Nonetheless, something had changed. Ever since Meggie had seen Basta hold his knife to Mo’s throat it had seemed as if there was a stain on the world, an ugly, dark burn mark still eating its way towards them, stinking and crackling.
Even the most harmless things seemed to be casting suspicious shadows. A woman smiled at Meggie, then stood looking at the bloody display in a butcher’s window. A man pulled a child along after him so impatiently that the little boy stumbled, and cried as he rubbed his grazed knee. And why was that man’s jacket bulging over his belt? Was he carrying a knife, like Basta?
Normal life now seemed improbable, unreal. Their flight through the night and the terror she had felt in the ruined house seemed more real to Meggie than the lemonade that Elinor passed over to her.
Farid hardly touched his own glass. He sniffed its yellow contents, took a sip, and went back to looking out of the window. His eyes could hardly decide what to follow first. His head moved back and forth as if he were watching an invisible game and desperately trying to understand it rules.
After breakfast, Elinor asked at the cash desk which was the best hotel in town. While she paid the bill with her credit card, Meggie and Mo examined all the delicacies behind the glass counter. Then, to their surprise, they turned round and found that Dustfinger and Farid had disappeared. Elinor was very worried, but Mo calmed her fears. ‘You can’t tempt him with a hotel bed. He doesn’t like to sleep under any roof,’ he said, ‘and he’s always gone his own way. Perhaps he just wants to get away from here, or perhaps he’s round the next corner putting on a performance for tourists. I can assure you he won’t go back to Capricorn.’
‘What about Farid?’ Meggie couldn’t believe he had simply run off with Dustfinger.
But Mo only shrugged his shoulders. ‘He was sticking close to Dustfinger all the time,’ he pointed out. ‘Though I don’t know whether he or Gwin was the real attraction.’
The hotel recommended to Elinor by the staff in the café was on a square just off the main street that passed right through the town and was lined with palm trees and shops. Elinor took two rooms on the top floor, with balconies that had a view of the sea. It was a big hotel. A doorman in an elaborate costume stood at the entrance, and although he seemed surprised by their lack of luggage he overlooked their dirty clothes with a friendly smile. The pillows were so soft and white that Meggie had to bury her face in them at once. All the same, the sense of unreality didn’t leave her. A part of her was still in Capricorn’s village, or trudging through thorns, or cowering in the ruined hovel and trembling as Basta came closer. Mo seemed to feel the same. Whenever she glanced at him there was a distant expression on his face, and instead of the relief she might have expected after all they’d been through, she saw sadness in it – and a thoughtfulness that frightened her.
‘You’re not thinking of going back, are you?’ she asked at last. She knew him very well.
‘No, don’t worry!’ he replied, stroking her hair. But she didn’t believe him.
Elinor seemed to share Meggie’s fears, for she was to be seen several times talking earnestly to Mo – in the hotel corridor outside her room, at breakfast, at dinner. But she fell silent abruptly as soon as Meggie joined them. Elinor called a doctor to treat Mo’s arm, although he didn’t think it necessary, and she bought them all new clothes, taking Meggie with her because, as she said, ‘If I choose you something myself you won’t wear it.’ She also did a great deal of telephoning, and visited every bookshop in the town. At breakfast on the third day she suddenly announced that she was going home.
‘I’ve already hired another car,’ she said. ‘My feet are better now, I’m dying to see my books again, and if I see one more tourist in swimming trunks I shall scream. But before I leave, let me give you this!’
With these words she passed Mo a piece of paper across the table. It had a name and address on it in Elinor’s large, bold handwriting. ‘I know you, Mortimer!’ she said. ‘I know you can’t get Inkheart out of your head. So I’ve found you Fenoglio’s address. It wasn’t easy, I can tell you, but after all there’s a fair chance that he still has a few copies. Promise me you’ll go to see him – he lives not far from here – and put the copy of the book still in that wretched village out of your mind once and for all.’
Mo stared at the address as if he were learning it off by heart, and then put the piece of paper in his new wallet. ‘You’re right, it really is worth a try!’ he said. ‘Thank you very much, Elinor!’ He looked almost happy.
Meggie didn’t understand any of this. But she knew one thing: she’d been right. Mo was still thinking of Inkheart; he couldn’t come to terms with losing it.
‘Who’s Fenoglio?’ she asked uncertainly. ‘A bookseller or something?’ The name seemed familiar, though she couldn’t remember where she had heard it. Mo did not reply, but gazed out of the window.
‘Let’s go back with Elinor, Mo!’ said Meggie. ‘Please!’
It was nice going down to the sea in the morning, and she liked the brightly coloured houses, but all the same she wanted to leave. Every time she saw the hills rising behind the town her heart beat faster, and she kept thinking she saw Basta’s face, or Flatnose’s, among the crowds in the streets. She wanted to go home, or at least to Elinor’s house. She wanted to watch Mo giving Elinor’s books new clothes, pressing fragile gold leaf into the leather with his stamps, choosing endpapers, stirring glue, fastening the press. She wanted everything to be as it had been before the night when Dustfinger turned up.
But Mo shook his head. ‘I have to pay this visit first, Meggie,’ he said. ‘After that we’ll go to Elinor’s. The day after tomorrow at the latest.’
Meggie stared at her plate. What amazing things you could have for breakfast in an expensive hotel … but she didn’t feel like waffles with fresh strawberries any more.
‘Right, then I’ll see you in a couple of days’ time. Give me your word of honour, Mortimer!’ There was no missing the concern in Elinor’s voice. ‘You’ll come even if you don’t have any luck with Fenoglio. Promise!’
Mo had to smile. ‘My solemn word of honour, Elinor,’ he said.
Elinor heaved a deep sigh of relief and bit into the croissant that had been waiting on her plate all this time. ‘Don’t ask me what I had to do to get hold of that address!’ she said with her mouth full. ‘And in the end the man doesn’t live far from here at all – about an hour’s car journey. Odd that he and Capricorn live so close to one another, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, odd,’ murmured Mo, looking out of the window. The wind blew through the leaves of the palms in the hotel garden.
‘His stories are nearly always set in this region,’ Elinor went on, ‘but I believe he lived abroad for a long time and moved back here only a few years ago.’ She beckoned to a waitress and asked for more coffee.
Meggie shook her head when the waitress asked if she would like anything else.
‘Mo, I don’t want to stay here,’ she said quietly. ‘I don’t want to visit anyone either. I want to go home, or at least back to Elinor’s.’