Outside, it was still as dark as if morning would never come.
‘I’m going to drive straight on,’ said Elinor, ‘until we reach my house.’
Far behind them, headlights showed, like fingers probing the night.
Snakes and Thorns
‘None of that matters now,’ said Twilight. ‘Look behind you.’
The Borribles did and there, just a little beyond the rim of the bridge, they saw a halo of harsh whiteness reflected on the underneath of the dark sky. It was the beam of a car’s headlights as it got into position on the north side of the bridge, the side the runaways had left only moments before.
Michael de Larrabeiti,
The Borribles Go For Broke
Behind them the headlights were getting closer, no matter how fast Elinor drove.
‘It could be just any old car,’ said Meggie, but she knew that was unlikely. There was only one village on the bumpy, potholed road they had been following for almost an hour, and that was Capricorn’s. Their pursuers could only have come from there.
‘Now what?’ asked Elinor. She was in such a state the car was weaving all over the road. ‘I’m not letting them lock me up in that hole again. No. No. No.’ At each ‘No’ she struck the steering-wheel with the palm of her hand. ‘Didn’t you say you’d slit their tyres?’ she snapped at Dustfinger.
‘Yes, and so I did!’ he replied angrily. ‘Obviously they’ve thought of that kind of thing. Ever heard of spare tyres? Go on, step on it! There ought to be a village quite soon. It can’t be far away now. If we can make it that far …’
‘If, yes. If is the question,’ said Elinor, tapping the fuel gauge. ‘I’ve got enough petrol for about another ten kilometres, twenty at the most.’
But they never got that far. As they swerved round a sharp bend one of the front tyres blew out. Elinor only just managed to wrench the steering-wheel round before the car skidded off the road. Meggie screamed, burying her face in her hands. For a terrible moment she thought they were going to plunge down the steep slope to their left, the bottom of which disappeared in the darkness, but the car skidded to the right, scraped its wing against the low stone wall on the other side of the road, gave a last gasp and came to a halt under the low branches of a chestnut oak that leaned over the road.
‘Oh hell, hell, bloody hell!’ swore Elinor, undoing her seat-belt. ‘Everyone all right?’
‘Now I know why I’ve never trusted cars,’ muttered Dustfinger, opening his door.
Meggie sat there trembling all over. Mo pulled her out of the car and looked anxiously at her face. ‘Are you all right?’
Farid climbed out on Dustfinger’s side. Did he still think he was dreaming?
Dustfinger stood in the road, rucksack over his shoulder, listening. The umistakable sound of an engine came purring through the night from far away.
‘We must get the car off the road!’ he said.
‘What?’ Elinor looked at him in horror.
‘We’ll have to push it down the slope.’
‘My car!’ Elinor was almost screaming.
‘He’s right, Elinor,’ said Mo. ‘Perhaps we can shake them off that way. We’ll push the car down the slope – they may not notice it in the dark, and even if they do, they’ll think we came off the road. Then we can climb up the hill on the other side and hide among the trees.’
Elinor cast a doubtful glance at the hill on their right. ‘But it’s much too steep! And what about the snakes?’
‘I’m sure Basta has a new knife by now,’ Dustfinger reminded her.
Elinor gave him her darkest look and, without another word, went round to the back of her car to check inside the boot. ‘Where’s our luggage?’ she asked.
Dustfinger looked at her with amusement. ‘I expect Basta’s divided it out among Capricorn’s maids. He likes to ingratiate himself with them.’
Elinor looked at him as if she didn’t believe a word of it, but then quickly closed the boot, braced her arms against the car, and began to push.
They couldn’t do it.
Hard as they pushed and shoved, Elinor’s car only rolled off the road but would not slide more than a few metres down the slope. Then it stopped with its bonnet stuck in the undergrowth and refused to go any further. Meanwhile, the sound of the engine, so curiously out of place in this desolate wilderness, was getting alarmingly loud. Dustfinger gave the obstinate car a final kick, and they all clambered back up to the road, sweating. After climbing over an ancient wall on the other side they struggled on up the slope. Anything to get away from the road itself. Mo hauled Meggie along behind him whenever she got stuck, and Dustfinger helped Farid. Elinor had her work cut out getting herself up the hillside, which was criss-crossed with low walls that had been built in a laborious attempt to wrest narrow fields and orchards from the poor soil, somewhere to grow a few olive trees and grape vines, anything that would bear fruit here. But the trees had run wild, and the ground was covered with fruit that was no longer harvested, for the people who once lived here had long since left to find an easier life elsewhere.
‘Keep your heads down!’ gasped Dustfinger, ducking behind one of the ruined walls. ‘They’re coming!’ Mo pulled Meggie down under the nearest tree. The tangled thorn bushes growing among its gnarled roots were just tall enough to hide them.
‘What about the snakes?’ Elinor whispered as she stumbled after them.
‘Too cold for snakes at the moment!’ whispered Dustfinger from his hiding-place. ‘Haven’t you learnt anything from all those clever books of yours?’
Elinor was about to snap back an answer, but Mo quickly put a hand over her mouth to keep her quiet. The vehicle appeared on the road below them. It was the white delivery van in which the guard had been sleeping. Without slowing down, it drove past the place where they had pushed Elinor’s estate car over the slope, and disappeared round the next bend. Relieved, Meggie was about to raise her head above the thorn bushes when Mo pushed her down again. ‘Not yet!’ he muttered, straining his ears.
The night was perfectly still. Meggie had never known one like it. It was as if she could hear the trees breathing – the trees, the grass, the night itself.
They watched the van headlights emerge on the slope of the next hill: two fingers of light groping their way along an invisible road in the dark. But suddenly they stopped moving.
‘They’re turning!’ whispered Elinor. ‘Oh God! Now what?’
She tried to stand up, but Mo held her back. ‘Are you mad?’ he hissed. ‘It’s too late to climb any further. They’d see us.’
Mo was right. The delivery van was speeding back up the road. Meggie saw it stop just a few metres from where they had pushed Elinor’s car off the road. She heard the van doors open and saw two men get out. Both had their backs to the fugitives, but when one of them turned and looked suspiciously up the slope Meggie thought she recognised Basta’s face, though it was little more than a patch of paler colour in the night.
‘There’s the car,’ said the other man.
Was that Flatnose? He was certainly tall and broad enough.
‘See if they’re in it.’
Yes, that was Basta. Meggie would have known his voice among a thousand others.