‘Who are these people?’ Fenoglio looked at Meggie as crossly as if she had brought the two strangers there of her own free will. ‘Friends of your father’s?’
Meggie mopped the rain off her face and looked back at him with equal reproach. ‘You ought to know them better than I do!’ she said. Basta’s fingers were digging into her shoulders.
‘Know them?’ Fenoglio looked at her blankly. Then he studied Basta. His face froze. ‘Great heavens above!’ he murmured. ‘I don’t believe it!’
Paula peered out from behind his back. ‘Pippo’s crying!’ she announced. ‘He’s hidden in the cupboard.’
‘Well, you go back to him,’ said Fenoglio, never taking his eyes off Basta. ‘I’ll be with you in a minute.’
‘How much longer are we going to stand out here, Basta?’ growled Flatnose. ‘Until we shrink in this rain?’
‘Basta!’ repeated Fenoglio without stepping aside.
‘Yes, that’s my name, old man.’ Basta’s eyes always narrowed when he smiled. ‘We’re here because you have something that interests us a great deal – a book.’
Of course. Meggie almost burst out laughing. He didn’t know! Basta didn’t know who Fenoglio was. How could he? How could he know that this old man had invented him, made him up out of paper and ink, made up his face, his knife, his evil nature?
‘That’s enough talk!’ growled Flatnose. ‘The rain’s running into my ears.’ He brushed Fenoglio aside like a troublesome fly as he pushed past him into the house. Basta followed, with Meggie. Pippo was still sobbing inside the kitchen cupboard. Paula was standing in front of it, talking to him soothingly through the closed door. When Fenoglio came into the kitchen with the strangers she spun round and looked at Flatnose’s face nervously. It was as dark and dismal as ever.
Sitting down at the table, Fenoglio beckoned Paula over without a word.
‘Well, where is it?’ Basta was looking round, scanning the room, but Fenoglio was too deeply absorbed in the sight of his two creations to reply. He couldn’t take his eyes off Basta in particular, as if he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
‘I told you: there’s no copy of it here!’ Meggie replied for him.
Basta acted as if he hadn’t heard her, and gestured impatiently to Flatnose. ‘Look for it!’ he ordered. Grumbling, Flatnose obeyed. Meggie heard him trampling up the narrow wooden staircase that led to the attic.
‘Right, little witch, how did you and your father find the old man?’ Basta prodded her in the back. ‘How did you know he still has a copy?’
Meggie cast Fenoglio a warning glance, but unfortunately he was as ready to talk as Pippo, who had so willingly told Basta all about her and his grandfather.
‘How did they find me? I wrote the book!’ announced the old man proudly. Perhaps he expected that Basta would instantly fall on his knees before him, but Basta only gave a pitying smile.
‘Oh yes, of course you did!’ he said, taking the knife from his belt.
‘He really did write it!’ Meggie couldn’t resist saying so. She wanted to see the fear that had turned Dustfinger pale when he heard about Fenoglio appear on Basta’s face too, but Basta just smiled again and began carving notches in Fenoglio’s kitchen table.
‘Who thought up that story?’ he asked. ‘Your father? You think I look stupid? Everyone knows that stories in books are as old as the hills and were written by people dead and buried long ago.’ He jabbed the blade of the knife into the wood, pulled it out and jabbed it in again. Flatnose was trampling about overhead.
‘Dead and buried. How interesting.’ Fenoglio sat Paula on his lap. ‘Did you hear that, Paula? This young man believes all books were written in the distant past by dead people who picked up the stories from heaven knows where. Plucked straight from the air, maybe?’ Paula couldn’t help giggling. It had gone very quiet in the cupboard. Pippo was probably listening at the door, holding his breath.
‘What’s so funny about that?’ Basta reared up like a snake when someone has trodden on its tail. Fenoglio ignored him. Smiling, he looked down at his hands – as if remembering the day when they had begun to write Basta’s story. Then he looked straight at him.
‘You always wear long sleeves, don’t you?’ he said. ‘Shall I tell you why?’
Basta narrowed his eyes and looked up at the ceiling. ‘Damn it all, why is it taking that idiot so long to find a book?’
Fenoglio looked at him, his arms folded. ‘Easy: he can’t read!’ he said quietly. ‘You can’t read either – unless you’ve learnt by now? None of Capricorn’s men can read, any more than Capricorn himself can.’
Basta drove the knife so far into the surface of the table that he had difficulty pulling it out again. ‘Of course he can read. What are you going on about?’ He leaned threateningly over the table. ‘I don’t like the way you talk, old man. Why don’t I carve a few more wrinkles in your face?’
Fenoglio smiled. Perhaps he thought Basta couldn’t hurt him because he, Fenoglio, had made him up. Meggie wasn’t so sure of that. ‘You wear long sleeves,’ Fenoglio continued very slowly, as if giving Basta time to take in every single word, ‘because your master likes playing with fire. You burned both arms right up to the shoulders when you obeyed his orders and set fire to the house of a man who had dared to refuse his daughter to Capricorn. Ever since then, someone else has laid the fire, and you confine yourself to playing games with knives.’
Basta jumped up so suddenly that Paula slid off Fenoglio’s lap and hid under the table. ‘Like to make yourself out clever, do you?’ he growled, holding his knife under Fenoglio’s chin. ‘When all you’ve done is read the wretched book. Well?’
Fenoglio looked him in the eye. The knife under his chin didn’t seem to scare him half as much as it did Meggie. ‘Oh, I know all about you, Basta,’ he said. ‘I know you’d give your life for Capricorn any day, and you’re always hungry for his praise. I know you were younger than Meggie when his men picked you up, and ever since you’ve loved him like a father. But shall I tell you something? Capricorn thinks you’re stupid, and despises you for it. He despises you all, his devoted black-clad sons, although it’s his own doing that you’re still so ignorant. And he wouldn’t hesitate to set the police on to any one of you if it was to his advantage. Are you quite clear about that?’
‘Hold your filthy tongue, old man!’ Basta’s knife came alarmingly close to Fenoglio’s face and, for a moment, Meggie thought he would slit his nose. ‘You don’t know anything about Capricorn. Only what you read in the stupid book. I think I ought to cut your throat – now!’
Basta whirled round to look at Meggie. ‘And you keep out of this! I’ll deal with you later, you little toad,’ he said.
Fenoglio’s hands were pressed to his own throat. He was staring blankly at Basta, having at last realised he was by no means safe from the man’s knife.
‘But you can’t kill him. Really you can’t!’ cried Meggie. ‘If you do—’