Basta’s thumb stroked the blade of his knife. ‘If I do, then what?’
Desperately, Meggie searched for the right words … what should she say? Oh, what? ‘Because … because Capricorn would die too,’ she managed. ‘Yes. That’s it. You’d all die, you and Flatnose and Capricorn. If you kill this old man you’ll all die, because he made you up.’
Basta’s lips twisted in a scornful smile, but he lowered his knife and, for a moment, Meggie even thought she saw a hint of fear in his eyes.
Fenoglio cast her a relieved glance.
Basta stepped back, examined the blade of his knife closely as if he had discovered a mark on it, and then rubbed it clean on the hem of his black jacket. ‘I don’t believe a word of it!’ he said. ‘But this is such a weird story, I think Capricorn might like to hear it too. So,’ he added, giving the shiny blade a last polish before snapping the knife shut and putting it back in his belt, ‘we won’t take only the book and the girl, we’ll take you too, old man.’
Meggie heard Fenoglio draw in a sharp breath. She herself was so scared she wasn’t sure if her heart was beating at all. Take them away. Basta was going to take them away. No, she thought, oh please, no!
‘Take us away where?’ asked Fenoglio.
‘Ask the girl here!’ Basta pointed mockingly at Meggie. ‘She and her father have had the honour of being our guests already. Bed and board thrown in.’
‘But this is nonsense!’ cried Fenoglio. ‘I thought it was the book you wanted.’
‘Then you thought wrong. We didn’t even know there was supposed to be another copy. No, we were just sent to bring Silvertongue back. Capricorn doesn’t like his guests to leave without saying goodbye, and Silvertongue’s a very special guest, isn’t that right, sweetheart?’ Basta winked at Meggie. ‘But he isn’t here, and I have better things to do than hang around waiting for him. So I’ll take his daughter – and he’ll come chasing after her of his own accord.’ Basta went up to Meggie and pushed her hair back behind her ears. ‘She makes pretty bait, wouldn’t you say?’ he asked. ‘Oh yes, old man, take it from me: if we have this little creature we’ll have her father too. He’ll come like a dancing bear led by a ring in his nose.’
Meggie struck his hand aside, trembling with fury.
‘Don’t you do that again!’ Basta whispered in her ear.
Meggie was glad that Flatnose came trudging downstairs at this moment. He appeared in the kitchen doorway, breathless and with several books under his arm. ‘Here!’ he said, dumping them on the table. ‘They all begin with this single upright stroke followed by the three up-and-down lines. Just the way you drew it.’ He put a stained piece of paper down beside the books. The letters I and N were clumsily traced on it, and looked as if the hand that set them down had found the task very difficult.
Basta spread the books out on the table and pushed them apart from each other with his knife. ‘These are no good,’ he said, pushing two off the table so that they landed on the floor, with crumpled pages. ‘Nor are these.’ Two more landed on the floor, and finally Basta swept the rest off the table too. ‘Are you quite sure there isn’t another one beginning like that?’ he asked Flatnose angrily.
‘Yes, I’m sure!’
‘You’d better not be wrong. Because I do assure you, you’ll be the one to pay for it, not me!’
Flatnose cast a worried look over the books at his feet.
‘Oh, and another little change of plan: we’re taking him with us as well.’ Basta pointed his knife at Fenoglio. ‘So he can tell the boss his amazing stories. Very entertaining they are too, believe you me. And just in case he’s hidden a book somewhere – well, we’ll have plenty of time to ask him about that once we get back. You keep your eye on the old man and I’ll watch the girl.’
Flatnose nodded, and hauled Fenoglio up from his chair. But Basta reached for Meggie’s arm. Back to Capricorn – she had to bite her lip to stop herself bursting into tears as Basta dragged her to Fenoglio’s kitchen door. No. Basta wouldn’t see her weep, she wasn’t going to give him that satisfaction. At least they haven’t got Mo, she thought. And suddenly there was only one thought in her head: suppose he crossed their path before they left the village? Suppose he came to meet them, on his way back with Elinor?
All at once she couldn’t wait to get away, but Flatnose had paused in the doorway. ‘What about the little girl and that cry-baby in the cupboard?’ he asked.
Pippo’s sobs died away, and Fenoglio’s face turned even whiter than Basta’s shirt.
‘Right, old man, what do you think I’m going to do with them?’ asked Basta scornfully. ‘You say you know all about me.’
Fenoglio couldn’t utter a word. Every cruel deed with which he had ever credited Basta was probably going through his head. Basta relished the fear on his face for a few delicious minutes, then he turned to Flatnose. ‘The other children stay behind,’ he said. ‘Our little madam here will do.’
With difficulty, Fenoglio recovered his powers of speech. ‘Paula, go home!’ he said as Flatnose forced him down the hall. ‘Do you hear? Go home at once. Tell your mother I’ve gone away for a few days, all right?’
‘We’ll just look in at that apartment again,’ Basta said as they were standing in the street outside. ‘I quite forgot to leave a message for your father. I mean, he ought to know where you are, don’t you think?’
What kind of message will it be, thought Meggie, when you can scarcely put two letters together? But of course she didn’t say so out loud. She was terrified the whole time that Mo might come to meet them. But when they reached the front door of the apartment there was only an old lady walking down the street.
‘One word out of you and I’ll go back and wring both children’s necks!’ Basta whispered to Fenoglio as the old lady slowed down.
‘Hello, Rosalia,’ said Fenoglio huskily. ‘Guess what – I have new tenants for my apartment. How about that, then?’
The suspicion vanished from Rosalia’s face, and a moment later she had disappeared round a corner of the street. Meggie opened the door, and for the second time let Basta and Flatnose into the apartment where she and Mo had felt so safe.
In the hall she remembered the grey cat, and looked around anxiously, but it was nowhere to be seen. ‘The cat has to go out,’ she said when they were in the bedroom. ‘Or it’ll starve to death. That’s unlucky.’
Basta opened the window. ‘Right, it can get out now,’ he said.
Flatnose snorted scornfully, but this time he made no comment on Basta’s superstitious nature.
‘Can I take some clothes?’ asked Meggie.
Flatnose just grunted, and Fenoglio looked unhappily down at himself. ‘I could do with a change of clothes too,’ he said, but no one took any notice. Basta was busy with his message. Carefully, with the tip of his tongue between his teeth, he was gouging his name in the wood of the wardrobe with his knife. BASTA. Mo would understand that only too well.
Meggie hastily stuffed a few things in her rucksack. She kept Mo’s sweater on. She was about to put Elinor’s two books in with the clothes but Basta knocked them out of her hand.