On a bright September morning, when most children his age were in school fretting over fractions and decimal points, a boy named Reynie Muldoon was walking down a dusty road. He was an average-looking boy—with average brown hair and eyes, legs of average length, nose an average distance from his ears, and so on—and he was entirely alone. Other than a falcon soaring high over the road and a few meadowlarks keeping a low profile in the fields on either side, Reynie was the only living creature around.
To an observer, Reynie might well have appeared lost and far from home, and in fact such an observer would have been half right. At least Reynie found it amusing to think so, for he had just determined that his present situation could be described entirely in terms of halves: he was half a day’s drive from the suburbs of Stonetown, where he lived; half a mile from the nearest small town; and according to the man who had given him directions, he had another half mile to go before he reached his destination. The most important thing, however, was that it had been half a year since he had seen his three closest friends.
Reynie squinted against the sun. Not far ahead the dirt lane went up a steep hill, just as the man in town had said it would. Beyond the hill he should find the farm. And on that farm he would find Kate Wetherall.
Reynie walked faster, his shoes kicking up dust. To think he would see Kate any minute! And Sticky Washington—Sticky would be here by evening! And tomorrow they all would drive to Stonetown to see… well, to see Constance Contraire, but that was all right, too. Even the thought of Constance insulting him in rhyming couplets made Reynie happy. She might be an impudent little genius-in-the-rough, but Constance was one of the few people in the world Reynie could count as a true friend. Constance, Kate, and Sticky were like family to him. It didn’t matter that he’d met them only a year ago. Their friendship had formed under extraordinary circumstances.
Reynie broke into a run.
A few minutes later he stood at the crest of the hill with his hands on his knees, panting like a puppy, his enthusiasm having gotten the better of him. He had to laugh at himself. After all, he wasn’t Kate, who probably could have run the whole way from town without breaking a sweat. (In fact, she probably could have done it running on her hands.) Reynie’s gifts were not of the physical variety—he was average in that respect, too—and he was left mopping his brow and gasping for breath as he surveyed the farm spread out before him.
So this was Kate’s home: a modest farmhouse and barn, both freshly painted, with an old truck in the farmyard; a tiny white henhouse; a pen with sheep and goats milling about in it; and beyond the pen, an expanse of rolling pastures. Across the lane from the buildings was an orchard, a few of its trees studded with fat red apples, though most of the fruit was undeveloped and scarcely visible. The farm still needed a lot of work, Kate had said in one of her letters. And that was almost all she’d said. Her letters were never what you would call wordy, though they were always cheerful. Rather too cheerful, actually—they sometimes made Reynie feel as if he were the only one who missed his friends.
Just as Reynie started down the hill, a bell sounded among the farm buildings below. He scanned the area hopefully for Kate but saw only the goats and sheep filing out of their pen, which must have been left open so they could graze in the pastures. Reynie drew up short in surprise. He could have sworn the last goat to leave the pen had turned around and nudged the gate closed.
Reynie’s brow wrinkled. That conscientious goat was not the first unusual thing he’d seen this morning. He was reminded of something else—something curious to which, in his excitement, he hadn’t given much thought until now. Reynie shaded his eyes and searched the sky. There, circling quite low overhead, was the falcon he had noticed earlier. He could just make out its facial markings, which resembled a black cap and long black sideburns. Reynie didn’t presume to know much about birds (though in fact he knew more than most people), but he felt sure that this was a peregrine falcon—and in this region, at this time of year, peregrine falcons were very rare indeed.
Reynie grinned and hurried downhill to the farmyard. Something odd was going on, and he couldn’t wait to find out what it was.
The barn lay closer than the house, so Reynie went and poked his head in through the open doors, just in case Kate was there. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust from the brilliant sunlight to the relative gloom inside the barn, but once they did they could not have fallen on a more welcome sight.
There was that familiar blond ponytail, those broad shoulders, that fire-engine red bucket. He’d found Kate, no doubt about it. She stood with her back to him, hands on her hips, staring toward the far wall. Reynie considered sneaking up on her, then quickly reconsidered. It was probably a very bad idea to sneak up on Kate. Anyway, he hated to disturb her. She was still staring straight ahead, apparently lost in concentration. Reynie, who could see nothing on the barn wall, suspected she was concentrating on something inward. Perhaps she was contemplating some useful new tool to carry in her bucket.
Suddenly Kate doubled over and began to cough. Then to splutter. And then to make truly horrific gagging sounds. Was she choking? Reynie was just about to rush forward and help her when Kate cried out in frustration and stomped her foot. “Not again!” she moaned, straightening up. Then she turned and saw Reynie watching from the barn entrance.
“I have no idea what that was all about,” Reynie said, “but I have a feeling I’ll think it’s funny.”
Kate dashed over to him, her bright blue eyes shining with delight. Reynie threw his arms out wide—and instantly regretted it. Kate’s greeting, delivered at full tilt, was more of a football tackle than a hug, and as the two of them fell hard to the ground, Reynie felt his breath knocked clean away.
“Did you just get here?” Kate said excitedly, rising onto her knees. “Where’s Miss Perumal and her mother? And what took you so long? You were supposed to be here yesterday. I double-checked the letter just to be sure.”
Reynie, suffering from the panicky feeling that always accompanies having one’s wind knocked out, was nonetheless trying to smile—indeed, to make any expression other than that of a stranded fish—but he could only move his lips, unable to utter a sound.
“Why, Reynie, you’re speechless!” Kate said with a laugh. She hauled him to his feet and began dusting him off with sharp, painful swats. “I know, I’m excited, too. And not only about Mr. Benedict’s big surprise. I’m thrilled just to see you boys again! You can’t imagine how disappointed I was when you didn’t show up last night.”
Recovering his breath, Reynie stepped out of range of Kate’s swats and said, “You aren’t the only one. Our car broke down, and we had to have it towed into town. We spent the night in the motel.”
“The motel in town?” Kate cried. “If only we’d known! We could have come for you in the truck.”
“Sorry, I would have called, but since you don’t have a telephone—”
Kate groaned. “Milligan and his rules! You know I love him, but honestly, some of the things he insists on…”
“Anyway,” Reynie said, laughing, “I couldn’t stand to wait for the car to be fixed, so I got permission from Amma”—Amma was what Reynie called Miss Perumal, his former tutor who had recently adopted him—“and directions from the mechanic, and here I am. Amma and Pati will be along as soon as the car’s running.”
Kate caught Reynie’s arm, her face creased with worry (an unusual expression for Kate, who was not the worrying type). “Is the car big enough for all three of us to ride together? I mean along with Miss Perumal and her mother and all the luggage? Sticky’s parents are coming, too, you know, and their car is tiny. I can’t imagine one of us spending six hours separated from the other two—not after we’ve just spent six months apart!”
“We rented a station wagon. There’ll be plenty of room. Now listen,” Reynie said, holding up his hand to check Kate, who had begun to speak again, “before we stray too far from the subject, won’t you tell me what you were doing just now? The last time I heard a sound like that was when the orphanage cat spit up a hairball.”
“Oh, that?” Kate said with a shrug. “I’m training myself to regurgitate things, but it’s a lot harder than you’d think.” Seeing Reynie’s horrified expression, she quickly explained, “It’s an old escape artist’s trick. Houdini and all those guys could do it. They’d swallow a lockpick or something, and later they’d use their throat muscles to bring it back up. You’re supposed to train with a string tied to whatever it is you’re swallowing, so you can help pull it back out. I did that at first, but then I thought I might manage it without the string. No luck yet, though.”
“So I was right,” Reynie said. “It is funny. But isn’t it dangerous?”
Kate pursed her lips, considering. Evidently this had never occurred to her. She wasn’t one to worry about danger much. “I suppose it isn’t the safest thing in the world,” she admitted, and with a serious look she said, “You’d better not try it.”
Reynie laughed (for nothing could possibly induce him to try such a thing himself), then affected an equally serious look and said, “All right, Kate, I promise never to swallow—well, what was it you swallowed, anyway?”
Kate rolled her eyes and waved off the question. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“And, hey, what happens to it now?” Reynie persisted, looking horrified again. “I mean, since you couldn’t—?”
“I don’t,” Kate said firmly, “want to talk about it.”
They had plenty of other things to talk about, anyway. Not only did Kate want to show Reynie around the farm, she desperately wanted to know his thoughts about the big surprise Mr. Benedict had planned for them. Exactly one year had passed since Mr. Benedict had recruited the four of them for an urgent mission—a mission that only the most remarkable children could have accomplished—and now, on the anniversary of their first meeting, he had arranged for a reunion at his home in Stonetown. In one of his letters he had explained, “Here you will be met with a surprise that I hope will please all of you—a surprise that, while it inadequately expresses my gratitude, not to mention my great and lasting affection for you, nevertheless strikes me as an appropriate…” And he had gone on like this for a while, elaborating upon his appreciation for the children’s unique qualities and his eagerness to see them all again. Kate had skimmed the letter happily and put it away. Reynie had read the letter several times and learned it by heart.
“You memorized the whole thing?” Kate said, leading Reynie up a ladder to show him the hayloft. “You’re starting to sound like Sticky.”
“Sticky would only have needed to read it once,” said Reynie, which was perfectly true, but Reynie mentioned Sticky mostly to draw attention away from himself. The fact was that he’d memorized every letter he’d received these past six months—not just from Mr. Benedict, but also the breezy notes Kate had sent, the slightly boring but faithfully detailed reports from Sticky, and even the quirky poetry Constance had mailed him along with whatever curious button, dust bunny, or paper scrap had struck her fancy on the way to find a stamp. Reynie felt more than a little sheepish about how tightly he’d clung to every word from the others, none of whom had ever said anything about missing him.
“Speaking of Sticky,” Kate said, hauling Reynie through the trapdoor into the loft, “have you heard much from him lately? He says you two write more often than he and I do. Says that you actually take the trouble to answer his questions, unlike some friends he knows. I don’t think he quite understands my situation. This is the loft, by the way.”
Reynie looked around. The hayloft resembled every other hayloft he’d seen—though admittedly he’d seen them only in pictures and movies—but Kate seemed immensely proud of it, so he nodded approvingly before he said, “What doesn’t Sticky understand? About your situation, I mean.”
“Well, for one thing,” Kate said, swinging open the loft’s exterior door, which overlooked the animal pen, “I’ve been awfully busy, what with going to school and trying to get the farm up and running again. Milligan’s often away on missions, you know, and I have to help out.”
Reynie did know this. Milligan was Kate’s father. He was also a secret agent. Neither of these facts had been known until recently, though—not even by Kate. She’d been just a toddler when Milligan was captured on a mission, lost his memory, and failed to return. Since her mother was dead and her father had abandoned her (or so everyone believed), Kate had been sent to an orphanage, which she eventually left for the circus. Milligan, for his part, had escaped his captors and gone to work for Mr. Benedict. Not until Mr. Benedict brought them together, exactly a year ago this month, had Kate and Milligan discovered the truth.
“The farm really fell to pieces over the years,” Kate was saying. “There’s been enough work to keep me busy around the clock. Not that I mind work, of course. What I find most difficult is sitting still long enough to write a good letter. Sticky should know that, shouldn’t he?”
“He probably should,” Reynie admitted. He stepped over to the door, where Kate was taking something from her bucket (the bucket had a flip-top now, Reynie noticed) and placing it between her lips. It was some kind of a whistle. She reached into her bucket again.
“But the real problem with writing letters,” Kate continued, speaking around the whistle as she tugged a thick leather glove onto her hand, “is that the government reads all my mail. Daughter of a top agent, you know. They have to be sure I’m not revealing any secrets. It’s bad enough that everything about our mission was made hush-hush—by all rights we ought to be famous for what we did—but I can’t even send private letters to my best friends? It’s outrageous!”
As if to demonstrate her outrage, Kate puffed her cheeks and blew mightily on the whistle, which emitted a thin squeal like that of a teakettle.
“Is that what I think it’s for?” Reynie asked.
“Probably,” said Kate, “since you’re usually right about everything. Honestly, though, don’t you think it’s unfair that Sticky blames me for writing so little?”
Reynie decided to come out with it. “I have to admit I felt kind of the same way, and not just about your letters, but about everyone’s. No one has ever really said much about… about… Well, I was starting to think I was the only one, you know, who…”
Kate looked at him askance. “Reynard Muldoon! I would never have thought you, of all people—” She shook her head. “Not everyone has your gift for expressing things, Reynie. You have no idea how much I’ve missed all of you. I even miss Constance, for crying out loud!”
Reynie grinned. It was just as he’d hoped. He’d been here only five minutes and already felt a hundred times better.
“Ah, here she is!” Kate said, holding her arm aloft. An instant later the air in front of them burst into a flurry of talons and wings. Reynie leaped back. The falcon had swooped down to perch upon Kate’s thick leather glove, which extended well past her wrist, and was now flicking its head from side to side, regarding them. “Reynie, meet Madge.”
“Short for Majesty. Actually, her full name is Her Majesty the Queen. Because, you know, she’s queen of the birds.”
“I see,” said Reynie. “Naturally. Queen of the birds.”
“Don’t give me that look! It’s an excellent name whether you like it or not. Isn’t it an excellent name, Madge?” Kate gave the falcon a strip of meat from a sealed pouch inside her bucket. She urged Reynie to stroke the bird’s feathers (Reynie nervously obliged) and then sent her off again. “Milligan gave her to me for my birthday—it only took a dozen hints and a month of begging—and I’ve been training her. She’s very smart.” Kate lowered her voice, as if Madge, already a hundred yards away, might overhear. “Which, between you and me, is kind of rare for a bird of prey. Of course I’d never tell her that.”
Reynie was watching the falcon sail away over the farm. It was just like Kate Wetherall to show you something so dramatic and then act as if you shouldn’t be surprised. “I thought you needed a license to own a falcon,” he said, “and go through years of special training.”
“Oh, you do,” said Kate, slipping the leather glove back into her bucket. “I did all that when I was in the circus. One of the animal trainers was a falconer, and he let me be his apprentice. I learned all sorts of things from that guy… but we can talk about that later,” she said, dismissing the subject with an impatient wave of her hand. “You were going to tell me about Sticky. Have you heard from him lately?”
Reynie produced a folded sheaf of papers from his pocket. “Actually, he sent me this a few days ago. It’s an account of our mission—for posterity, he says, assuming the mission’s ever declassified. He said I could show it to you. He wants our opinion.”
“You mean he wrote about everything that happened? Like a story?”
“Well… something like that.” Reynie unfolded the papers and handed them to Kate, who immediately sat down in the hay to read. There were five pages, covered front and back with tiny, cramped print, and the title alone was almost as long as one of Kate’s letters. It read:
The Mysterious Benedict Society’s Defeat of the Terrible Brainsweeping Machine Called the Whisperer (along with its inventor, Ledroptha Curtain, who was revealed to be the long-lost identical twin of Mr. Nicholas Benedict, for whom the Society is named): A Personal Account
“Holy smokes!” Kate said.
Kate nodded and continued to read:
In the event that you, the reader, are unaware of Mr. Curtain’s foiled plan to become a powerful world ruler using the mind-altering effects of his Whisperer, this account will inform you of it.
The account commences with the forming of the Mysterious Benedict Society. Through a series of tests it was determined that George “Sticky” Washington (the author of this account), Reynard Muldoon (whose full name is now Reynard Muldoon Perumal, as he has been adopted), Kate Wetherall, and Constance Contraire were sufficiently skilled to enter Mr. Curtain’s Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened (the acronym being L.I.V.E.) and act as secret agents for Mr. Benedict. At the aforementioned Institute these children discovered many disturbing things. Then they disabled the Whisperer, although Mr. Curtain and his closest assistants (his Executives, as they were called) unfortunately avoided capture. But I see I have already come to the end. Allow me to back up and make a proper introduction to the course of events…
The account went on like this, backtracking and sidetracking and circling around as Sticky labored to produce an accurate summary of their adventures. An entire paragraph, for instance, was devoted to the origin of the word “terrified,” another to the curious sense of isolation that can occur on islands (as opposed to peninsulas), and still another to a consideration of cruel punishment in schools. By the time Kate reached the second page, her shoulders were sagging. With a sigh, she flipped to the last page and read the final sentence: “And that is the end of the account.” She looked up at Reynie. “Is it… um, all like this?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“But how could he make the most exciting, the most dangerous, the most important event in his life—in anyone’s life—so… so…”
“So dull?” Reynie offered.
Kate flopped back onto the hay and started giggling. “Oh, I can’t wait to see him!”
“Don’t give him too hard a time. He may be coming out of his shell, but he’s still sensitive, you know.”
“I’ll be sure to hug him before I tease him,” Kate said.
Reynie cringed. Kate’s hug would probably hurt Sticky much worse than her teasing.
“Well, enough lying around,” said Kate, who had been lying around for perhaps three seconds. She sprang to her feet. “Aren’t you going to say anything about my bucket?”
“I was about to,” Reynie said. “I see you’ve made some modifications.”
Kate hurried over to show it to him. The bucket’s clever new lid opened easily but closed securely, which kept her things from spilling out as they sometimes had done in the past. What was more, inside the bucket Kate had attached several pouches that closed with snaps, straps, and zippers, so that everything could be snugged into a designated place. Her rope lay coiled in the bottom as always, tucked neatly beneath the pouches.
“Impressive,” Reynie said, examining the hidden catch that made the lid spring open.
Kate beamed. “Milligan designed the lid. He pointed out that a utility belt would be less cumbersome than a bucket, but I reminded him that you can’t stand on a utility belt to reach things—”
“Or fill it with water and drop it on pursuers,” said Reynie, remembering how Kate had done just that to escape Jackson and Jillson, Mr. Curtain’s most thuggish Executives, who had menaced the children at the Institute.
“Exactly! And Milligan saw my point, so he offered to help me improve the bucket instead of replacing it. Look,” she said, stepping up onto its closed lid. “No more emptying it and flipping it over. That saves time, you know.”
It was hard to imagine Kate doing anything more quickly than she already did, but Reynie acknowledged the improvement. “And what are you keeping in it these days? I mean other than falcon snacks and whistles.”
Pouch by pouch, Kate showed Reynie the bucket’s contents. Luckily, she said, Milligan had recovered some of the things she’d been compelled to leave behind at the Institute—her spyglass (which she disguised as a kaleidoscope), her Swiss Army knife, her horseshoe magnet, and her flashlight—and she also had replaced some of the items that had been lost or ruined, such as her slingshot and marbles, her spool of clear fishing twine, her extra-strength glue, and her penlight. In addition, she’d recently added a pencil-sized paintbrush and a bottle of lemon juice.
“I had to wait to tell you in person,” Kate said with a mischievous look. “You know the lemon-juice trick, don’t you? From now on I’ll brush secret notes onto my letters, and those government snoops won’t be able to see them. All you have to do is hold the paper over a candle and the words will appear.”
Reynie chuckled. He was familiar with the lemon-juice trick but had never had an opportunity to use it. “And what’s in the last pouch?” he asked, pointing to one that remained unopened.
“Oh, just these,” Kate said, somewhat drearily, producing a ring of at least two dozen keys of all different sizes and varieties. “Keys for the house. Keys for the truck. Keys for the barn padlock, the henhouse padlock, all the gates and cupboards and sheds, you name it. Milligan believes in keeping things secure.” She sighed and stuffed the keys back into their pouch.
“What’s the matter?” Reynie asked.
“Nothing, really,” Kate said. “Nothing important, at least—and I think that’s the trouble. I love the farm, you know, and I’m glad to be here. It’s just that sometimes it feels a little dull. After all the exciting things we went through, the important things we accomplished—well, everything since then has seemed a bit ordinary. We were secret agents, Reynie!” Even as she spoke the words, Kate’s eyes lit up in a very familiar way. Then she laughed at herself. “It’s kind of hard to get excited about having the key to the root cellar. That’s all I mean.”
“Well, you’re not alone,” Reynie said. “Since Miss Perumal adopted me, things have been great, but I still feel restless all the time—like I should be doing something urgent and can’t say what.”
“Really?” Kate said, and for a moment the two friends regarded each other in silence. It was a look that communicated everything they shared: the dangers, hardships, and triumphs of their mission, of course, but also the knowledge—as isolating when they were alone as it was thrilling when they were together—that they understood things about the world that no one else did, things they might never speak of except to each other.
“I suppose it’s just a normal letdown,” Kate said at last. She walked over to the corner of the hayloft. “Anyway, it’s not that bad. And I do what I can to keep things interesting.”
With that, she leaped high into the air and pulled a cord hanging from the rafter above her. A trapdoor fell open beneath her, and with a playful wave Kate fell through the hole and disappeared. Reynie heard her land with a thud on the earthen floor below. “Come on!” she called up. “Let’s go pick some apples.”
Reynie shook his head and went to use the ladder. Kate did keep things interesting, after all, and there was no point pining for bygone adventures. If anything, Reynie should be grateful—he was grateful—that being with his friends no longer meant being in danger. Who needed danger, anyway? Certainly not Reynie!
But whether Reynie needed it or not—and though he had no way of predicting it—danger most certainly awaited him and his friends.
And it would not be waiting long.
Kate and Reynie spent the rest of the morning doing chores. It was enjoyable work, especially since they were engaged the whole time in conversation. As they picked apples from the few trees giving fruit, Kate told Reynie about her last school year (classes were easy enough, but there was far too much sitting in desks). As they filled the water troughs, she described what a terrible state of disrepair the old farm had been in when she and Milligan had returned to it. And as they oiled the gate to the animal pen, she related how Milligan would sometimes come home from a mission in the middle of the night, wake her up, and talk with her for hours.
“Which is fine by me,” Kate said, working the gate hinge to be sure it was entirely smooth and squeakless. She cast Reynie a sly look. “He tells me all sorts of top-secret things.”
Reynie raised his eyebrows. “Like what?”
“I’d better wait and tell you and Sticky at the same time,” Kate said. “He’ll want to hear it, too, you know.” She considered a moment, then added reluctantly, “For that matter, I suppose we should wait until Constance is with us, too.”
“Then at least tell me about that,” Reynie said, pointing toward two hens he had just seen come around the corner of the barn. The hens were harnessed to a tiny wagon filled with grain, and—with chickeny little stutter-steps and a great deal of clucking and flapping—were towing the wagon toward the henhouse.
“Chicken delivery,” Kate said with a nod of satisfaction. “One of my pet projects.” She glanced at Reynie to see if he caught her joke, but he seemed too preoccupied by the feathery spectacle to have noticed.
“A chicken-drawn wagon,” said Reynie (who was politely pretending not to have heard Kate’s joke). “Now how did you manage that?”
“Oh, training the chickens was easy,” Kate said. “The hard part was training Madge not to hunt them—I lost two hens before she caught on.” She paused a moment to honor the memory of the unfortunate hens, then continued brightly, “I told you I learned a lot from that animal trainer, remember? I’ve been training the farm animals to do chores. Milligan’s often away, so we need a lot of help around here. Might as well use what we have, right?”
“I think it’s brilliant,” said Reynie with perfect sincerity. “The chickens feed themselves, and the livestock open and close their own gate.”
“You saw that?” said Kate, looking pleased. “Yes, they come and go whenever Moocho sounds the farm bell.” She pointed toward the orchard. “Speaking of Moocho, there he is now. Hey, Moocho! Here’s Reynie!”
Kate had mentioned Moocho Brazos in her letters, so Reynie knew a few things about him. He knew, for instance, that Milligan had wanted someone to help out on the farm, as well as to look after Kate when he was away on missions, and that Kate had persuaded him to hire one of her old circus friends. But now, as the swarthy figure of Moocho Brazos emerged from the apple trees, Reynie realized that Kate had neglected to mention a detail or two. She certainly didn’t need to fill him in now, for it was perfectly clear from Moocho’s enormous muscles, slicked-down hair, and handlebar mustache that he’d been the circus’s Strong Man.
Moocho was toting a heavy tub full of apples that Reynie and Kate had picked earlier that morning. They’d left it at the far edge of the orchard to be retrieved by Moocho—in the farm truck, Reynie had supposed, not having conceived that anyone could carry it more than a few steps. But Moocho had gone on foot, and in his hands the apple tub looked no more substantial than a bowl of cherries.
“So you’re the wonderful Reynie Muldoon,” he said as he came up. “I’ve heard so much about you.” Given his daunting appearance, Moocho’s soft, melodious voice was every bit as unexpected as his attire—a flowery apron worn over coveralls and house slippers. He set the apple tub down and gave Reynie’s hand a gentle squeeze. “Very pleased to meet you.”
“Overslept, have you, Moocho?” Kate said.
Moocho yawned as if on cue. “We were up so late waiting, you know.”
“Madge and I were up late. You went to bed at nine.”
“Which, as you know perfectly well, is long past my bedtime,” Moocho said, “so no scolding, young lady. Unless, of course, you don’t care to eat any of my apple pies tonight.”
Kate immediately repented of her teasing, then told him about the broken-down car. Moocho offered to fetch Miss Perumal and her mother in the farm truck, but Reynie said he expected them to arrive soon. The mechanic had promised the car would be fixed before lunch.
“Well, if they aren’t here by then I’ll go for them,” Moocho said, scooping up the apple tub and starting for the house. “We can’t let them eat in town—the café is dreadful.”
Reynie watched him go, still marveling at how effortlessly he carried the tub. “I see why you asked Milligan to hire him. He must do the work of several people.”
“Oh yes, I suppose he does,” said Kate. She grinned. “But wait till you try his pies. Then you’ll know the real reason.”
Noontime found Reynie and Kate perched high atop the farmhouse roof. They had gone up to replace a broken shingle and to right a listing weather vane, and afterward they had lingered to survey the countryside. The view was excellent from that height, and Kate was pointing out the distant mill pond, scene of her earliest memory (that of swimming with Milligan), when a faraway sound caught their attention. They turned to see a plume of dust rising over the lane in the distance.
“That must be Amma and Pati,” Reynie said, but Kate, fixing the dust plume in her spyglass, gave a little gasp and cried, “They’re all here, Reynie! I mean Sticky’s here, too!”
Reynie took the spyglass—Kate was thrusting it upon him with such zeal he feared she would knock him off the roof—and sure enough, down the dusty lane came Miss Perumal and her mother in the station wagon, followed by an old sedan: the Washingtons had arrived earlier than expected.
Kate scrambled nimbly to the edge of the roof, gripped the sides of the ladder, and slid down it like a firehouse pole, bypassing the rungs altogether. By the time Reynie had descended in a more conventional fashion, the farmyard was full of automobiles, the Perumals and Washingtons were chatting with Moocho Brazos (who had hurried out to greet them), and Kate was helping Sticky up from the ground and dusting him off.
To Reynie’s surprise, Sticky looked exactly as he’d looked a year ago: a skinny boy with light brown skin, anxious eyes (though perhaps the anxiety came from not yet having recovered his breath), and a completely bald head. The baldness was the surprising part. The last time Reynie had seen Sticky, all his hair had grown back; it had since disappeared. His spectacles were missing, too, but this was only because Kate was just now picking them up from where her hug had knocked them free.
Clutching his ribs, Sticky gave Reynie a feeble smile. Then the two boys laughed and hugged and clapped each other on the back. All around them, the adults were chattering about faulty carburetors and making good time on the highways and bumping into one another unexpectedly in town. Mr. Washington was getting a wheelchair out of the trunk for Mrs. Washington, whose troubled knees kept her from walking much, but who nonetheless took a few painful steps to embrace Reynie and Kate. A short woman with walnut-colored skin, narrow shoulders, and a rather pouty mouth belied by the kindness in her eyes, Mrs. Washington couldn’t stop shaking her head as she turned the children’s faces left and right in her hands.
“You both look years older already,” she said ruefully, as if she couldn’t bear the thought. Mr. Washington came up with the wheelchair, and his wife lowered herself into the seat and dabbed at her shining eyes. Mr. Washington, who resembled a larger version of Sticky—tall, slender, and bespectacled—was not much for words, but he smiled fondly and greeted the children with reserved pats on their shoulders.
Meanwhile, Miss Perumal (her arms crossed protectively over her ribs) had come over to hug Kate. “Don’t you look wonderful, dear? Oh! And I see you’ve put a lid on your bucket! How clever!”
Kate beamed—she was always flattered when someone complimented her bucket—and only her desire to steal away and talk privately with the boys prevented her opening the bucket and showing Miss Perumal its entire inventory. They were already going to have to wait much too long to be alone, for first the luggage had to be brought in, and lunch eaten, and the dishes cleared away, and the guests situated in their rooms—all of which was perfectly pleasant but took ages to accomplish. By midafternoon the three young friends were casting nearly constant, yearning glances at one another, and when Miss Perumal finally asked them to make themselves scarce so the adults could speak in private, they lost no time in bolting for the door.
Still, as they walked out into the orchard, Sticky looked suspiciously back toward the farmhouse. “Why do they want to speak privately, I wonder?”
“It’s Mr. Benedict’s surprise,” Reynie said. “They’re in on it.”
“They are? So that explains why my parents have been whispering. I thought they were discussing Mom’s getting a second job. They know I’m dead set against it. I’d sooner go back to quizzing, you know, but they’re dead set against that.”
Reynie knew from Sticky’s letters that his father already did work two jobs. Their family’s finances were terribly strained due to the unhappy events leading up to the last year. Sticky’s prodigious memory and reading abilities had made him an incomparable quiz champion, but he had suffered badly under the pressure to make his family’s fortune and ultimately had run away from home. The Washingtons had spent every penny—in fact had gone deep into debt—in order to find Sticky and bring him back to them. They had been distrustful of money’s allure ever since, and were stubbornly unwilling to let Sticky be subjected to unusual pressures. (“They can hardly stand even to hear me talk about our time at the Institute,” Sticky had written. “The very thought of my being in danger makes them tremble.”) And so the Washingtons remained quite poor.
“How did you find out they know about the surprise?” Sticky asked as they settled down in the shade of the apple trees.
“Amma got a letter from Mr. Benedict,” Reynie said. “I saw it on her dresser, but she neglected to mention it to me, and later I overheard bits of a conversation she had with Pati. Pati’s hard of hearing, so Amma had to say a few things rather louder than she meant to. None of it was enough to give me any clues, but I could tell they knew something I didn’t. Not long after that I got my own letter from Mr. Benedict—the one he sent all of us—and I knew we were in for something good.”
“Of course it will be good! How could it not be good?” said Kate, leaning back on her elbows with a satisfied smile. “It’s already good. We’re together, aren’t we? And tomorrow we’ll see Mr. Benedict!”
“Not to mention Rhonda and Number Two,” Reynie said, referring to Mr. Benedict’s brilliant assistants (who also happened to be his adopted daughters, though this wasn’t widely known). “I can’t wait to see them, either.”
“Neither can I!” Sticky said. In a somewhat more subdued tone he added, “And, well… Constance, too, of course. And what about Milligan, Kate? At lunch you said he’d meet us at Mr. Benedict’s house, but wasn’t he supposed to be here?”
“That was the plan, but then he got called away on a mission.”
“What kind of mission?” asked Reynie and Sticky at the same time. They were both hungry for details.
Kate shrugged. “No idea. He never tells me anything beforehand, only afterward. I always read the paper for clues, of course—I’d love to be able to tell him I figured out what he’d been up to—but I never find anything.”
“So you have been keeping up,” Sticky said. “I asked about that in my last letter, but you never replied.” His tone was slightly resentful, but Kate either ignored it or else was blithely unaware.
“Of course I’ve been keeping up! But I’m not like you, Sticky. I can’t read ten newspapers every morning, and half of them in foreign languages. I only read the Stonetown Times. Why? Have you seen anything suspicious?”
Sticky grunted. “I wish. What about you, Reynie?”
Although this conversation might have seemed strange if overheard (for it is rare to hear children discuss the newspaper, and still more so to hear one ask whether anything “suspicious” has been found), to Reynie and his friends it felt perfectly natural. All of them had long had the habit of reading the paper—in fact it was a newspaper advertisement that had first led them to Mr. Benedict—and ever since their mission they had scanned the daily headlines with particular interest. It was doubtful any activity concerning Mr. Curtain would be declassified and printed, but it was always possible that some seemingly innocent story might reveal a connection to something deeper and darker—something the children would recognize even if other readers would not. In this single respect they still felt like secret agents, though reading the daily paper was hardly exciting field work.
This morning’s front page of the Stonetown Times, for instance, had been devoted to nothing more sinister than finance, freight, and forestry: INTEREST RATES SHARPLY ON THE RISE, read one headline; CARGO SHIP SHORTCUT TO MAKE MAIDEN VOYAGE, read another; while still another read, PINE WEEVIL MAKES MEAL OF SOUTHERN FORESTS. And the news only grew less interesting on page two.
“Suspicious?” Reynie said. “Not unless you think pine weevils are suspicious. Everything I’ve read has been dull as doorknobs.”
Kate’s eyes twinkled. “Hey, that reminds me! Sticky, I—”
Reynie cleared his throat and gave her a warning look. It was too late, though. Sticky might be slow to make certain connections, but he was exceptionally quick at recognizing personal insults. “Go on,” he said, burying his face in his hands. “It’s about my account of the mission, isn’t it?”
Now Kate looked regretful. “Oh… no… I was, uh, just going to…” She looked helplessly at Reynie, unable to think of what to say.
Much to their relief, Sticky lowered his hands and smiled. It was a sheepish smile, but at least he didn’t seem wounded. “Out with it.”
“Well, it’s… factual,” Kate said.
“And thoughtful,” Reynie added, hurriedly taking the account from his pocket in hopes of finding something to praise.
Kate nodded vigorously as Reynie unfolded the papers. “Oh, yes, it’s very thoughtful! And grammatical!”
Sticky winced. “Is it that bad? Oh well, I knew it was probably dreck. You should have seen the earlier drafts. This was my sixth attempt.” He took the account from Reynie and looked it over ruefully before stuffing it into his pocket. “Don’t worry, I figured I could never publish it anyway. I just wanted to do something to celebrate the occasion.”
Reynie had a sudden insight. “That’s why your hair’s gone, isn’t it? For old times’ sake!”
“I thought you might get a kick out of that,” Sticky admitted. “This time Dad helped me shave it—no more hair-remover concoctions.” He shuddered at the memory.
“Well, I love it!” Kate said, giving Sticky’s scalp an affectionate rub, and Reynie grinned and nodded his appreciation.
For a long time the three friends lingered in the orchard, reveling in one another’s company and reminiscing about their mission to the Institute. Laughing, groaning, occasionally shivering as they recalled their experiences—all of which remained perfectly vivid in their memories—they let the afternoon slip past them. When Kate noticed how long the shadows had grown in the farmyard, she gave a start and hopped up.
“Good grief! They’re going to call us inside soon, and Sticky hasn’t even met Madge yet!”
“Who’s Madge?” Sticky asked.
“Her Majesty the Queen!” Kate said, as if this explained everything. Impatiently she hauled the boys to their feet and ushered them out into the farmyard, where she blew on her whistle and tugged on the protective glove. Almost instantly the falcon appeared, streaking down from an unseen height to settle upon Kate’s wrist.
Sticky’s puzzlement faded, replaced by anxiety. Though he readily expressed his admiration of this sharp-taloned creature now regarding him with shining black eyes (“Falco peregrinus,” he said, nodding as he backed away, “impressive bird… swiftest of predators…”), he was not at all keen to make her special acquaintance. As casually as he could, Sticky took a cloth from his shirt pocket and removed his spectacles.
Reynie smiled to himself. He was quite familiar with Sticky’s habit of polishing his spectacles when nervous, and seeing him do so now was unexpectedly satisfying. There was a unique pleasure in knowing a friend so well, Reynie reflected, rather like sharing a secret code. Also, it was nice not to be the only one afraid of Kate’s bird.
“Don’t worry, Madge,” Kate was saying as she fed the falcon a strip of meat, “I’ll be back before you know it.” And after she’d sent Madge aloft again, she clucked her tongue and said, “Poor thing, did you see how fidgety she was? She knows I’m going away. I think it makes her nervous.”
“Oh yes,” said Sticky, with a doubtful glance at Reynie. “Poor thing.”
Reynie patted Kate’s back. “I’m sure your little raptor will be fine.”
Moocho Brazos had prepared a sumptuous meal, and dinner was a boisterous, satisfying, happy affair, with everyone chatting at once and platters constantly being passed this way and that. For dessert Moocho served his much-anticipated apple pies—six of them, in fact, although that number seemed less extravagant once Moocho’s own appetite was taken into account.
After the dishes were washed, the pleasant tumult died down and the talk fell away. Everyone was overcome with drowsiness. It had been a long day for all, and another full day awaited them. The children were determined to stay up regardless, but though only a year ago they had been on a secret mission making life-and-death decisions, now they were subject to the dictates of their guardians—which meant bathing, bidding one another good night, and going to bed.
“Oh well,” Kate said through a yawn. “We’ll be up again soon. The rooster crows at sunrise, you know.”
And indeed it was the sound of crowing that woke Reynie the next morning. He sat up blearily—he’d slept on a pallet on the floor—to see gray dawn beyond the window and Miss Perumal sitting up in bed, smiling at him.
“Today’s your big day,” she said. “I know you’re excited. You didn’t sleep until after midnight.”
“You were awake?” Reynie asked. He’d been so involved in his thoughts that he hadn’t paid attention to Miss Perumal’s breathing. Obviously, though, she’d been paying attention to his.
“I’m excited, too,” Miss Perumal said. “I know you’re going to love your surprise.”
There was something about her expression that gave Reynie pause. She was happy for him, he could tell—but there was something else, too. It reminded him of the day she had driven him to take Mr. Benedict’s tests, when she had felt convinced he would no longer need her as a tutor. Her eyes, now as then, reflected a mixture of pride, expectation, and a certain sadness. But they were family now, and Reynie knew nothing could induce Miss Perumal to leave him. So what was she musing about?
Miss Perumal’s eyes suddenly changed. With a little laugh of surprise, she turned her face away from him, and when she turned back she’d adopted a scolding look. “I forget how good you are at reading expressions,” she said. She waggled a finger. “You mustn’t study things too closely, Reynie, if you don’t want to spoil your surprise.”
Together they roused Miss Perumal’s mother—whose slumber had been unaffected by the rooster’s crow, but who was always susceptible to foot-tickling—and after she’d come awake laughing and calling them villains, they all set about getting ready.
With a feeling of resignation Reynie put on the shirt Number Two had sent him last month for his birthday. He knew it was a token of her affection, but he still couldn’t look at the shirt without wrinkling his nose. Number Two’s apparent conviction was that good fashion meant matching one’s clothes to one’s skin tone (her own wardrobe consisted almost entirely of yellow fabrics that accentuated her yellowish complexion), and so naturally she’d thought this muddled, fleshcolored shirt would suit Reynie perfectly. It did fit him—sort of—but Reynie couldn’t have imagined an uglier shirt, or for that matter a less comfortable one (it was made of canvas, “for durability,” Number Two had written), and he wore it now only because he expected to see her today.
“You, too?” Sticky muttered when Reynie met him in the hall. Sticky was wearing a light brown shirt made of some kind of thickly padded material—his torso appeared to have swollen—and he was perspiring heavily despite the morning’s chill air. (Reynie recalled that Sticky’s birthday was in January; no doubt the shirt had seemed more suitable then.) “They made me wear it,” Sticky said, jerking his thumb toward the room he’d shared with his parents. He looked Reynie up and down. “Do you realize you look like a tote bag?”
“At least I’m not puffy,” Reynie said. “Let’s go find Kate.”
They hadn’t long to look. Before they could start up the stairs, Kate came sliding down the banister. To their disappointment she was wearing blue jeans and a perfectly normal shirt. She landed beside them with a delighted grin. “Why, you both look so handsome! Are you going to a party?”
Sticky crossed his thickly padded arms. “This is unacceptable, Kate. You need to go right back up and put on your birthday present.”
“Absolutely,” Reynie said. “You’re outvoted, Kate. We all suffer together.”
Kate was rubbing his canvas sleeve to see how it felt. She whistled and gave him a pitying look. “Sorry, but mine was much too small for me, so I cut it up and made my pouches out of it. Did I show them to you?” She eagerly flipped open her bucket’s lid. “It was very sturdy material, so—”
“You showed us already,” Sticky said in a defeated tone. “What was your present, anyway?”
“Mine? Oh, it was a vest. With fringe.”
Reynie eyed her suspiciously. “Was it really too small?”
“Well,” said Kate with a sly smile. “It was going to be.”
The day was still quite young when the station wagon and the sedan pulled away, their eager occupants half-rested but well fed. Moocho Brazos stood in the farmyard waving goodbye until the cars had disappeared beyond the hill. Then he sighed and stroked his mustache sadly. He was much attached to his exuberant young friend, and with Kate gone the farm seemed dull already. With a melancholy shake of his head, Moocho headed off into the orchard, where a number of trees required tending.
And so it was that the young man who arrived on a scooter a few minutes later was met by an empty farmyard.
The young man dashed first to ring the doorbell—he rang it several times—then to the barn, where he discovered a hen depressing a lever with its beak to fill a tiny wagon with grain. He was startled by this sight, but he quickly overcame his wonder and renewed his search for the addressee of the telegram he carried. As he headed out behind the barn (it would be some time before he tried the orchard), the young man—an employee of the town’s general store and wire service—was hoping that someone, at least, would be here. His job was to deliver the telegram to “anyone on the Wetherall farm.” There was no telephone here, he knew, which explained the need for a telegram. The old store owner had told him this was the first telegram they’d been asked to de liver in many years. And a very curious, very urgent one it was. It read:
CHILDREN YOU MUST NOT COME STOP TOO DANGEROUS STOP CALL ME AT ONCE AND I WILL TELL YOU THE NEWS STOP OH IT IS BAD NEWS INDEED STOP REPEAT DO NOT COME BUT CALL AT ONCE AS I FEAR FOR YOUR SAFETY STOP WITH LOVE AND REGRET RHONDA
The drive to Mr. Benedict’s house in Stonetown would take several hours, but they had hardly been on the road twenty minutes before Reynie, in his mind, was already there. He was daydreaming. In the front seat of the station wagon, Miss Perumal’s mother was humming to herself, unaware that her voice resounded throughout the car. Miss Perumal was suppressing a smile. And beside Reynie in the backseat, Kate and Sticky were catching each other up on their lives. Having arrived earlier than Sticky and being a better correspondent than Kate, Reynie already knew everything the other two were telling each other now. The fact that Sticky had briefly had a girlfriend, for instance, until she broke up with him for remarking upon her pulchritude. (“She didn’t believe me when I told her it meant ‘beauty,’ ” Sticky said. Kate shook her head. “It’s always best to stick to small words. If you’d said that to me, I’d have punched you.”) Or the fact that—unlike Miss Perumal, who considered Reynie unusually mature for his age and was contemplating his enrollment in college—the Washingtons had forbidden any such possibility for Sticky, to whose emotional well-being they were especially attentive now. (“I’ve told them again and again that I can handle it,” said Sticky. “But they aren’t budging.”)
As his friends talked, then, Reynie let his thoughts wander ahead of the station wagon to the house in Stonetown—with its familiar ivy-covered courtyard and gray stone walls—and, of course, to Mr. Benedict himself. Reynie could see him now: the perpetually mussed white hair; the bright green eyes framed by spectacles; the large, lumpy nose; and, of course, the green plaid suit he wore every day. To those who didn’t know him, Mr. Benedict might well look like a joker. The thought made Reynie indignant, for the man was not only a genius, he was exceptionally good—and in Reynie’s opinion, good people were decidedly rare.
Mr. Benedict himself had disagreed with Reynie about this. Reynie remembered the conversation perfectly. It had occurred some months after the children returned from their mission to the Institute, when Reynie had still lived in Stonetown. Despite Mr. Benedict’s countless pressing duties, he had arranged for a visit with Reynie, as he did every week. (Kate, by this time, had gone to live on the farm, and Sticky had returned to live with his parents in a city several hours away. Of the four children, only Constance—whom Mr. Benedict was in the process of adopting—would remain in Stonetown, for Miss Perumal was moving their family to a larger apartment in the suburbs, where Reynie could have his own room and, equally important, a library within walking distance.) After Reynie moved away, these weekly conversations with Mr. Benedict had become impracticable, and he recalled them now with fondness—even reverence.
On this particular occasion, Reynie had found Mr. Benedict alone in his book-crowded study. As usual, Mr. Benedict had greeted him with great warmth, and the two of them had sat down together on the floor. (Mr. Benedict had a condition called narcolepsy and was subject to bouts of unexpected sleep, often triggered by strong emotions. In those rare instances when he was not fretfully shadowed by Number Two or Rhonda Kazembe, he protected himself from painful falls by keeping low to the ground.) As had happened so many times before, Mr. Benedict had discerned immediately that Reynie had something on his mind.
“Though as I’ve previously remarked,” Mr. Benedict said, smiling, “this is not such a feat of deduction as it might seem, since you, my friend, always have something on your mind. Now tell me what it is.”
Reynie considered how to begin. It was all so complicated, and he could find no good starting point. Then he remembered that Mr. Benedict always seemed to intuit what he meant, whether or not Reynie had managed to express it properly. And so he said simply, “I see things differently now, and it’s… it’s bothering me, I suppose.”
Mr. Benedict gazed at Reynie, stroking a bristly patch on his chin that he’d missed with his razor. He exhaled through his lumpy nose. “Since your mission, you mean.”
“You mean to say,” said Mr. Benedict after reflecting a moment, “that you’re disturbed by the wickedness of which so many people seem capable. My brother, for example, but also his Executives, his henchmen, the other students at the Institute—”
“Everybody,” Reynie said.
“Or… or almost everybody. I certainly don’t think that about you—or about any of us who’ve come together because of you. And there’s Miss Perumal and her mother, of course, and a few other people. In general, though…” Reynie shrugged. “I thought with the Whisperer out of commission—with Mr. Curtain’s hidden messages no longer affecting people’s minds—well, I thought things would start to seem different. Better. But that hasn’t happened.”
“You aren’t doubting what you accomplished, I hope.”
Reynie shook his head. “No, I know we stopped terrible things from happening. It’s just that I hadn’t expected to start seeing things—to see people—this way.”
Mr. Benedict made as if to rise, then thought better of it. “An old habit,” he said. “I occasionally feel an urge to pace, which, as you know, is ill-advised. If I dropped off and brained myself against the bookcase, Number Two would never let me hear the end of it.”
Reynie chuckled. He was well aware of Number Two’s fearsome protectiveness.
Mr. Benedict settled back against his desk. “It’s natural that you feel as you do, Reynie. There is much more to the world than most children—indeed, most adults—ever see or know. And where most people see mirrors, you, my friend, see windows. By which I mean there is always something beyond the glass. You have seen it and will always see it now, though others may not. I would have spared you that vision at such a young age. But it’s been given you, and it will be up to you to decide whether it’s a blessing or a curse.”
“Excuse me, Mr. Benedict, but how can it possibly be a blessing to know that people are untrustworthy?”
Mr. Benedict looked at Reynie askance. “Rather than answer that, allow me to call attention to the assumption you’re making—the assumption that most people are untrustworthy. Have you considered the possibility, Reynie, that wickedness is simply more noticeable than goodness? That wickedness stands out, as it were?”
When Reynie looked doubtful, Mr. Benedict nodded and said, “I wouldn’t expect you to change your mind so quickly. You’re used to being right about people—we all know you have marvelous intuition—and it’s difficult for you to question the conclusions you’ve drawn. But as I do with my pacing, Reynie, you must guard against old habits leading you astray.” Mr. Benedict crossed his arms and regarded Reynie shrewdly. “Let me ask you: Have you ever had a dream in which, having spied a deadly snake at your feet, you suddenly begin to see snakes everywhere—suddenly realize, in fact, that you’re surrounded by them?”
Reynie was surprised. “I have had that dream. It’s a nightmare.”
“Indeed. And it strikes me as being rather like when a person first realizes the extent of wickedness in the world. That vision can become all-consuming—and in a way, it, too, is a nightmare, by which I mean that it is not quite a proper assessment of the state of things. For someone as observant as you, Reynie, deadly serpents always catch the eye. But if you find that serpents are all you see, you may not be looking hard enough.”
Reynie had mulled this over—was still mulling it over, in fact, and not a little doubtfully—but had let the subject drop as he and Mr. Benedict played a game of chess. Reynie had never beaten Mr. Benedict; in the relatively few games they’d played, however, he had learned a great deal from him—and not always about chess. As often as not, their games were interrupted by long discussions of other matters, and this time was no different. Mr. Benedict gave no indication of surprise when, half an hour later, Reynie responded to an announcement of check by asking, “So you’ve had the snake nightmare, too?”
“Oh, certainly,” said Mr. Benedict, gently setting aside the rook he’d just taken. (He was always respectful of Reynie’s pieces, as if he considered their capture an unfortunate necessity.) “It’s a common nightmare, and I’ve had it many times, as well as a great many others that are more rare. Part of my condition, I’m afraid.”
“What do you mean?” Reynie had always known that Mr. Benedict’s narcolepsy made him prone to unpredictable episodes of sleep; beyond this, he realized now, he knew almost nothing.
For a moment Mr. Benedict didn’t speak, only gazed contemplatively at his fingers as if considering them for the first time. It seemed to Reynie that for some reason he was reluctant to answer, but that he didn’t wish to dismiss Reynie’s question, either. The latter impulse won out, apparently, for at length Mr. Benedict looked up and said, “For someone like me, Reynie, nighttime can be just as trying as daytime. It’s always a relief to give over to sleep, of course—to stop fighting against it, as I must do during the day—but I am often beset by nightmares, strange fits of waking paralysis, and even hallucinations, which can be quite terrifying.”
“That’s awful!” Reynie said. “I had no idea.”
“Well,” Mr. Benedict said, “I am long since used to it. I’ve even made friends with the Old Hag.”
“The Old Hag?”
“An ancient name for one of the more common hallucinations. I sometimes awake to the vision of a hunched figure at the end of my bed. Sadly, this hallucination is usually accompanied by paralysis.”
Reynie was aghast. “You mean to say there’s a strange person lurking by your bed—in the darkness—and you’re not able to move?”
“Nor even to cry out,” said Mr. Benedict. “It’s rather inconvenient.”
Reynie shuddered, imagining it. “I’d be scared out of my mind!”
“That is the most common reaction,” Mr. Benedict said with a smile. “And I admit I’m only joking when I say I’ve befriended her. Let’s just say I recover more quickly from our encounters than I used to. At any rate, the hallucinations and the paralysis rarely last more than a minute.”
That minute must seem like an eternity, Reynie thought. Then something occurred to him. “What about Mr. Curtain? Do you think that happens to him, too? Do you think it might be why he’s so obsessed with controlling things?”
Mr. Benedict tapped his nose. “Very astute, Reynie. I’ve often wondered that myself. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that my brother’s nightly torments and daily struggles have contributed to his obsession. Though I’ve long since come to terms with my own spells of helplessness, it did take years before I stopped feeling ashamed of them. Evidently my brother has taken a different tack and has achieved no such resolution.”
This was an understatement, to say the least. Reynie recalled with frightening clarity Mr. Curtain’s eerie silver glasses and his high-powered, customized wheelchair—props he used to conceal his condition. The man might look exactly like Mr. Benedict, and he might possess a similar degree of genius, but his approach to the world couldn’t have been more different.
For a minute Reynie was lost in the uncomfortable memory of his encounters with Mr. Curtain. (The memory was uncomfortable not just because of the danger he’d been in, but also because Reynie himself, in a terrible moment, had once doubted which of the two brothers he was more like.) Thankfully, however, he was soon snapped from his reflections by the sound of soft snoring. Mr. Benedict’s head had dropped forward, his hands twitched at his side, and he appeared on the verge of slumping over onto the chessboard. Reynie’s impulse was to slip out and let him sleep, but Mr. Benedict had repeatedly instructed Reynie to wake him whenever such episodes occurred. Or try to wake him, at least—it wasn’t always possible.
“Mr. Benedict!” Reynie said. “Mr. Benedict, sir!”
Mr. Benedict came to with a start. Then, yawning, he ran his hands through his rumpled hair and regarded Reynie apologetically. “I hope you haven’t been waiting long.”
“Not even a minute,” Reynie said.
Mr. Benedict sighed. “My brother has influence, I’m afraid, even in his absence. Thinking of him so often upsets me….”
Reynie thought he understood this—his own thoughts of Mr. Curtain were nothing if not upsetting. And yet, seeing Mr. Benedict’s expression, Reynie realized it was not anger or fear or even outrage that troubled him so. It was sadness.
“Well, now,” Mr. Benedict said, with a quick gesture toward the chessboard, “I don’t wish to rush you, but I believe it’s mate in six. Do you agree?”
Reynie turned his attention to the board, but his concern clouded his thoughts. Clearly Mr. Benedict wanted to be alone. And so climbing to his feet he said, “Next time I’ll give you a better run for your money.”
“I look forward to it,” Mr. Benedict said, also rising. He gave Reynie’s shoulder an affectionate squeeze as they moved for the door. “Until then, my friend, may you have pleasant dreams.”
Reynie was having pleasant dreams when Kate nudged him awake. He blinked and looked around to discover that his dreams were, in fact, reality. He was with his friends, and through the car window he saw the tall buildings of Stonetown ahead, which meant they would soon be reunited with Mr. Benedict and the others. He gave Kate a sleepy grin. “I guess I dozed off.”
“Zonked out is more like it,” Kate said. “And you weren’t the only one. Sticky dropped off in the middle of a speech about orchid varieties. I think he bored himself to sleep.”
Sitting on the other side of her, Sticky only smiled. He was awake now and happily polishing his spectacles, in much too good a mood to be snappish. Reynie could see bits of fuzz stuck to his scalp where he’d slumped against Kate’s shoulder.
Into Stonetown they rode, passing several landmarks familiar to Reynie. There was the orphanage where Reynie had lived until a year ago; there was the park where he and Miss Perumal used to take their walks; and now, as they passed into the busy downtown district near the harbor, Reynie could see the Monk Building. It was there he’d met Sticky and Kate, who like Reynie had come to take Mr. Benedict’s tests.
“Strange to think,” Kate said, almost to herself. She was gazing at the Monk Building with a look of wonder. When she’d met Milligan there, she had thought it was for the first time; neither of them had known the truth about their kinship.
“Can you believe it?” Sticky said as Miss Perumal turned onto the street that led to Mr. Benedict’s house. “A year ago we hadn’t even met Mr. Benedict. We had no idea what we were in for! Can you imagine—”
Reynie interrupted him. “What’s the matter, Amma?”
Miss Perumal was staring at something, her brow furrowed with concern. The children strained against their seatbelts, trying to see ahead. Miss Perumal pulled the station wagon to the curb, and then they saw what she had seen: three police officers stood under the elm tree in the courtyard of Mr. Benedict’s house. They were talking to a cluster of government officials (the children recognized the officials, who had questioned them after their mission), and their expressions were very serious.
“Something’s happened,” Miss Perumal said. “You children wait—”
But the children were already leaping from the car. With Kate in the lead, they dashed to the iron gate that led into the courtyard. They were met by a stern, unfamiliar man who held out his hand to stop them. He was a small man—hardly taller than Kate—but his unpleasant expression and his raspy, sharp voice gave him a distinct air of threat.
“Where do you think you’re going?” he demanded. “Who are you?”
“We’re friends of Mr. Benedict,” Kate said.
The man narrowed his eyes. “Friends, you say.”
“Oh dear!” a voice cried from the house. The children looked past the man to see, standing in the front doorway, a lovely young woman with coal-black skin and braided hair. It was Rhonda Kazembe, of course, and as she hurried down the steps she seemed greatly dismayed to see them. “You came? You didn’t get my telegram?”
Kate tried to press past the man, but he took her roughly by the shoulder and held her back. “Who are these children?” he asked Rhonda.
“It’s all right, Mr. Bane, they’re friends. In fact, the girl you’ve grabbed so rudely is Milligan’s daughter.”
With a start, the man released Kate (who at any rate had been about to release herself), and Rhonda gestured toward the government officials. “Everyone here but you knows these children,” she said. “Feel free to check with your superiors.”
As Mr. Bane stalked off to do just that, Rhonda opened the gate and embraced them all at once. “Oh dear,” she said again, squeezing them tightly. “You shouldn’t have come, but now that you have, at least I can stop worrying about you.”
“What’s happened, Rhonda?” asked Reynie.
Before Rhonda could answer, Miss Perumal and her mother came up, followed by the Washingtons. Rhonda greeted them with apparent relief. “Come inside,” she said soberly. “Come inside and I’ll tell you everything.”
“Tell us everything about what?” Kate insisted.
“Mr. Benedict and Number Two,” Rhonda replied, and her eyes suddenly brimmed with tears. “They’ve been taken.”
The children stared at her in shock. Taken?
“But… but who—?” Sticky began.
Rhonda angrily wiped her eyes. “Who do you think?”
They all knew the answer at once. Reynie said it aloud. “It’s Mr. Curtain, isn’t it?”
“I’ll explain everything when we’re in the house. I don’t know if you’re safe out here. Someone had to deliver it, after all. They may yet be close by, and who knows what they intend?”
“Deliver what?” Reynie asked, but Rhonda wouldn’t say more until she had ushered them inside.
Gone were Reynie’s visions of a happy reunion inside Mr. Benedict’s old house. The rambling, three-story stone building was perfectly familiar, yet the knowledge that Mr. Benedict and Number Two were missing gave the place an alien feel. As Mr. Washington helped his wife up the front steps and Rhonda carried up her wheelchair, Reynie and his friends kept casting anxious looks all around.
Through the front door they entered Mr. Benedict’s maze, which Rhonda and the children knew by heart. The maze had been the last of Mr. Benedict’s tests, as well as a line of defense against intruders. Together they moved quickly through its many identical rooms, up the staircase at the far side, and at last into a sitting room, where their entrance surprised another group of officials, all of whom turned toward the doorway with apprehensive expressions.
“Oh, it’s just you,” a silver-haired woman said to Rhonda. “Sorry, we’re a bit on edge.” She glanced inquiringly at the children. “I take it these are—?”
“Yes, Ms. Argent,” Rhonda said. “And I would like for them to see it.”
Exchanging uncertain looks, Ms. Argent and the other officials nevertheless stepped aside to let the children approach. On a table in the center of the room sat a brown box.
Rhonda gestured toward the box. “What happens to Mr. Benedict and Number Two depends on that,” she said grimly. She sounded as if she still couldn’t believe it, and indeed, as if speaking to herself, she repeated in a whisper, “Everything depends on that.”
The children moved closer. It was an ordinary-looking box, about the size of a fruit crate, with several holes punched into it. Together they peered through the holes into the box’s dark interior, anxious to see just what it might be—what the box might possibly contain that would determine the fate of those they held so dear.
It was a pigeon. Only that. A pigeon.
What can this bird have to do with the kidnapping?” Kate asked.
The government officials seemed reluctant to speak until Rhonda pointed out that the children might be directly affected by this situation. Finally a blond man with prominent cheekbones stepped forward to address them. “It’s a carrier pigeon,” he said, “sent by Mr. Curtain. It had a message strapped to its leg. We’re expected to send a reply by the same method.”
“Actually,” Sticky interjected, “it’s a homing pigeon.”
Everyone in the room looked at him. The Washingtons, who were standing with Miss Perumal and her mother inside the doorway, shifted uncomfortably, unsure whether their son had just been helpful or rude.
The blond man coughed into his fist. “I hate to argue with you, son—”
“Then please don’t,” said Rhonda impatiently. “I assume the difference is important, Sticky?”
“It could be,” Sticky said. “Homing pigeons can fly great distances—sometimes thousands of miles. Carrier pigeons aren’t really suited for long flights.”
Ms. Argent, the silver-haired woman, said, “So we can’t necessarily expect it to fly somewhere around Stonetown?”
Sticky shook his head. “Its roost could be anywhere on the continent.”
Ms. Argent cast a dark, meaningful look at the blond man, who mumbled something about needing to make a phone call and left the room. Rhonda watched him go, her expression grave.
“Tell me you haven’t started a search,” she said.
“Don’t worry,” Ms. Argent replied. “We’re taking appropriate measures.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Rhonda said, turning on her heel. Beckoning her friends to follow, she left the sitting room without another word. She led them down the hallway to the dining room, where she had them sit at the long table. “It’s exactly what they should not be doing,” she muttered, closing the door behind her. “Not until they know more. I’m going to have to be aggressive, I see.”
“Rhonda,” said Miss Perumal, “what did the message say?”
“I would show it to you,” Rhonda said, “but they’ve already confiscated it as evidence. In essence, it said—”
“Can you quote it exactly, Rhonda?” asked Reynie, who knew Rhonda had a prodigious memory almost as good as Sticky’s. “There might be something important in the phrasing, you know.”
“You’re absolutely right,” Rhonda said. “Ready, then?” And she quoted the message, which was as follows:
Dear Miss Kazembe,
I write to report that your friends are in grave danger, and—lest there be any doubt—that it is I who endangers them.
Let me explain. Despite his efforts to keep silent on the matter, my prisoner, Nicholas Benedict, has been compelled to reveal a secret regarding a certain rare plant. According to his reluctant confession, “only one person can secure the information” I seek—namely, the exact location and description of the plant—and this person is neither Benedict nor his yellowish assistant but someone, regardless, who is “extremely close” to Benedict. I know for a fact that he is telling the truth. I must assume that if you are not this person yourself, you will at least know of whom he speaks. For Benedict’s sake, I certainly hope so.
You have exactly four days to release this pigeon with the information I require. Be assured that if you attach any tracking devices to the bird, or make any sort of attempt to follow it to its destination, I will know. Such treachery will not bode well for your friends. If you hope to see either of them again, you will give me exactly what I wish, and without delay.
Oh, do not delay, Miss Kazembe. We shall all be most unhappy if you delay.
When Rhonda had finished reciting the letter, there was a disturbed silence as everyone felt its meaning sink in. At length the silence was broken by Mrs. Washington stifling a sob with her handkerchief, and then everyone started to speak at once. Rhonda held up a hand. “Nobody say anything yet.” She went to make sure nobody was listening at the door, then returned to the table and spoke to the children in a low voice. “Do any of you know what this is about?”
None of them did.
“Good, then at least you won’t be subjected to more than the usual unpleasant questioning.” Rhonda jerked a thumb over her shoulder to indicate the officials down the hall. “They’re very concerned about what Mr. Curtain is trying to get. They’re worried it’s connected to the Whisperer.”
Everyone at the table knew that Mr. Curtain’s infamous machine was now situated here in Mr. Benedict’s house, powered by a huge bank of computers that had been moved into the basement. Several months ago, Mr. Benedict had finished altering the Whisperer’s sophisticated functions, and since then he’d been using it to help people whose memories had been suppressed by the Whisperer under Mr. Curtain’s guidance. In fact, in Mr. Benedict’s last letter he had happily reported that he’d restored the memories of almost everyone ever affected by the Whisperer, and that after a year of constant labor he might even allow himself a short vacation.
“What would a plant have to do with the Whisperer?” Sticky asked.
Excerpted from The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey by Stewart, Trenton Lee Copyright © 2008 by Stewart, Trenton Lee. Excerpted by permission.
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