He raised his head when Basta opened the door. His eyes were almost as pale as the rest of him, as if the colour had drained out of them, but bright as silver coins. The woman at his feet glanced up when they came in, then bent over to resume her work.
‘Excuse me, but the visitors we were expecting have arrived,’ said Basta. ‘I thought you might want to speak to them at once.’
Capricorn leaned back in his chair and cast a brief glance at Dustfinger. Then his expressionless eyes moved to Meggie. She was clutching the plastic bag containing the book to her chest, her arms firmly wrapped around it. Capricorn stared at the bag as if he knew what was in it. He made a sign to the woman at his feet. Reluctantly, she straightened up, smoothed down her black dress, and glared at Elinor and Meggie. She looked like an old magpie, with her grey hair scraped back and a pointed nose that didn’t seem to fit her small, wrinkled face. Nodding to Capricorn, she left the room.
It was a large room, only sparsely furnished: a long table with eight chairs, a cupboard and a heavy sideboard. There were no lamps in the room, only candles, dozens of them in heavy silver candlesticks. It seemed to Meggie that they filled the room with shadows rather than light.
‘Where is it?’ asked Capricorn. When he scraped back his chair Meggie flinched involuntarily. ‘Don’t tell me you’ve only brought the girl this time.’ His voice was more impressive than his face. It was dark and heavy, and the moment she heard him speak Meggie hated it.
‘She’s got it with her. In that bag,’ replied Dustfinger before Meggie could say so herself. His eyes wandered restlessly from candle to candle as he spoke, as if only their dancing flames interested him. ‘Her father really didn’t know he had the wrong book. This woman who says she’s a friend of his,’ added Dustfinger, pointing to Elinor, ‘changed the books round without telling him. She’s a real bookworm. I think she lives on print. Her whole house is full of books – looks as if she likes them better than human company.’ The words came spilling out of Dustfinger’s mouth as if he wanted to be rid of them. ‘I didn’t like her from the first, but you know our friend Silvertongue. He always thinks the best of everyone. He’d trust the Devil himself if Old Nick gave him a friendly smile.’
Meggie looked at Elinor. She was standing there as if tongue-tied. Anyone could see she had a guilty conscience.
Capricorn merely nodded at Dustfinger’s explanations. He tightened the belt of his dressing gown, clasped his hands behind his back, and came slowly over to Meggie. She did her best not to flinch, to look firmly and undaunted into those colourless eyes, but fear constricted her throat. What a coward she was after all! She tried to think of some hero out of one of her books, someone whose skin she could slip into, to make her feel stronger, bigger, braver. Why could she remember nothing but stories of frightened people when Capricorn looked at her? She usually found it so easy to escape somewhere else, to get right inside the minds of people and animals who existed only on paper, so why not now? Because she was afraid. ‘Because fear kills everything,’ Mo had once told her. ‘Your mind, your heart, your imagination.’
Mo … where was he? Meggie bit her lip to stop herself shaking, but she knew the fear showed in her eyes, and she knew that Capricorn saw it. She wished she had a heart of ice and a clever smile, not the trembling lips of a child whose father had been stolen away.
Now Capricorn was very close to her. He scrutinised her. No one had ever looked at her like that. She felt like a fly stuck to a flypaper just waiting to die.
‘How old is she?’ Capricorn looked at Dustfinger as if he didn’t trust Meggie to know the answer herself.
‘Twelve!’ she said in a loud voice. It wasn’t easy to speak with her lips quivering so hard. ‘I’m twelve. And I want to know where my father is.’
Capricorn acted as if he hadn’t heard the last sentence. ‘Twelve?’ he repeated in the dark voice that weighed so heavily on Meggie’s ears, ‘Three or four more years and she’ll be a pretty little thing, useful to have around the place. We’ll have to feed her up a bit, though.’ He felt her arm with his long fingers. He wore gold rings on them, three on each hand. Meggie tried to pull away, but Capricorn was gripping her tightly as his pale eyes examined her. Just as he might have looked at a fish. A poor little fish wriggling on a hook.
‘Let the girl go!’ For the first time Meggie was glad Elinor’s voice could sound so sharp. And Capricorn actually did let go of her arm.
Elinor stepped up behind Meggie and put her hands protectively on her shoulders. ‘I don’t know what’s going on here,’ she snapped at Capricorn. ‘I don’t know who you are, or what you and all these men with guns are doing in this God-forsaken village, and I don’t want to know either. I’m here to see that this girl gets her father back. We’ll leave you the book you’re so keen to have – although that’s enough to give me heart-ache, but you’ll get it as soon as Meggie’s father is safe in my car. And if for any reason he wants to stay here we’d like to hear it from his own lips.’
Capricorn turned his back to her without a word. ‘Why did you bring this woman?’ he asked Dustfinger. ‘Bring the girl and the book, I said. Why would I want the woman?’
Meggie looked at Dustfinger.
The girl and the book. The words kept repeating inside her head, like an echo. The girl and the book, I said. Meggie tried to look Dustfinger in the eye, but he avoided her gaze as if it would burn him. It hurt to feel so stupid. So terribly, terribly stupid.
Dustfinger perched on the edge of the table and pinched out one of the candles, gently and slowly as if waiting for the pain, the sharp little stab of the candle flame. ‘I’ve told Basta already: our dear friend Elinor couldn’t be persuaded to stay behind,’ he said. ‘She didn’t want to let the girl go with me alone, and she was very reluctant to give up the book.’
‘And wasn’t I right?’ Elinor’s voice rose to such a pitch that Meggie jumped. ‘Listen to him, Meggie, listen to that fork-tongued matchstick-eater! I ought to have called the police when he turned up again. He came back for the book; that was the only reason.’
And for me, thought Meggie. The girl and the book.
Dustfinger pretended to be preoccupied with pulling a loose thread from his coat-sleeve. But his hands, usually so skilful, were shaking.
‘And as for you!’ said Elinor, jabbing Capricorn in the chest with her forefinger. Basta took a step forward, but Capricorn waved him away. ‘I’ve had a lot of experience with books. I myself have had a number of books stolen from me, and I can’t claim that all the books on my shelves got there exactly as they should have done – perhaps you know the saying that all book collectors are vultures and hunters? But you really seem to be the craziest of us all. I’m surprised I’ve never heard of you before. Where’s your collection?’ She looked enquiringly round the big room. ‘I don’t see a single book.’
Capricorn put his hands in his dressing-gown pockets and signed to Basta. Before Meggie knew what was happening, Basta had snatched the plastic bag from her hands. He opened it, peered inside suspiciously as if he thought it could contain a snake or something else that might bite, then reached in and brought out the book.