The girl came back. She tugged Fenoglio’s sleeve and whispered something in his ear. Fenoglio’s turtle face twisted in a smile. Meggie liked him better that way. ‘Oh, that’s where he always hides, Paula,’ he told the little girl softly. ‘Perhaps you should advise him to try a better hiding-place.’
Paula ran off for the fourth time, but not before gazing curiously at Meggie first.
‘Well, you’d better come in,’ said Fenoglio. Without another word he showed Mo and Meggie into the house, went down a dark, narrow passage ahead of them, limping because the little boy was still clinging to his leg like a monkey, and pushed open the door to the kitchen, where the ruins of a cake stood on the table. Its brown icing was as full of holes as the binding of a book when bookworms have been gnawing at it for years.
‘Pippo?’ Fenoglio bellowed so loud that even Meggie jumped, although she didn’t feel guilty of any naughtiness. ‘I know you can hear me. And I warn you I shall tie a knot in your nose for every hole in this cake. Understand?’
Meggie heard a giggle. It seemed to come from the cupboard next to the fridge. Fenoglio broke a piece off the cake with the holes still in it. ‘Paula,’ he said, ‘give this girl a slice if she doesn’t mind the missing chocolate.’ Paula emerged from under the table and looked enquiringly at Meggie.
‘I don’t mind,’ said Meggie, whereupon Paula took a huge knife, cut an enormous piece of cake, and put it on the table in front of her.
‘Pippo, let’s have one of the rose-patterned plates,’ said Fenoglio, and a hand stuck out of the cupboard holding a plate in its chocolate-brown fingers. Meggie was quick to take the plate before it dropped, and put the piece of cake on it.
‘What about you?’ Fenoglio asked Mo.
‘I’d prefer the book,’ said Mo. He was looking rather pale.
Fenoglio removed the little boy from his leg and sat down. ‘Go and find another tree to climb, Rico,’ he said. Then he looked thoughtfully at Mo. ‘I’m afraid I can’t help you,’ he said. ‘I don’t have a single copy left. They were stolen, all of them. I lent them to an exhibition of old children’s books in Genoa: a lavishly illustrated special edition, a copy with a signed dedication by the illustrator, and the two copies that belonged to my own children with all their scribbled comments – I always asked them to mark the bits they liked best – and finally my own personal copy. Every last one of them was stolen two days after the exhibition opened.’
Mo ran a hand over his face as if he could wipe the disappointment off it. ‘Stolen,’ he said. ‘Of course.’
‘Of course?’ Fenoglio narrowed his eyes and looked at Mo with great curiosity. ‘You’ll have to explain. In fact I’m not letting you out of my house until I find out why you’re interested in this of all my books. In fact, I might set the children on you – and you wouldn’t like that!’
Mo tried for a smile, without much success. ‘My copy was stolen as well,’ he said at last. ‘And that was a very special edition too.’
‘Extraordinary.’ Fenoglio raised his eyebrows, which were like hairy caterpillars creeping above his eyes. ‘Come on, let’s hear your story.’ All the hostility had vanished from his face. Curiosity, pure curiosity, had won out. In Fenoglio’s eyes Meggie saw the same insatiable hunger for a good story that overcame her at the sight of any new and exciting book.
‘There’s not much to tell,’ said Mo. Meggie heard in his voice that he didn’t intend to tell the old man the truth. ‘I restore books. That’s how I make my living. I found yours in a second-hand bookshop some years ago, and I was going to give it a new binding and then sell it, but I liked it so much I kept it instead. And now it’s been stolen and I’ve been trying in vain to buy another copy. A friend who knows a great deal about rare books and how to get hold of them finally suggested I might try the author himself. She was the person who found me your address. So I came here.’
Fenoglio wiped a few cake crumbs off the table. ‘Fine,’ he said, ‘but that’s not the whole story.’
‘What do you mean?’
The old man scrutinised Mo’s face until he turned his head away and looked out of the narrow kitchen window. ‘I mean I can smell a good story miles away, so don’t try keeping one from me. Out with it! And then you can have a piece of this magnificently perforated cake.’
Paula clambered up on to Fenoglio’s lap, nestled her head under his chin, and looked at Mo as expectantly as the old man himself.
But Mo shook his head. ‘No, I think I’d better say no more. You wouldn’t believe a word of it anyway.’
‘Oh, I’d believe all manner of things!’ Fenoglio assured Mo, cutting him a slice of cake. ‘I’d believe any story at all just so long as it’s well told.’
The cupboard door opened a crack, and Meggie saw a boy’s head emerge. ‘What about my punishment?’ he asked. Judging by the fingers, which were sticky with chocolate, this must be Pippo.
‘Later,’ said Fenoglio. ‘I have something else to do now.’
Disappointed, Pippo came out of the cupboard. ‘You said you were going to tie knots in my nose.’
‘Double knots, seaman’s knots, butterfly knots, any knots you fancy, but I have to hear this story first. So go and fool about with something else until I have time for you.’
Pippo stuck his lower lip out sulkily and disappeared into the corridor. Rico, the little boy, ran after him.
Mo remained silent, pushing cake crumbs off the worn table-top, drawing invisible patterns on the wood with his forefinger. ‘There’s someone in this story, and I’ve promised not to tell you about him,’ he said at last.
‘Keeping a bad promise makes it no better,’ said Fenoglio. ‘Or at least so a favourite book of mine says.’
‘I don’t know if it was a bad promise.’ Mo sighed, and looked up at the ceiling as if the answer might be found there. ‘Very well,’ he said. ‘I’ll tell you. But Dustfinger will murder me if he finds out.’
‘Dustfinger? I once called a character that. Oh yes, of course, the poor trickster in Inkheart. I killed him off in the last chapter but one. A very touching scene. I cried while I was writing it.’
Meggie almost choked on the piece of cake she had just put in her mouth, but Fenoglio went on calmly. ‘I haven’t killed off many of my characters, but sometimes it just happens. Death scenes aren’t easy to write – they can too easily get sentimental – but I thought I did pretty well with Dustfinger’s death.’
Horrified, Meggie looked at Mo. ‘He dies? Did – did you know that?’
‘Yes, of course. I’ve read the whole story, Meggie.’
‘But why didn’t you tell him?’
‘He didn’t want to know.’
Fenoglio was following this exchange with a puzzled look on his face – and with great curiosity.
‘Who kills him?’ asked Meggie. ‘Basta?’
‘Ah, Basta!’ Fenoglio smiled. Each of his separate wrinkles expressed self-satisfaction. ‘One of the best villains I ever thought up. A rabid dog, but not half as bad as my other dark hero, Capricorn. Basta would let his heart be torn out for Capricorn, but his master is a stranger to such loyalty. He feels nothing, nothing at all, he doesn’t even enjoy his own cruelty. Yes, I really did think up some pretty dark characters for Inkheart, and then there’s the Shadow, Capricorn’s hound, as I always called him to myself. Though of course that’s far too friendly a name for such a monster.’