GreatKateZonkeyMachine – YES, my darlings! Here is your present! I've been preparing this all month. Since it's probably been a while since you read this story, you might consider re-reading the previous chapters; in addition to finishing up this chapter, I also made some changes, both major and minor, to improve the already-published chapters.
Now for the bad news. I realize that Kahlan Aisling hasn't been completely inactive, but she has not answered any of my PMs for a long time. At some point, I had to move on without her. It remains to be seen whether she will reappear, but for now Nomansland is down to one lonely author.
CHAPTER – 5
"Nowhere to Hide"
or, Unexpected Complications
"Now, what's this all about?" said Miss Perumal. "And will it take long? Mother's not feeling well."
"I assure you," said Mr. Benedict, "This will be short. And I'm confident you'll want to see what I have to show you."
"Where are we, exactly?" asked Mrs. Washington. "I've never seen this part of town."
"Well, you wouldn't have," Mr. Benedict replied. "It's not exactly a part of Stonetown; it's just off the riverbank. I'm afraid I can't give you an exact location because it would be dangerous for anyone to know that."
"You're winding us up," said Mr. Washington.
"I'm afraid he isn't," said Milligan. "We don't even completely know what this means."
"Well, please," said Miss Perumal's mother. "Show us instead of dropping hints."
"All will be made clear soon," said Mr. Benedict patiently. "But first, there is a precautionary procedure we must go through."
"How long will it take?" asked Miss Perumal.
Mr. Benedict smiled. "No time at all, if you're willing. How many of you have at least one cell phone or handheld radio, or any device that receives and puts out wave transmissions?"
The four parents blinked, and then they all – except for Miss Perumal's mother – raised their hands.
Mr. Benedict smiled again. "All right, well, before we can continue you'll have to set them here," he put his hand on a small round table, "and leave them here until we've finished."
They all hesitated. "It's just…" said Mrs. Washington, who was in a wheelchair because of arthritic legs, "Well, you see, Mr. Benedict, my phone is for emergencies; for instance, if my chair tips over—"
"I assure you, Mrs. Washington, that you will be quite safe with us. We'll be back out in only a few minutes and you can retrieve your phone."
The three of them laid three cell phones and two pagers on the table.
"All right, we've done what you asked, Mr. Benedict. Now please, tell us what you're talking about."
"First, you'll also need to turn all of those items completely off. Take out the batteries if you must."
"The bunker we're in is equipped with cutting-edge security, and if one of your phones goes off, it will go into lockdown."
Slightly alarmed, Miss Perumal and Mr. Washington stepped forward and turned off their phones and the two pagers.
Milligan walked over to the wall opposite the slanting tunnel, and typed a long code into a numeric keypad.
The windowless steel door slid sideways into the wall.
"This room is extremely secure," Mr. Benedict explained. "It would be nearly impossible to get through the wall or door without the password. Follow me, please."
Mr. Benedict, Milligan, Rhonda, Number Two, the Washingtons and the Perumals all filed through the door. They were in a plain concrete room with no windows and thick walls and ceiling and a steel-plated floor. The only light was a small dim lamp hanging from the ceiling.
Mrs. Perumal gasped. Directly across from them, bolted to the floor, was a stout metal chair with two helmets on it: one red, and one blue.
Someone was shaking his shoulder. "Reynie? Wake up."
But he didn't want to wake up. He was cold, cold down into his bones, and it hurt to move. His frost-soaked sweater held him down and his frozen limbs encouraged him to be still. He tried to brush away the hand, but it just shook more vigorously. "Reynie."
Reynie moaned groggily. "Wha…Oh!" He sat bolt upright. He had fallen asleep on guard duty.
Five days had passed since Mr. Benedict's house had been destroyed. They'd found nothing. Reynie had volunteered again to keep watch the previous night; he must have dozed off as he sat there. Expecting a reprimand from Kate, Reynie braced himself and looked at the person who had awakened him.
It was not Kate, but Sticky. He smiled and said, "Shh. I won't tell Kate."
Reynie breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank you." Reynie looked around. There was watery white powder all over everything. "Oh, no… It snowed overnight?"
Sticky nodded. "I woke up because it was so cold."
Reynie kicked the ground. "Great. Just peachy, exactly what Constance needs."
"What we all need," said Sticky grimly.
They were silent for a minute. Then Reynie said, "What we really need is some food."
"I was just about to go get breakfast," replied Sticky. "Want to come with me?"
They stood up and walked down the alley. Inside a minute, they were turning onto one of the bustling downtown streets. Traffic was hopelessly jammed – people were walking across the street by weaving between the stationary cars – and the sidewalks were packed with shoppers. The streetlamps sported generic figures of candles and toy soldiers and the likes, made of what was meant to evoke the idea of tinsel but looked to Reynie like gigantic shiny pipecleaners. They passed a young man singing some cheerful holiday song the name of which Reynie couldn't rememberand playing along with a guitar; his case lay open on the ground with a few one-dollar bills lying in it. Several shops they passed by had identical signs in their windows: LAST MINUTE SALE, EVERYTHING INSIDE 25% OFF!
'Last minute?' Reynie looked at his watch. The date was December 17. He frowned. What was he supposed to remember about today…? It had seemed so important.
Suddenly, he stopped dead in his tracks. Sticky stopped too. "What is it?"
"I've just remembered…"
"Yes?" said Sticky eagerly.
"It's…it's Constance's birthday."
Sticky deflated. He felt disappointed, and more than a little irritated. "So what?"
Reynie looked at him. "Well, you know… We were going to have a party, and a cake, and everything! And we'd already picked out her presents. They probably got burned up in the fire…." He trailed off. "Well it…it doesn't matter now, I suppose. Let's not mention it to the girls."
They kept walking.
"So where are we going?" said Reynie.
Sticky sighed. "I guess McDonald's," he said in resignation. "It's the only place nearby."
Reynie raised his eyebrows. "I thought—"
"I know, I know. It won't keep us very full for very long, but it's food. We've got the credit card." He held it up.
"Why do you think they never stop us when we use that, anyway?" said Reynie.
"They probably think we're tourists. I remember a long time ago, my parents took me to Washington, D.C. They let me walk around on my own a bit, and they gave me their credit card to buy souvenirs. The cashiers didn't say anything."
"Was that before or after the quiz competitions?"
Sticky's face darkened. "Before. Why?"
Reynie shrugged. "No reason."
They walked on in silence. Sticky was wondering what was wrong with Reynie – why had he asked that? He knew Sticky was touchy about those years. Reynie, meanwhile, was silently pondering Sticky's reaction. Talk about oversensitive, he thought irritably.
The cashier at the fast-food restaurant was in a mood to rival both of theirs. She had been unable to sleep, burned her morning toast, hadn't had time to make her hair presentable, and had arrived late to work. Subsequently she had been assigned her least favorite task: working the inside counter. When the two thirteen-year-old boys walked up to her, she was not feeling very disposed to be tolerant.
Thus, after they had ordered their food – at least twice the amount the cashier had expected, for such skinny boys – when her machine rejected their credit card, a spike of anger went through her.
"Try it again," she said impatiently.
Sticky swiped the card a second time. Yet again, the machine would not accept it. She snatched the card and scrutinized it. Then she squinted at her machine and tapped it. She swiped the card herself, and her expression darkened.
Reynie and Sticky looked at each other anxiously.
She turned back to them and handed them the card. "It appears that this card is not valid," she said robotically, as though reading from a piece of paper. "Please use another medium of payment."
"Look, kid, you shouldn't be using a credit card in the first place, but this one's expired. You'll have to pay with cash."
"But…we don't have any cash," said Reynie, his voice quavering slightly.
"Then you'll have to give me that back," she said indifferently. She picked up the tray of food and started towards the back.
"Wait!" Sticky cried.
She turned. "What?"
"Uh…" The boys looked at each other. There was nothing they could do. "Never mind."
The cashier snorted. "Sorry for your inconvenience," she said sarcastically.
The two boys strode quickly to the door and out into the freezing air. "This is not good," said Reynie. "We've only got so much money in Rhonda's purse, and that'll run out fast. We're going to have to find another way to feed ourselves."
Sticky nodded. "I'll think of something," he said, not feeling as sure as he sounded (and not sounding as sure as he thought he sounded).
The girls did not take the news well. "Great," said Constance. "Now what will we do?"
"We're healthy enough," said Kate. "We don't need to eat just yet."
"We can't keep on going like this," said Reynie. "We've got to do something."
"In case you haven't noticed," said Kate testily, "we're trying our best here. I don't see you pulling any weight."
Reynie stared at her.
"I'm sorry," Kate murmured. "I don't know why I said that…."
"Because it's true," said Reynie. "You and Sticky are actually helping. I can't even take care of Constance."
As if on cue, Constance sneezed loudly.
"No, it's not true," Kate protested. "You're always leading us, you keep us together when—"
"No, I don't," said Reynie. "You do. You hold us together and Sticky leads us. I'm just a burden."
Kate was shaking her head. "You—"
"Let's talk about something else," said Sticky uncomfortably. "Reynie's right. Living on the curb forever won't get us anywhere. We've got to find out where our folks are, and what Curtain's planning."
They were silent for a moment. The first to speak was Kate. "I'm sure they left of their own volition," she said. "All the rooms in the house were neat—except Constance's, of course—and I never heard any sounds of a struggle. For some reason, they all went on a secret errand while we were asleep."
"And never came back?" said Constance in a small voice.
"They might have come back already," Reynie offered up. "We just don't know where to meet them."
"What about Curtain?" said Sticky. "We hadn't heard anything about him for months until this happened."
"I don't know what his plans are, but it scares me to think about," said Kate seriously. The others felt their extremities grow colder; if it frightened Kate, they should all be afraid. "Whatever he's doing, it's big. Attacking our house was bold, and I know the Ten Men haven't always been so active in the city."
"And they left the house empty-handed..." added Reynie. "That's the strangest part; they didn't even take the Whisperer. Does Mr. Curtain not want it anymore for some reason? Did they leave it to be burned?"
"If he doesn't want it, what was the point of attacking at all?" said Kate. "Just to capture us?"
"I don't know," he admitted. "But there'd be no reason to go after us if he didn't want the Whisperer. Maybe..."
"Maybe it wasn't even in the house."
"How could it not be—?"
"I don't know," he said again. "But something definitely caught the Ten Men by surprise." He remembered the angry shouts of the men as they ransacked the house. "They wanted the Whisperer, but when they didn't find it they tried to get us instead, as bargaining chips."
"Well, whatever the reason is, Curtain doesn't have the Whisperer—and that can only be a good thing," said Kate.
"But the Whisperer was there," said Constance. "We saw it that morning, remember?"
"I don't think so," said Reynie. "All I saw was Mr. Benedict going down to the basement."
"No," said Constance, her brow furrowing. "I'm sure we saw it. Didn't we? Sticky," she said imploringly, "surely you remember. Tell them."
"Constance," said Reynie, "Sticky wasn't there. It was just you and me."
"Oh…." Constance seemed very confused, but a hacking cough seized her and she soon forgot about it.
Reynie rubbed his chin. "Mr. Benedict did make it sound like the Whisperer was there, in the basement…but I suppose that isn't a guarantee that it was."
"But why would he lie to us?" said Constance indignantly, having stopped coughing now.
"Maybe for the same reason he didn't tell us where they were all going," said Kate. "In fact, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the two things were related."
"Hey, yeah!" said Sticky eagerly. "Maybe they were taking the Whisperer to a new, secret location – one with better security!"
"And it turns out that was a good move," said Constance. "Since they attacked the house the same night."
But Reynie was shaking his head. "It's too much of a coincidence. Somehow the Ten Men knew Mr. Benedict and the others would be leaving the house unguarded that night, or Mr. Benedict knew that his brother would try and steal the Whisperer."
"But if he knew, why wouldn't he tell us?" said Constance.
Nobody had an answer for this.
Some time later, a police man came down the alleyway towards them. Reynie and Sticky looked at one another nervously, thinking of the cancelled credit card. "Er…" they said.
"Hey, you kids!" the officer shouted. "You aren't supposed to be here. It's called loitering," he said, as if he thought they didn't know the word.
Kate decided it was best to play dumb. "Littering?" she replied, feigning puzzlement.
"No, loitering. L-O-I-T-E-R. It means you're hanging around in a place where you're not allowed."
"Oooohh," she said drastically. "Sorry, we'll get out of here right away."
As they walked away, the police officer watched them but did not call to them again. So a missing persons case had not been filed. Perhaps they thought everybody had burned to a crisp in the fire, or perhaps the government still wanted them kept secret.
As soon as they turned around the bend, all their falsely calm faces dissolved to be replaced by panic. "Where will we stay now?" "What's going to happen to us?" "Oh, great, now what do we do?"
"Hey, guys – qui – QUIET!" yelled Kate over the rest of them. "Calm down! Remember what we were doing – the grownups didn't just vanish from the face of the Earth. They have to be somewhere." She squinted at their surroundings as if she might spot them if she looked hard enough. "Let's think. Where do we think they might be? What places do we know that they would think of?"
"Our old house in the suburbs," said Reynie at once. "We never finished moving all our stuff, because we'd always thought we'd move back in at some point."
"Okay, do you know where it is?" said Kate.
"124 on Locust Street."
"That's not far; let's go."
It was with a determination that had not been present in them for some time that the Mysterious Benedict Society set off at a trot towards their only chance at a clue.
The house on Locust Street had been empty for a while now, though no one in the neighborhood had yet noticed. People had better things to do with their time than ponder the strange comings and goings—or lack thereof—of an insignificant little house among the many others. Nobody noticed when the family who lived there suddenly disappeared. Nobody noticed that the mail stopped coming. Nobody noticed that the trash cans in the backyard were beginning to smell like toxic waste. Nobody noticed when the men in black suits came. And nobody noticed when four children broke into the house.
Reynie, Sticky, Kate and Constance made absolutely sure that the coast was clear before they emerged. The street was tight and claustrophobic, houses with smallish yards lining both sides, sloping steeply down on one side, and trees all around. The frosty grass shone under the black sky.
They walked down the downward-sloping driveway, devoid of any vehicles, and onto the front porch.
"We always kept the house key here," said Reynie, picking up a small porch decoration and reaching under it.
"Uh, Reynie?" said Sticky. "The door's already unlocked."
Reynie froze. He set down the bauble and turned the doorknob. It swung creakily forward.
"Well, that's not a good sign," said Kate.
They crept inside. Kate flipped the light switch but nothing happened. Reynie strode to the kitchen and turned the faucet knobs. Again, nothing.
"No electricity, no water," said Reynie. Constance coughed in her sleep, slung over Kate's back.
Kate set her gently down on the porch. "I think you guys had better wait out here while I check and make sure that the coast is clear," she said warily, walking into the dark house with her hand on the flip-top of her bucket. Reynie and Sticky stepped back onto the porch, hands on Constance, ready to run.
After three agonizing minutes, Kate signaled that it was safe to come inside, her face a little more at ease.
"There's nobody still here, unless they're hiding in the pipes," Kate reported. "But they definitely were here. Every inch of the place has been searched."
She was right. Empty drawers were littered all over the floor. The television was laying face-down on the floor, its screen shattered. Its plug had yanked the outlet out of the wall. The doors of the entertainment center from which the TV had fallen had been ripped askew by the hinges. Despite all the wreckage inside, however, the windows and blinds had not been touched. It appeared that the Ten Men did not want to alert any outsiders to their activities; without entering, it would have been impossible to see that the house had been broken into and ransacked.
"Well, this is no better than outside," said Constance drearily.
"I'm sorry. I didn't know the power would be cut off so soon," said Reynie, mentally kicking himself. "Hey!" he then said, his face brightening. "We still have some blankets in a back room. They might be cold, but they'll warm up after we've been using them a while." He left to retrieve the blankets.
Sticky said to Kate, "Well, it's not much of a shelter, but at least it'll keep us hidden for now."
She nodded. "I'm not complaining," she said.
"But the Ten Men know about this place!" said Constance shrilly. "They've searched it!"
"Exactly," Kate said calmly. "They've been here, and they think we're nowhere near here. It's always good to hide in a place the seeker has already checked."
Reynie presently returned, carrying a bundle of blankets that hid his face. He was right; they were freezing cold. But, they were better than nothing. Soon Constance, Sticky and Reynie were all fast asleep, and Kate was keeping watch from the driveway.
Reynie had an extremely strange dream that night. He was running alone over a stark, flat landscape with a dark sky and thick fog hanging in the air. Familiar faces—such as those of Mr. Benedict and Miss Perumal—loomed in the fog and then faded again. He was becoming exhausted, too weak to keep going. Then three figures solidified out of the mist. As they peered down at them wearily, he saw that they were his friends, Constance, Sticky and Kate. But they were taller, much taller than Reynie remembered them.
"Come on," said Kate sadly, tugging on his arm. He would have gladly let her carry him the whole way, but he could not be lifted. Looking down, he saw that a huge, heavy stone block had appeared, and his feet were chained to it.
"Come on!" said his friends, crying out in unison and pulling together, but the block wouldn't budge. "We have to go!"
"I'm sorry!" Reynie replied anguishedly. "I'm trying! I don't mean to hold you back."
Suddenly, all his friends let go and looked at him with accusing sadness in their eyes. They seemed to be getting even taller…. But then Reynie realized that they were not growing, but he was shrinking—or rather, sinking. The stone block had fallen right through the ground as if it had liquefied, and it was dragging Reynie down with it. He told his friends to flee and save themselves, but they didn't move.
"We cannot go without you," they said together.
Something else was approaching, becoming clearer and clearer as it moved through the fog towards them. Reynie didn't want to see what it was; he was afraid of it. "Run! RUN!" he cried, but his friends only looked at him sadly.
The thing—the person—was now close enough for Reynie to recognize it. It was the leering, triumphant face of McCracken. As Reynie watched in terror, the Ten Man opened his mouth and laughed. He laughed and laughed, sounding much more evil and insane than he remembered. The sound of the laughter ricocheted throughout the endless place, never fading, just adding to itself. He covered his ears, but the noise only got louder.
The sky turned orange, black on the horizon. The ground heated and cracked. Suddenly, as if springing from the Ten Man's wicked mirth, flames leapt out of nothing, and they were everywhere, consuming everything, and his friends were dying, burning, but it was not normal burning—it was like they were made of paper—and McCracken was laughing, laughing, laughing, and he looked straight at Reynie, and the fire was not just all around, it was in McCracken's eyes, and the horrible flames took up the whole of Reynie's vision, and then he was completely pulled under the surface of the ground, and everything went black….
Reynie opened his eyes, and the blackness disappeared, replaced by the blue gloom of the unlit house. He sat up, and found that he was sweating profusely despite the cold. He threw the blanket off of himself and walked through the doorway. Kate was nodding off. He put a hand on her shoulder and said, "Go on, get some sleep. I'll relieve you."
Kate did not object this time; she rose and walked inside. Reynie began to pace up and down the steep driveway, so as to avoid falling asleep again himself. The air was not as icy tonight as it had been lately. He trudged up and down, up and down, and found his mind wandering. How much did Mr. Curtain know? How much did he have? And where on earth were Reynie's guardians?
He was jerked out of his thoughts by the sight of something moving in his peripheral vision: a man, strolling down the sidewalk…and carrying a briefcase.
His heart suddenly beating much faster, Reynie squinted at the figure, to see if it was any Ten Man he knew. But before he had identified the man, the man identified him.
The man stopped dead. So did Reynie. Then the Ten Man smiled broadly and strode, quickly and purposefully, straight at him. He backed away, and then he turned tail and ran down the driveway. But it sloped more then he realized. He was not able to stop fast enough when he reached the bottom, and in trying he flew off his feet and landed in the garage, his forehead striking the concrete; there was a loud crack as his vision flashed white, as if lightning had struck. He heard a startled shriek from somewhere inside the house.
Reynie just lied there, dazed, watching stars dance around in his eyes. Vaguely, he could hear the Ten Man's feet some way behind him; and then the door in the garage flew open and Kate saw what was happening. She hoisted him up and dragged him inside.
"Come on," she grunted. "We have to go."
Those words sounded terribly familiar; remembering the dream, Reynie's eyes flew open and he saw Kate swinging Constance onto her back, having just woken Sticky.
"Lock the door," she instructed Reynie. "It won't keep them out for long, but it might give us enough time to escape through the back."
The backyard was full of old trashcans that had obviously been there so long their contents were now positively dangerous; Reynie would only have been slightly surprised to see mutant insects and rodents crawling away from the foul things.
The children could hear shouts from around the front of the house. The Ten Men were about to reach the door.
"Run on ahead behind these garbage bags, into the woods," Kate said, transferring Constance to Sticky; there was a steeply sloping glade full of prickly underbrush beyond the back yard.
A wide stream of blood was trickling down Reynie's face. "What're you—?" he began, but Kate cut him off.
"Just go—trust me, I'll catch up!"
Reynie caught a glimpse of Kate pulling out her Swiss army knife and her spool of fishing twine before he and Sticky scrambled into the wood.
At the same time, the Ten Men were coming around back, knowing that the children would try to escape that way. They burst around the corner of the house, briefcases at the ready, to find the backyard empty. Assuming that the children had run into the glade, the Ten Men struggled through the underbrush—and Crawlings tripped over a nearly invisible line of clear fishing twine, strung between the trees. The line snapped.
A torrent of rotten garbage fell from the trees as suspended trash cans dumped over their heads, burying the Ten Men in month-old rubbish.
Kate listened to make sure her booby-trap had worked, heard the furious curses of the Ten Men with deep satisfaction, and ran to catch up with her friends.
"After my parents found out I was living in Stonetown," said Sticky, "they bought a house in the city so we could stay close to you guys and Mr. Benedict. I bet it still has power, too, because we didn't stop paying the bill when we moved into the maze."
"I thought your parents were already in serious debt when they found you," said Constance rudely. "How could they afford to buy a house?"
"Well, it was a very cheap house," Sticky replied, half-smiling. "The one no one else would buy."
"Why was it so cheap?" said Kate.
"Because of the location. It's pretty removed from everything; no neighbors, no bus stop—we had to drive half an hour to get to the grocery store."
"But if it has no neighbors..." said Reynie, "that means there won't be any witnesses if it turns out the Ten Men are waiting."
Kate looked thoughtful. "Maybe... What's the land like, Sticky?"
"It's bare and relatively flat. That was one good thing: we had an enormous yard."
"Then there's no cover for the Ten Men to hide behind if they're going to ambush us. We'll see them coming a mile away."
"And they'll see us coming a mile away," added Reynie.
"I think I've got sharper eyesight than any Ten Man," she replied.
Reynie was about to protest, but then Constance gave a horrible, shuddering cough, spraying the icy ground. He exchanged a frightened glance with Sticky, and knew they were thinking the same thing: if they didn't warm shelter very soon, there was a serious chance the small girl was going to die.
"Alright," he said finally. "But let's rest here for an hour or two first."
They were huddled under a concrete bridge that crossed the river. The previous day was a blur; they'd run away from the Perumals' house and wandered through town paralyzed by fear, and rested under this bridge when night fell. Now it was daytime again. Across the water, under the bridge on the other side, was a rough-looking man with an unkempt gray beard wearing a lot of overclothing, whom they uncomfortably avoided looking at. A large, solitary bird circled overhead—unusual for this time of year, but it was too high to see clearly.
Reynie groaned and leaned back against a grimy support column. His head was throbbing. They'd determined that the fall had cracked his skull. "Are you sure there's nothing we can do for my head, Sticky?"
Sticky nodded regretfully. "It'll heal on its own—but there's no way to stop it from hurting, not without the right medicine. A doctor would tell you to avoid vigorous activity for a couple of weeks. No sports, no rough play—"
"No running for your life from Ten Men," said Kate, and they all laughed a little. It was enough to conjure fond memories of the four of them sharing the same kind of nervous laugh as they met in secret on the floor of his dormitory at the Institute, and of them sitting down to discuss their plan of action in the janitor's closet at the Monk Building, when Constance had been standing because she didn't want to touch the floor... He looked down at her, and the nostalgic smile he hadn't been able to keep away quickly faded; she was not standing now. She had none of the will or spunk she was supposed to have. She was just a barely-five-year-old girl, frightened and deathly ill.
He stood up, his face full of determination. They were going to go to Sticky's old house. They were going to live through this. Constance was going to have a sixth birthday.
"That's enough rest," he said. "My head will be fine."
"No, Reynie," said Kate, holding his hand. "You need—"
"I don't need anything. Constance needs warmth, shelter. Let's head for Sticky's place right now."
Sticky nodded and stood up too. "I think he's right. Here, I'll carry her—"
"No, I will," said Kate. "It makes much more sense for me to—"
"Kate, you always have to carry her," said Sticky. "You carry her, you take the longest watches, you save us when we meet Ten Men—you're wearing yourself out. I insist."
They walked through town, keeping a wary eye out for suits and briefcases. Reynie was mostly silent, but Sticky and Kate took the opportunity to talk. It was good to talk; it gave them something to think about besides the cold and the long walk.
"It'll be good to see the place again," said Sticky, who had Constance in his arms (she was too sleepy and feeble to hold on to his back), with a kind of fondness. "I haven't been there since we moved in with Mr. Benedict."
"How long did you guys live there?" asked Kate.
"Only about a year. All the same, it was pretty important to me. It was my first real home since I ran away."
Kate smiled at Sticky's words, but Sticky himself suddenly began to look sad.
"Where do you think they are?" he asked.
Kate sighed. "I don't know. A lot of things don't add up. Whatever happened that night, it was a lot more than we could see."
Sticky nodded, and some desperate quality that had been in his expression for a few days now seemed to become more prevalent. He was a child—an exceptional child in every way, to be sure—but a child nonetheless, like all of them, longing for his parents.
Kate elbowed him reassuringly. "We're going to find them. Just you wait."
Meanwhile, Reynie was pondering their situation as they walked. He didn't know what to think about Sticky and Kate's discussion. He knew that staying in this house would be a very temporary fix; it wouldn't solve any of their real problems. The Ten Men would keep looking for them. The adults would still be missing. And their home would never cease to be gone. The only thing Sticky's house had to offer them was protection from the harsh winter and the terror of the past few days. But they had no leads... Their only purpose at the moment was reaching this house.
The scenery was becoming more and more like Sticky's description: Trees and houses were fewer and farther between. Visibility steadily lengthened as the land flattened out. Hardly a car traversed this road. Reynie thought this would make a good place for the Ten Men to ambush them, if there had been anywhere to ambush from.
Suddenly, he heard a terrible strangled cry ahead of him. He realized he had fallen behind the group. He galloped forward to see what the matter was.
It was Sticky who had screamed—and as Reynie caught up with him, he saw the reason quite clearly.
It was obvious that the Ten Men had been here before, just as they had been to Reynie's house. Reynie's house had been searched—but Sticky's house had been obliterated.
It had clearly happened a while back; there had been time enough for most of the small pieces of wreckage to be blown away. Everything that remained was so broken and blackened that it was barely recognizable as being part of a home. Heavy snowfall had covered much of the rubble, so that only a few large fragments stuck up out of the ground, affecting the appearance that this house had been ruined for years—virtually wiped out.
Sticky was standing where the edge of his house should have been. His expression was as bleak and dead as the sight before him.
"Sticky, I'm...I'm so sorry," Reynie said, unable to tear his eyes from the burnt remains of his friend's house.
Kate came to stand beside them, uncharacteristically inscrutable as she surveyed the wreckage. Slowly, she slid her hand into Sticky's.
A tear slid down Sticky's cheek. "They're evil," he said. It was barely louder than a whisper. Constance still in his arms, he knelt down and picked up a small handful of snow and ashes, rubbing it between his fingers.
"C'mon, Sticky," said Kate gently. "We need to move on before—"
"Give him a moment, for God's sake!" said Reynie.
Constance woke with a start. "Wassat?" she grumbled.
Kate gently removed her from Sticky's arms into her own. "I'm sorry, but we have to get back to the city. The sun's going down; it's going to get a lot colder soon."
"Can't you see he's—?"
"I know this must be traumatic for him, but life has to go on. We have to survive!"
"He just carried Constance for three hours in the freezing cold, only to find his destination—his home—burned to the ground!"
"It's going to take another three hours to get back to civilization! For God's sake, the temperature's dropping as we speak! If we fall apart now—"
"People should have a right to fall apart in times like this!"
There followed a ringing silence. Reynie realized that he might not have been defending Sticky so much as himself...
Sticky, who'd been silent through all this, finally said, "No, she's right. We have to go back. There's no use staying here."
"Hang on," said Reynie, trying to redeem himself. "We need to think about what our next move should be. I'm beginning to see a clear pattern: the Ten Men are eliminating every place that we might go. And the places they can't eliminate, they've got under surveillance. My house was searched. Your house was burned. And... Remember that newspaper article? There was a wildfire in the forest where Mr. Benedict and the others watched from their telescopes while we were at the Institute. I'm guessing it wasn't so wild after all."
"So they're covering every place associated with us?" said Constance.
"Looks like it," Reynie replied.
"But those are the only places our parents might go to find us!" cried Sticky.
"I know. I've been wondering..." He turned to Kate. "When you and Milligan were living at the farm, he was still fighting Ten Men, right?"
"So why did they never try to attack the farm? I think it's because they never—"
"They never knew where we were living!" said Kate, brightening.
"So you think the Ten Men might not connect us to that farm?" said Sticky, and they both nodded excitedly.
"Hold on, let me get this straight," said Constance. "We've slept all over the place like hobos—we literally slept under a bridge—when we could have gone to this stupid farm the whole time?"
"If the Ten Men haven't found it, yes."
"But the farm is miles away!" said Kate. "It takes hours starting from Stonetown to drive there."
That was true. Reynie rubbed his chin. "Do you still have Rhonda's purse, Kate?"
He grinned. "Then who says we can't drive?"
It was now pouring rain; the downfall mixed with the already-fallen snow to create an unpleasant slush at the feet of everyone unfortunate enough to traverse the downtown sidewalks—including the three Society members running to catch up with Kate.
"But that's almost a six-hour drive!" the taxi driver was saying.
"We have money," Kate insisted. "We promise we'll pay you in full as soon as the trip's over."
"You kids must realize that since that location is outside my region, I'm gonna have to charge you for the return trip..."
"We have money," she repeated.
Reynie and Sticky looked at each other. Surely they didn't have that much money.
"You're minors!" the driver said in exasperation. "What on earth do you need to go that far by yourselves for?"
"It's our home," replied Kate. "Our parents are waiting for us there." Which, they hoped, might be true.
Sticky looked at the dashboard and noticed that this taxi was equipped with a credit card machine. He reached into Rhonda's purse and pulled out the useless credit card. "Look," he said nervously. "We'll pay with this once we get there. We have permission from out parents. They can even pay you themselves, if you want."
The cab driver glanced at the sleeping toddler in Reynie's arms. He looked uncomfortable, but—possibly tempted by the fee he'd collect from such a trip—the cab driver reluctantly agreed. Glad for the warmth and comfort, the Mysterious Benedict Society piled into the seats and began the long journey toward their last remaining hope.
Zonkey: I'll have you know that some cabs in big cities DO have credit card machines. Anyway, here's your riddle for the title of the next chapter.
The title contains five words, and the first word is "Out." As for the remainder of the title: What kind of servant both cooks and fights, is payed in eggs and bacon, and only cries louder when you feed him?