Twelve years ago, Trenton Lee Stewart introduced readers to The Mysterious Benedict Society, a story of four uniquely gifted children who are recruited by a brilliant benefactor to help save the world from a nefarious villain who attempts to manipulate people using a mind-control machine. Stewart entertained bookworms with three separate adventures featuring Reynie, Sticky, Kate, and Constance, who are all adept at solving puzzles and figuring out tricky situations. The original trilogy was followed by a prequel spotlighting the titular Mr. Benedict and a companion book of puzzles and riddles. But it has been 10 years since there has been a story focusing on the original Society.
That changes in the fall: author Trent Stewart recently announced a new novel, The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Riddle of Ages, to be released in late September! GeekDad had a chance to talk with Stewart about the series and the new book, and you can read both parts of that interview here and here. GeekDad was also granted an exclusive excerpt from the new book! Read below for the first part of the first chapter of The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Riddle of Ages!
Chapter One: Surprising Arrivals and Rooftop Reunions
In a city called Stonetown, on a quiet street of spacious old houses and gracious old trees, a young man named Reynie Muldoon Perumal was contemplating a door. The door, currently closed, belonged to his study on the third floor of one of those houses—in this case a gray-stoned edifice half-covered in ivy, with a magnificent elm tree in its courtyard and, surrounding the courtyard, an old iron fence quite overgrown with roses. From his study window Reynie might easily have been looking out upon that tree or those flowers, or he might have lifted his gaze to the sky, which on this fine spring morning was a lovely shade of cobalt blue. Instead, he sat at his desk in an attitude of attention, staring at the door, wondering who in the world could be standing on the other side.
For a stranger to be lurking in the hallway should have been impossible, given the fact of locked doors, security codes, and a trustworthy guard. Yet Reynie’s ears had detected an unfamiliar tread. His ears were not particularly sharp; indeed, his hearing, like almost everything else about him, was perfectly average: He had average brown eyes and hair, an average fair complexion, an average tendency to sing in the shower, and so on. But when it came to noticing things—noticing things, understanding things, and figuring things out—average could hardly describe him.
He had been aware, for the last thirty seconds or so, of something different in the house. Preoccupied as he’d been with urgent matters, however, Reynie had given the signs little thought. The shriek and clang of the courtyard gate had raised no suspicions, for not a minute earlier he had spied Captain Plugg, the diligent guard, leaving through that gate to make one of her rounds about the neighborhood. Hearing the sounds again after he’d turned from the window, Reynie had simply assumed the guard forgot something, or was struck by a need for the bathroom. The sudden draft in his study, which always accompanied the opening of the front door downstairs, he had naturally attributed to the return of Captain Plugg as well. He had wondered, vaguely, at the absence of her heavy footsteps below, but his mind had quickly conjured an image of that powerfully built woman taking a seat near the entrance to remove something from her boot.
Too quickly, Reynie realized when he heard that unfamiliar tread in the hallway. And now he sat staring at the door with a great intensity of focus.
A knock sounded—a light, tentative tapping—and in an instant Reynie’s apprehension left him. There were people in Stonetown right now who would very much like to hurt him, but this, he could tell, was not one of them.
“Come in?” said Reynie, his tone inquisitive. There was no reply. He glanced at his watch, then at the clock on the wall, and then at the two-way radio that sat—silent, for the moment—on his cluttered desk. “Come in!” he called, more forcefully.
The doorknob rattled. Slowly turned. And at last the door swung open, revealing—as Reynie had by this point already deduced—a child. It seemed the most unlikely of developments, but the fact remained: The stranger was, of all things, a little boy.
“Well, hello,” Reynie said to the boy, who stood grinning shyly with a hand on the doorknob, swinging the door back and forth. The boy’s hair, very fine and black, was in a frightfully tangled state. His skin, of a light olive tone, was smudged here and there with a dark, oily substance, and stuck to various places on his shirt and trousers (both quite filthy) was the fur of at least two kinds of animal. But the boy’s large eyes, so dark brown as to be almost black, were shining with excitement.
“I’m Tai,” said the boy, still swinging the door back and forth. “I’m five.”
Reynie feigned confusion. “Wait, which is it? Are you Tai or are you five?”
The boy giggled. “Both!” he said, letting go of the doorknob and approaching Reynie’s desk in a rush. He drew up short, resting his hands on the edge of the desk and his chin on the back of his hands. “My name is Tai Li, and I’m five years old.” He said this without lifting his chin from his hands, and thus with some difficulty.
“Oh!” Reynie exclaimed, with another glance at his watch. “I think I understand now. Well, Tai, my name is—”
“Reynie Muldoon!” the boy interrupted with a delighted laugh. “I know who you are! I have a name that starts with M, too! My middle name does. I’m not going to tell you what it is, though. You have to guess.”
“It isn’t Muldoon?” Reynie asked, quickly moving the radio, which Tai had noticed and reached for.
“No!” said Tai, laughing again.
“Tell you what,” Reynie said. “I’ll make more guesses later. And I’ll let you touch the radio later, too, okay? Right now it’s important that we don’t touch it. Right now we’re expecting to hear from a friend—”
Tai gasped. “Is it Kate Wetherall? The Great Kate Weather Machine? Who always carries around a red bucket full of tools?”
Reynie raised an eyebrow. “Well…she used to, anyway. These days she’s more of a utility-belt-and-secret-pockets kind of weather machine.” A wistful expression crossed his face at this, like the shadow of a swiftly moving cloud. Reynie fixed the little boy with a curious gaze. “You seem to know an awful lot about us, Tai.”
“You saved the world!” Tai whispered excitedly, as if he’d been bursting to let Reynie in on this secret but knew he wasn’t supposed to.
“Oh, I wouldn’t say the whole world,” said Reynie with a skeptical look. “And I assume you’re talking not just about me, but—”
“All of you!” Tai whispered. “The four of you! And Mr. Benedict, and Rhonda, and Number Two, and Milligan…” Here the little boy frowned and consulted his fingers, counting off names in a whisper. He interrupted himself to scratch furiously at an itch on his arm, then began again.
“Hold that thought, Tai,” said Reynie, and raising his voice, he said, “Intercom. Sticky’s office.”
A beep sounded from a speaker on the wall near the door, and Tai whirled to look. The speaker hung at an imperfect angle, with plaster peeling away all around it, and was speckled with ancient paint. It would not appear to be a functioning speaker. Nonetheless, its green indicator light flickered to life, and after a brief initial crackling sound, a young man’s voice rang out.
“What’s the word?” said the voice, quite loudly and brusquely.
Tai gave a little jump. He glanced at Reynie, then gawked at the speaker again.
“No word yet,” Reynie replied. He cleared his throat. “But, say, George. Were you aware that a five-year-old boy named Tai Li has entered the house, evidently by himself, and is now standing here in my study with me?”
There was a pause. Another crackle. Then: “Huh.”
“Right?” said Reynie, as if they had just discussed the matter at length.
“The timing is not exactly what one would wish.”
“I’m guessing the timing has everything to do with it.”
Tai turned to Reynie with huge eyes. “Is that Sticky Washington?” he whispered. “Who’s read everything and knows everything and never forgets anything? But gets ner—”
“That’s him, all right,” Reynie interrupted. “Although lately he prefers his given name, George. And by the way, Tai, he can hear you even if you’re whispering.”
Reynie wouldn’t have thought the little boy’s eyes could get any wider, but wider they got, and two small hands flew up to cover his mouth. They were very dirty hands, too. Reynie supposed now wasn’t the moment to discuss hygiene.
“Hello, Tai,” said the voice through the speaker. “I look forward to meeting you.”
Tai made as if to clap his hands, then seemed to think better of it. He ran over to stand directly beneath the speaker. “Hi!” he shouted, gazing up at it. He stood on his tiptoes, trying to reach it with an outstretched finger.
Reynie leaped up from his desk. “Let’s not touch the speaker, either, okay, Tai? It might fall off. Let me find something you can touch, how about?”
The speaker crackled. “So, Reynie, would you say this matter needs immediate attention, or—?”
“No, I’ve got it. Just keeping you in the loop.”
“Roger that. Intercom off.”
“Intercom off,” echoed Reynie, and the green indicator light turned red.
“It turned red!” Tai declared. “So that means it’s off!”
“Right you are,” said Reynie, casting about for something to give the little boy.
Tai, seeing what he was up to, also looked around. The study in general was rather less cluttered and unruly than the desk, with less to offer his curious eye. Overstuffed bookshelves stood against every wall; an overstuffed chair stood in one corner; and behind the desk sat an antique chest covered with tidy stacks of papers, which Reynie now hastily began to clear away.
One particular stack of papers, however—a thick bunch of envelopes—seemed to catch in Reynie’s hands. Each envelope was addressed from one of the world’s most prestigious universities. Most were still sealed, but the few letters that Reynie had read said almost exactly the same thing: Delighted to inform you…would be among the youngest ever to attend this university in its long, illustrious history…naturally covering your tuition and room and board, along with a generous stipend for expenses…an extremely rare honor…if you will please reply as soon as…
The envelopes all bore postmarks from months ago. Reynie had yet to reply. He looked at the stack in his hands for a long moment, as he had done many times in recent weeks, before finally setting it aside.
Meanwhile, as this clearing away of papers seemed to be taking a minute, Tai turned and spotted, on the back of the door through which he had just entered, a large map of the greater Stonetown area. Concentrated in the center of the map, in the heart of Stonetown itself, were thirteen pushpins. Tai counted them out loud—twice to be sure.
Reynie, without looking, knew full well what Tai was counting, and as he felt beneath the lid of the locked chest for its two secret catches, he prepared himself for the inevitable question. Under normal circumstances, it would hardly seem wise to inform a young child that those pushpins represented thirteen of the most dangerous men in the world; that those men, just as the location of the pushpins suggested, were now gathered right here in Stonetown; and that Reynie’s sole purpose at present was to deal with them—which meant that the child, simply by being associated with Reynie, might be in great peril.