The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey 5

  Ms. Argent, the silver-haired woman, said, “So we can’t necessarily expect it to fly somewhere around Stonetown?”

  Sticky shook his head. “Its roost could be anywhere on the continent.”

  Ms. Argent cast a dark, meaningful look at the blond man, who mumbled something about needing to make a phone call and left the room. Rhonda watched him go, her expression grave.

  “Tell me you haven’t started a search,” she said.

  “Don’t worry,” Ms. Argent replied. “We’re taking appropriate measures.”

  “That’s what I’m afraid of,” Rhonda said, turning on her heel. Beckoning her friends to follow, she left the sitting room without another word. She led them down the hallway to the dining room, where she had them sit at the long table. “It’s exactly what they should not be doing,” she muttered, closing the door behind her. “Not until they know more. I’m going to have to be aggressive, I see.”

  “Rhonda,” said Miss Perumal, “what did the message say?”

  “I would show it to you,” Rhonda said, “but they’ve already confiscated it as evidence. In essence, it said —”

  “Can you quote it exactly, Rhonda?” asked Reynie, who knew Rhonda had a prodigious memory almost as good as Sticky’s. “There might be something important in the phrasing, you know.”

  “You’re absolutely right,” Rhonda said. “Ready, then?” And she quoted the message, which was as follows:

  Dear Miss Kazembe,

  I write to report that your friends are in grave danger, and — lest there be any doubt — that it is I who endangers them.

  Let me explain. Despite his efforts to keep silent on the matter, my prisoner, Nicholas Benedict, has been compelled to reveal a secret regarding a certain rare plant. According to his reluctant confession, “only one person can secure the information” I seek — namely, the exact location and description of the plant — and this person is neither Benedict nor his yellowish assistant but someone, regardless, who is “extremely close” to Benedict. I know for a fact that he is telling the truth. I must assume that if you are not this person yourself, you will at least know of whom he speaks. For Benedict’s sake, I certainly hope so.

  You have exactly four days to release this pigeon with the information I require. Be assured that if you attach any tracking devices to the bird, or make any sort of attempt to follow it to its destination, I will know. Such treachery will not bode well for your friends. If you hope to see either of them again, you will give me exactly what I wish, and without delay.

  Oh, do not delay, Miss Kazembe. We shall all be most unhappy if you delay.


  L. Curtain

  When Rhonda had finished reciting the letter, there was a disturbed silence as everyone felt its meaning sink in. At length the silence was broken by Mrs. Washington stifling a sob with her handkerchief, and then everyone started to speak at once. Rhonda held up a hand. “Nobody say anything yet.” She went to make sure nobody was listening at the door, then returned to the table and spoke to the children in a low voice. “Do any of you know what this is about?”

  None of them did.

  “Good, then at least you won’t be subjected to more than the usual unpleasant questioning.” Rhonda jerked a thumb over her shoulder to indicate the officials down the hall. “They’re very concerned about what Mr. Curtain is trying to get. They’re worried it’s connected to the Whisperer.”

  Everyone at the table knew that Mr. Curtain’s infamous machine was now situated here in Mr. Benedict’s house, powered by a huge bank of computers that had been moved into the basement. Several months ago, Mr. Benedict had finished altering the Whisperer’s sophisticated functions, and since then he’d been using it to help people whose memories had been suppressed by the Whisperer under Mr. Curtain’s guidance. In fact, in Mr. Benedict’s last letter he had happily reported that he’d restored the memories of almost everyone ever affected by the Whisperer, and that after a year of constant labor he might even allow himself a short vacation.

  “What would a plant have to do with the Whisperer?” Sticky asked.

  “I don’t know,” Rhonda said. “Mr. Benedict’s never mentioned anything about a plant to me. All I know is that he was away doing some personal research. Of course he had to take Number Two with him — she’d never let him go alone, and I had to stay to prepare for your visit — but if she knew where they were going, she didn’t let on. I doubt she knew. Mr. Benedict loves his surprises.”

  “Hold on,” Kate said. “Mr. Benedict went away on purpose? He wasn’t going to meet us here?”

  “He and Number Two left last week,” said Rhonda. “It was supposed to be part of your surprise.” She was about to say more, but a look of crushing sadness came over her face, and she fell silent.

  Miss Perumal spoke up, addressing the children. “We adults all knew about it, of course. Mr. Benedict asked our permission before he made the arrangements. You were to go on a mysterious adventure.”

  Sticky looked at his parents in surprise. After this last year of being so carefully sheltered, he found it hard to believe they had granted permission for him to go on an adventure of any kind — mysterious or otherwise.

  Mrs. Washington lowered her handkerchief. “We’d been fretting about your education, you see. You’re such extraordinary children, and none of us thought you were being suitably challenged. Yet we were reluctant to send you off to college so young. We must have had a dozen telephone conversations on the subject, wouldn’t you say, Miss Perumal?”

  “We did,” said Miss Perumal. “And we were still deliberating when we heard from Mr. Benedict, who happened to be planning an anniversary reunion for you. When we mentioned our concerns to him, he suggested that a field trip — a very special field trip — might be just the thing to supplement your educations. He’d always regretted you were exposed to such dangers on your mission, he said, but it was undeniable that you had thrived under the challenge. None of us could disagree. It was obvious how much you’d grown as a result of that mission — to say nothing of how much you missed one another now.”

  “So Mr. Benedict proposed an adventure,” Mrs. Washington said. “A completely safe one this time, but an adventure nonetheless. The timing was perfect, he said, because he intended to take a research trip anyway and would be happy to expand its purpose. He and Number Two would leave sometime before you, and then you four would follow in their footsteps, with Rhonda and Milligan accompanying you. That was to be your big surprise.”

  Miss Perumal leaned to murmur into Reynie’s ear. “You were going to be away for two weeks. I knew you’d have a wonderful time, but I also knew how much I’d miss you.” She gave him a sad smile, and Reynie nodded, understanding now the bittersweet look she’d given him that morning.

  “Mr. Benedict would cover the expenses,” Mrs. Washington went on (with a significant look at Sticky, who’d just been wondering how they could afford such a trip). “He said you were owed that and a great deal more besides, and with Rhonda and Milligan to accompany you we hadn’t the least worry for your safety. But now to think” — here Mrs. Washington raised her handkerchief to her face again, though not enough to conceal her look of horror — “to think if you had actually gone. What might have happened to you?”

  “Nothing would have happened to us,” said Kate soothingly. “Milligan was going, too, remember? Nobody could have touched us with him along.”

  Mrs. Washington, who at any rate wished to banish such frightening thoughts from her mind, nodded tightly and lowered her handkerchief. Mr. Washington squeezed her shoulder and said nothing — he’d said scarcely a word since they arrived — but his eyes were deeply troubled.

  “What exactly was this field trip to be?” Reynie asked. “Where were we going?”

  “That part was secret,” said Miss Perumal. “Mr. Benedict thought you might be nosy enough to glean the details ahead of time, which would defeat the purpose of the exercise, so he provided very few. We kn
ew that you’d eventually meet up with him and Number Two, and that along the way Rhonda would make sure you called home every day — but more than that he didn’t reveal. Perhaps Rhonda can tell us more.”

  “I wish I could,” said Rhonda, who was at the door again checking for eavesdroppers, “but Mr. Benedict was mum on almost everything. I think he relished the idea of surprising me, as well. He wouldn’t even tell me what his research was about, though I sensed he was eager to pursue it.” With a last look down the hallway, she pulled the door closed again.

  “Why are you being so careful, Rhonda?” asked Kate. “Don’t those people want to help Mr. Benedict, too?”

  “Some of them, yes,” said Rhonda. Her face hardened. “Some of them, perhaps not. There’s a lot of resentment of the fact that Mr. Benedict is the only who can operate the Whisperer. It’s Mr. Benedict who calls the shots, and he’s stubbornly resisted certain people’s suggestions that the government use it for other purposes. Those people might be very pleased if he went away for good. As for the others . . .” She shook her head. “I don’t trust them not to attempt some kind of rescue operation and bungle it terribly. It would be the worst thing they could do. All of them together aren’t half as smart as Curtain.”

  “What do you think we should do?” Sticky asked.

  “We need to speak privately with Milligan. I haven’t been able to get in touch with him, but he should be here soon — he’s already late, in fact. It’s possible Mr. Benedict gave him more details about the trip. He did want to be sure it went well for you. Oh, if you could have seen Mr. Benedict’s face the morning they left! He was so pleased to be giving you this surprise!”

  Just then the door flew open with a bang. Everyone jumped and stared. Oddly, though, there seemed to be no one in the doorway. Reynie’s first thought was that an unusually strong draft had blown the door open — it was a drafty old house — but then he thought to lower his gaze, and in doing so was rewarded with the sight of Constance Contraire’s scowling face.

  “You’re meeting without me?” she demanded. “Why wasn’t I told?”

  “Come in, Constance,” Rhonda said in a weary voice. “You asked to be left alone, remember? I was just catching everyone up. They’ve only been here a few minutes.”

  This explanation clearly did not satisfy Constance, but she had no opportunity to express her dissatisfaction, for she was immediately swept into the air by Kate, who hugged her so tightly she was unable to speak.

  “It’s good to see you, Constance,” Kate said sadly, “even though it’s under such awful circumstances.”

  Constance’s pale blue eyes glistened, her pudgy cheeks reddened, and her feet dangled helplessly around Kate’s knees. (She might be of extraordinary intellect for her age — she was only three — but she was of ordinary size, and Kate quite towered over her.) When at last Kate set her down again, Constance had no chance to recover before Reynie and Sticky embraced her as well, quickly followed by the adults. By the time everyone had greeted her, Constance’s wispy blond hair had come free of its barrettes and fallen about her face, and she wore a wildly disoriented look, as if she were an oversized rag doll that had been magically brought to life.

  “Oh,” Constance said confusedly. “Okay, then. Hello.”

  Ms. Argent, meanwhile, had appeared in the dining room doorway and stood waiting for the fuss to die down. “Ms. Kazembe,” she said, “we’d like to ask you a few more questions, please.”

  “Very well, I’ll be right there,” Rhonda said.

  Ms. Argent seemed disinclined to leave, but when she realized that everyone in the room was staring at her impatiently, she turned slightly pink and made a hasty exit.

  Rhonda made sure Ms. Argent was out of earshot, then stepped to a side table, opened a drawer, and took out a sealed envelope. She looked solemnly at the children. “I was to give you this,” she said. “It contains Mr. Benedict’s instructions for beginning your adventure. I haven’t seen what’s inside it yet — I didn’t want Ms. Argent’s crew to know about it, and there hasn’t been the least opportunity to read in private — and now that you’re all here it seems proper that the four of you should see it first. Mr. Benedict wanted you to, after all. I’d better go see if I can deduce what these people are planning, but we’ll discuss this as soon as I return.

  “Now, before I hand it over,” Rhonda said, lifting the envelope away from Constance, who had stepped forward to grab it, “you must promise that if the instructions offer any hint as to Mr. Benedict and Number Two’s whereabouts, you’ll mention it to no one but Milligan or me. It wouldn’t surprise me if Ms. Argent or one of the others tried to catch you alone, and we must be very careful.” When the children had promised, Rhonda let Constance take the envelope.

  “I’m so sorry, everyone,” she said, looking sorrowfully first at the children and then at the other adults. “Please make yourself as comfortable as you can. Help yourselves to anything in the kitchen — but remember, don’t speak to a soul unless I’m present. I have to do everything I can to manage this situation.” Rhonda was fighting back tears again. “I have to get them home safely. I have to . . .”

  Miss Perumal walked her to the door. “It’s what we all want, Rhonda. Now, don’t worry about us. We’ll be fine.”

  “And discreet,” Mrs. Washington added.

  No sooner had Rhonda left than the children turned with anxious, pleading faces to the adults, who could hardly refuse them.

  “Go,” Miss Perumal said, waving them toward the door. “But stay in the house, and remember what Rhonda told you.”

  “And come back soon to eat,” Mrs. Washington said. “It will be a long day, and you’ll need your strength.”

  “Those poor children,” said Miss Perumal’s mother. She meant to say it under her breath, but her voice carried after the children as they hurried from the room. “Oh, the poor, poor dears!”

  The children sat in a circle on the floor of Constance Contraire’s bedroom. Around them were the piles of Constance’s laundry — some dirty and some clean — that they had shoved aside to make room for themselves. Clothes hung on the back of Constance’s miniature desk chair, too, and blankets and towels were draped haphazardly across her unmade bed. Given the state of her room, it would be no surprise to find her chest of drawers utterly empty; and under different circumstances one of the children would have made a point of checking, just to see. But right now, no one was in the mood to tease Constance about her disorderliness or anything else.

  The window shade was drawn; the door was locked. They spoke in hushed tones, and every so often one of them checked the hallway for unwanted listeners. The secrecy of their discussion — and the anxiety and urgency that attended it — lent a strange feeling of familiarity to the scene, for only a year had passed since the Mysterious Benedict Society had held meetings just like this at the Institute. In the middle of their circle lay the sealed envelope. Reynie had put off opening it but hadn’t said why.

  “He didn’t tell you anything more?” Reynie asked Constance, who evidently knew as little about Mr. Benedict’s trip as the others.

  “Don’t you think I’d have said so if he had?” Constance snapped. “I’ve spent the whole morning crying, Reynie — ever since that stupid bird showed up. If I could think of some important fact, you know I’d tell you.”

  “I know,” Reynie said gently. He was used to Constance and had a better way with her than the others did. “Now please don’t be upset, but can you tell me how the pigeon got here?”

  Constance sniffled and swiped at her eyes. “There was a knock at the door, and when one of the guards went to open it, that box was on the doorstep. He didn’t see who left it, but one of the upstairs guards was watching through a window. She said it was a man in a suit. He was carrying a briefcase.”

  “I knew it,” said Kate, curling her lip, and in a tone that implied considerable loathing she said, “A Ten Man.”

  The others looked at her.

“A what?” Sticky asked.

  “This was something I was going to tell you about. Do you remember Mr. Curtain’s Recruiters?”

  Constance stared at Kate. “Do I remember them?” she said, her face darkening. “Hmm, let me think, Kate. Oh, wait! You mean like the men who tried to kidnap me — the ones who shot wires out of their watches, shocked the wits out of me, and stuffed me into a bag?”

  “Exactly,” Kate said. “Those guys. Well, they’re still working for Mr. Curtain, only they aren’t called Recruiters anymore. Milligan and the other agents call them Ten Men.”

  “Because they’re heartless?” asked Reynie, thinking of The Wizard of Oz.

  “Not Tin Men, Reynie. Ten Men. It’s true they’re heartless, though, and they’ve gotten even more dangerous. The agents call them Ten Men because they have ten different ways of hurting you.”

  “Not just the shockwatches?” Sticky asked, cringing as if he didn’t really want to know.

  “Apparently they’ve expanded their wardrobe,” Kate said.

  Reynie was rubbing his chin. “If a Ten Man delivered the pigeon,” he mused, “then another Ten Man could be waiting at its roost. Mr. Curtain wouldn’t have to be there himself. They could just call him when the reply came. That means Mr. Curtain could be anywhere in the world — and wherever he is, that’s where Mr. Benedict and Number Two are.”

  “I have a feeling you’re going somewhere with this,” Kate said.

  “Not just me,” Reynie said. “All of us.”

  “We’re going somewhere?” Sticky asked, confused.

  “Okay, Reynie, why haven’t we opened the envelope yet?” Constance said. “Why have you been stalling?”

  “Because I think we need to be resolved,” Reynie said, taking the envelope and staring at it intently. “Whatever Mr. Benedict has written in here could put us on his trail.” He looked up. “And I think we should follow it.”

  “You mean actually go on the trip?” Sticky said, his eyes widening.