The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey 8

  Her friends were used to this. To a certain degree they all faced the same difficulty — that conflict between heart and brain that arose from being gifted beyond their years — and in sensitive moments such as this one, they felt keenly what it meant to be children in a world of grown-ups. Without a word, the three of them climbed onto the bed and sat with Constance. It might not have been her style to say so, but Constance loved Mr. Benedict more than anyone in the world, and they all knew it.

  They sat a while in silence. It wasn’t long, however, until Constance made a whining sound and climbed down from her bed. She could never stand to be the object of others’ pity unless she had purposely aimed for that effect, and this time she hadn’t. Moreover, her irritation crowded out her self-pity, which came as a relief. So it was in a slightly stur-dier mood that she uncovered the journal Mr. Benedict had left them (she’d hidden it under a pile of clothes) and stared at it intently, as if hoping it would reveal its secret of its own accord.

  “Somehow it seems like I should know what that shortcut is,” Constance said. “I have a nagging feeling about it, like it should be familiar. But I can’t place it.”

  “I’ve had the same feeling,” Reynie said.

  “Hey, so have I!” said Kate. “What about you, Sticky?”

  Sticky shrugged. “I’m always having nagging feelings. The trouble is knowing which one to pay attention to.”

  “Well, one thing’s for sure,” Kate said. “If Mr. Benedict had mentioned some kind of shortcut before, you boys would remember the conversation. I think even I would remember it. So why does this mention of a shortcut seem so familiar to all of us?”

  “We must all have heard about it somewhere,” Reynie said, “or else . . . Do you suppose it could have been in the newspaper?”

  “Hey, that would make sense!” said Kate. “Mr. Benedict knows we all read the newspaper every day.”

  Reynie rubbed his chin. “So the question is what —”

  But Sticky, having already consulted his memory, interrupted him excitedly. “It’s that cargo ship — the MV Shortcut! Remember? It was in all the papers yesterday.”

  “Remind us,” said Constance.

  “Here, I’ll quote one of the articles I read,” said Sticky, and in a rather self-important tone he recited: “‘Tomorrow the speediest cargo ship in history will make its maiden voyage, launching from Stonetown Harbor at four o’clock — ’”

  “Four o’clock!” Kate cried. “We have to get down there!”

  “We still have a few hours,” said Sticky, who felt hurt at having been so quickly interrupted, to say nothing of how nervous he felt at the thought of leaving.

  “It will take a while to reach the docks, though,” Reynie said. “And first we have to sneak out of the house.”

  “That part’s easy enough,” said Kate, pulling out her rope. “There’s a hidden laundry chute down the hall that empties behind the maze.”

  “How do you know that?” Sticky asked. “I mean, if it’s hidden —”

  “Found it on our last visit. When you were looking at bookshelves, I was exploring. The chute hasn’t been sealed off or anything, has it, Constance?”

  “How should I know? I didn’t even know about it,” said Constance. She gestured at the laundry piles around them. “Normally this just builds up until Number Two hauls it away in a basket. She says she hates to spoil me, but she can’t stand the mess. I call it her laundry quandary.”

  “That must annoy her to no end,” Sticky said.

  “Oh, it does!” said Constance, and she smiled a little, cheered by the memory.

  Kate was taken aback. “You mean you live in this house and don’t even —?” She shook her head. “You amaze me, Constance. Anyway, I can lower you all down the chute with my rope, and then I’ll come down after you.”

  “The police have gone,” said Reynie, peering out the window into the courtyard, “but Mr. Bane’s still guarding the gate. I’ll bet he has orders not to let anyone come or go without permission.”

  “Now that’s a problem,” said Kate. “If he tries to stop us it’ll draw attention to what we’re doing.”

  “I’ll think of something,” said Reynie. “Meanwhile, could you sneak down and get different shirts for Sticky and me? Mine’s giving me a rash.”

  Kate balked at this. “I doubt any shirts in this house would fit you. Don’t you think you should just —?”

  “My dad brought in the suitcases,” Sticky said. He gave her a suspicious look. “Didn’t you see them by the stairs? We walked right past them.”

  “Oh, right, the suitcases,” said Kate, sighing on her way out. She’d rather enjoyed seeing the boys look so silly and hated them to change.

  By the time she returned with the shirts, Reynie had cleared off Constance’s desk and was hurriedly writing a note to explain everything and to apologize for causing the grown-ups any worry. They would be extremely careful, he wrote, and would contact Rhonda and Milligan as soon as they found anything useful. They all signed their names at the bottom (Constance’s signature was a wild scrawl) and afterward gazed somberly at one another, for signing the note had brought home the seriousness of what they were about to attempt. Then, one by one, they nodded resolutely and headed out.

  When Kate came down the chute, she found Constance and Reynie cramped between the washing machine and the door, and Sticky, for lack of room, sitting on the clothes dryer. The laundry area, crowded into a space beneath the stairwell at the back of the maze, was more of a closet than a room.

  “What took you so long?” Sticky whispered.

  “Rhonda came looking for us,” Kate said. “I heard her knocking on Constance’s door, so I hurried back before she could go inside and find our note. I told her we’d be down in a minute. Which technically is true. I didn’t say down where.”

  “We need to get out of here fast,” Sticky said.

  “Lower your voice or we won’t get anywhere at all,” said Kate, squeezing through them to peek out the door. “You too, Reynie. Try not to breathe so loudly — you sound like a whale spouting. Okay, coast is clear.”

  The children quickly made their way through the maze. The route was second-nature to them now, and in no time they arrived at the front door, where everyone looked at Reynie. He took a deep breath, steadied himself, and threw the hidden switch that unlocked the door.

  Mr. Bane sat on a bench beneath the elm tree, keeping a watchful eye on the gate. His face tightened at the sight of the children. Before he could ask their business, Reynie blurted, “Mr. Bane, you need to escort us to the Washingtons’ car. We’re supposed to bring in some packages.” He pointed down the block. “It’s just around the corner.”

  Mr. Bane gave him a dark look. “For one thing, sonny, I don’t like to be told what to do, especially not by the adolescent darlings of Rhonda Kazembe. For another, I’m on duty. Or don’t you want the entrance guarded?”

  “It’ll only take a few minutes!” Reynie said, plainly irritated. He went down the steps with the others just behind him.

  Mr. Bane rose to head them off. “Apparently you don’t understand what’s meant by ‘duty.’ I’m watching the gate!”

  The others stared at Reynie. Was this his plan? To outrage Mr. Bane? Weren’t they trying to avoid a confrontation?

  “Well . . .” Reynie hesitated as if considering something. “You will let us back in, though, won’t you? We have permission to be here, you know.”

  Mr. Bane’s expression changed. The change was subtle, but it was exactly what Reynie had hoped to see — a shift from defiance to craftiness. Moving to open the gate, Mr. Bane said, “I suppose you kids think you can do whatever you want. You don’t think you even have to say please.” With a mocking bow, he stepped aside, and the children hurried out. Mr. Bane closed the gate behind them with a disagreeable smile.

  “We’ll need your help taking the packages upstairs,” Reynie called as they walked away down the sidewalk. “They’re very heavy.”
  “I’ll be here,” Mr. Bane called back, then muttered something the children couldn’t hear.

  “Well, that was clever, Reynie,” said Kate in a low voice. “I had no idea what you were up to.”

  She knelt and held her hand out to Constance, who climbed onto her back (it was their habit for Constance to ride piggyback when they were in a hurry) saying, “Did you see the look on his face? He obviously can’t wait to make us stand there begging to be let back in.”

  “And then watch us struggle up the steps with the packages,” said Sticky. “Well done, Reynie.”

  Reynie said nothing. He was relieved the ploy had worked, but it wasn’t exactly satisfying to have taken advantage of Mr. Bane’s unpleasantness. The man was supposed to be on their side, after all. His behavior didn’t improve Reynie’s opinion of people very much.

  “I hope Madge will be all right,” Kate said, hitching Constance into a more comfortable position on her back. “I didn’t see her in the eaves. She’s off hunting pigeons, I suppose.”

  “We need to get out of sight,” said Sticky, who was anxious about being caught and felt rather like a hunted pigeon himself. “Does anyone have enough for a taxi?”

  No one did. Even pooling their money together produced only a few dollars and some change. That was enough to get them on a city bus, however, and they set out at a rapid clip for the nearest bus stop. Halfway there Constance uttered a cry of dismay. She’d forgotten the journal Mr. Benedict gave them.

  “Great,” Sticky muttered. “This hardly makes for an auspicious beginning.”

  “What does ‘auspicious’ mean?” asked Constance. She looked ready to be furious.

  “Never mind,” said Kate. “It’s probably good you left it. One less thing to carry, you know.”

  “But I wanted us to write in it like Mr. Benedict said,” Constance whined. “You know, as we traveled.”

  “We’ll write about everything when we get back,” said Reynie. “Right, everyone? We’ll all promise to write something about . . . well, about whatever’s going to happen.”

  Sticky and Kate promised they would. Constance wasn’t much comforted, but there was no going back now. The children hurried on to the bus stop and boarded the first bus that came, even though its route didn’t pass as close to the harbor as they would have hoped. They couldn’t risk waiting for a different one.

  They rode for some time in silence, watching the more familiar streets and buildings pass behind them as the bus traveled into a different part of Stonetown. Kate was perhaps the only one who didn’t half wish they hadn’t gotten away, but even she was subdued. The children were alone and penniless now in a big city. And if everything went as expected, they would soon find themselves — still alone and penniless — in the even bigger world beyond.

  Bulhrogs, Pirates, and Technical Difficulties

  If the city of Stonetown was a busy place, its port — Stonetown Harbor — was positively frantic. The harbor, in fact, seemed like a city unto itself. The concrete and steel docks stretched endlessly along the water’s edge, bristling with cranes and towering stacks of cargo, and teeming with stevedores and sailors, all of whom dashed about in a mad hurry. Looming over the docks were the ships themselves, their sides rising up like gleaming, metallic cliffs. Some were being loaded or unloaded; others had weighed anchor and were heaving off into the bay, looking for all the world as if a chunk of the city had broken free and was drifting away. The entire place clamored with the sounds of bells, horns, machinery, whistles — of clanking and screeching and booming and grinding — a shocking bombardment of noise that all but muted the cries of seagulls dipping and soaring overhead.

  The children, standing outside the harbor’s main security gate, stared wide-eyed.

  “I’m not going in there,” said Constance, backing away.

  Reynie was in no hurry to descend into that chaos himself, but hurry they must if they wanted to find the Shortcut in time. Before he could think how to prod Constance forward, though, a barrel-chested young man in a blue uniform and cap whizzed up to them in a motorized passenger cart.

  “Don’t see many kids down here!” the young man shouted over the din. He circled the children in his cart, looking them up and down with friendly brown eyes. “And you do fit the description! Here for the Shortcut, right?”

  The children nodded, and Kate said, “Do we, um, need tickets or anything?”

  “Tickets? No, you’re guests of the captain! He expected six, though . . .” The young man glanced left and right, as if someone might have materialized in the last instant. “This all of you? No grown-ups?”

  “Just us,” Reynie replied, and to prevent any questions he added, “No time to explain!”

  “Right you are!” the young man said, clearly pleased. He slammed on the brakes and gestured for them to get into the cart. “Glad you made it! If you weren’t here in two minutes Captain Noland said I was to go fetch you.”

  The cart lurched forward and shot toward the gate. The young man looked back at his passengers. “Name’s Joe Shooter, by the way, but you can call me Cannonball. All my friends do! I’m third officer on the Short — oh, hold on!”

  Joe Shooter — that is, Cannonball — whipped out a piece of paper and waved it at the gate guards, who obviously knew him and only nodded as the cart passed through. The cart, which had already been moving frighteningly fast, began to accelerate. “We’re headed all the way down to the end of the docks!” Cannonball shouted, now weaving crazily among forklifts and stacked cargo and terrified dock workers. The children gripped the sides of the cart. “So you all ready for your journey? I see you didn’t pack any bags! This whole thing’s awfully mysterious, if you ask me! Why are you going to Portugal, anyway? Or are you just coming aboard for the experience?”

  The cart jerked sharply to the left, and Constance flew out of her seat with a little squeak. Kate caught her by the shirt and pulled her safely down.

  “Don’t talk much, do you?” Cannonball shouted. “That’s all right! You’ll see I don’t bite! Now hang on, it gets a bit dicey up here around Terminal Four!”

  All the children except Kate closed their eyes. Reynie had never been on a roller coaster, but he imagined it felt much like this. In fact, he was trying to pretend he was on a roller coaster — a very safe, properly maintenanced roller coaster that stood no chance of crashing — when Kate spoke into his ear. “Reynie, did you know the ship was headed to Portugal?”

  Reynie nodded, keeping his eyes tightly shut. “Port of Lisbon,” he said, then flinched as he heard something whoosh by overhead, followed by a loud crash and the sound of someone cursing.

  “Well, I didn’t read that part,” Kate said. “Don’t you think we ought to take a plane instead? We can figure out a way to pay for the tickets — I know you can, at least — and we’ll get there much faster.”

  “We don’t know whether Lisbon’s even important,” Reynie pointed out. “Mr. Benedict said to take the Shortcut — he didn’t say anything about Lisbon. For all we know the next clue may be hidden on the ship, or it may be revealed to us only at sea.”

  “Gosh, that’s true. I guess —” Just then the cart jounced over a bump, and Kate’s head knocked sharply against Reynie’s.

  “What’s that?” Cannonball shouted when he heard them cry out. “Say something?”

  Kate and Reynie were grabbing their heads, in too much pain to answer, but Constance called out that she would very much like to know where Portugal was.

  The sailor laughed and cupped his hand to his ear. “Sorry, it sounded like you asked me where Portugal was!”

  Now everyone was looking at Constance, who made a face and said, “Well? Is anyone going to tell me?”

  “The other side of the ocean,” said Sticky. He was holding onto the cart with one hand and keeping his spectacles on his nose with the other, and he looked rather unwell.

  “I know that much,” Constance snapped. “Fine, don’t tell me. Why would I want to kno

  “Here we are!” Cannonball announced. The cart skidded to a stop at the bottom of a gangway. “Everybody out!”

  The children piled out of the cart. Cannonball allowed them a moment to stare up in awe. Like any ship, the Shortcut was daunting when seen from below. Nor was its size an illusion, for the ship was longer than two football fields and taller than Stonetown City Hall.

  “She’s a beauty, isn’t she?” Cannonball said, gazing up admiringly. “First of her kind, fastest cargo ship in the world! By far! Special hull design! Special jet propulsion system! Believe it or not, kids, in calm seas she can reach —”

  “Upwards of sixty knots,” Sticky said. “She’s expected to cross the Atlantic in just two days, right?”

  Cannonball snapped his fingers and pointed them at Sticky. “Exactly right! Exactly right!” He grabbed Sticky and hugged him roughly, then just as quickly set him aside. “Love a boy who knows his ships! Now let’s go, everyone! Let’s go!”

  And with that, Cannonball set his cap on Sticky’s head and charged up the gangway.

  “I like this guy,” Kate said.

  Reynie wasn’t surprised. After all, Cannonball was a lot like Kate.

  “We’re all loaded up!” Cannonball called over his shoulder. “Just taking care of last minute details! Oh, speaking of which . . .” He stopped on the gangway and knelt down. When the children caught up, he spoke in such a low voice they strained to hear him. He seemed to have no medium volume.

  “Listen here, a lot of bigwig company owners decided they wanted to come aboard at the last minute,” Cannonball whispered. “Top brass. Head honchos.” He puffed out his chest and made a ridiculous face. “Bullfrogs, if you ask me. Captain Noland’s had to make room to accommodate them, so I imagine he’ll be pleased to hear there’s only the four of you.” Cannonball stood abruptly. “Now let’s go!”