Capricorn took it from him. Meggie couldn’t see on his face any of the tenderness with which Elinor and Mo looked at books. No, there was nothing but dislike on Capricorn’s face – dislike and relief. That was all.
‘These two know nothing?’ Capricorn opened the book, leafed through it, then closed it again. It was the right book. Meggie could tell from his face. It was exactly the book he had been looking for.
‘No, they know nothing. Even the girl doesn’t know.’ Dustfinger was looking out of the window very intently, as if there were more to be seen there than the pitch dark. ‘Her father hasn’t told her, so why should I?’
Capricorn nodded. ‘Take these two round behind the house,’ he told Basta, who was still standing there holding the empty bag.
‘What do you mean?’ Elinor began, but Basta was already hauling her and Meggie away.
‘It means we’re going to shut you two pretty birds in one of our cages overnight,’ said Basta, prodding them roughly in the back with his shotgun.
‘Where’s my father?’ shouted Meggie. Her own voice was shrill in her ears. ‘You’ve got the book now! What more do you want of him?’
Capricorn strolled over to the candle that Dustfinger had pinched out, passed his forefinger over the wick and looked at the soot on his fingertip. ‘What do I want of your father?’ he said, without turning to look at Meggie. ‘I want to keep him here, what else? You don’t seem to know about his extraordinary talent. Up to now he’s been unwilling to use it in my service, hard as Basta has tried to persuade him. But now Dustfinger has brought you here he’ll do anything I want. I’m confident of that.’
Meggie tried to push Basta’s hands away when he reached for her, but he took her by the back of the head like a chicken whose neck he was going to wring. Elinor tried coming to her aid, but he casually pointed the shotgun at her chest and forced Meggie over to the door.
When Meggie turned round again she saw Dustfinger still leaning against the big table. He was watching her, but this time he wasn’t smiling. Forgive me, his eyes seemed to say. I had to do it. I can explain everything! But Meggie didn’t want to know, and she certainly wasn’t about to forgive him. ‘I hope you drop dead!’ she screamed as Basta hauled her out of the room. ‘I hope you burn to death! I hope you suffocate in your own smoke!’
Basta laughed as he closed the door. ‘Just listen to this little wildcat!’ he said. ‘I think I’ll have to watch my step with you around!’
Good Luck and Bad Luck
It was the middle of the night, and Bingo couldn’t sleep. The ground was hard, but he was used to that … His blanket was dirty and smelled disgusting, but he was used to that too. A tune kept going through his head, and he couldn’t get it out of his mind. It was the Wendels’ victory song.
Michael de Larrabeiti,
The Borribles Go for Broke
The cages, as Basta had called them, kept ready by Capricorn for unwelcome guests were behind the church, in a paved area where rubbish containers stood next to mountains of building rubble. There was a slight smell of petrol in the air, and even the glow-worms whirling aimlessly through the night didn’t seem to know what had brought them to this place. A row of tumbledown houses stood behind the bins and the rubble. The windows were just holes in the grey walls, and a couple of rotten shutters hung from their hinges at such an angle they looked as if a sudden gust of wind would blow them right off. Only the doors on the ground floor had obviously been given a fresh coat of paint fairly recently, in a dull brown shade with numbers painted on them clumsily, as if by a child, one for each door. As far as Meggie could see in the dark the last door had a number 7 on it. Basta propelled her and Elinor towards number 4. For a moment Meggie was relieved that he hadn’t really meant a cage, although the door in the blank wall looked anything but inviting.
‘This is ridiculous!’ said Elinor furiously, as Basta unlocked and unbolted the door. He had brought reinforcements with him from the house in the form of a skinny lad who wore the same black uniform as the grown men in Capricorn’s village, and who obviously liked to menace Elinor by pointing his gun at her whenever she opened her mouth. But that didn’t keep her quiet for long.
‘What do you think you’re playing at?’ she said angrily, without taking her eyes off the muzzle of the gun. ‘I’ve heard that these mountains were always a paradise for robbers, but for heaven’s sake, we’re living in the twenty-first century! These days people don’t go pushing visitors around at gunpoint – certainly not a youngster like him.’
‘As far as I’m aware people in this fine century of yours still do exactly as they always did,’ replied Basta. ‘And that youngster is just the right age to be apprenticed to us. I was even younger when I joined.’ He pushed the door open. The darkness inside was blacker than night itself. Basta shoved first Meggie, then Elinor in, and slammed the door behind them.
Meggie heard the key turn in the lock, then Basta saying something which made the boy laugh, and the sound of their footsteps retreating. She reached her hands out until her fingertips touched a wall. Her eyes were useless; she might as well have been blind, she couldn’t even see where Elinor was. But she heard her muttering, letting off steam somewhere over to her left.
‘Isn’t there at least a bloody light switch somewhere in this hole? Oh, to hell with it, I feel as if I’ve fallen into some farfetched adventure story where the villains wear black eye-patches and throw knives. Damn, damn, damn!’ Meggie had already noticed that Elinor swore a lot, and the more upset she was the worse her language became.
‘Elinor?’ The voice came from somewhere in the darkness, and that one word expressed delight, horror and surprise.
Meggie spun round so suddenly she almost fell over her own feet. ‘Mo?’
‘Oh no! Meggie, not you too! How did you get here?’
‘Mo!’ Meggie stumbled through the darkness towards Mo’s voice. A hand took her arm and fingers felt her face.
‘Ah, at last!’ A naked electric light bulb hanging from the ceiling came on, and Elinor, looking pleased with herself, took her finger off a dusty switch. ‘Electric light is a wonderful invention!’ she said. ‘That at least is an improvement on past centuries, don’t you agree?’
‘What are you two doing here, Elinor?’ demanded Mo, holding Meggie very close. ‘I trusted you to look after her at least as well as your books! How could you let them bring her here?’
‘How could I let them?’ Elinor’s indignant voice almost cracked. ‘I never asked to baby-sit your daughter! I know how to look after books, but children are something else, dammit! And she was worried about you – wanted to go looking for you. So what does stupid Elinor do instead of staying comfortably at home? I mean, I couldn’t let the child go off on her own, I told myself. And what do I get for my noble conduct? Insults, a gun held to my chest, and now I’m here in this hole with you carrying on at me too!’
‘All right, all right!’ Mo held Meggie at arm’s length and looked her up and down.
‘I’m fine, Mo!’ said Meggie, although her voice shook just a little. ‘Honestly.’