‘Abduction!’ Basta savoured the word. ‘Sounds good to me. Really good.’
Capricorn gave him a smile. Then he looked Elinor up and down as if he were seeing her for the first time. ‘Basta,’ he said. ‘Is this lady any use to us?’
‘Not that I know of,’ replied Basta, smiling like a child who has just been given permission to smash a toy. Elinor went pale, and tried to step backwards, but Cockerell barred her way and held her firmly.
‘What do we generally do with useless things, Basta?’ asked Capricorn quietly.
Basta went on smiling.
‘Stop that!’ Mo said angrily to Capricorn. ‘Stop frightening her at once, or I’m not reading you another word.’
With every appearance of indifference, Capricorn turned his back to him. And Basta kept smiling.
Meggie saw Elinor press a hand to her trembling lips, and quickly went over to stand beside her. ‘She’s not useless. She knows more about books than anyone else in the world!’ she said, holding Elinor’s other hand very tight.
Capricorn turned round. The look in his eyes made Meggie shudder, as if someone were running cold fingers down her spine. His eyelashes were pale as cobwebs.
‘Elinor definitely knows more stories with treasure in them than that spineless reader of yours!’ Meggie stammered. ‘Definitely!’
Elinor squeezed Meggie’s fingers hard. Her own hand was damp with sweat. ‘Yes. Absolutely, that’s true,’ she said huskily. ‘I’m sure I can think of several more.’
‘Well, well,’ was all Capricorn said, his curved lips tracing a smile. ‘We’ll see.’ Then he gave his men a signal, and they made Elinor, Meggie and Mo file past the tables, past Capricorn’s statue and the red columns, and out through the heavy door that groaned as they pushed it open.
Outside, beyond the shadow of the church on the village square, the sun shone down from a cloudless blue sky, and the air was filled with scents of summer. It was as if nothing unusual had happened.
The python dropped his head lightly for a moment on Mowgli’s shoulders. ‘A brave heart and a courteous tongue,’ said he. ‘They shall carry thee far through the jungle, manling. But now go hence quickly with thy friends. Go and sleep, for the moon sets, and what follows it is not well that thou shouldst see.’
The Jungle Book
They did indeed get enough to eat. Around noon a woman brought them bread and olives, and towards evening there was pasta smelling of fresh rosemary. But the food couldn’t cut short the endless hours, any more than full stomachs dispelled their fear of what the next day might bring. Perhaps not even a book would have done it, but there was no point thinking of that, since they had no books, only the blank walls and the locked door. At least a new light bulb was hanging from the ceiling, so they didn’t have to sit in the dark the whole time. Meggie kept looking at the crack under the door to see if night was falling yet. She imagined lizards sitting outside in the sun. She’d seen some in the square outside the church. Had the emerald-green lizard that scurried out of the heaps of coins found its way outside? And what had happened to the boy? Meggie saw his frightened expression whenever she closed her eyes.
She wondered whether the same thoughts were going through Mo’s head. He had hardly said a word since they were locked up again, but had flopped down on the pile of straw and turned his face to the wall. Elinor was no more talkative. ‘How generous!’ was all she had muttered when Cockerell had bolted the door after them. ‘Our host has graciously provided two more heaps of mouldy straw.’ Then she had sat down in a corner, legs outstretched, and begun staring gloomily at her knees, then at the grubby wall.
‘Mo,’ asked Meggie at last, when she could no longer stand the silence, ‘what do you think they’re doing to the boy? And what kind of a friend are you supposed to read out of the book for Capricorn?’
‘I don’t know, Meggie,’ was all he replied, without turning round.
So she left him alone, made herself a bed of straw beside his, then paced up and down between the bare walls. Perhaps the strange boy was the other side of one of them? She put her ear to the wall. Not a sound came through. Someone had scratched a name in the plaster: Ricardo Bentone, 19.5.96. Meggie ran her finger over the letters. A little further on there was another name, and then another. Meggie wondered what had become of them, Ricardo, Ugo and Bernardo. Perhaps I ought to scratch my name here too, she thought, just in case … but she was careful not to think her way to the end of that sentence.
Behind her, Elinor lay down on her straw bed, sighing. When Meggie turned to her, she forced a smile. ‘What wouldn’t I give for a comb!’ she said, pushing the hair back from her forehead. ‘I’d never have thought that in a situation like this I’d miss a comb so much, of all things, but I do. Heavens, I don’t even have a hairpin left. I must look like a witch, or a washing-up brush that’s seen better days.’
‘No, really, you look fine. Your hairpins were always falling out anyway,’ said Meggie. ‘Actually, I think you look younger.’
‘Younger? Hmm. Well, if you say so.’ Elinor glanced down at herself. Her mouse-grey sweater was filthy, and there were three ladders in her tights. ‘Meggie, it was very kind of you to help me back there in the church,’ she said, pulling her skirt down over her knees. My knees were like jelly, I was so scared. I don’t know what’s come over me. I feel like someone else, as if the old Elinor has driven home and left me here by myself.’ Her lips began to tremble, and Meggie thought she was going to cry, but next moment the familiar Elinor was back again. ‘Well, there we are!’ she said. ‘It’s only in an emergency that you find out what you’re truly made of. Personally, I always thought if I was a wooden statue I’d be carved out of oak, but it seems I’m more like pearwood or something else very soft. It only takes a villain like that to play with his knife in front of my nose and the wood shavings start flaking away.’
And now the tears did come, hard as Elinor tried to keep them back. Angrily, she rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand.
‘I think you’re doing splendidly, Elinor.’ Mo was still lying with his face to the wall. ‘You’re both doing splendidly. And I could wring my own neck for dragging you two into all this.’
‘Nonsense. If anyone around here needs his neck wrung it’s Capricorn,’ said Elinor. ‘And that man Basta. My God, I’d never have thought the idea of strangling another human being would give me such enormous satisfaction. But I’m sure if I could just get my hands round that Basta’s neck, I—’
On seeing the shock in Meggie’s eyes she fell guiltily silent, but Meggie just shrugged her shoulders.
‘I feel the same,’ she murmured, and began scratching an ‘M’ on the wall with the key of her bicycle lock. Weird to think she still had that key in her trouser pocket – like a souvenir of another life.
Elinor ran her finger down one of the ladders in her tights, and Mo turned on his back and stared up at the ceiling. ‘I’m so sorry, Meggie,’ he said suddenly. ‘I’m so sorry I let them take the book away from me.’