The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey 9

  The ship’s main deck was every bit as bustling as the docks had been. Dozens of men and women in uniforms hurried in every direction to complete unknown tasks. Cannonball bade the children stay exactly where they were, then dashed away across the deck. He soon returned with a man in a white uniform. “Here’s the captain!”

  “Phil Noland,” the captain said, shaking their hands. Everything about Captain Noland was trim. He had a trim gray beard and well-trimmed gray hair, a trim physique, even trim movements that were not robotic or stiff, exactly, but gave the impression of great efficiency. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. Nicholas Benedict is an old friend of mine, and I’ve heard a good deal about you all. Now what’s this about Milligan and Rhonda? They really aren’t here?”

  Captain Noland seemed agitated, but Reynie sensed it was for reasons unrelated to the children. Given what Cannonball had said about the captain’s unexpected guests, Reynie suspected he was simply under a lot of pressure.

  “There was a change of plans,” Reynie said, “but we can explain all that later, when you’re not so busy.”

  “I am a bit harried,” said Captain Noland. “And I must apologize. My intention was that you would dine with me this evening. Unfortunately, I’m called upon” — here his expression shifted to one of barely concealed resentment — “that is, compelled to make other arrangements. I’m embarrassed by this, children, and ask your forgiveness. If you don’t mind, we’ll take a late refreshment together after I’ve fulfilled my other obligations.”

  The children readily agreed, and Captain Noland hurried away, leaving Cannonball to show them to their quarters below.

  “I’m afraid it’s just one cabin,” he said, leading them down a ladder. “The bullfrogs insisted upon having rooms to themselves, so the four of you are squeezed together. Captain’s pretty upset. You were to be his guests of honor. But what the company wants, you know, the company gets.”

  In the narrow passage at the bottom of the ladder a crew member pulled Cannonball aside and spoke in his ear. “Right, right,” said Cannonball as the man disappeared up the ladder. To the children he whispered, “Reminding me to keep my voice down. Good advice, of course, if you like your job. Which I do. Down this way, now!”

  They went along more passages and down another ladder, and at last came to their cabin, a cramped space with a single porthole set too high in the wall for any of the children but Kate to look through — and even Kate had to stand on tiptoe. Their bunks were attached to opposite walls (or bulkheads, as Cannonball called them), with a top and bottom bunk on either side. The cabin reminded Reynie of the laundry closet in Mr. Benedict’s house; there was hardly room for everyone to stand. To spare one another elbow-knocks and squashed toes they each climbed into a bunk as Cannonball closed the cabin door to finish his speech. Or at least to continue it, for apparently Cannonball never finished talking — he only shifted topics.

  “When we’re properly underway I can give you a tour of the ship,” he said, “but we’ll have to make it snappy. We’re shorthanded now, thanks to the bullfrogs.”

  “Why shorthanded?” asked Reynie.

  “Excellent question!” said Cannonball, flashing him a bright smile. “The chief bullfrog is a big jewelry merchant, and he’s transporting a huge lot of diamonds to Europe. No problem with this, of course — the Shortcut’s an exceptionally secure ship — but at the last minute this bullfrog insists on extra security guards. The Captain points out there’s no room for so many bodies, says the crew needs space, too, you know. And what does the bullfrog say? Reduce the crew! Says the Captain should be good enough to make the ship run with a smaller crew, anyway! So the Captain has no choice, and now the rest of us will be working double duty to make sure the trip goes well.”

  “That’s hardly fair,” said Kate.

  “You don’t know the half of it! But now’s no time to go on about injustice. I’m off to the security hold to make sure everything’s in order. Feel free to go back up on deck if you like. Just keep out of the crew’s way. And when you see bullfrogs, be polite! If they want us to toss you overboard, you know, we’ll have to do it!”

  Cannonball laughed and winked, then snatched his cap back from Sticky’s head and dashed from the room.

  “It’s too bad,” Sticky said, rubbing his scalp. “That cap was keeping my head warm. I’m still not used to the drafts I get with my hair gone.”

  Kate tossed her pillowcase to him. “Here, you can wrap that around your head.”

  “You’re joking, right?” Sticky said. “I’d look ridiculous!”

  “No more than you did with that cap on,” said Kate matter-of-factly.

  Sticky bit his tongue. He knew Kate was only trying to be helpful. After all, a girl who always carried a bucket was clearly more interested in function than style. “Thank you anyway,” he said, tossing the pillowcase back. “Now why don’t we go up on deck for the launch?”

  Everyone got up except Constance, who had fallen asleep. When they tried to wake her she covered her head with her pillow.

  “Just like old times,” Kate said.

  “She’s had a pretty rough day,” said Reynie.

  And so they left Constance to her nap and went topside again, where the afternoon sun cast long shadows before them and the harbor breeze whipped in their ears. Far across the deck they saw a group of well-dressed men and women — the ship company owners, presumably — leaning against the dockside rail, attended by Captain Noland. In his brisk, efficient way, the captain was gesturing and pointing, explaining the activity swirling about them as the crew readied for launch.

  The children decided to steer clear of all this. Keeping to the opposite rail, they heard but did not see the brass band playing somewhere on the dock below, then the distant tinkle of a bottle being broken against the side of the ship, followed by a burst of applause. (“It’s an old tradition,” Sticky told the other two, who already knew this.) Soon they felt the rumble of engines far below them, and the Shortcut moved away from the docks and began to nose out of the harbor.

  As the ship slowly turned, the children could see all the way across Stonetown Bay to Nomansan Island, the hilly mass of rock upon which Mr. Curtain’s Institute had been situated, and memories of their time there — memories both dark and thrilling — flooded to the forefront of their minds. Without speaking, possibly without even realizing it, the three friends edged closer together until they stood with shoulders touching. Together they looked out across the waters of the harbor as if across time itself: There they were a year ago, arriving on the island, anxious about what lay ahead. And now, standing at the ship’s rail, their thoughts came full circle to their present mission: to save Mr. Benedict. What harm did Mr. Curtain have in mind for Mr. Benedict and Number Two? And was there any chance in the world that they could stop him?

  As if they’d been discussing this aloud, Kate said, “Well, we’ve made it this far. That’s a start, isn’t it?”

  The Shortcut was well clear of the docks now and was picking up speed. In no time the ship would be out of the harbor and plowing into Atlantic waters.

  “Just imagine,” said Sticky, shaking his head. “A few hours ago I was worried about what Mom and Dad would do to me for leaving without permission. Now we’re crossing the ocean. And we have no idea what we’re in for.”

  Kate gave him a sympathetic look. “Your parents are the least of your worries now, you know.”

  Sticky rolled his eyes. “That was my point, Kate.”

  “Oh!” Kate said. She clapped him on the back. “Well, then. Good point.”

  The Shortcut was really moving now. The harbor traffic fell astern, the glittering waters of the ocean stretched endlessly ahead, and the ship sped faster and faster — so fast that the salty air howled past the children’s ears like the winds of a gale — as if the Shortcut meant to flash across the water like an arrow and split the horizon. None of them had ever experienced anything like it. For more than an hour they stood transfixed,
staring ahead with watering eyes as the ship pressed on and on, trembling with an urgency they felt to their bones. So engrossed were they that none of them thought to look back again until Stonetown itself had disappeared behind them, lost beyond the curve of the earth.

  “There you are!” shouted Cannonball. “We’ve been looking for you!”

  The children turned to see the barrel-chested sailor grinning at them, clutching his cap to keep the wind from carrying it off. Beside him, gripping Cannonball’s leg to keep herself from being carried off, was a scowling Constance Contraire. Perhaps she felt she’d been abandoned, or perhaps she simply hadn’t napped long enough. Her mouth was moving — no doubt she was elaborating upon her foul mood — but the wind on deck was so loud she could scarcely be heard. The others only nodded and tried to look apologetic, the better to avoid a tantrum.

  “Ready for your tour?” Cannonball hollered.

  The children followed Cannonball from bow to stern, listening with interest as he shouted about the Shortcut’s hull design and engines, and the functions of various deck buildings and equipment. There wasn’t much room to walk on deck, for most of it was covered with stacks of huge metal containers. Almost all the cargo was carried in these containers, Cannonball explained, which in other cargo ships must be loaded and unloaded with cranes — a long, laborious process — whereas the Shortcut’s specially designed containers could be rolled off and on the ship in no time.

  “It’s all about speed, you see!” Cannonball shouted. “She may carry less than other container ships, but she’s five times as fast!”

  Constance, who could hardly get excited about a bunch of giant metal boxes, pointed toward a squat tower behind whose windows she could see Captain Noland and some crew members working. “What’s that thing for?”

  “Why, that’s the bridge!” Cannonball cried with a look of surprise. It obviously hadn’t occurred to him that anyone could fail to recognize a ship’s bridge. “Can’t take you in there, I’m afraid!” He glanced about, then tried to shout in a whisper: “The bullfrogs wouldn’t like seeing children on the bridge.” The children frowned at this, and with a sympathetic shake of his head Cannonball started to move away.

  “Good grief!” exclaimed Kate, whose sharp eyes had just spotted a familiar large bird perched atop the bridge tower. “It’s Madge! She followed me again! She must have seen me get on that bus!”

  “Madge?” asked Cannonball, his eyes growing round with amazement as Kate pointed out the falcon and explained the situation. They grew rounder still when she produced her spyglass and trained it on the bird, and for a moment the young sailor seemed unable to decide whether to stare at the falcon on the bridge tower or the girl with a bucket full of useful tools — both sights being so unusual on a ship. He recovered quickly, however, and with a fond smile said, “My great-uncle was a falconer. I always loved visiting him as a boy. Wonderful birds, falcons. Royalty of the bird world, if you ask me.”

  Kate beamed at this, of course, and when she had passed around her spyglass — none of the other children cared to look long, as Madge was dining upon an unfortunate seabird and the sight made them squeamish — she took out her whistle and her leather glove, thinking to call Madge down. But Cannonball bent close and asked her to put them away.

  “Not right now,” he said, with a significant look at a portly company owner who had just appeared on deck. “Sorry, but that fellow might be displeased to see something so irregular as a girl with a trained falcon. We’ll call her down later, if you don’t mind. At any rate, it would be uncivil of us to interrupt her meal, don’t you think?”

  Kate was disappointed, but she followed obligingly enough when Cannonball led them belowdecks, where the howl of the wind abruptly ceased and they were able to speak in normal voices. (Or, for Cannonball, what passed as a normal voice.) “Care to see the security hold?” he asked. “Cargo containers are awfully dull stuff for a tour, I know. But the security hold’s something special!”

  The children did, of course, want to see the security hold, so Cannonball took them down into the depths of the ship. They passed several scurrying crew members and a phalanx of security guards before coming to a thick metal door with a round, spoked handle on it like that of a bank vault. At a word from Cannonball, one of the guards rather begrudgingly opened the door to let them enter, then positioned himself in the doorway to watch their every movement. The security hold was surprisingly large, almost the size of a tennis court. Its walls were lined with lockers, chests, and safes.

  “The great thing about the security hold,” Cannonball told them, “is that it can be locked from the inside, and it’s big enough that we could cram the whole crew in here if necessary.”

  “Why would you do that?” asked Reynie.

  “In case of attack,” said Cannonball in a matter-of-fact tone. “It’s just an added measure of protection. That’s one reason the company owners are so pleased about the Shortcut. With a ship this fast and a security hold like this, there’s no chance of losing your precious cargo to pirates.”

  “Pirates!” Constance exclaimed. “You must be joking!”

  Kate laughed. “I think you have your centuries mixed up, Cannonball.”

  “Wrong you are!” said Cannonball. “Of course modern pirates don’t hoist the skull and crossbones, and it’s not as common as it used to be, but there’s still a good bit of piracy around the world. Costs companies a pretty penny.”

  “In fact,” Sticky interjected, “last year, piracy cost the global economy over thirty billion dollars.”

  Cannonball’s eyes bulged with delight, and once again he grabbed Sticky and hugged him. “Listen to him talk about piracy and global economy! Now how in the world did you know that?”

  “Sticky reads a lot,” Reynie said.

  “And it all sticks in his head,” Kate said. “That’s why he has the nickname.”

  “You don’t say!” said Cannonball, chuckling. “Why, I’ve never met —”

  The guard in the doorway cleared his throat impatiently. “How long is this going to take, Cannonball?”

  “Hard to say,” Cannonball said, giving the guard a withering look. “And you can call me Officer Shooter.” He turned away from the man and crossed his eyes at the children, who tried not to laugh. “At any rate, you don’t have to worry about pirates. These shipping lanes never see any attacks. But the bul — that is, the company owners want to know they can ship things overseas with absolute security.”

  “Like those diamonds,” Constance said.

  Cannonball stole a nervous glance at the guard, who was speaking into his radio and seemed not to have heard. “Yes, well, ahem. Let’s not discuss those in present company, all right? I’m not entirely sure you’re supposed to know about them, if you see what I mean.”

  “I’ll tell them,” the guard muttered into his radio. He put it away and said, “Tour’s over, people. Everyone out.”

  “Well, since you ask so nicely,” said Cannonball, and with a wink at the children he led them out.

  After the tour, the children returned to their cabin to eat their suppers, which Cannonball went to fetch for them. He’d thought they might join the crew for their meals, he said. But the owners had already expressed irritation at the presence of children on the ship, and Captain Noland, with apologies, had sent word for them to keep to their quarters.

  “I can’t believe the nerve of those people,” Constance said as they waited. “They treat the captain like their servant — and us like rats. We’re starving down here!”

  “That’s probably what they’re hoping for,” said Reynie.

  “As long as we’re waiting,” Kate said, going to the door, “I’m off to the head.”

  Constance looked confused. “The head?”

  “Ship-talk for ‘bathroom,’” said Kate as she went out.

  “Why not call it what it is?” Constance grumbled. “Just keep it a toilet, no grand names to spoil it.”

  “You think ??
?the head’ is a grand name?” Reynie asked.

  “Poetic license,” Constance said haughtily, as Sticky smirked and rolled his eyes. “If you boys can come up with a better rhyme to express my annoyance, feel free.”

  The boys were still trying to come up with better rhymes when Cannonball returned from the galley. “I’m afraid Kate hasn’t found her sea legs,” he said, handing out sandwiches and bottles of soda. “I overheard her in the head as I passed by. Sick as a dog, poor thing. Retching and gagging for all she’s worth.”

  “That can’t be Kate,” Sticky said. “She wasn’t sick at all when she left.”

  Reynie masked a smile. He thought he knew what Kate had been up to. “I’ll check on her, just in case,” he said, going out. He met Kate in the narrow passageway outside the cabin. Sure enough, her face was flushed and sweaty, and she was stomping along in obvious frustration. She saw Reynie and tried to look natural, but it was too late. His amusement was too plain.

  “Not a word,” she said, brushing past him.

  “Still no luck?” Reynie said.

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Kate said without looking back.

  As Cannonball had other duties to attend to, the children ate their supper alone. Afterward Kate placed her bucket beneath the porthole so that Reynie and Sticky could stand on it and look out. A nearly full moon had risen over the ocean, its reflection shimmering on the water. It was a lovely sight, and Kate offered to lift Constance up to see for herself. But Constance was lying on her bunk, gazing at her pendant, and said she wasn’t in the mood.

  The truth was that Constance was suffering a great deal. Ever since that morning, when the dreadful message was delivered, she had felt caught up in a whirlwind of emotions, and there was no sign of her coming down anytime soon. It was no wonder. For the last year of her life she had relied completely upon Mr. Benedict — and a year was a very long time indeed to Constance, who had been around for so few to begin with.