Then he rang off.
Fenoglio could not conceal his curiosity. He scented a new story in the offing. ‘What was all that about?’ he asked impatiently as Mo just stood there staring at the telephone. Rico was clinging to Fenoglio’s back like a little monkey. It was Saturday, but the other two children hadn’t turned up yet. ‘What’s the matter, Mortimer? Aren’t you talking to us any more? Look at your father, Meggie! Standing there like a stuffed dummy!’
‘That was Elinor,’ said Mo. ‘Meggie’s mother’s aunt. I told you about her. Capricorn’s men broke into her house. They swept the books off the shelves all over the house and trampled on them, and the books in Elinor’s library …’ He hesitated for a moment before going on. ‘Her most valuable books – they took them out into the garden and burned them. All she found in her library was a dead rooster.’
Fenoglio let his grandson slide off his back. ‘Rico, go and look for the kittens,’ he said. ‘This is not for your ears.’ Rico protested, but his grandfather pushed him out of the room and closed the door after him. ‘What makes you so sure Capricorn is behind this?’ he asked, turning back to Mo.
‘Who else would do such a thing? Anyway, as far as I remember the red rooster is his emblem. Forgotten your own story, have you?’
Fenoglio was looking downcast. ‘No, no, I remember that,’ he murmured.
‘What about Elinor?’ Meggie’s heart beat anxiously as she waited for Mo’s answer.
‘Luckily, she wasn’t back yet when it happened. She took her time going home. Thank heavens. But you can imagine how she feels. Her finest books – my God!’
Fenoglio was picking up some toy soldiers from his rug with trembling fingers. ‘Yes, Capricorn likes fire,’ he said huskily. ‘If it was really his doing, your friend can think herself fortunate he didn’t burn her too.’
‘I’ll tell her.’ Mo picked up a matchbox lying on Fenoglio’s writing-desk, opened it and slowly closed it again.
‘What about my books?’ Meggie hardly dared to ask. ‘My book-box – I hid it under the bed.’
Mo put the matchbox back on the desk. ‘That’s the one piece of good news,’ he said. ‘No one touched your book-box. It’s still under the bed. Elinor looked.’
Meggie took a deep breath. Was it Basta who had set fire to the books? No, Basta was afraid of fire; she remembered only too well how Dustfinger had mocked him for it. But in the last resort it made no difference which of the Black Jackets it had been. Elinor’s treasures were gone, and not even Mo could bring them back.
‘Elinor is flying back down here. I’m to pick her up at the airport,’ said Mo. ‘She’s taken it into her head to set the police on Capricorn. I told her I didn’t think she’d have much luck. Even if she had evidence that it was his men who broke into her house, how can she prove he gave the order? But you know Elinor.’
Meggie nodded gloomily. Oh yes, she knew Elinor – and she understood her rage only too well.
But Fenoglio laughed. ‘The police! You don’t get anywhere by setting the police on Capricorn!’ he said. ‘He makes his own rules, his own laws—’
‘Oh, be quiet! This isn’t a book you’re writing!’ Mo interrupted him. ‘Very likely it’s amusing to invent a character like Capricorn, but believe you me, it’s not in the least bit funny to cross his path. I’m off to the airport. I’ll leave Meggie here. Look after her.’
And he was out of the door before Meggie could protest. She ran after him, but Paula and Pippo met her coming down the street. They caught hold of her, trying to make her play with them. They wanted her to be a cannibal, a witch, a six-armed monster – the characters from their grandfather’s stories with which they populated their games. By the time Meggie had finally managed to shake off their little hands, Mo had long since gone. The place where he had parked the hire-car was empty, and Meggie stood in the square, alone with the war memorial and a few old men gazing out to sea with their hands in their trouser pockets.
Restlessly, she wandered over to the steps in front of the memorial and sat down. She didn’t feel like chasing Fenoglio’s grandchildren round his house or playing hide-and-seek with them. She just wanted to sit there and wait for Mo’s return. The hot wind that had blown through the village overnight had left fine sand on all the windowsills. The air was cooler than it had been for the last few days. The sky above the sea was still clear, but grey clouds were forming above the hills, and every time the sun disappeared behind them a shadow fell over the village rooftops, making Meggie shiver.
A cat stalked towards her, stiff-legged, tail erect. It was a skinny little creature with ticks in its grey fur, and ribs showing through its thin coat like stripes. Meggie enticed it over, speaking to it gently, until it put its head under her arm and purred, asking to be petted. It didn’t look as if it belonged to anyone: no collar, not an ounce of fat on it, nothing to suggest it had a caring owner. Meggie scratched its ears and chin and stroked its back as she looked down the road that went round a sharp bend as it left the village and disappeared from sight beyond the houses.
How far was it to the nearest airport? Meggie propped her chin on her hands. The clouds above her were massing more and more ominously. They loomed overhead, close-packed and grey with rain.
The cat rubbed against her knee, and as Meggie’s fingers stroked its dirty fur an awful thought suddenly occurred to her. Suppose Elinor’s house wasn’t all Dustfinger had told Capricorn about? Suppose he’d told him where she and Mo had been living too? Would they find a heap of ashes waiting for them at the farmhouse? No, she wouldn’t think about that. He doesn’t know, she whispered. He has no idea! Dustfinger didn’t tell him. She kept whispering it like a magic charm.
After a while she felt a raindrop on her hand, then another. She looked up at the sky. There wasn’t so much as a speck of blue to be seen. How quickly the nearby sea could make the weather change! All right, I’ll just wait in the apartment, she thought. We might even have some milk there for the cat. The poor thing weighed no more than a small damp towel. Meggie was afraid of breaking something when she picked it up.
It was pitch dark in the apartment. Mo had closed the shutters that morning so that the sun wouldn’t make it too hot. Meggie was shivering and wet from the fine drizzle when she entered the cool bedroom. She put the cat down on her unmade bed, slipped on Mo’s sweater, which was much too big for her, and went into the kitchen. The milk carton was almost empty, but if she diluted what was left with a little warm water there was just enough for a saucerful.
The cat jumped down so quickly when Meggie put the milk on the floor beside the bed that it almost fell over its own paws. Rain was falling harder and harder outside. Meggie listened to it drumming on the paving stones. She went over to the window and opened the shutters. The narrow strip of sky visible between the rooftops was as dark as if the sun were about to set. Meggie went over to Mo’s bed and sat down on it. The cat was still licking the saucer, its little tongue greedily rasping over the flower-patterned china, hoping for a last delicious drop. Meggie heard footsteps out in the street, and then a knock at the door. Who was that? Mo couldn’t possibly be back yet. Or had he forgotten something? The cat had disappeared, probably to hide under the bed. ‘Who’s there?’ called Meggie.