‘Meggie!’ a child’s voice called back. Of course, Paula or Pippo. Yes, it must be Pippo. They probably wanted to go looking for ants with her again, even though it was raining. A grey paw emerged from under the bed and patted her shoelace. Meggie went out into the tiny hall. ‘I don’t have time to play just now!’ she called through the closed door.
‘Please, Meggie!’ begged Pippo’s voice.
Sighing, Meggie opened the door – and found herself looking straight into Basta’s face.
‘Well, well, who do we have here?’ he asked in a menacingly soft voice, his fingers around Pippo’s thin little neck. ‘What do you say to that, Flatnose? She doesn’t have time to play.’ Basta pushed Meggie roughly aside and came through the door with Pippo, followed, of course, by Flatnose, whose broad shoulders would hardly fit through the doorway.
‘Let go of him!’ Meggie snapped at Basta, although her voice shook. ‘You’re hurting him.’
‘Am I indeed?’ Basta looked down at Pippo’s pale face. ‘Not very nice of me, is it, especially since he showed us where you were hiding?’ With these last words he squeezed Pippo’s neck even more firmly.
‘Do you know how long we lay in that filthy hovel?’ he snarled at Meggie.
She took a step backwards.
‘A very long time!’ Basta emphasised the word, putting his foxy face so close to Meggie’s she could see herself reflected in his eyes. ‘Isn’t that right, Flatnose?’
‘Those damn rats almost nibbled my toes off,’ growled the giant. ‘Wouldn’t I just love to twist this little witch’s nose until it’s pointing the wrong way round!’
‘Later, maybe.’ Basta pushed Meggie into the dark bedroom. ‘Where’s your father?’ he asked. ‘This little lad,’ he said, letting go of Pippo’s throat and prodding him in the back so roughly that he stumbled against Meggie, ‘told us he’s gone out. Gone out where?’
‘Shopping.’ Meggie could hardly breathe, she was so frightened. ‘How did you find us?’ she whispered, but instantly knew the answer. Dustfinger. Of course. Who else? But why had he betrayed them this time?
‘Dustfinger,’ replied Basta, as if he had read her thoughts. ‘It’s just too easy to find that fellow. There aren’t so many crazy jugglers in this world who go around breathing fire and who have a tame marten, not to mention one with horns. So we only had to ask around a bit, and once we were on Dustfinger’s trail we were also on your father’s, of course. We arrived just in time to see you drive away from the hotel car park, and we’d certainly have paid you a visit before now if this fool,’ he said, digging his elbow so hard into Flatnose’s stomach he let out a grunt of pain, ‘hadn’t lost sight of you on our way here. We searched almost a dozen villages, wore our voices out asking questions, ran ourselves off our feet, until we finally got here, and one of those old fellows who spend all day staring out to sea remembered Dustfinger’s scarred face. Where is he? Is he – er – out shopping too?’ asked Basta, with a scornful twist of his mouth.
Meggie shook her head. ‘He went away,’ she replied tonelessly. ‘Ages ago.’ So Dustfinger hadn’t given them away after all. Not this time. And he’d slipped through Basta’s fingers. Meggie could almost have smiled.
‘You burned Elinor’s books!’ she said, holding Pippo close. He was still speechless with terror. ‘You’ll be sorry you did that.’
‘Oh, will we?’ Basta smiled unpleasantly. ‘I wonder why? As far as I know Cockerell had a lot of fun with those books. But that’s enough talk. We don’t have for ever. That boy,’ he said, pointing at Pippo, who retreated as if Basta’s forefinger were a knife, ‘has told us some strange stories about a grandfather who writes books, and a book in which your father took a particular interest.’
Meggie swallowed. Stupid Pippo. Stupid, talkative little Pippo.
‘Lost your tongue?’ asked Basta. ‘Shall I squeeze the boy’s skinny neck again?’
Pippo began crying and buried his face in Mo’s sweater. Meggie stroked his curly head comfortingly.
‘His grandfather doesn’t have the book you’re thinking of any more,’ she told Basta. ‘You and your friends stole it long ago!’ Her voice sounded hoarse with hatred, and her own thoughts sickened her. She wanted to kick Basta, hit him, stab him in the stomach with his own knife, the brand-new knife he wore stuck in his belt.
‘Stole it. Just fancy!’ Basta grinned at Flatnose. ‘I think we’d better make sure of that for ourselves, don’t you?’
Flatnose nodded distractedly, looking around him. ‘Hey, hear that?’
There was a scratching sound under the bed. Flatnose knelt down, pushed the hanging edge of the sheet aside, and poked around under the bed with the barrel of his gun. Spitting, the grey cat shot out of hiding, and when Flatnose tried to grab it the cat raked his ugly face with its claws. He leaped to his feet with a yelp of pain. ‘I’ll wring its neck!’ he bellowed. ‘I’ll break that cat’s neck!’
Meggie was about to stand in his way as he lunged for the cat, but Basta got in first. ‘You’ll do no such thing!’ he spat at Flatnose, as the grey cat disappeared under the wardrobe. ‘Killing cats is unlucky. How often do I have to tell you?’
‘Nonsense! Superstitious garbage! I’ve wrung several of the brutes’ necks already!’ said Flatnose angrily, pressing one hand to his bleeding cheek. ‘And has my luck been worse than yours? You could send a man crazy, the way you carry on: don’t walk in that shadow, it’s unlucky; oh, watch out, you put your left boot on first, that’s unlucky; oh my, someone yawned – mercy me, that means I’ll fall down dead tomorrow!’
‘Shut up!’ snapped Basta. ‘If anyone around here is talking nonsense it’s you. Get those children to the door!’
Pippo clung to Meggie as Flatnose forced them out into the corridor. ‘Why are you bawling like that?’ he growled at the little boy. ‘We’re off to see your grandfather now.’
Pippo never let go of Meggie’s hand once as they stumbled after Flatnose. He was clutching it so hard that his stubby fingernails dug into her skin. Oh, she thought, why didn’t Mo listen to me? We could have gone home. It was still raining heavily. Raindrops ran over Meggie’s face and down her neck. The streets were empty; there was no one around to help them. Basta was walking just behind her, and she heard him quietly cursing the rain. When they reached Fenoglio’s house Meggie’s feet were wet through, and Pippo’s curls were plastered to his head. Perhaps he won’t be at home, Meggie hoped. She was just thinking about what Basta would do then, when the red door opened and Fenoglio stood facing them.
‘What on earth do you children think you’re doing, running around in weather like this?’ he said angrily. ‘I was just going out to look for you. Come on in, and hurry up.’
‘May we come in too?’
Basta and Flatnose had been standing either side of the door with their backs to the wall, so that Fenoglio wouldn’t see them immediately, but now Basta moved up behind Meggie and put his hands on her shoulders. Fenoglio stared at him in surprise as Flatnose stepped forward and planted a foot in the open doorway. Pippo scurried past him, nimble as a weasel, and disappeared into the house.