Fenoglio’s head drooped as if Capricorn had broken his neck with nothing but a few softly spoken words. When he looked up again, fear showed in every wrinkle of his face.
With a satisfied smile, Capricorn put his hands in his trouser pockets. ‘Yes, you all love something, soft-hearted as you are,’ he said. ‘Children, grandchildren, brothers and sisters, parents, dogs, cats, canary birds … There are no exceptions: farmers, shopkeepers, even policemen have families or at least keep a dog. You have only to look at her father!’ Capricorn pointed at Meggie so suddenly, she jumped. ‘He’ll come here even though he knows I shan’t let him go again, any more than I shall let his daughter go. He’ll come all the same. Isn’t this world an amazing place?’
‘Amazing indeed,’ murmured Fenoglio, and for the first time he looked at his creation with revulsion rather than admiration. Capricorn seemed to prefer that.
‘Basta!’ he called, beckoning him. Basta strolled over deliberately slowly. He was still looking sulky. ‘Take the old man to the room where we once locked Darius,’ Capricorn ordered. ‘And post a guard outside the door.’
‘You want me to take him into your house?’ Basta sounded surprised.
‘Yes, why not? After all, he claims to be almost like a father to me. Anyway, his tales amuse me.’
Basta shrugged and grasped Fenoglio’s arm. Meggie looked at the old man, horrified. She would soon be all alone with nothing but the windowless walls and a locked door. But Fenoglio reached for her hand before Basta could haul him away. ‘Leave the girl with me,’ he said to Capricorn. ‘You can’t shut her up in that hole again all by herself. And I promised her father I’d look after her.’
Capricorn turned his back, looking indifferent. ‘As you like. Her father will be here soon in any case.’
Yes, Mo would come. Meggie could think of nothing else as Fenoglio led her away with him, his arm round her shoulders as if he really could protect her from Capricorn and Basta and all the others. But he couldn’t. Would Mo be able to protect her? Of course not. He mustn’t come, she thought. Please. Perhaps he won’t be able to find the way again! He mustn’t come. Yet there was nothing she wanted more, nothing in the whole wide world.
Faber sniffed the book. ‘Do you know that books smell like nutmeg or some spice from a foreign land? I loved to smell them when I was a boy.’
It was Farid who saw the car. Dustfinger was lying under the trees as it came along the road. He was trying to think clearly, but since learning that Capricorn was back he couldn’t pull his thoughts together. He still didn’t know where to look for the book. The leaves of the trees cast shadows on his face, the sun sent white-hot needles down through the branches, and his forehead felt feverish. Basta and Flatnose were back too, of course. What had he expected? Had he thought they’d stay away for ever? ‘Why get so agitated, Dustfinger?’ he whispered up at the leaves. ‘You didn’t have to come back here. You knew it would be dangerous.’ Then he heard footsteps approaching, rapidly.
‘A grey car!’ Farid had run so fast that he was gasping for breath as he flung himself down on the grass beside Dustfinger. ‘I think it’s Silvertongue!’
Dustfinger jumped up. The boy knew what he was talking about. He really could tell those stinking metal beetles apart from each other. He himself had never got the knack of it.
He quickly followed Farid to where there was a view of the bridge. The road wound away from it towards Capricorn’s village like a slow-moving snake. They didn’t have much time if they wanted to stop Silvertongue. At top speed, they stumbled down the hillside. Farid was the first to reach the road. Dustfinger had always been proud of his own agility, but the boy was far nimbler, fast as a deer and with legs just as agile. And he was getting better at playing with fire now too, as fascinated as a boy with a puppy.
Silvertongue braked sharply when he saw Dustfinger and Farid in the road. He looked tired, as if he had slept badly for the last few nights. Elinor was in the car beside him. Where had she sprung from? Hadn’t she gone home to her book-lined tomb? And where was Meggie?
Silvertongue’s face darkened when he saw Dustfinger. As he got out of the car he was rigid with anger. ‘Of course! You told them!’ he cried, coming towards him. ‘You told them where we were! Who else? What did Capricorn promise you this time?’
‘I told who what?’ Dustfinger retreated. ‘I never told anyone anything! Ask the boy.’
But Silvertongue didn’t so much as glance at Farid. The bookworm woman had got out too. She stood beside the car looking grim.
‘The only person who told anyone anything was you!’ Dustfinger accused him. ‘You told the old man about me even though you promised you wouldn’t.’
Silvertongue stopped in his tracks. It was so easy to make him feel guilty.
‘Better hide the car under the trees there.’ Dustfinger pointed to the side of the road. ‘One of Capricorn’s men could pass at any time, and they don’t like to see strange cars here.’
Silvertongue turned and looked down the road.
‘Surely you don’t believe him?’ cried Elinor. ‘Of course he’s given you away, who else could? The man starts telling lies the moment he opens his mouth.’
‘Basta took Meggie away.’ Silvertongue sounded hoarse, quite unlike himself, as if when he lost his daughter he had lost the sound of his voice too. ‘They took Fenoglio as well – yesterday morning when I went to meet Elinor at the airport. We’ve been looking for the wretched village ever since. I had no idea how many deserted villages there are in these hills. It wasn’t until we came to the barrier over the road that I felt sure we were on the right track at last.’
Dustfinger said nothing, but looked up at the sky. A few birds as black as Capricorn’s men were flying south. He had not seen them bringing the girl in, but then he hadn’t spent the whole day watching that accursed village.
‘Basta was gone for several days. I thought he must be looking for the two of you,’ he said. ‘You’re lucky he didn’t get hold of you too.’
‘Lucky?’ Elinor was still standing beside the car. ‘Tell him to get out of the way!’ she told Silvertongue. ‘Or I’ll run him down myself! He’s been hand in glove with those miserable fire-raisers all along.’
Silvertongue was still looking at Dustfinger as if he couldn’t decide whether or not to believe him. ‘Capricorn’s men broke into Elinor’s house,’ he said at last. ‘They took all the books from her library into the garden and burned them.’
Dustfinger had to admit that for a split second he felt something almost like satisfaction. What had the silly bookworm woman expected? Did she think Capricorn would simply forget her? He shrugged his shoulders and looked at Elinor, his face unreadable. ‘Only to be expected,’ he said.
‘Only to be expected!’ Elinor’s voice almost cracked. Belligerent as a bull terrier, she marched up to him. Farid tried to bar her way, but she pushed him aside so roughly that he fell on the hot asphalt of the road. ‘Maybe you can fool the boy with your fire-breathing and your coloured balls, matchstick-eater!’ she snapped at Dustfinger. ‘But it won’t work with me! There’s nothing left of the books in my library but a load of ash. The police were full of admiration for what those villains had done. “At least they didn’t burn your house down, Signora Loredan! Even your garden is all right except for the scorch mark on the lawn.” What do I care for the house? What do I care for the wretched lawn? They burned my most valuable books!’