The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey 7

  A buzzer rang somewhere in the house below, followed by the sound of doors banging open and people rushing down hallways and stairs. The guards were swarming to the exits, and everyone else was hurrying to windows to see what was the matter.

  “Sticky’s right!” said Reynie. “Now’s our chance!”

  And whirling around as fast as he could, he discovered the bedroom door wide open and Kate Wetherall already gone.

  They found Kate coming up the stairs just as they were starting down. In her arms was a massive old dictionary, and her blue eyes twinkled with excitement. She pointed back the way they’d come. Everyone turned and headed straight to Constance’s room, where Kate locked the door and went to the window.

  “Good,” she said, peeking out, “Rhonda’s down there trying to clear things up. That buys us time.” She clucked her tongue. “Poor Moocho. I’ll bet he got her telegram and was worried out of his head.”

  “You weren’t seen?” Sticky asked.

  Kate shrugged. “Nope.”

  Even knowing her as they did, the others stared at Kate, flatly amazed. In a matter of seconds — in the time it took the rest of them just to reach the stairway — she had flown down the stairs into the study, found the dictionary, and come out again without being spotted. It seemed impossible.

  Kate noticed their expressions. “What?” She bent to look at herself in Constance’s wall mirror. “Do I have something on my face?”

  “Just show us the stupid dictionary,” said Constance resentfully. (She still had trouble tying her shoes.)

  Kate laid the thick book on the floor, and everyone knelt for a closer look. The dictionary was a tattered old thing with warped covers — evidence of some long-ago water spill — and a hopelessly ruined spine. Gingerly, so as not to damage it further, Reynie opened it and began turning pages. Some were irrevocably stuck together; some fell out at the merest touch. An odor of must and mildew filled the room.

  “He should have thrown this away years ago,” Constance said, wrinkling her nose at the mildew smell. “It isn’t even usable.”

  Reynie turned a page to reveal a deep, rectangular space cut out of the dictionary pages. Nestled inside the cut-out space was another book. “Not usable as a dictionary, maybe. But as a hiding place it’s perfect.”

  The second book had brown leather covers and was rather large itself. Reynie quickly turned to the first page, which was blank except for the following inscription:

  Travelers should always keep journals, and journals should always keep secrets. This journal is no exception. I have taken the liberty of writing the first entry. Read it quickly and move on. Bon voyage! — Mr. Benedict

  With the others peering over his shoulder, Reynie flipped through the next few pages. It was difficult to gauge whether the journal was an expensive gift or something Mr. Benedict had snatched from a bargain pile — something discarded as a botched product and sold for a nickel. Its pages, although made of fine, heavy paper, had been cut unevenly, so that some were much wider than others. Each page was blank except for a single word written in the outer bottom corner. Reynie flipped to the back of the book. The same. One word per page, but taken in order the words did not form intelligible sentences.

  “Let’s go through it nice and slow,” Kate said.

  Reynie returned to the front and began turning the pages one at a time, working all the way to the end. The first several pages yielded the following sequence of words:


  About a third of the way through the journal a different sequence began:


  And in the last third of the journal, the words in the bottom corners ran like this:


  Sticky scratched his head. “It’s some kind of word puzzle, I take it.”

  “It does mention the word ‘puzzle,’” Kate said. “Maybe that’s a hint?”

  They were both looking to Reynie for help, but Constance surprised them all by speaking first. “Take the shortcut,” she whispered, as if to herself.

  “What?” Sticky said.

  “That’s the answer,” Constance declared, more confidently now. “Take the shortcut.”

  Reynie gave Constance a long, searching look. She stared back as if daring him to argue. Instead he turned to the others and said, “I agree with Constance.”

  Sticky was baffled. “But . . . but how . . .”

  Kate was glancing back and forth between Reynie and Constance. “What makes you think that?” she asked, though she didn’t appear to know which of them to ask.

  Reynie held out his hand to Constance, indicating that she should answer.

  “It’s obvious,” Constance said. “Those are the only three words that keep being repeated. The other words are meaningless — they’re just there to make things look weird.”

  “They may be repeated a lot,” said Sticky, “but how can you be sure that matters?”

  “Take a look at them,” Constance said. “They’re always in the corner of a wide page, never in the corner of a narrow one. Doesn’t that seem significant?”

  Sticky didn’t have to look. He remembered perfectly where the words fell on every page. “Okay, that’s true, too. But why are the wider pages significant? Who’s to say we can rule out the narrow pages?”

  Constance shrugged. She had no answer for this. “I know I’m right, though,” she said. “I can just tell.”

  Reynie gazed at her wonderingly. It should have occurred to him, he thought, that Constance would surprise them. Given what she’d been capable of at the age of two, there was no telling what she could do now that she was three. After all, she must have developed considerably in the past six months.

  “Reynie?” said Kate. “Any idea about the wide pages?”

  Reynie opened the journal to Mr. Benedict’s inscription and drew his finger along this phrase: Read it quickly. “Remember that? I figured it was important, since Mr. Benedict knows how quickly some of us read already — especially Sticky.”

  “What does speed have to do with what the words mean?” Kate asked.

  “Speed has to do with what words you see,” Reynie said, and with the others looking on, he fanned the pages of the journal from left to right. Sure enough, the only words that appeared in the bottom corners were these: TAKE THE SHORTCUT.

  “Well, what do you know!” said Kate with a laugh. “Of course! The other words are on narrow pages, so when you fan through like that —”

  “— only the corners of the wider pages show up,” Sticky finished, nodding. “Yeah, I get it too.”

  Kate whistled. “I wouldn’t have figured that out in a million years.”

  Constance looked exceedingly pleased.

  “Okay, so we’re one step closer,” Reynie said. “We need to take the shortcut. But what shortcut? A shortcut to where?”

  The group fell silent, and Reynie thrust his chin into his hands, trying to concentrate. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Constance do the same thing. At first he thought she was mocking him, and he started to tell her to knock it off. Then he saw her close her eyes, obviously trying to think. Reynie felt oddly, deeply touched. He had no time to linger on the feeling, though, for just then someone knocked on the door.

  “Are you all in there?” said Rhonda. “You have a visitor.”

  The children exchanged frustrated glances. If they didn’t want to raise suspicion, they had no choice. For the moment, this meeting of the Society was adjourned.

  Half-Truths and Deceptions

  I left as soon as I received Rhonda’s telegram,” Moocho Brazos was saying. “I hoped to catch up and warn you, but you were t
oo far ahead. I’m afraid I was rather agitated when I got here.”

  “Perfectly understandable,” said Miss Perumal, passing him a platter of cold cuts. “It was good of you to try to warn us.”

  Everyone was gathered in the dining room again except Rhonda — who’d returned to the questioning interrupted by Moocho’s arrival — and the recent confusion had been sorted out. Moocho and the police officers had apologized to one another (much to the displeasure of Mr. Bane, who would not be soothed), and Kate had whistled Madge down from the eaves — for the bird Sticky had seen was indeed Kate’s clever falcon.

  (“What a bird!” Kate had exclaimed. “She must have seen me get into the station wagon and followed it all this way! Oh, you must be exhausted, you foolish, naughty thing!” she scolded, stroking the bird’s feathers. She was clearly flattered to discover her falcon was so attached. Nevertheless, she felt obliged to leave Madge outside, for a bird of prey could hardly be trusted in the same house with the precious homing pigeon.)

  “Does Milligan know about any of this?” asked Moocho, politely taking only enough cold cuts to feed a normal-sized person.

  “Rhonda’s been unable to reach him,” said Mrs. Washington.

  Mr. Washington, who had been staring out the window, spoke up for the first time since they’d arrived. “What is Milligan doing, anyway? I thought he’d already tracked down everyone Mr. Benedict wanted to help.”

  “Everyone but the Executives who disappeared with Mr. Curtain,” Kate said through a mouthful of turkey cold cut. She swallowed and continued, “Lately he’s been going on other kinds of missions. He’s . . . uh . . . I’m actually not supposed to know about them,” she said nervously.

  “Don’t say anything you shouldn’t, dear,” said Mrs. Washington.

  “If the missions have had anything to do with Mr. Curtain,” said Reynie (who was hoping to stall questions about the envelope Mr. Benedict had given them), “it might be important for us to know about them.”

  “That’s true,” said Mr. Washington, coming to sit at the table. “This concerns all of us. Do you know anything that might be relevant, Kate? You should keep quiet about anything that isn’t, of course.”

  Kate cast a wary glance at the dining room door. Miss Perumal’s mother, seeing this, rose from her seat. “I’ll stand guard,” she said. “You can fill me in later. I can’t hear a word when you’re all whispering, anyway, and this is certainly a time for whispering.” She went out. The others looked expectantly at Kate.

  “He’s been investigating the activities of Mr. Curtain’s creepy henchmen,” Kate said. “The Ten Men. They’ve been up to something these past few months — breaking into offices, stealing things from laboratories — but no one can figure out what it is.”

  “Ten Men?” said Miss Perumal. “What a curious name.”

  “They’re called that because they have ten different ways of hurting you,” Sticky said knowingly.

  Sticky’s parents turned to stare at him. “I see you’ve already heard about them,” said Mr. Washington.

  “We don’t know any details, though,” Reynie said quickly, as Sticky averted his eyes.

  “Ten Men look pretty much like regular businessmen,” Kate said, “which can make them hard for the authorities to spot. But everything they carry is a weapon. You already know about their shockwatches, right? Well, they also use their neckties like whips. And their pocket handkerchiefs are soaked in something — if they hold it to your nose you’ll be knocked right out — and their briefcases are chock-full of evil stuff, too: razor-sharp pencils, poisonous chewing gum, even a laser pointer that fires a real laser — not just a red light, I mean, but a beam they can cut your ears off with!”

  At this, everyone at the table looked uncomfortably at their plates of cold cuts. Sticky’s hands went to his ears. “They really cut them off?”

  “Well, I don’t know if they really do,” Kate admitted, “but they could if they wanted to.”

  “We get the picture,” said Mrs. Washington, pushing her plate away. “These are bad men.”

  “Nasty men,” Kate corrected. “Milligan has been in some awful scrapes, I can tell you. If he weren’t Milligan, I’d be worried about him all the time.”

  Beside her, Sticky was polishing his spectacles, feeling even more troubled now at the prospect of bumping into a Ten Man. The adults were disturbed as well. All around the table they were shaking their heads, clucking their tongues, and looking very somber indeed. Only Reynie felt unsurprised by Kate’s report, for he retained the feeling — despite Mr. Benedict’s argument against it — that wickedness was something to be expected.

  “That’s all I know,” Kate said apologetically. “It doesn’t really shed any light on our situation.”

  Reynie noticed Miss Perumal looking thoughtful and prepared himself. He figured he knew what was coming. Sure enough, she turned to him and said, “I’m assuming the envelope Rhonda gave you doesn’t clear anything up. Otherwise you’d have told us right away.”

  “It didn’t give us the least idea of where they might have gone,” Reynie said, which was true in a sense. “Maybe Milligan will have some answers. Surely he’ll be here soon.”

  “In the meantime, may we see the letter?” Mr. Washington asked.

  “Of course,” said Reynie at once, before his friends betrayed any alarm. “We left it up in Constance’s room. Should I get it now?” He made as if to rise.

  “Finish your lunch first,” Miss Perumal said, which was what Reynie had hoped she’d say. “You can go up afterward.”

  Reynie settled into his seat again. He was so nervous he had no appetite, but he did try to eat something. If he and the others were going to sneak out, they had to do it right after lunch. After that, who knew where his next meal would come from?

  Eventually Rhonda Kazembe rejoined them in the dining room, closing the door behind her. With a weary shake of her head, she reported that Ms. Argent very much wanted to interview the children but had been put off until later. “I insisted she allow you time to recover from the shock, and that at any rate you could hardly be expected to know anything. Now tell me,” she said with a keen look, “what was in the envelope? Did you learn anything?”

  Reynie quickly repeated his half-truth, saying that the letter hadn’t given them any idea about where their friends had gone. Rhonda, who had no reason not to trust him — indeed she put great stock in his opinions — looked bitterly disappointed. In that case, she said, she would wait to see the letter until she’d dealt with another matter. Reynie nodded, feeling every bit as guilty as he did relieved.

  Rhonda moved to sit beside Constance (who squirmed uncomfortably, as if in danger of being shown affection) and placed a small, clumsily wrapped box on the table. “I couldn’t give you this earlier,” she said. “It was in Mr. Benedict’s study, and the inspectors wouldn’t let me take anything out until they’d gone over it with a fine-toothed comb. I’m sorry to say they’ve already examined this, even though it was a personal present to you from Mr. Benedict. I did make them rewrap it.”

  “They sure did a terrible job,” Kate observed. “They put the paper on inside out!”

  “I know,” said Rhonda, and in a melancholy tone she added, “Mr. Benedict would have found that amusing, don’t you think? No doubt he’d have laughed himself to sleep.”

  “What is it?” Constance asked.

  “An early birthday present,” Rhonda said.

  Everyone immediately understood. After the children’s mission last year, Mr. Benedict had baked a cake for Constance’s birthday even though it was a month early. He’d known too well that they would all be separated soon enough. It was at that unexpected celebration that the other children had learned Constance was only two years old. Until then they’d thought she was just an unusually small, awkward, and stubborn child with poor manners.

  “So it’s a sort of commemoration,” Sticky said. “To remind us of last year.”

  The first thing Con
stance pulled from the box was a card that read: Happy birthday, my dear! Always remember that the world is your oyster. Affectionately, Mr. Benedict.

  Constance seemed ready to cry, but she cleared her throat and passed the card roughly to Reynie. She needed several tries to take out her present — it was small and delicate, and Constance had neither patience nor dexterity — but at last she produced a lovely pendant on a slender gold chain. The pendant was a miniature globe, painted in deep greens and blues, with a bright, tiny crystal set into it.

  “Oh, it’s beautiful, dear!” said Mrs. Washington.

  “It’s all right,” Constance said, but now she really was crying and in no mood to be watched. “I’m going to my room now.” Clutching the pendant tightly in her pudgy fingers, she hastened from the room.

  “We should go be with her,” Reynie said.

  The adults murmured their approval as Sticky and Kate nodded and rose from the table. Before he left the room, Reynie stopped in the doorway to take one last glance at Miss Perumal, who happened to be looking right back at him. Her forehead was wrinkled with concern — she was worried about him, of course — and Reynie did his best to give her a reassuring look before he closed the door, wondering when he would see her again.

  He could have used a reassuring look himself.

  Constance Contraire sat among the heaps of linens on her bed, wearing her new pendant and a sullen expression. When her friends came in, she muttered something cranky and looked away. Not even Reynie, an excellent judge of people’s moods, could tell exactly how upset Constance was, for with Constance crankiness was routine.

  It wasn’t entirely her fault. Though older, wiser, and slightly bigger than she had been a year ago, Constance knew perfectly well that her obstinacy — her sheer, unrivaled determination not to do what she was told — had played a key role in the success of their mission. She knew, of course, that her friends also had played important roles, and that her willfulness was not generally a likable trait — in fact, it sometimes ran counter to her own desires. But she’d received a great deal of positive attention for her defiant behavior, and she was, after all, only three years old. She might be a budding genius, but her emotions were still as complicated and ungovernable as those of any child her age. So while on the one hand Constance wanted to be pleasant, courteous, and helpful, on the other she was inclined to be argumentative and grumpy, and indeed this was the sort of behavior that came most naturally to her.