Authors: Trenton Lee Stewart
Tags: #Mystery, #Science Fiction, #Fantasy, #Young Adult, #Humor, #Adventure, #Children
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
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
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” —
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
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
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
actually take the trouble to answer his questions, unlike
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.