But now he was gone, and she was alone with Elinor and Elinor’s pebble eyes.
She took Mo’s sweater out of his bag and buried her face in it. It’s the book’s fault, she kept thinking. It’s all that book’s fault. Why didn’t he give it to Dustfinger? Sometimes, when you’re so sad you don’t know what to do, it helps to be angry. But then the tears came back again all the same, and Meggie fell asleep with the salty taste of them on her lips.
When she woke all of a sudden, her heart pounding and her hair damp with sweat, it all came back to her: the men, Mo’s voice, the empty road. I’ll go and look for him, thought Meggie. Yes, that’s what I’ll do. Outside the sky was just turning red. Not long now and the sun would rise. It would be better if she was gone before it got really light. Mo’s jacket was hanging over the chair under the window, as if he’d only just taken it off. Meggie took his wallet out of it – she’d need the money. Then she crept back to her room to pack a few things, only the essentials: a change of clothing and a photograph of herself and Mo, so that she could ask people if they’d seen him. Of course she couldn’t take her book-box. She thought of hiding it under the bed, but she decided to write Elinor a note instead:
Dear Elinor, she wrote, although she didn’t really think that was the correct way to address an aunt. I have to go and look for my father, she went on. Don’t worry about me. Well, Elinor wasn’t likely to do that anyway. And please don’t tell the police I’ve gone or they’ll be sure to bring me back. My favourite books are in my box. I’m afraid I can’t take them with me. Please look after them. I’ll come and fetch them as soon as I’ve found my father. Thank you. Meggie.
P.S.: I know exactly how many books there are in the box.
She crossed out that last sentence. It would only annoy Elinor, and who knew what she might do with the books then? Sell them, probably. After all, Mo had given them all particularly nice bindings. None of them was bound in leather, because Meggie didn’t like to think of a calf or a pig losing its skin for her books. Luckily, Mo understood how she felt. Many hundreds of years ago, he had once told Meggie, people made the bindings for particularly valuable books from the skin of unborn calves, charta virginea non nata, a pretty name for a terrible thing. ‘And those books,’ Mo had told her, ‘were full of the most wonderful words about love and kindness and mercy.’
While Meggie was packing her bag she did her best not to think, because if she did she knew she’d have to ask herself where she was going to search for Mo. She kept pushing the thought away, but all the same her hands slowed down, and at last she was standing beside her packed bag, no longer able to ignore the cruel little voice inside her. ‘Well then, where are you going to look, Meggie?’ it whispered. ‘Are you going to turn left or right when you reach the road? You don’t even know that. How far do you think you’ll get before the police pick you up? A twelve-year-old girl carrying a bag, with a wild story about a father who’s disappeared, and no mother they can take her back to.’
Meggie put her hands over her ears, but what use was that when the voice was inside her head? She stood like that for quite a long time. Then she shook her head until the voice stopped, and dragged her bag out into the corridor. It was heavy. Much too heavy. Meggie opened it again and put almost everything back in her room. She kept only a sweater, a book (she had to have at least one), the photo and Mo’s wallet. Now she could carry the bag as far as she had to.
She slipped quietly downstairs with the bag in one hand and the note for Elinor in the other. The morning sunlight was already filtering through the cracks of the shutters, but it was as silent in the big house as if even the books on the shelves were sleeping. Only the sound of quiet snoring came through Elinor’s bedroom door. Meggie really meant to push the note under the door, but it wouldn’t fit. She hesitated for a moment and then pressed the door-handle down. It was light in Elinor’s bedroom, even though the shutters were closed. The bedside lamp was switched on, so obviously Elinor had gone to sleep while she was reading. She was lying on her back with her mouth slightly open, snoring at the plaster angel on the ceiling above her. And she was clutching a book to her chest. Meggie recognised it at once.
She was beside the bed in an instant. ‘Where did you get that?’ she shouted, tugging the book out of Elinor’s arms, which were heavy with sleep. ‘That’s my father’s!’
Elinor woke as suddenly as if Meggie had tipped cold water over her face.
‘You stole it!’ cried Meggie, beside herself with rage. ‘And you brought those men here, yes, that’s what happened. You and that Capricorn are in this together! You had my father taken away, and who knows what you did with poor Dustfinger? You wanted that book from the start! I saw the way you looked at it – like something alive! It’s probably worth a million – or two million or three million …’
Elinor was sitting up in bed, staring at the flowers on her nightdress and saying not a word. She didn’t move until Meggie was struggling to get her breath back.
‘Finished?’ she asked. ‘Or are you planning to stand there yelling your head off until you drop dead?’ Her voice sounded as brusque as usual, but it had another note in it too – a touch of guilt.
‘I’m going to tell the police!’ cried Meggie. ‘I’ll tell them you stole the book and they ought to ask you where my father is.’
‘I saved you – and this book!’
Elinor swung her legs out of bed, went over to the window and opened the shutters.
‘Oh yes? And what about Mo?’ Meggie’s voice was rising again. ‘What’s going to happen when they realise he gave them the wrong book? It’s all your fault if they hurt him. Dustfinger said Capricorn would kill him if he didn’t hand over the book. He’ll kill him!’
Elinor put her head out of the window and took a deep breath. Then she turned round again. ‘What nonsense!’ she said crossly. ‘You think far too much of what that matchstick-eater says. And you’ve obviously read too many bad adventure stories. Kill your father? Heavens above, he’s not a secret agent or anything dangerous like that! He restores old books! It’s not exactly a life-threatening profession! I just wanted to take a look at the book in peace. That’s the only reason I swapped it round. How could I guess those villains would come here in the middle of the night to take your father away along with their precious book? All he told me was that some crazy collector had been badgering him for that book for years. How was I to know this collector wouldn’t shrink from breaking and entering, not to mention kidnapping? Even I wouldn’t think up an idea like that. Well, maybe for just one or two books in the world I might.’
‘But that’s what Dustfinger said. He said Capricorn would kill him!’ Meggie was clutching the book tightly, as if that were the only way of preventing yet more misfortunes from creeping out of it. It was as if she suddenly remembered Dustfinger’s voice again. ‘And the little creature’s screeching and struggling,’ she whispered, ‘would be as sweet as honey to him.’
‘What? Who are you talking about now?’ Elinor perched on the edge of the bed and made Meggie sit down beside her. ‘You’d better tell me everything you know about this business. Begin at the beginning.’