In a city called Stonetown, on the third floor of an old, gray-stoned house, a boy named Reynie Muldoon was considering his options. He was locked inside an uncomfortably warm room, and the only way out was to make an unpleasant decision. Worse, locked in the room with him—and none too happy about it—was a particularly outspoken four-year-old named Constance Contraire, who from the outset of their confinement had been reciting ill-tempered poems to express her displeasure. Reynie, though three times Constance’s age and probably fifty times as patient, was beginning to feel ill-tempered himself. He had the hot room and the cranky girl to endure. Constance couldn’t possibly want out more than he did. The problem was what it would cost.
“Can we just review our options?” Reynie said as patiently as he could. “We’ll get out sooner, you know, if we come to a decision.”
Constance lay on her back with her arms thrown out wide, as if she had collapsed in a desert. “I’ve already come to a decision,” she said, swiveling her pale blue eyes toward Reynie. “You’re the one who hasn’t made up his mind.” She brushed away a wisp of blond hair that clung to her damp forehead, then quickly flung her arm out again, the better to appear downcast and miserable. She panted dramatically.
“We’re supposed to be in agreement,” Reynie said, keeping his face impassive. Signs of annoyance only encouraged Constance, and she was always on the lookout for them. “You can’t just tell me what to do and expect me to go along.”
“But that’s exactly what I did,” said Constance, “and you’re taking forever, and I’m roasting!”
“You might consider taking your cardigan off,” said Reynie, who as usual had shed his own the moment they came upstairs. (The heating system in this old house was terribly inefficient; the first floor was an icebox, the third floor a furnace.) Constance gave a little start and fumbled at the buttons of her wool cardigan, muttering “better off” and “sweater off” as she did so. Already composing another poem, Reynie realized with chagrin. Her last one had featured a “dull goon” named “Muldoon.”
Reynie turned away and began to pace. What should he do? He knew that Rhonda Kazembe—the aministrator of this disagreeable little exercise—would soon return to ask if they’d made up their minds. Evidently their friends Sticky and Kate, locked in a room down the hall, had settled on their own team’s decision right away, and now were only waiting for Reynie and Constance. At least that’s what Rhonda had said when she checked on them last. For all he knew, she might not have been telling the truth; that might be part of the exercise.
It certainly wouldn’t have been their first lesson to contain a hidden twist. Under Rhonda’s direction, the children had participated in many curious activities designed to engage their interest and their unusual gifts. Gone were the days of studying in actual classrooms—for security reasons they were unable to attend school—but any odd space in this rambling old house might serve as a classroom, and indeed many had. But this was the first time they had been locked up in the holding rooms, and it was the first exercise in which their choices could result in real—and really unpleasant—consequences.
The children’s predicament was based, Rhonda had told them, on an intellectual game called the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Sticky, naturally, had read all about it, and at Rhonda’s prompting he had explained the premise to his friends.
“There are thousands of variations,” Sticky had said (and no doubt he knew them all), “but it’s often set up like this: Two criminals are arrested, but the police lack evidence for a major conviction, so they put the prisoners in separate rooms and offer each one the same deal. If one prisoner betrays his friend and testifies against him, while the other prisoner remains silent, the traitor goes free and his partner receives a ten-year prison sentence.”
“So much for sticking together,” Kate had observed.
“Well, they can stick together, right? They can both remain silent. But if they do that, then both are sentenced to six months in jail for a minor charge. So both get punished, although it’s a relatively light punishment considering the alternatives.”
“And what if each one betrays the other?” Reynie had asked.
“Then they both receive five-year sentences. Not good, obviously, but much better than ten. So the dilemma is that each prisoner must choose to betray the other one or remain silent—without knowing what the other one’s going to do.”
It was this last part that had gotten so complicated for Reynie, because the more he thought about it—pacing back and forth in this hot room—the more convinced he became that he did know. He glanced over at Constance, now making a show of letting her tongue loll out the way dogs do when they’re overheated. “Constance, do you think Rhonda was lying about Sticky and Kate making up their minds so fast?”
“No, she was telling the truth,” said Constance, who was even better than Reynie at sensing such things—if she was paying attention. You couldn’t always count on that.
“That can only mean one thing, then.”
Constance rolled her eyes. “To you, maybe.”
“Yes, to me,” Reynie sighed. Although in some respects he seemed the most average of boys—with average brown hair and eyes, an average fair complexion, and an average inability to keep his shirt tucked in in Reynie was anything but average when it came to figuring things out. That included people, especially such close friends as Sticky Washington and Kate Wetherall, whom he knew better than anyone. If Sticky and Kate had made their decision so quickly, then it was clear to Reynie what they had decided. Less clear was what to do about it.
Reynie continued his pacing. If only there weren’t real consequences! But they were real enough, all right, even if they weren’t actual prison sentences. Rhonda had carefully explained them all:
The children would be split into two teams of “prisoners.” If both teams chose Option A—to remain silent—then both would receive extra kitchen duty for the rest of the day. (No small task, for including the children’s families there were thirteen people residing in this house, and every meal produced a shocking quantity of dishes.) If, however, both teams chose Option B—to betray—then both would receive extra kitchen duty for the rest of the week. And of course the final possibility was the most diabolical of all: If one team chose silence while the other chose betrayal, then the traitors would get off scot free while the others did the entire week’s dishes by themselves.
“Okay, so that’s three meals a day,” Sticky had said, “with an average of thirteen place settings per meal—”
“Not to mention pots and pans,” Kate pointed out.
“And snacks,” Reynie said.
Sticky’s eyes were growing large with alarm. “And five days left in the week…”
As these daunting prospects were sinking in—and before the children could make any private pacts—Rhonda had ushered them into their separate holding rooms to discuss the options. But discussion was impossible with Constance, who had insisted from the start that they choose Option B. Betrayal was the only sensible option, she argued, since Sticky and Kate would surely choose Option B as well. After all, neither team would care to risk all that kitchen duty without help.
But Reynie not only found this strategy distasteful (he could imagine sentencing enemies to the sink, but his friends?), he also knew what the other team had chosen—and it wasn’t Option B. Sticky and Kate hadn’t taken time to reflect. If they had, they might have considered that Reynie’s confinement would be more miserable than theirs; that no one in the world was more stubborn than Constance; and that in Reynie’s place they, too, would be sorely tempted to end the ordeal by yielding to her.
But Sticky and Kate had gone with their first impulse. The only decent choice, in their view, would be to remain silent, and they would expect Reynie to choose the decent thing too. Even if Constance rather predictably insisted on Option B—well, Reynie would just find a way to change her mind! Such was their confidence in him, Reynie knew. It made betraying them all the more painful to contemplate.
He couldn’t help contemplating it, though. Rhonda had said the team must be in agreement, and Constance refused to budge. How long might they be stuck in here? Another hour? Another two? Reynie grimaced and quickened his pacing. He couldn’t bear to imagine his friends’ look of disappointment, but Constance was clearing her throat now—she was about to launch into another grating poem, and Reynie didn’t know if he could bear that, either. Should he threaten to tell Rhonda about Constance’s secret candy stash? No, Constance wasn’t susceptible to threats, and she would make Reynie pay dearly for the attempt. The last time he had tried something like that, she’d peppered his toothbrush.
Constance drew a deep breath and sang out:
There once was a ninny called Reynie
Who thought there was one choice too many
Because he was wimpy
“Enough!” Reynie cried, clutching his head. Maybe he could just apologize to Sticky and Kate and—yes, he would even offer to help them with the dishes. Anything but this.
“So we’re going with Option B?” asked Constance brightly. She looked exceedingly pleased.
“Why on earth would you do that?” said a metallic voice out of nowhere.
Reynie and Constance jumped. They had thought themselves alone—and indeed they still appeared to be. Other than several crowded bookshelves and a few tall stacks of books on the floor, the room was empty. There was a big arched window, but it remained firmly closed, and nothing appeared beyond the glass except the gray January sky.
“Did you hear that?” Constance asked, her eyes wide. “Or was it, you know—?” She tapped her head.
“No, I heard it, too,” Reynie assured her, casting about for the source. “Where are you, Kate?”
“In the heating duct, silly,” replied Kate’s voice. “Behind the register. There’s a pile of books in front of it.”
Reynie found the heat register behind a waist-high stack of science journals. Quickly moving the journals aside, he peered through the grille to find Kate’s bright blue eyes peering back at him. She slipped her Swiss Army knife through the grille. “Let us out, will you? Sticky’s feeling a bit claustrophobic.”
Reynie hastened to find the screwdriver on the knife. The heat register was quite old and ornate, and slightly rusty, and it took him a while to get the register off—he was much less nimble with tools than Kate. This was nothing to be ashamed of (no one could compare to Kate when it came to physical ability), but Reynie was feeling ashamed, regardless, for having been about to betray her in the game, and he was grateful for her stream of friendly chatter as he worked.
“We kept wondering what was taking you so long,” she was saying in her usual rapid-fire way, “and finally we decided we should come check. I thought maybe you’d had a heat stroke, but Sticky figured Constance was giving you serious trouble. And he was right, wasn’t he? Shame on you, Constance! That was an awfully mean-spirited poem. Although, I have to admit I was curious to find out what sort of insult rhymes with ‘wimpy.’ ”
“And now you’ll never know,” humphed Constance, crossing her arms.
At last Reynie pulled the register from the wall, and Kate sprang up out of the heating duct with a triumphant grin, raising her hand for a celebratory high five. Reynie lifted his own hand—and instantly regretted it. The slap couldn’t have stung worse if it had been delivered by a passing motorcyclist. Cradling his palm against him like a wounded bird, he watched Kate reach back into the duct for Sticky, who was mumbling something about having melted. It took her a few tries—Sticky’s hands were so sweaty she couldn’t find a grip—but at last she caught him under the shoulders and slid him smoothly out of the duct like a loaf of bread from the oven.
Both of them appeared to have been baked, in fact. The heating duct must have been sweltering. Kate’s cheeks were brightly flushed, and her blond ponytail was damp and limp as a wrung mop. Sticky looked to have suffered even worse. His sweat-soaked clothes clung like a wet suit to his skinny frame; his light brown skin had gone a sickly shade of gray; and behind his wire-rimmed spectacles, which sat askew on his nose, his eyes seemed dazed and glassy. Beads of perspiration glistened like dewdrops on his smoothly shaven head.
“Hot,” Sticky said sluggishly. He blinked his eyes, trying to focus. “I am hot.”
“Tell me about it,” said Kate, already raising the window. “Why didn’t you two open this? Oh, I see, it won’t stay up. Well, we can just prop it with a book.” She reached toward the nearest shelf.
“Please don’t,” said Reynie, who was very protective of books. (When he had lived at Stonetown Orphanage, they had often been his only companions.) “That won’t be good for it—and if it fell out the window it’d be damaged for sure.”
“Okay, you’re right,” said Kate, sweeping her eyes round the room, “and there’s nothing else to use. Hang on, I’ll be right back.” And she disappeared into the heating duct as naturally as a seal slipping into water.
“She left her bucket in the other room,” rasped Sticky, adjusting his spectacles with slippery fingers and smudging them in the process. He tugged a polishing cloth from his shirt pocket. It was as damp as a baby wipe.
Constance was incredulous. “Kate left her precious bucket behind?”
“The duct is a tight fit,” Sticky said, resignedly poking the cloth back into his pocket. “The bucket would have made too much noise, and we didn’t want Rhonda to hear.”
Reynie smiled. He was reminded of their very first day in this house, almost a year and a half ago now. Kate had squeezed through a heating duct then, too. He remembered her telling him how she’d tied her bucket to her feet and dragged it behind her, and how amazed he’d been by her account. It was strange to think he’d ever been surprised by Kate’s agility, or by the fact that she carried a red bucket with her wherever she went. Reynie had long since grown used to these things; they seemed perfectly normal to him now.
He was not at all startled, for instance, when Kate returned from her expedition in less time than it would have taken most people simply to walk down the hall. She emerged from the heating duct with a large horseshoe magnet—one of the several useful items she kept stored in her bucket—and in no time had stood it upright and propped open the window with it.
“That should stay,” Kate said with satisfaction, as wonderfully cool air drifted into the room, “but just to be sure…” From her pocket she produced a length of clear fishing twine, one end of which she tied to her magnet and the other to her wrist. “This way if the magnet slips I won’t have to fetch it later.”
All of this took Kate perhaps twenty seconds to accomplish. As soon as she’d finished, the children sat on the floor in a circle. It was pure habit. Anytime the four of them were alone they had a meeting. Together, privately, the children thought of themselves as the Mysterious Benedict Society, and as such they had held a great many meetings—some in extraordinarily dire circumstances.
“So what’s your team called?” asked Kate, twisting her legs into a pretzel-like configuration. “Sticky and I are the Winmates!” When this declaration met with baffled stares, she frowned. “Don’t you get it? It’s a play on words—a portly man’s toe, or… What did you say we call that, Sticky, when two words are kind of bundled together?”
“A portmanteau,” said Sticky.
“Right! A portmanteau! See, we’re called the Winmates because we’re inmates—like prison inmates, get it?—who win.” Kate looked back and forth at Reynie and Constance, searching their expressions for signs of delight.
“You gave yourselves a name?” asked Constance.
Now it was Kate’s turn to be baffled. “You didn’t? How can you have a team without a name?”
Reynie sneaked an amused glance at Sticky, who only shrugged. No need to point out whose idea this naming business had been.
“Anyway,” said Kate, leveling a stern gaze at Constance, “we can all win, you know. You simply have to choose Option A, and so will we.”
“Okay, okay,” said Constance, heaving a dramatic sigh. “Go on back to your room and let’s get this over with.”
Sticky narrowed his eyes. “And you’ll choose Option A?”
Constance pretended to notice something outside the window.
“That’s what I thought,” said Sticky. “Honestly, Constance, what’s the point? If you insist on doing it this way, we’ll have no choice but to choose Option B ourselves. Then we’ll all have more work to do.”
“It doesn’t make any difference to Constance,” Reynie pointed out. “She spends most of her kitchen duty coming up with irritating poems, anyway. She never actually cleans much.”
Constance huffed indignantly at this, not least because Reynie was right.
Kate gazed longingly at the window. “I wish we really were prisoners. Then we could just skip the negotiations and try to escape.”
“We are really prisoners,” said Sticky in a weary tone, and there was a general murmur of agreement.
Everyone knew Sticky was referring not to the exercise but to their overall situation. For months now, they and their families had been the guests of Mr. Benedict, the man who had first brought them together and to whom this house belonged. Though perhaps a bit odd, Mr. Benedict was a brilliant, good-natured, and profoundly kind man, and staying with him would have been a pleasant arrangement if only his guests had been able to choose the circumstances. But in fact they had been given no choice.
Mr. Benedict was the guardian of an enormously powerful invention known as the Whisperer—a dangerous machine coveted by its equally dangerous inventor, Ledroptha Curtain, who happened to be Mr. Benedict’s brother—and because of their close connection to Mr. Benedict, the children were thought to be at risk. The government authorities, therefore, had ordered that the children and their families be kept under close guard. (Actually, the original order had called for them to be separated and whisked away to secret locations—much to the children’s dismay—but Mr. Benedict had not allowed this. His home was already well-guarded, he’d insisted, and room could be made for everyone there. In the end, the authorities had grudgingly relented; Mr. Benedict could be very persuasive.)
The children understood there was good reason for such precautions. Mr. Curtain was cunning and ruthless, with several vicious men in his employ, and the children and their families were obvious targets. No one doubted that they would be snatched up and used as bargaining chips if left unprotected, for Mr. Curtain would do anything to regain possession of his Whisperer. (And just the thought of such a reunion inspired dread in everyone, not least the children.) Still, after months of being forbidden to play outside alone, or ever to go anywhere in town, the young members of the Society were feeling more than a little oppressed.
“If we were really really prisoners, though,” said Kate, “I could have us out of here in a heartbeat.”
“Through the window?” Reynie asked, following her gaze. “Is your rope long enough?”
“Well, there’d be a bit of a drop at the bottom,” she admitted, and her friends exchanged doubtful glances. Kate might be a perfect judge of distance, but her definition of “a bit of a drop” was much different from their own.
“Seeing as how I might break if we tried that,” said Sticky, “how about this instead?” He gestured toward the door, which was locked from the outside with a dead bolt—but whose hinges were on the inside. “You could remove the hinges, right? With proper leverage we could pull that side open enough to squeeze through.”
“Wait a minute,” said Constance, aghast. “You mean the Executives could have broken out of here that easily? Just by taking the hinges off?”
She was referring to Jackson, Jillson, and Martina Crowe, three nasty individuals who had mistreated the children in the past (they were all former Executives of Mr. Curtain), and who had certainly not grown any more trustworthy since their capture. As part of the investigation surrounding Mr. Curtain, they had on a few occasions been brought to the house to be questioned. By themselves they presented no real threat—they were nothing like Mr. Curtain’s wicked Ten Men—but the authorities, ever cautious, had insisted that dead bolts be installed on two rooms, and that anything that might be used for escape be removed from them.
“Those guys aren’t like Kate, remember,” said Sticky. “They don’t carry tools around with them—they wouldn’t be allowed, you know, even if they wanted to. Besides, even if they got the hinges off, they’d never get past the guards.”
“Well, I hope they’ve stopped coming,” Constance said. “I’m sick of seeing their stupid mean faces.”
Kate snorted. “You wouldn’t see them if you stayed away like you’re supposed to. But you always manage to cross paths, don’t you? So you can stick your tongue out at them.”
“If they weren’t in the house,” Constance replied haughtily, “I wouldn’t be tempted to do that.”
“Anyway,” said Kate, rolling her eyes, “back to Sticky’s question, we could get through the door, but not very quietly—Rhonda would surely hear us.” She drummed her fingers thoughtfully on her bucket. “She didn’t say whether or not she was armed, did she? When she was explaining the exercise?”
“No, but she did say she was the only guard,” said Sticky. “Remember? Constance demanded to speak to a different guard—someone who would give us better options—and Rhonda sighed and said for the purposes of this exercise we should assume she’s the only one.”
“It was a perfectly reasonable demand,” Constance protested as the others tittered, remembering Rhonda’s look of exasperation.
“I don’t think she meant for the number of guards to matter,” said Reynie, still chuckling. “After all, we can’t really escape. I mean, it’s not as if we’re going to attack Rhonda, right? And we can’t even set foot outside the house without permission.”
Just then Constance stiffened and looked over her shoulder at the wall. “Uh-oh!” she hissed. “Here she comes!”
They all held their breath. When Constance made pronouncements of this kind, she was always right. Sure enough, a moment later footsteps sounded outside the door, followed by a knock. “Constance? Reynie? Everything all right in there? Have you decided yet?”
“We need more time!” Reynie called.
“Are you sure?” There was a note of concern in Rhonda’s muted voice. They heard the dead bolt turning. “Do you need a drink of water or anything?”
“We’re fine!” Reynie cried quickly. “Just a few more minutes, please!”
“Very well, but please hurry,” Rhonda replied, and she locked the door again without entering. “We have more lessons to get through, you know.”
“That was close,” Kate whispered when Rhonda’s footsteps had receded. “I thought about hiding behind the door, but my magnet would have given us away regardless.”
“Not to mention me,” Sticky pointed out. “I couldn’t even have stood up in time, much less hidden behind the door.”
“Sure you could have,” said Kate. “I was going to help you.”
Sticky stared at her, appalled. He had a vivid mental image of his arm being yanked out of its socket.
“And I was going to use the twine to jerk the magnet over to me,” Kate said casually (as if accomplishing all this in the space of a second was the sort of thing anyone might do), “but then, of course, the window would slam shut, which is not exactly something Rhonda would fail to notice. So it was pointless to try.”
“It’s all pointless, anyway,” Sticky said, thrusting his chin into his hands. “We’re never going to change Constance’s mind. I think we’ll just have to betray each other and get on with it.”
“I suppose you’re right,” said Kate. “Oh well, I don’t mind washing if you boys will dry…” She trailed off, having noticed Reynie staring at the window with his brow furrowed. “Reynie, what’s the matter?”
Constance’s brow was furrowed, too. But she was staring at Reynie. “He’s getting an idea!” she said, her face lighting up.
Reynie glanced at her absently and looked back toward the window. He was seldom caught off guard anymore by these flashes of perception. Neither were Sticky and Kate, who leaned eagerly toward him.
“Well?” said Kate. “What is it, Reynie? What do you have in mind?”
“Option C,” Reynie replied, and gave them a sly smile.
When Rhonda Kazembe knocked on the door some minutes later, she received no reply. From inside the room, however, came a suspicious sound of frenzied movement. She knocked again, and this time heard a hushed voice saying “Hurry up!” and (even more disconcerting) “Don’t look down!” These words were enough to make her scrabble at the dead bolt, especially since the voice had sounded like Kate’s. How could Kate even be in this room? As she unlocked the door Rhonda heard the distinct sound of a window slamming shut, and in rising alarm she burst into the room. Her mouth fell open. The room was empty.
Rhonda, a graceful young woman with coal-black skin and lustrous braided hair, was every bit as intelligent as she was lovely. She instantly saw what had happened. In the far wall gaped an exposed heating duct; the register had been removed. That would explain how Kate had gotten into the room (and no doubt Sticky, too). “Oh, but surely!” she cried, flying to the window. “Surely they didn’t!”
Raising the window with a bang, Rhonda held it open with one hand and leaned over the sill to look below. The children were nowhere to be seen. She looked up toward the eaves. Still nothing.
Much relieved yet equally puzzled, Rhonda frowned as she lowered the window. Had they fled through the heating duct, then? But those urgent words (“Don’t look down!”) and the slamming window had led her to believe…
Rhonda closed her eyes. The door. They had been behind the door.
Even before she turned, Rhonda knew what she would see. Sure enough, there they were, having already crept out of the room and now standing in the hallway. Reynie and Sticky were grinning and waving; Constance, like a pint-sized, pudgy princess, had raised her chin to demonstrate her smug superiority; and Kate was leaning in through the doorway, one hand on the doorknob, the other gripping a horseshoe magnet and a tangle of twine. With a wink and a half-apologetic smile, she pulled the door closed. The dead bolt turned with a click.
For a moment Rhonda stared at the locked door, slowly shaking her head. And then, with laughter bubbling up in her throat, she began to clap.
Mr. Benedict was amused. This was hardly unusual. Sometimes, in fact, Mr. Benedict’s amusement sent him right off to sleep, for he had a condition called narcolepsy that caused him to nod off at unexpected moments. These episodes occurred most often when he experienced strong emotion, and especially when he was laughing. His assistants (who were also, as it happened, his adopted daughters) did what they could to protect him—he could hardly take two steps without Rhonda or Number Two shadowing him watchfully in case he should fall asleep and topple over—and Mr. Benedict guarded against such incidents himself by always wearing a green plaid suit, which he had discovered long ago to have a calming effect.
Nevertheless, the occasional bout of sudden sleep was inevitable, and as a result Mr. Benedict’s thick white hair was perpetually tousled, and his face, as often as not, was unevenly shaven and marked with razor nicks. (Unfortunately nothing was more comical, Mr. Benedict said, than the sight of himself in the shaving mirror, where his bright green eyes and long, lumpy nose—together with a false white beard of shaving lather—put him in mind of Santa Claus.) He also wore spectacles of the sturdiest variety, the better to protect against shattering in the event of a fall. But as the best kind of fall was one prevented, it was not uncommon to see an amused Mr. Benedict diligently suppressing his laughter. Such was the case now, as he sat at the dining room table with Rhonda and the children.
“The point of the exercise,” said Mr. Benedict, the corners of his mouth twitching, “was more philosophical than strategic, you see. More than anything, it was meant to be an examination of the consequences of one’s actions on others. Sticky, I am sure, could recite the aims of the original Prisoner’s Dilemma, but Rhonda and I had thought to adapt the game for our own purposes.” Here Mr. Benedict allowed himself a smile, adding, “Just as you did yourselves.”
The children, thus far pleased by Mr. Benedict’s response to their solution, began to feel uneasy. They sensed that they had overlooked something they ought not to have overlooked—a misgiving intensified by the appearance of Number Two, who just then came storming into the dining room. The young woman’s normally yellowish complexion had darkened almost to the same hue as her rusty red hair; and her expression, stern to begin with, positively radiated disapproval now. If the children didn’t know Number Two loved them, they might have thought she meant to put them on the curb and be done with them forever.
“With not one thought,” said Number Two, pointing her finger at them, “not a single thought for how your trick might affect Rhonda, what do you do? You pretend to go outside without protection? You pretend to climb out the window on the third floor? You—” She interrupted herself to bite angrily into an apple, which she chewed with great ferocity, glowering all the while.
Reynie could hear her teeth crunching and grinding all the way from his seat at the other end of the table. He wished he were sitting even farther away than that—preferably somewhere in the distant past. Number Two’s words had stung him like a slap. She was right. He had been so pleased with his idea that he hadn’t really considered whether it was a decent thing to do. Rhonda gave no sign of being upset, but during those first few moments she must have been worried—indeed, he had counted on it—and looking back on his decision, Reynie was ashamed.
“We’re sorry!” blurted Kate, who evidently felt the same way. “Oh, Rhonda, that was stupid of us! It seemed funny at the time, but—”
“It was funny,” Constance interjected. “Just because you’re sorry doesn’t mean it wasn’t funny.”
“Constance has a point,” said Rhonda with an easy smile. “But I do appreciate your apology, Kate, and I can see from the boys’ faces that they’re sorry as well. Really, it’s all right.”
“All right?” Number Two snarled. “When our only concern is for their safety? When our every thought and deed—”
“Number Two,” said Mr. Benedict gently, “I quite concur. But as we are pressed for time, would you be so kind as to fetch the duty schedule? We need to reconfigure it.”
Number Two swung about and stalked into the kitchen. Even from a distance they could hear her fierce attacks on the apple; each bite sounded like a spade being thrust into gravel. Reynie suspected Mr. Benedict was giving her an opportunity to calm down.
“Our original plan,” Mr. Benedict told the children, “was to release you from kitchen duty next week, thereby offsetting any extra work you had to put in this week as a result of the exercise. We wanted the consequences to seem real, you see, to heighten the effect, but we didn’t actually intend to work you like galley slaves. This way Rhonda could tell you the truth, if not the entire truth, and perhaps keep Constance from seeing through the ruse. Constance might have seen through it anyway, of course—we thought that worth investigating, too. Ah, thank you so much,” he said as Number Two, somewhat calmer now, returned with the duty schedule.
“Why do we have to change the schedule?” asked Constance, who found the scheduling of duties even more insufferably tedious than the duties themselves. “Can’t we just keep it as it is?”
“Today is errand day,” Rhonda said. “That’s why we chose it for this particular exercise. We needed to reschedule duties, anyway.”
“I thought things were unusually quiet around here,” Sticky said. “Errand day—well, that explains it.”
Errand day was when all the adult houseguests went out to deal with shopping and business. These prized forays into Stonetown came but once every two or three weeks, always on a different day and never announced beforehand. The adults claimed this was for security reasons, and no doubt it was, but Reynie suspected they were also glad to avoid any begging and pleading, since the children were never allowed to go anywhere themselves.
Kate jumped to her feet. “Don’t bother with the schedule, Mr. Benedict. Let me take extra duty today. It’ll make me feel better.”
“Me, too,” said Reynie.
“Yeah… same here,” said Sticky, trying to sound upbeat despite the sinking feeling in his belly. Kitchen duty with Kate was exhausting—you had to work madly to keep up—and he generally avoided it when he could.
“Count me in!” chirped Constance, and everyone turned to her in astonishment. She burst into laughter at this, for of course she had only been kidding.
The good thing about kitchen duty on errand day was the reduced quantity of lunch dishes. With the exception of Mr. Benedict, who claimed responsibility for Constance, all of the children’s guardians were absent. Gone from the table were the Washingtons, Miss Perumal and her mother Mrs. Perumal, and Kate’s father Milligan, whose own errand was to protect the other guardians as they ran theirs.
The bad thing about kitchen duty on errand day was the notable lack of wonderful aromas in the air, for their friend Moocho Brazos—a former circus strong man and, more to the point, a marvelous cook—was also out running errands, which meant soup and sandwiches for lunch, and nothing baking in the oven.
“I wonder where they are right now,” said Kate, passing another well-scrubbed plate to Sticky, who had hardly started drying the last one.
“I hope they remember to bring us something,” called Constance from the pantry, where she was pretending to be busy. “I meant to give them a list.”
“They might have other priorities,” said Sticky, drying frantically. “My mom needs to talk to someone about a job she can do from home. Or, you know, from here—she hasn’t been able to work since September.” He frowned at the plate in his hand. “Sorry, Kate, I got this one kind of sweaty.”
Kate cheerfully scrubbed it again as Sticky (somewhat less cheerfully) mopped his brow with his sleeve. “Don’t worry, Constance!” she called. “They always bring us something, don’t they? They know it’s our only consolation for being stuck here while they’re out.”
Reynie, bearing a stack of dry dishes, paused on his way to the cupboard. “I’ll bet they had lunch on Stonetown Square,” he reflected wistfully. “They can probably smell the saltwater from the harbor.”
“And the dead fish,” Constance called. “And the gasoline fumes.”
Reynie shrugged. “At least dead fish and fumes would be something different.”
“Speaking of different,” said Kate with a grin, “I wonder how they look?”
The boys chuckled. They all knew the adults were compelled to wear disguises in public. For a secret agent like Milligan, disguises were run-of-the-mill—the children were rather used to seeing him transform into a stranger—but it was comical to imagine dear old Mrs. Perumal, for instance, or the burly, mustachioed Moocho Brazos, dressing up to conceal their identities.
The use of disguises and other security precautions were well-known to the children, who always pressed for every detail of the outings. They knew the routine by heart, and in lieu of actually getting to go out themselves they often went over it in their minds:
First Milligan would contact his personal sentries—a group of trusted agents posted throughout the neighborhood—to ensure they had seen nothing suspicious in the vicinity. Then he would distribute empty cardboard boxes and bags to the other adults, and with a casual word to the courtyard guard about “a project at Mr. Benedict’s other property,” he would escort his charges to a small house across the street. This house, with its narrow front yard and modest porch, looked as tidy and well-maintained as any in the neighborhood, but in reality its interior was in an awful state of disrepair. Mr. Benedict had purchased it years ago, not to be inhabited but to serve as a cover for the entrance to a secret tunnel.
Milligan would lift open the cellar doors at the side of the house. The doors were made of flimsy wood, set slantwise to the ground and held closed with a simple, sliding metal bolt—the sort of cellar doors that suggest nothing more important lies beyond them than dusty fruit jars and discarded boots. In the cellar itself, however, was another door, this one made of steel, with a lock Milligan said could not be picked and to which only he possessed a key. This door opened onto the secret tunnel—a narrow, damp passageway that stretched several blocks and ended beneath the Monk Building, a typically drab and unremarkable office building downtown.
At the Monk Building the adults would mount several flights of a dark stairway (with Mr. Washington supporting Mrs. Washington and Moocho carrying her wheelchair) until they reached a hidden anteroom, where they caught their breath and donned their disguises. The anteroom opened by means of a secret door into an office that belonged to Mr. Benedict, and in its wall were tiny peepholes that allowed Milligan to ensure the office was empty. (He didn’t want them stumbling unexpectedly upon an astonished custodian.) Finally, when he was sure the coast was clear, Milligan would lead the adults through the office, down the Monk Building’s seldom-used public stairs, and at last out the building’s front doors.
It was hard to imagine exactly how they felt as they stepped out onto the plaza in the heart of Stonetown’s business district. Perhaps they broke into wide smiles at the prospect of a day’s freedom. Or perhaps they were overcome with a sad nostalgia, remembering the days before they had ever heard of Mr. Curtain. But just as likely they would be glancing warily about and hoping not to draw attention. They must feel uncommonly strange in their disguises.
“Do you ever worry about them?” Sticky murmured after a pause, and Reynie and Kate returned his sober gaze. They could hear Constance rattling around in the pantry.
“Sometimes,” Reynie admitted. “But I remind myself that the authorities are on high alert, and there’s been no activity reported anywhere near Stonetown—”
“And Milligan can spot a Ten Man a mile away,” Kate put in. “And he can do more than spot him, if it comes to that.”
The boys nodded, even though the last time Milligan encountered Mr. Curtain’s henchmen he’d needed several weeks to recover from the injuries. The circumstances had been different then—they knew because they’d been there—and they quite shared Kate’s confidence in her father.
“You’re right,” Sticky said. “They couldn’t be safer if they had a dozen guards.”
“Yes, they’re fine,” Reynie said. “I’m sure they’re fine.”
“Of course they are,” said Kate.
They spoke without real conviction, however, for though the adults were surely as safe as could be expected under the circumstances, the question remained: How safe was that, exactly?
Kate pulled the plug in the sink, and in troubled silence the friends watched the sudsy water drain away.
Constance emerged from the pantry with a half-empty sleeve of cheese crackers, her cheeks bulging like a chipmunk’s. “What’re you wooking at?” she said, spewing crumbs.
“Nothing,” said the others at once, and Constance scowled. It infuriated her when they tried to protect her. They couldn’t help themselves, though, nor were their reasons entirely selfless: Constance was always difficult, but when she grew anxious she was perfectly unbearable.
“Let’s go outside,” Reynie said, turning away before Constance could search his face. “We still have some time before afternoon lessons.”
The children enjoyed being outside, but getting there was a tiresome business. First they had to seek permission from an adult, who often had to check with someone else to verify the alarm code, for the code was changed almost daily and all the downstairs doors and windows were wired. (Mr. Benedict’s first-floor maze had been renovated into makeshift apartments for the Washingtons and Perumals, and the alarm system—with its direct signal to the police station as well as Milligan’s sentries—provided an important new defense.) Then they had to wait while the adult conferred with the outside guards, and only then could they venture into fresh air.
The children usually preferred the large backyard, where there was more room to run about, and in Kate’s case to turn a few dozen handsprings and flips. The exception was when Mr. Bane was posted there. Mr. Bane was an unpleasant guard, a gruff and grizzled man who seemed to believe children should be kept in boxes until they were proper adults. When Mr. Bane was in the backyard, they went into the courtyard instead.
Today, as it happened, Mr. Bane was off duty altogether, and as soon as they had hustled into their coats and hats, and Reynie had helped Constance with her mittens (she was close to tears trying to get her thumbs in their places), they ran out the backdoor. They were greeted by Ms. Plugg, a tough, stocky guard who had been walking about on the frost-covered grass to keep warm.
“Afternoon, children,” Ms. Plugg said, nodding as they came down the steps. She had an oddly large and rectangular head, rather like a cinder block, and when she nodded Reynie always had the disquieting impression that it was sliding off her shoulders. “Kate. Reynie. Constance. Um… Tacky? I’m sorry, I forget your name.”
“Right!” said Ms. Plugg, snapping her fingers. “Good afternoon, Sticky. I promise I won’t forget again.” Yielding the yard to the children, she took up a watchful position at the top of the steps, where Sticky, unfortunately, could hear her mumbling quietly to herself, “Sticky… Sticky… hmm. Always fiddles with his glasses… fiddlesticks! Okay, fiddlesticks. Good. I’ll remember that.”
Sticky’s stomach fluttered disagreeably as he walked away from the steps. He had grown so used to being with his friends, he felt somehow caught off balance—and deeply embarrassed—overhearing a stranger’s observations about him. Taking a deep breath to steady himself, watching it rise as vapor in the cold air, Sticky made a spontaneous, private decision.
Kate, meanwhile, had been about to put down her bucket, but Reynie caught her arm. “Don’t start tumbling just yet,” he murmured, and looking over at Sticky and Constance he said, “Let’s walk a minute.”
His look wasn’t lost on any of them. Sticky and Constance glanced furtively over their shoulders, and Kate’s eyes narrowed as she rebelted her bucket to her hip, opening the flip-top for quicker access to its contents. They all fell into step with Reynie as he set off around the yard.
No one spoke. The only sound was the crunch of their footsteps on the frozen grass. The yard was enclosed by a prickly hedge, behind which stood a tall iron fence with sharp points at the top of each paling. At the back of the yard Reynie stood on his tiptoes to see over the hedge, and through the fence, into the quiet lane beyond. Something had obviously spooked him.
“Guess what?” he muttered. “Mr. Bane wasn’t here on the last errand day, either. Remember? First we moped around in the courtyard, and then we came back here to play kickball.”
Constance shrugged. “So? Mr. Bane’s never here on errand day.”
Kate gasped in disbelief. “And you didn’t see fit to mention that?”
“I never thought about it!” said Constance, her voice rising. “I never even—”
“Shh!” said Reynie, with a nervous glance toward Ms. Plugg. “It’s okay, Constance. We all have a lot on our minds. But if what you say is true—”
“It’s true, all right,” said Sticky, already reaching for his polishing cloth. He caught himself, scratched his chest instead, then crossed his arms. “I should have noticed it myself. Mr. Bane’s been off duty every single time.”
“Like I said!” Constance snapped. “But what’s the big deal?”
“The big deal is it can’t be a coincidence,” Reynie said. “The guards work on a rotating schedule, with different days off each week. It’s not very likely errand day just happens to keep falling on Mr. Bane’s day off.”
“Highly improbable,” said Sticky, doing the numbers in his head. “In fact—”
“What the boys mean to say,” Kate interrupted, before Sticky could dive into an explanation of calculating odds, “is that something’s going on. What do you think, Reynie? Mr. Benedict doesn’t trust Mr. Bane? He doesn’t want him to find out about errand day?”
“It’s already being kept secret from the house guards,” Sticky pointed out. “Why be extra careful with Mr. Bane?”
“Maybe because Mr. Bane is extra nosy,” Constance suggested.
“Maybe,” Reynie said. “But we should also consider the possibility that Mr. Bane does know about it. What if he’s figuring out when errand day is going to be, then arranging the duty schedule so that he’s off?”
“How could he find out?” Constance said. “And why would he do that?”
Reynie shook his head. “I don’t know. But it makes me awfully uneasy.”
It made all of them uneasy, and for a moment they stood in silence, contemplating what Mr. Bane might be up to. They had never liked the man, but until now no one had suspected he might be treacherous, mostly because they thought Mr. Benedict was too shrewd to allow someone untrustworthy to guard the premises.
“You know what?” said Kate, brightening. “If we’ve noticed this, you can bet Mr. Benedict has. He might even be the one behind it, right? So let’s ask him later and stop worrying about it. We’re wasting our fresh-air time!”
The others were less blithe than Kate, but she did have a point. So they agreed to drop the subject, and after some minutes of kicking a ball around they, too, began to shake off their misgivings. They even managed to feign enthusiasm when Kate whistled Madge down from the eaves and urged them to stroke her feathers.
Madge (whose full name was Her Majesty the Queen) was a talented bird, much attached to Kate and much smarter than most peregrine falcons, which Kate thought should endear her to everyone. The boys had pointed out—as gently as they could—that the raptor’s cruelly sharp beak and cold, predatory expression made her somewhat less than cuddly, and that perhaps people could be forgiven for maintaining a respectful distance. But Kate had seemed hurt by this thought, so for her sake the boys tried to act fond of Madge (and Constance, perhaps not to be left out, did the same).
Today the three of them managed a few tentative feather-touches and false compliments before retreating to the steps, after which they felt remarkably better, for there is nothing like the fear of being raked by talons to take one’s mind off other concerns. And as they watched Kate and Madge go through their training routines their spirits rose higher still—the routines were wonderfully entertaining.
Kate would puff on her whistle, producing different sequences of high-pitched notes, and depending on the sequence Madge would either alight on Kate’s fist (now protected by a thick leather glove) or else circle above the yard, “hunting” for strips of meat, which Kate took from a sealed pouch in her bucket and flung into the air. Madge would stoop upon these tidbits with such astonishing speed and accuracy that her young spectators couldn’t help but gasp and applaud (and once or twice Ms. Plugg couldn’t help but join in), and Kate beamed happily and made comical, exaggerated bows, doing her best not to seem overly proud.
Sitting there on the bottom step, with the sun just breaking out from a cloud and his friends—even Constance—all smiling and chatting good-naturedly, Reynie was suddenly struck by the thought that this curious imprisonment of theirs, however they might grumble about it, could very well prove to be the best time in their lives. For who could say what would happen when all of this was over? Wasn’t it possible, even probable, that their families would all go back to their former lives?
Reynie felt an old, familiar ache. He instantly recognized it as loneliness—or in this case anticipated loneliness—and not for the first time he lamented his too-vivid imagination. Too easily he imagined the pang he would feel the first hundred times he ate breakfast without his friends—without Kate chattering away much too energetically for that time of morning, without Sticky adjusting his spectacles and translating something from French, without Constance trying to sneak something from his plate. Too easily he imagined himself surrounded by strangers, trying to make new friends in some other place.
“You all right?” Sticky asked, nudging him. “Are you worrying about you know what?”
With a start, Reynie realized that he was staring off into the distance. He shook his head. “No, just… daydreaming. I’m fine, thanks.” And he smiled to prove it, privately laughing at himself for being so gloomy. Wasn’t he here with his friends right now? What good did worrying do? At this very moment Sticky was sitting beside him on the step, recounting a study he’d read on the “potentially salubrious effects of daydreams on mental health,” and below them Constance was attempting to retie her shoe with her mittens still on, and Kate was there in the yard, spinning with her arms out wide and gazing up at her falcon in the sky.
Reynie took a mental picture, and saved it.
Watching quietly from the top of the steps, Ms. Plugg, like Reynie, was feeling a curious mix of emotions. She was impressed, charmed, and concerned all at once. In her two months at this job, she had never been on duty in the backyard when Kate worked with Madge. Like all of the guards, she’d been aware of a falcon nesting high in the eaves, and had known that it “belonged,” more or less, to one of the children, but she’d had no notion of the bird’s skill—or the girl’s, for that matter—nor of the obviously strong bond of friendship between the two. And now from the bottom step she could hear the bespectacled boy (what was his name? Oh yes, fiddlesticks)—could hear Sticky speaking like a scholar about some study he’d read, and she observed his friend Reynie listening with actual interest and understanding as he tied the cranky little girl’s shoe for her.
So charming was the scene that Ms. Plugg found it hard not to be distracted, which bothered her extremely, for Ms. Plugg was a dutiful guard, and her duty, as she understood it, was to look out for strangers (especially well-dressed men carrying briefcases) and for any activity that might be deemed suspicious. Her duty was not to gawk at this ponytailed girl training a bird of prey, or to eavesdrop on the brainy conversation of these two boys—all of which was certainly unusual activity, but none of it was suspicious.
Ms. Plugg was used to unusual. This house was an unusual house; this job an unusual job. For one thing, she had been told almost nothing about the house’s residents. Their occupations and histories were a mystery to her, as well as to most—if not quite all—of the other guards. According to Ms. Plugg’s superiors, the guards’ job was not to ask questions. Questions would be a waste of time, for most of the answers were highly classified and would not, therefore, be given. Ms. Plugg and the other guards had been told only that the house’s occupants were important, and that their importance was directly related to what was in the basement.
As all the guards knew, what lay in the basement was a bank of large computers. The computers hummed almost imperceptibly, and night and day, week in and week out, they continued in their mysterious activity. Ceaseless, rapid, extraordinarily complex activity. Although the guards (most of them, that is) had no way of knowing it, the computers were among the most powerful and complicated machines ever invented. They were unusual, in other words, and guarding them was part of Ms. Plugg’s unusual job.
The climate-controlled basement in which the computers were situated was inaccessible except by way of a hidden stairway that originated inside the house. Once in a while, the guards had reason to descend briefly into the basement, but they were under strict orders never to touch the computers (or even to look at them too closely). These orders were hardly necessary. If an enormous monster had lain sleeping in that dimly lit basement, a creature far more powerful and intelligent than any of the guards, why, nothing on earth could have induced them to risk waking it, and their instinctive feeling about the computers was much the same. The only person who ever touched the computers was Mr. Benedict, whom Ms. Plugg, for her part, regarded as something like an amiable and perhaps half-foolish lion tamer entering the dreaded cage.
The guards understood nothing of the workings and secret purposes of these computers. All they knew was that the computers served yet another machine, one that had come dangerously close to wreaking terrible havoc in the world—and that in the hands of the wrong person it could do so again.
They had no notion of what this other machine looked like, or what it did, but more than a few of them (including Ms. Plugg) imagined it as something huge, spidery, and sinister, with gleaming eyes and countless whirring blades and a shrieking cry like the wail of a buzz saw brought to metal. Indeed, they suspected its appearance was even more beastly and frightening than that; they suspected their imaginations were incapable of evoking the true horror of this unknown machine. They knew only that these computers were its heart and brain (which must, for some unfathomable reason, be protected and preserved), and that in a locked and guarded chamber on the third floor, hidden behind a decorative screen, was a curious chair, and that this chair, too, was somehow linked to the terrible machine.
At least, this was what the guards thought they knew.
The truth was that the chair was the machine itself. The guards’ imaginations had reached in the wrong direction—a reasonable error, for their imaginations had little to guide them. The chair appeared simply to sit there, quiet and still, behind the decorative screen in that cozy chamber. Doing nothing. Threatening nothing. With its curious red helmet attached to the seatback, the chair resembled an old-fashioned hair dryer—an eccentric piece of furniture, certainly, but a harmless one.
This was the Whisperer.
And for the moment, in the hands of Mr. Benedict, the Whisperer was harmless. Indeed, under Mr. Benedict’s care the Whisperer had been made to seem as inoffensive as possible; it had even been made to do a certain amount of good.
Unfortunately, despite Mr. Benedict’s best efforts and intentions, the Whisperer was soon to pass from his care. When it did, the fates of a great many people would once again be pulled along behind it, like leaves trailing in the wake of a speeding vehicle. And the very first to be so affected—and among the most important—were these four children now enjoying the fresh air under the watchful eye of Ms. Plugg.
The rest of the winter passed more or less without incident: Sticky celebrated a housebound birthday, missing yet another optometrist appointment; the ever-exploring Kate discovered what she believed to be new nooks and crannies (she wasn’t entirely sure she knew what a cranny was); Reynie learned a new chess opening and tried parting his hair on the opposite side; and Constance completed an epic poem about pig drool. But none of these events counted as news, exactly, at least not the sort the children so earnestly wished for.
There had been no word on Mr. Curtain’s whereabouts, no hint of progress in the authorities’ search. Nor were there any developments on the home front, for when the children had approached Mr. Benedict about Mr. Bane’s suspicious absences, he had said they were quite right to wonder about it but that he would be imprudent to speak of it further. And so they were left to speculate not only about Mr. Bane, but also about Mr. Benedict’s reasons for maintaining silence on the matter.
Speculating grows wearisome eventually, however, and even secret society meetings lose appeal when there’s nothing new to discuss (especially when the members have already spent too much time together). Time passed slowly for the children, therefore, with lessons every weekday, endless rounds of board games and cards, and never a foot set off the property. Until one day, just as spring was mustering itself for another appearance, something finally happened.
The day began normally enough, with newspapers after breakfast. As usual, Sticky blazed through all of them (Mr. Benedict subscribed to several) while Reynie and Kate traded sections of the Stonetown Times. Whenever they finished a section they would pass it to Constance, who glanced at the headlines and drew mustaches and devil horns on people in the photographs. The children were allowed to linger over the papers as long as they wished, but they seldom lingered long, for the older ones looked forward to their exercises and lessons, which offered a welcome change of pace, and Constance ran out of pictures to deface.
On this morning Sticky finished even more quickly than usual, then hustled off to find Number Two, who was letting him use her computer to access the Stonetown Library catalog. He was in the process of memorizing it, had already spent hours scrolling through the records, and today he hoped to finish. It had been tedious work, but it would make his future research more efficient, and Sticky was excited.
“I would have thought Mr. Benedict had every book in the world,” Kate had said when Sticky first mentioned his project. “The whole house is crammed with them.”
“I know,” said Sticky with an eager, appreciative look, “and I still haven’t read half of them, but whenever—”
“You’ve read half of them?” Kate cried, but Sticky was just gaining steam.
“—but whenever a bibliography mentions a book that Mr. Benedict doesn’t have, there’s nothing to do but request it from the library, right? And if the Stonetown Library system doesn’t have it, then I have to ask for an inter-library loan, which means filling out a different form altogether. So think of how much faster the process will be when I can skip the catalog and go straight to the appropriate form! I’ll still have to wait until errand day to get the books, of course, but it’s much…”
“Naturally,” said Kate, who hadn’t really been listening. “But let me just be clear—you’ve read half the books in this house? This whole house?”
“Well, approximately half,” Sticky said. “To be more accurate, I suppose I’ve read more like”—his eyes went up as he calculated—“three-sevenths? Yes, three-sevenths.”
“Only three-sevenths?” said Kate, pretending to look disappointed. “And here I was prepared to be impressed.”
After Sticky had gone out, Kate and Reynie discussed the newspaper articles they had read, almost all of which were about Stonetown having fallen on hard times. The city’s government bureaucracy was terribly snarled, its budget a wreck. And what Kate and Reynie knew that most readers could not know—because the information was still classified—was that Ledroptha Curtain was much to blame.
“I used to think the Emergency was boring to read about,” Kate observed. “But at least it was dramatic. This is just a tiresome mess. Sometimes I wonder if they’ll ever get it straightened out.”
Reynie had wondered this himself. After all, more than a year had passed since the Whisperer had stopped sending messages into the minds of the public—no longer was Mr. Curtain secretly creating the fearful, confused, desperate atmosphere known as the Emergency—and according to Mr. Benedict the mental effects of those messages had almost entirely disappeared. And yet Stonetown, one of the world’s most important cities, was having difficulty paying its own bills and cleaning its own streets. Mental effects were one thing, Mr. Benedict had said, and practical effects quite another.
Reynie shrugged. “Mr. Benedict says it could take a long time. He says it’s hard to fix a problem when so few people know the cause.”
“That’s what’s irritating about it,” Kate said. “The fact that it’s classified. I mean, even most of the people in the government don’t know the truth. Milligan says some officials insist on keeping it secret.”
“It’s because they’re embarrassed,” Constance put in, without glancing up from her work. (She was busy giving the mayor crossed eyes and insect antennae.) “They don’t want people to know they were duped by Mr. Curtain just like everyone else.”
Reynie and Kate looked at her in surprise. Constance rarely paid attention to these newspaper conversations, and when she did it was usually to complain that they’d said the same things a thousand times. (Which was true enough, but they found it impolite of her to mention.)
“I think you’re probably right,” Reynie said. “But I also think Mr. Curtain’s spies might have something to do with it. They could be working to keep the information secret… but that’s just a guess. I don’t know what their motives would be, or even who any of them are, and Mr. Benedict won’t ever talk to us about them.”
“And why is that, Reynie?” Constance asked, propping her chin on her hand and affecting a look of serious interest.
Now Reynie was really suspicious. But before he could ask Constance what she was up to, Miss Perumal entered the room carrying a file folder. She and Rhonda were the children’s primary instructors (though all the adults pitched in from time to time), and as she approached the table, her expression was so determined—and so resolutely cheerful—that Reynie knew she must be coming to work with Constance. Or try to, anyway. Yesterday it had been Rhonda’s turn, and the day before that it had been Mrs. Washington’s, and before that it had been Moocho’s. None had had the slightest bit of luck. Constance might labor for hours on tasks of her own choosing, but she positively detested any work assigned to her.
“Oh, I’ll do those exercises later, Miss Perumal,” Constance said before Miss Perumal had even spoken. “Right now I’m discussing the newspaper with Reynie and Kate.”
A look of understanding passed between Reynie and Kate. Constance must have known Miss Perumal was coming down the hallway.
“Is that so?” Miss Perumal said, carefully keeping any hint of disbelief out of her tone. “That’s lovely, Constance. But why don’t we get these exercises over with? Mr. Benedict designed them especially for you, you know.”
Constance frowned. “I don’t care. They’re boring.”
“But you haven’t even looked at them,” Miss Perumal said, passing a hand over her fine black hair as if to smooth it. Reynie recognized this as a sign of impatience; he’d often seen her do the same thing when disagreeing with her mother. “I think you’ll be surprised—”
Constance made a gagging sound.
Miss Perumal pressed her lips together. “I thought we might do a craft project afterward,” she said after a pause. “Once you’ve finished the exercises, I could show you how to make a sugar-cube igloo.”
Constance looked at her out of the corners of her eyes. “You make the igloo out of… sugar cubes?”
“Why, yes,” Miss Perumal said matter-of-factly. “And you use cake frosting to serve as a sort of glue. You don’t eat any of it, of course—it’s just for fun.”
“No… no, of course,” said Constance, suppressing a smile.
“Bribery,” Reynie muttered to Kate, who rolled her eyes.
“Well, that sounds great!” Constance said, climbing down from her chair. “Let’s do the igloo first!”
Miss Perumal shook her head firmly. “No, Constance. First the exercises, then—”
Excerpted from The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner's Dilemma by Stewart, Trenton Lee Copyright © 2009 by Stewart, Trenton Lee. Excerpted by permission.
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