The knife was barely a finger’s breadth from Basta’s white shirt, but suddenly Dustfinger plunged his hand into Basta’s trouser pocket, took out the keys to the cells and stepped back. ‘No, you’re right, I don’t know much about killing,’ he said as he made his way backwards out of the cell, ‘and I’m not about to learn just for you.’
A scornful smile spread over Basta’s face, but Dustfinger paid no attention. He locked the barred door, took Resa’s arm and led her to the stairs.’ Let go of her!’ he begged, when he saw that she was still holding Meggie tightly. ‘Believe me, nothing will happen to her, and we can’t take her with us!’
But Resa just shook her head and put her arm round Meggie’s shoulders.
‘Hey, Dustfinger!’ called Basta. ‘I knew you couldn’t do it. Give me my knife back. You don’t know what to do with it anyway!’
Dustfinger ignored him. ‘They’ll kill you if you stay,’ he told Resa, but he let go of her hand.
‘Hey, you up there!’ bellowed Basta. ‘Help! Help! The prisoners are escaping!’
Meggie looked at Dustfinger in alarm. ‘Why didn’t you gag him?’
‘What with, princess?’ asked Dustfinger. Resa held Meggie close and stroked her hair.
‘They’ll shoot you, they’ll shoot you!’ Basta’s voice rang out. ‘Hey there! Help!’ he shouted again, shaking the bars of the grating.
Footsteps were heard overhead. Dustfinger swore quietly, cast Resa one last glance, then turned and ran up the worn steps. Meggie couldn’t hear whether or not he got the door open at the top. She could hear nothing but Basta’s shouting, and she ran back towards him, helpless but wanting to strike him through the bars, right in his bellowing face. Once again, she heard footsteps overhead, muffled cries. What were they to do? Someone came crashing down the stairs. Was Dustfinger coming back? No, it wasn’t his face but Flatnose’s that emerged from the darkness. Another of Capricorn’s men was stumbling down the stairs behind him. He looked very young, round-faced and beardless, but he immediately pointed his gun at Meggie and her mother.
‘Hello there, Basta! What are you doing behind those bars?’ asked Flatnose, surprised.
‘Open up, you damn fool!’ snapped Basta through the grating. ‘Dustfinger’s gone.’
‘Dustfinger?’ Flatnose wiped his face on his sleeve. ‘Then the lad here was right. Came to me just now and said he’d seen the fire-eater up there behind a column.’
‘And you didn’t give chase? Are you really as big a fool as you look?’ Basta pressed his face to the bars as if he could make his way through them.
‘Hey, watch what you say, right?’ Flatnose came up to the grating and studied Basta with obvious pleasure. ‘So that dirty-fingered fellow has outwitted you again! Capricorn won’t like that.’
‘Send someone after him!’ roared Basta. ‘Or I’ll tell Capricorn it was you who let him go!’
Flatnose took a handkerchief out of his trouser pocket and noisily blew his nose. ‘Oh yes? So who’s behind bars, you or me? He won’t get far. There are two guards in the car park, another three in the square, and his face is easy to recognise, you made good and sure of that, right?’ His laughter sounded like a dog barking. ‘Tell you what, I could really get used to this sight! Your face looks good behind bars. They’re just the thing to stop you waving your knife about under anyone’s nose.’
‘Will you unlock this damn door?’ bellowed Basta. ‘Or I’ll cut off your ugly nose. Open up!’
Flatnose folded his arms. ‘Sadly, I can’t,’ he smirked in a mock-serious voice. ‘Our dirty-fingered friend seems to have taken the keys. Or do you see them anywhere?’ he enquired of the boy who was still pointing his gun at Meggie and her mother. When he shook his head, Flatnose grinned all over his squashed-in face. ‘No, he can’t see them either. Well, I suppose I’ll just have to go to Mortola. Maybe she has a master key.’
‘Wipe that grin off your face!’ shouted Basta. ‘Or I’ll carve it off!’
‘You don’t say! I can’t see your knife anywhere. Has Dustfinger stolen another one? If this goes on he’ll soon have a whole collection.’ Flatnose turned his back on Basta and pointed to the cell next to him. ‘Shut the woman in there and guard her till I get back with the keys,’ he said. ‘I’ll just take little Miss Silvertongue back to her room first.’
Meggie resisted as he pulled her away, but Flatnose simply picked her up and threw her over his shoulder. ‘What was the girl doing down here anyway?’ he asked. ‘Does Capricorn know about it?’
‘Ask the Magpie!’ spat Basta.
‘No fear!’ Flatnose muttered as he marched towards the stairs with Meggie. She had time to see the boy push her mother into the other cell with the barrel of his gun, then she saw only the steps and the floor of the church and the dusty square as Flatnose carried her across it like a sack of potatoes.
‘Let’s hope your voice isn’t as thin as you,’ he grunted as he put her down on her feet outside the room. ‘Or the Shadow will be rather narrow-chested if he really does turn up this evening.’
Meggie did not answer.
When Flatnose unlocked the door, she walked past Fenoglio without a word, climbed up on her bed and buried her head in Mo’s sweater.
No Luck for Elinor
Having described the precise situation of the office, and accompanied it with copious directions how he was to walk straight up the passage, and when he got into the yard take the door up the steps on the right-hand side, and pull off his hat as he went into the room, Charley Bates bade him hurry on alone, and promised to bide his return on the spot of their parting.
Elinor had been driving for more than an hour before she finally reached a town with its own police station. The sea was still some way off, but the hills were lower, and vines covered the slopes rather than the undergrowth and trees that grew on the hills around Capricorn’s village. It was terribly hot, even hotter than the day before, and when Elinor got out of the car she heard a distant rumble of thunder that sounded as if a great beast were lurking somewhere beyond the hills. The sky above the houses was a blue as dark as deep water – an ominous blue …
Don’t be silly, Elinor, she told herself as she made for the pale yellow building which was the police station. There’s a storm coming, that’s all. Not getting as superstitious as that man Basta, are you?
There were two officers in the small police station. They had hung their uniform jackets over their chairs. Despite the big fan whirring round under the ceiling, the air was so muggy it could have been bottled.
The younger of the two men, who was broad and snub-nosed like a pug dog, laughed at Elinor when she told her story, and asked whether she looked so red in the face, perhaps, because she liked the local wine a little too much. Elinor would have tipped him off his chair if his companion hadn’t calmed her down. The second officer was a tall, thin man with a melancholy expression and dark hair thinning above his forehead. ‘Stop that,’ he told the other policeman. ‘At least let her finish her story.’ He listened unmoved as Elinor told them about Capricorn’s village and the Black Jackets, frowned when she started talking about fire-raising and dead roosters, and when she came to Meggie and the planned execution he raised his eyebrows. She said nothing, of course, about the book and just how the execution was to be carried out. Only two weeks ago she wouldn’t have believed a word of it herself.