The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey 6

  “By ourselves?” Kate said. She considered for perhaps half a second. “Okay, I’m in.”

  Constance looked faintly hopeful. “You think we could actually find them?”

  “It’s worth a shot,” Reynie said.

  Sticky was polishing his spectacles now. Beads of sweat had appeared on his bald head. “It might be dangerous. You realize it might be dangerous, right?”

  “Yes,” Reynie said. “But if we find them — or if we can just get close — we won’t do anything foolish. We’ll contact Rhonda and Milligan, and they can decide what to do.”

  “What if we come across a Ten Man?” Constance asked.

  “Don’t worry about that,” said Kate, with a dismissive wave of her hand. “We’ll just need to keep an eye out for suits and briefcases — and, you know, be prepared to run for our lives.”

  “Thank you,” said Constance with a quaver in her voice. “That’s ever so comforting.”

  “A Ten Man probably wouldn’t even notice us,” Reynie said. “Four children don’t exactly look like a rescue team, you know.”

  “Well, I suppose that’s true,” Constance said in a somewhat stronger voice, and Reynie smiled encouragingly. He didn’t quite believe what he’d just said — he suspected at least some of Mr. Curtain’s henchmen would have heard about them. But Mr. Curtain, of all people, would hate to admit he’d been outsmarted by children, and it was possible he’d avoided mention of them. At any rate, Reynie thought it best to shore up Constance’s courage, for he could tell she intended to come along regardless.

  Kate cracked her knuckles. “If we’re going to do this we need to get started. Four days, the letter said, and we may need every minute.”

  “So what’s the plan?” Sticky asked, putting away his polishing cloth and resettling his spectacles.

  “If we’re in agreement,” Reynie said, “we’ll go wherever these instructions lead us. Secretly, of course. The adults would never let us go now — not even if Rhonda and Milligan came with us.”

  “Of course not,” said Kate. “We’ll have to sneak out.”

  “Oh boy,” said Sticky, who hadn’t thought about this yet. “If a Ten Man doesn’t kill me, my parents surely will.”

  Reynie grimaced, imagining how Miss Perumal would react when she discovered he’d gone. He quickly forced the image out of his mind (just as, moments before, he had forced away the image of a Ten Man seizing him in some far-off place where no one could protect him).

  “Are we agreed, then?” Kate asked.

  “Agreed,” said Constance and Reynie.

  Sticky let out a deep breath. “Agreed.”

  Everyone looked at the envelope then, wondering where in the world — and into what unknown dangers — it was to take them.

  The Journey Begins

  Reynie opened the envelope, took out two sheets of stationery, and began to read:

  Dear friends,

  I greet you from afar! By now I trust you’re enjoying one another’s company again. I’m very pleased to think of it.

  Rhonda will have given you a few details concerning your trip. The rest are these: She and Milligan shall accompany you, but you should think of them as passengers and yourselves as pilots. It is you who must solve the clues that will bring us together again for our celebration. I know you are more than up to the challenge, and I do look forward to hearing stories from your journey.

  That journey begins here, where the four of you are gathered. Your first steps should be in the direction that the riddle on the following page takes you. May your adventures bring you closer together, even as they take you far from home.

  Warm regards,

  Mr. Benedict

  For a short time the children sat in silence. Now that they’d been given a moment to reflect upon it, they were deeply moved by Mr. Benedict’s gesture. He’d gone to a great deal of trouble to offer them something special. Little had he known that his own fate was about to take such a terrible turn, or that his gift would lead the children into danger. He would never want them to put themselves at risk — least of all on his account — which was one reason they cared enough about him to do so.

  “Are you ready?” Reynie asked finally.

  The others murmured their assent, adopting expressions of concentration as Reynie read the riddle aloud:

  “Looking for something? Open me.

  I’m sure that your something inside of me lies.

  Of course you can always find hope in me

  (Though despair must come first; and later, surprise),

  What’s sought, though, depends on the seeker —

  One looks for bobbin; another, for beaker;

  Others, for nature; still others, for nurture —

  The quarry will vary from searcher to searcher.

  And yet (I suspect this will strike you as strange),

  My contents are set and will not ever change.

  If you still cannot guess what I mean, here’s a clue:

  The answer — what I mean — lies inside of me, too.”

  “You must be kidding,” Kate said when Reynie had finished. “That’s the riddle? But it’s nonsense! Nothing can hold all those things!”

  Reynie looked at her curiously. “It isn’t nonsense, Kate.”

  “It’s impossible, is what it is,” said Constance, rolling her eyes. “I wouldn’t have thought I could feel angry at him — not right now — but did he really have to make it so hard? How are we supposed to help him?”

  “It sounds like magic,” Sticky said in an awed tone. “After all, he wouldn’t give us an impossible riddle. Maybe the answer just seems impossible, but isn’t really! Like magic!”

  Constance made a point of getting Sticky’s attention, then rolled her eyes again. “It isn’t magic, Sticky.”

  Sticky glared at her. “Well, do you have a better idea? If it isn’t nonsense, and it isn’t impossible, and it isn’t magic —”

  “It’s a dictionary,” Reynie said, standing up. “Now let’s go find it.”

  When Kate had stopped smacking herself on the forehead; and Sticky had worked through the riddle aloud (“So ‘hope’ comes after ‘despair’ but before ‘surprise’ because the words are in alphabetical order! I get it!”); and Constance had rudely pointed out that the riddle had been solved already and didn’t require Sticky’s decoding; and Reynie had grabbed Sticky’s arm to prevent him from giving Constance a painful finger-thump on the head — when, in short, they were ready, the children developed their plan.

  Mr. Benedict’s house, as they all knew perfectly well, contained more books than boards. Almost every available surface held stacks of books; almost every wall was lined with bookshelves. According to Sticky — who remembered the exact placement of every book in the house — there were seventeen dictionaries (twenty-six if you counted foreign languages), any one of which might contain the next clue. The children decided to start on the third floor, where Constance’s bedroom was located, and work their way downstairs if necessary.

  The third floor consisted of three long hallways, a dozen rooms, and quite a few nooks and crannies — space enough for thousands of books, and searching for the dictionaries would have taken hopelessly long if not for Sticky. As it was, the children were able to move swiftly from shelf to shelf (and from coffee table to windowsill), examining one dictionary after another as Sticky pointed them out. In minutes they had looked at most of the dictionaries on the third floor — including the Greek, Latin, and Esperanto dictionaries in Mr. Benedict’s tiny room, which saddened them even to enter — but although they’d found lots of silverfish, a pretty silk bookmark (which Constance pocketed), and the definition of a Greek word Sticky had been meaning to look up, they came upon no clue.

  “What about Number Two’s bedroom?” asked Kate.

  “No dictionaries in there,” Sticky said. “Number Two told me she prefers to go find a dictionary when she needs one. Searching the shelves helps her remember where everything is.”
/>  Constance was staring at Sticky as if he’d just said he liked to eat sawdust. “You two have conversations about dictionaries?”

  “We used to,” Sticky said sadly. “I haven’t seen her in months, you know.” Then he realized Constance had been making fun of him. “It wouldn’t hurt you to look in a dictionary every now and then, Constance. Some new words might improve your rotten poetry.”

  “My poems would sound good if your ears weren’t of wood,” Constance said.

  “My ears,” Sticky said through gritted teeth, “are fine.”

  “For whittling, maybe, your ears are well suited. For poetry, though —”

  “Please don’t finish that, Constance,” interrupted Reynie. “We don’t need a rhyme attack right now. We need to find that dictionary.” To Sticky he made a private gesture that clearly meant “stay calm and ignore her.”

  “I saw that,” Constance said, giving him a very cross look.

  Reynie sighed.

  Only one hallway on the third floor remained to be searched. They had put it off until last, for on that hallway lay the chamber that contained the Whisperer. Two guards were always posted at the chamber door, and the children had hoped to avoid speaking to anyone. But Sticky said two dictionaries were to be found there, so they were compelled to go look. Luckily there were none in the chamber itself, Sticky said, for as they all knew, no one was ever allowed in there without Mr. Benedict. (Reynie didn’t point out that Mr. Benedict wouldn’t have left the clue where they couldn’t possibly get to it, and he was relieved when it didn’t occur to Constance to say so.)

  The children had been inside that guarded chamber only once, when Mr. Benedict took them in to look around. They had admired the soothing colors and soft lighting he used to calm his visitors (or “guests,” as he called them, to make them feel welcome). It came as no surprise that Mr. Benedict’s guests might stand in need of calming, for they were the Whisperer’s former victims, the extremely unfortunate people whose memories Mr. Curtain had hidden from them — memories Mr. Benedict now employed the Whisperer to restore. The cozy room was a far cry from the cold, austere atmosphere of Mr. Curtain’s Whispering Gallery.

  “It can be disturbing to have one’s memory suddenly return,” Mr. Benedict had said, “to remember all at once the important things that have been missing for so long. I do my best to lessen the shock.” He indicated an overstuffed chair in the corner. “That is where my guests sit. It is easily within the Whisperer’s range, and I should think they find it more comfortable — and far less threatening — than the seat my brother designed.”

  Mr. Benedict kept the Whisperer hidden behind a decorated screen, but the children didn’t need to see it to remember it. All but Kate, in fact, had sat in its hard metal chair, their wrists cuffed, a helmet pressed tightly over their heads. And all four of them remembered the terrifying moment when they’d realized Mr. Curtain could use his device to wipe away their memories — brainsweeping, he called it — even when they were standing several feet away. Yes, they all remembered the Whisperer perfectly well, and they were quite content to leave it hidden behind the screen in that locked and guarded chamber.

  As the children entered the hallway on which the chamber lay, the two guards at its door offered them faint, polite smiles. The guards were not supposed to fraternize while on duty, of course, and they knew the children were free to roam the hallways; they might well let them pass without comment. But depending on their security clearance (depending, in other words, on their access to classified information), the guards might also know something of the children’s history, and this made Reynie worry they would be suspicious of any unusual activity.

  “Are you sure there’s a dictionary here?” he said to Sticky, as if they were in the middle of a discussion.

  “Yes, there certainly is, Reynie, I am sure of it,” Sticky replied in a tone so stiff that Reynie almost winced. They needed to brush up on their acting.

  To her credit, Kate was more convincing than either of the boys had been. Casually retying her ponytail, she winked at the guards and said in a breezy tone, “Just looking up a word.”

  The guards nodded, but one of them — a burly, bulldoggish man — watched the children with an appraising look that verged on suspicion. Reynie turned his back, the better to hide his own nervous expression. Sticky had already located the first dictionary and was rapidly examining it as the others looked on. He closed it with a discouraged sigh. “No luck.”

  The burly guard leaned toward them. “Must be an unusual word, eh? You ought to try the other dictionary. It’s really big.”

  “How do you know there’s another dictionary?” asked Sticky, surprised.

  “What else do we have to look at all day but these bookshelves?” said the guard. He pointed a little way down the shelves. “It’s right over there, a great huge fat one. Wait, now where is it? I remember it perfectly — terrible condition, falling apart at the seams. It was right there, I’m sure of it.”

  “I know the one you mean,” Sticky said, pointing to a gap on the shelves. “It was right there.”

  The other guard spoke up. “Oh, Mr. Benedict took that one! Couple weeks back. You were on break, Russ,” he said to the burly guard. “Said he was going to fix it up, but I don’t suppose he got around to it before he left. I saw it in his study not two days ago, and it was still in awful shape.”

  Reynie’s heart leaped. “His study? I guess we should go down there, then.” He and the others quickly turned to go, only to find their way blocked.

  “Listen, you kids, I know what you’re doing,” said Russ, the burly guard.

  They stared at him in bewildered dismay. How could he know? Was this over before they’d even begun?

  Reynie forced himself to speak. “You know what we’re . . . doing?”

  “You’re trying to distract yourselves,” Russ said. “I understand. You’re worried about Mr. Benedict and Number Two, and you’re just aching to think about anything else. Am I right?”

  “Yes!” cried Sticky from behind Reynie. He sounded much too eager to agree, and Russ might have paused to consider this had Constance not crossed her arms and grumpily remarked, “If you say so.”

  “Let me give you some advice,” said Russ, scratching a dry patch on his left jowl. “If you really mean to be distracted, don’t go down to Mr. Benedict’s study. Go back to your room and play a nice little game. Okay?”

  “Why?” Reynie asked. “Why not go into his study?”

  “It’s serious business down there, son. They’re going through all his papers right now — every folder, file, and book — looking for clues to his whereabouts. They won’t let you in there, anyway. Not until they’re finished, at least.”

  “Thank you,” said Reynie as calmly as possible. “It’s . . . good advice. Come on, everyone, let’s go play a game.”

  The children hurriedly said goodbye to the guards, who watched in bemusement as they bumped into one another, sorted themselves out, and walked with strange jerky steps down the long hallway, looking for all the world as if they were trying not to run in panic.

  “Poor kids,” said Russ in a low tone. “They’ll do anything to avoid the scary stuff.”

  As soon as the children were out of sight of the guards, they ducked into the first available room (it happened to be Number Two’s bedroom) to discuss their dilemma.

  “If they find that clue,” Kate said, closing the door, “you know we’ll never see it.”

  “They may already have found it,” Constance said. She dropped despondently onto the yellow rug Number Two had woven for her floor. “For all we know, they’re planning some disastrous rescue mission even as we speak.”

  “We have to assume they haven’t found it yet,” Reynie said. “Mr. Benedict has an awful lot of books and papers in that study, and they probably won’t think to check the dictionary until they’ve checked everything else.”

  “We need a distraction,” said Kate. “Something to get them o
ut long enough for us to slip in and grab it.”

  “Any ideas?” Reynie asked.

  Sticky began to look around the room as if seeking inspiration. Everything he saw was familiar to him already: the open wardrobe with its array of yellow clothing; the basket of sewing materials and stacks of science journals by the bed (Number Two scarcely slept — seldom more than an hour or two — and filled her long night hours with quiet activity); the tidy writing desk with its bouquet of pencils in a cup; and of course the well-stocked cupboard full of snacks (for though she required little sleep, Number Two had to eat almost constantly or else grow irritable and faint).

  “I wish we hadn’t come in here,” Sticky muttered, depressed by so many reminders of their missing friend. He went to the window to give himself something different to look at.

  Different, though, hardly described what Sticky saw through the window. Indeed, it was one of the strangest spectacles he’d ever witnessed. In the courtyard below, the three police officers were spinning round and round with their legs flying out behind them, as if they were the spokes of a wheel. They were all trying to hold onto whatever it was that was spinning them; they had all lost their caps; and one had even lost his toupee, which lay on the ground nearby like a stunned ferret. At the same time, on the sidewalk beyond the fence, the unpleasant Mr. Bane appeared to have just attempted an unsuccessful headstand, for he lay on his back staring confusedly at the sky. And as if all this weren’t enough to make Sticky suspect he was dreaming, no sooner had his brain registered the bizarre scene than a large bird swooped down into it, snatched the policeman’s toupee, and flew up into the eaves of the house.

  Sticky rubbed his eyes, stared out again, and suddenly understood. “I think we have our distraction — Moocho Brazos just arrived.”

  The others rushed to the window (Sticky gave Constance a boost so she could see) and quickly made sense of the commotion below: Moocho had come to see Kate for some reason; Mr. Bane had rudely refused to admit him, which had got him tossed over the fence; and the police officers had then felt compelled to restrain the huge man, which they did first by grabbing him, then by clinging desperately as he tried to spin them off on his way to the front door.