‘You remember her?’
Meggie noticed that Mo double-locked the door.
‘How old is she now?’ Dustfinger smiled at her. It was a strange smile. Meggie couldn’t decide whether it was mocking, supercilious, or just awkward. She didn’t smile back. ‘Twelve,’ said Mo.
‘Twelve? My word!’ Dustfinger pushed his dripping hair back from his forehead. It reached almost to his shoulders. Meggie wondered what colour it was when it was dry. The stubble round his narrow-lipped mouth was gingery, like the fur of the stray cat Meggie sometimes fed with a saucer of milk outside the door. Ginger hair sprouted on his cheeks, too, sparse as a boy’s first beard but not long enough to hide three long, pale scars. They made Dustfinger’s face look as if it had been smashed and stuck back together again. ‘Twelve,’ he repeated. ‘Of course. She was … let’s see, she was three then, wasn’t she?’
Mo nodded. ‘Come on, I’ll find you some dry clothes.’ Impatiently, as if he were suddenly in a hurry to hide the man from Meggie, he led his visitor across the hall. ‘And Meggie,’ he said over his shoulder, ‘you go back to sleep.’ Then, without another word, he closed his workshop door.
Meggie stood there rubbing her cold feet together. Go back to sleep. Sometimes, when they’d stayed up late yet again, Mo would toss her down on her bed like a bag of walnuts. Sometimes he chased her round the house after supper until she escaped into her room, breathless with laughter. And sometimes he was so tired he lay down on the sofa and she made him a cup of coffee before she went to bed. But he had never ever sent her off to her room so brusquely.
A foreboding, clammy and fearful, came into her heart as if, along with the visitor whose name was so strange yet somehow familiar, some menace had slipped into her life. And she wished – so hard it frightened her – that she had never fetched Mo, and Dustfinger had stayed outside until the rain washed him away.
When the door of the workshop opened again she jumped.
‘Still there, I see,’ said Mo. ‘Go to bed, Meggie. Please.’ He had that little frown over his nose that appeared only when something was really worrying him, and he seemed to look straight through her as if his thoughts were somewhere else entirely. The foreboding in Meggie’s heart grew, spreading black wings.
‘Send him away, Mo!’ she said as he gently propelled her towards her room. ‘Please! Send him away. I don’t like him.’
Mo leaned in her open doorway. ‘He’ll be gone when you get up in the morning. Word of honour.’
‘Word of honour – no crossed fingers?’ Meggie looked him straight in the eye. She could always tell when Mo was lying, however hard he tried to hide it from her.
‘No crossed fingers,’ he said, holding both hands out to show her.
Then he closed her door, even though he knew she didn’t like that. Meggie put her ear to it, listening. She could hear the clink of china. So the man with the sandy beard was getting a nice cup of tea to warm him up. I hope he catches pneumonia, thought Meggie … though he needn’t necessarily die of it. Meggie heard the kettle whistling in the kitchen, and Mo carrying a tray of clattering crockery back to the workshop. When that door closed she forced herself to wait a few more seconds, just to be on the safe side. Then she crept back out into the passage.
There was a notice hanging on the door of Mo’s workshop, a small metal plaque. Meggie knew the words on it by heart. When she was five she had often practised reading the old-fashioned, spindly lettering:
Some books should be tasted
but only a few
should be chewed and digested thoroughly.
Back then, when she still had to climb on a box to read the plaque, she had thought the chewing and digesting were meant literally and wondered, horrified, why Mo had hung on his workshop door the words of someone who vandalised books. Now, she knew what the plaque really meant, but tonight she wasn’t interested in written words. Spoken words were what she wanted to hear, the words being exchanged in soft, almost inaudible whispers by the two men on the other side of the door.
‘Don’t underestimate him!’ she heard Dustfinger say. His voice was so different from Mo’s. No one else in the world had a voice like her father’s. Mo could paint pictures in the empty air with his voice alone.
‘He’d do anything to get hold of it.’ That was Dustfinger again. ‘And when I say anything, I can assure you I mean anything.’
‘I’ll never let him have it.’ That was Mo.
‘He’ll still get his hands on it, one way or another! I tell you, they’re on your trail.’
‘It wouldn’t be the first time. I’ve always managed to shake them off before.’
‘Oh yes? And for how much longer, do you think? What about your daughter? Are you telling me she actually likes moving around the whole time? Believe me, I know what I’m talking about.’
It was so quiet behind the door that Meggie scarcely dared breathe in case the two men heard her.
Finally her father spoke again, hesitantly, as if his tongue found it difficult to form the words. ‘Then what do you think I ought to do?’
‘Come with me. I’ll take you to them.’ A cup clinked. The sound of a spoon against china. How loud small noises sound in a silence. ‘You know how much Capricorn thinks of your talents. He’d be glad if you took it to him of your own free will, I’m sure he would. The man he found to replace you is useless.’
Capricorn. Another peculiar name. Dustfinger had uttered it as if the mere sound might scorch his tongue. Meggie wriggled her chilly toes and wrinkled her cold nose. She didn’t understand much of what the two men were saying, but she tried to memorise every single word of it.
It was quiet again in the workshop.
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ said Mo at last. He sounded so weary that it tore at Meggie’s heart. ‘I’ll have to think about it. When do you think his men will get here?’
The word dropped like a stone into the silence.
‘Soon,’ repeated Mo. ‘Very well. I’ll have made up my mind by tomorrow. Do you have somewhere to sleep?’
‘Oh, I can always find a place,’ replied Dustfinger. ‘I’m managing quite well these days, although it’s still all much too fast for me.’ His laugh was not a happy one. ‘But I’d like to know what you decide. May I come back tomorrow? About midday?’
‘Yes, of course. I’ll be picking Meggie up from school at one-thirty. Come after that.’
Meggie heard a chair being pushed back, and scurried back to her room. When the door of the workshop opened she was just closing her bedroom door behind her. Pulling the covers up to her chin, she lay there listening as her father said goodbye to Dustfinger.
‘And thank you for the warning anyway,’ she heard him add as Dustfinger’s footsteps moved away, slowly and uncertainly as if he were reluctant to leave, as if he hadn’t said everything he’d wanted to say. But at last he was gone, and only the rain kept drumming its wet fingers on Meggie’s window.
When Mo opened the door of her room she quickly closed her eyes and tried to breathe as slowly as you do in a deep, innocent sleep. But Mo wasn’t stupid. In fact, he was sometimes terribly clever.