedict gave no indication of surprise when, half an hour later, Reynie responded to an announcement of check by asking, “So you’ve had the snake nightmare, too?”
“Oh, certainly,” said Mr. Benedict, gently setting aside the rook he’d just taken. (He was always respectful of Reynie’s pieces, as if he considered their capture an unfortunate necessity.) “It’s a common nightmare, and I’ve had it many times, as well as a great many others that are more rare. Part of my condition, I’m afraid.”
“What do you mean?” Reynie had always known that Mr. Benedict’s narcolepsy made him prone to unpredictable episodes of sleep; beyond this, he realized now, he knew almost nothing.
For a moment Mr. Benedict didn’t speak, only gazed contemplatively at his fingers as if considering them for the first time. It seemed to Reynie that for some reason he was reluctant to answer, but that he didn’t wish to dismiss Reynie’s question, either. The latter impulse won out, apparently, for at length Mr. Benedict looked up and said, “For someone like me, Reynie, nighttime can be just as trying as daytime. It’s always a relief to give over to sleep, of course — to stop fighting against it, as I must do during the day — but I am often beset by nightmares, strange fits of waking paralysis, and even hallucinations, which can be quite terrifying.”
“That’s awful!” Reynie said. “I had no idea.”
“Well,” Mr. Benedict said, “I am long since used to it. I’ve even made friends with the Old Hag.”
“The Old Hag?”
“An ancient name for one of the more common hallucinations. I sometimes awake to the vision of a hunched figure at the end of my bed. Sadly, this hallucination is usually accompanied by paralysis.”
Reynie was aghast. “You mean to say there’s a strange person lurking by your bed — in the darkness — and you’re not able to move?”
“Nor even to cry out,” said Mr. Benedict. “It’s rather inconvenient.”
Reynie shuddered, imagining it. “I’d be scared out of my mind!”
“That is the most common reaction,” Mr. Benedict said with a smile. “And I admit I’m only joking when I say I’ve befriended her. Let’s just say I recover more quickly from our encounters than I used to. At any rate, the hallucinations and the paralysis rarely last more than a minute.”
That minute must seem like an eternity, Reynie thought. Then something occurred to him. “What about Mr. Curtain? Do you think that happens to him, too? Do you think it might be why he’s so obsessed with controlling things?”
Mr. Benedict tapped his nose. “Very astute, Reynie. I’ve often wondered that myself. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that my brother’s nightly torments and daily struggles have contributed to his obsession. Though I’ve long since come to terms with my own spells of helplessness, it did take years before I stopped feeling ashamed of them. Evidently my brother has taken a different tack and has achieved no such resolution.”
For a minute Reynie was lost in the uncomfortable memory of his encounters with Mr. Curtain. (The memory was uncomfortable not just because of the danger he’d been in, but also because Reynie himself, in a terrible moment, had once doubted which of the two brothers he was more like.) Thankfully, however, he was soon snapped from his reflections by the sound of soft snoring. Mr. Benedict’s head had dropped forward, his hands twitched at his side, and he appeared on the verge of slumping over onto the chessboard. Reynie’s impulse was to slip out and let him sleep, but Mr. Benedict had repeatedly instructed Reynie to wake him whenever such episodes occurred. Or try to wake him, at least — it wasn’t always possible.
“Mr. Benedict!” Reynie said. “Mr. Benedict, sir!”
Mr. Benedict came to with a start. Then, yawning, he ran his hands through his rumpled hair and regarded Reynie apologetically. “I hope you haven’t been waiting long.”
“Not even a minute,” Reynie said.
Mr. Benedict sighed. “My brother has influence, I’m afraid, even in his absence. Thinking of him so often up-sets me. . . .”
Reynie thought he understood this — his own thoughts of Mr. Curtain were nothing if not upsetting. And yet, seeing Mr. Benedict’s expression, Reynie realized it was not anger or fear or even outrage that troubled him so. It was sadness.
“Well, now,” Mr. Benedict said, with a quick gesture toward the chessboard, “I don’t wish to rush you, but I believe it’s mate in six. Do you agree?”
Reynie turned his attention to the board, but his concern clouded his thoughts. Clearly Mr. Benedict wanted to be alone. And so climbing to his feet he said, “Next time I’ll give you a better run for your money.”
“I look forward to it,” Mr. Benedict said, also rising. He gave Reynie’s shoulder an affectionate squeeze as they moved for the door. “Until then, my friend, may you have pleasant dreams.”
Reynie was having pleasant dreams when Kate nudged him awake. He blinked and looked around to discover that his dreams were, in fact, reality. He was with his friends, and through the car window he saw the tall buildings of Stonetown ahead, which meant they would soon be reunited with Mr. Benedict and the others. He gave Kate a sleepy grin. “I guess I dozed off.”
“Zonked out is more like it,” Kate said. “And you weren’t the only one. Sticky dropped off in the middle of a speech about orchid varieties. I think he bored himself to sleep.”
Sitting on the other side of her, Sticky only smiled. He was awake now and happily polishing his spectacles, in much too good a mood to be snappish. Reynie could see bits of fuzz stuck to his scalp where he’d slumped against Kate’s shoulder.
Into Stonetown they rode, passing several landmarks familiar to Reynie. There was the orphanage where Reynie had lived until a year ago; there was the park where he and Miss Perumal used to take their walks; and now, as they passed into the busy downtown district near the harbor, Reynie could see the Monk Building. It was there he’d met Sticky and Kate, who like Reynie had come to take Mr. Benedict’s tests.
“Strange to think,” Kate said, almost to herself. She was gazing at the Monk Building with a look of wonder. When she’d met Milligan there, she had thought it was for the first time; neither of them had known the truth about their kinship.
“Can you believe it?” Sticky said as Miss Perumal turned onto the street that led to Mr. Benedict’s house. “A year ago we hadn’t even met Mr. Benedict. We had no idea what we were in for! Can you imagine —”
Reynie interrupted him. “What’s the matter, Amma?”
Miss Perumal was staring at something, her brow furrowed with concern. The children strained against their seatbelts, trying to see ahead. Miss Perumal pulled the station wagon to the curb, and then they saw what she had seen: three police officers stood under the elm tree in the courtyard of Mr. Benedict’s house. They were talking to a cluster of government officials (the children recognized the officials, who had questioned them after their mission), and their expressions were very serious.
“Something’s happened,” Miss Perumal said. “You children wait —”
But the children were already leaping from the car. With Kate in the lead, they dashed to the iron gate that led into the courtyard. They were met by a stern, unfamiliar man who held out his hand to stop them. He was a small man — hardly taller than Kate — but his unpleasant expression and his raspy, sharp voice gave him a distinct air of threat.
“Where do you think you’re going?” he demanded. “Who are you?”
“We’re friends of Mr. Benedict,” Kate said.
The man narrowed his eyes. “Friends, you say.”
“Oh dear!” a voice cried from the house. The children looked past the man to see, standing in the front doorway, a lovely young woman with coal-black skin and braided hair. It was Rhonda Kazembe, of course, and as she hurried down the steps she seemed greatly dismayed to see them. “You came? You didn’t get my telegram?”
Kate tried to press past the man, but he took her roughly by the shoulder and held her back. “Who are these children?” he asked Rhonda.
“It’s all right, Mr. Bane, they’re friends. In fact, the girl you’ve grabbed so rudely is Milligan’s daughter.”
With a start, the man released Kate (who at any rate had been about to release herself), and Rhonda gestured toward the government officials. “Everyone here but you knows these children,” she said. “Feel free to check with your superiors.”
As Mr. Bane stalked off to do just that, Rhonda opened the gate and embraced them all at once. “Oh dear,” she said again, squeezing them tightly. “You shouldn’t have come, but now that you have, at least I can stop worrying about you.”
“What’s happened, Rhonda?” asked Reynie.
Before Rhonda could answer, Miss Perumal and her mother came up, followed by the Washingtons. Rhonda greeted them with apparent relief. “Come inside,” she said soberly. “Come inside and I’ll tell you everything.”
“Tell us everything about what?” Kate insisted.
“Mr. Benedict and Number Two,” Rhonda replied, and her eyes suddenly brimmed with tears. “They’ve been taken.”
The children stared at her in shock. Taken?
“But . . . but who —?” Sticky began.
Rhonda angrily wiped her eyes. “Who do you think?”
They all knew the answer at once. Reynie said it aloud. “It’s Mr. Curtain, isn’t it?”
“I’ll explain everything when we’re in the house. I don’t know if you’re safe out here. Someone had to deliver it, after all. They may yet be close by, and who knows what they intend?”
“Deliver what?” Reynie asked, but Rhonda wouldn’t say more until she had ushered them inside.
Gone were Reynie’s visions of a happy reunion inside Mr. Benedict’s old house. The rambling, three-story stone building was perfectly familiar, yet the knowledge that Mr. Benedict and Number Two were missing gave the place an alien feel. As Mr. Washington helped his wife up the front steps and Rhonda carried up her wheelchair, Reynie and his friends kept casting anxious looks all around.
Through the front door they entered Mr. Benedict’s maze, which Rhonda and the children knew by heart. The maze had been the last of Mr. Benedict’s tests, as well as a line of defense against intruders. Together they moved quickly through its many identical rooms, up the staircase at the far side, and at last into a sitting room, where their entrance surprised another group of officials, all of whom turned toward the doorway with apprehensive expressions.
“Oh, it’s just you,” a silver-haired woman said to Rhonda. “Sorry, we’re a bit on edge.” She glanced inquiringly at the chi
ldren. “I take it these are —?”
“Yes, Ms. Argent,” Rhonda said. “And I would like for them to see it.”
Exchanging uncertain looks, Ms. Argent and the other officials nevertheless stepped aside to let the children approach. On a table in the center of the room sat a brown box.
Rhonda gestured toward the box. “What happens to Mr. Benedict and Number Two depends on that,” she said grimly. She sounded as if she still couldn’t believe it, and indeed, as if speaking to herself, she repeated in a whisper, “Everything depends on that.”
The children moved closer. It was an ordinary-looking box, about the size of a fruit crate, with several holes punched into it. Together they peered through the holes into the box’s dark interior, anxious to see just what it might be — what the box might possibly contain that would determine the fate of those they held so dear.
It was a pigeon. Only that. A pigeon.
The Society Reconvenes
What can this bird have to do with the kidnapping?” Kate asked.
The government officials seemed reluctant to speak until Rhonda pointed out that the children might be directly affected by this situation. Finally a blond man with prominent cheekbones stepped forward to address them. “It’s a carrier pigeon,” he said, “sent by Mr. Curtain. It had a message strapped to its leg. We’re expected to send a reply by the same method.”
“Actually,” Sticky interjected, “it’s a homing pigeon.”
Everyone in the room looked at him. The Washingtons, who were standing with Miss Perumal and her mother inside the doorway, shifted uncomfortably, unsure whether their son had just been helpful or rude.
The blond man coughed into his fist. “I hate to argue with you, son —”
“Then please don’t,” said Rhonda impatiently. “I assume the difference is important, Sticky?”
“It could be,” Sticky said. “Homing pigeons can fly great distances — sometimes thousands of miles. Carrier pigeons aren’t really suited for long flights.”