When she had finished, the tall man said nothing for a while. He rearranged the pencils on his desk, tidied some papers, and finally looked at her thoughtfully. ‘I’ve heard about that village before,’ he said.
‘Naturally, everyone’s heard of it!’ mocked the other officer. ‘The Devil’s village, the accursed village, even the snakes avoid it. The walls of the church are painted with blood and Black Jackets, who are really ghosts and carry fire in their pockets, haunt the streets. You only have to get near them and you go up in smoke – whoosh!’ He raised his hands and clapped them above his head.
Elinor looked at him icily. His colleague smiled, but then rose with a sigh, laboriously put on his jacket and signed to Elinor to follow him. ‘I’m going to take a look at this,’ he said over his shoulder.
‘Might as well, if you’ve nothing better to do!’ the other man called after him, laughing so uproariously that Elinor felt like going back to tip him off his chair after all. A little later she was in the passenger seat of a police car, and the road along which she had come was winding its way through the hills. Why on earth, she kept thinking, didn’t I do this before? Everything will be all right now, everything. No one will be shot or executed, Meggie will get her father back and Mortimer will be reunited with his daughter. Yes, everything will be all right, thanks to Elinor! She could have sung and danced (not that she was much of a dancer, and she was sitting in a car). She had never in her life felt so pleased with herself. Now who could say she didn’t know how to cope with the real world?
The policeman beside her said nothing. He just kept his eyes on the road, taking bend after bend at a speed that made Elinor’s heart beat painfully fast. Occasionally, he absent-mindedly kneaded his right earlobe. He seemed to know the way, and never hesitated when the road branched or passed any turning. Elinor could not help thinking how long it had taken her and Mo to search for the village. Suddenly a disturbing thought came into her mind.
‘There are quite a lot of them,’ she said in an uncertain voice, just as they were taking another bend so fast that they came alarmingly close to the abyss yawning on her left. ‘I mean, this Capricorn has rather a lot of men. And they’re armed, even if they’re not particularly good shots. Might it be a good idea to ask for reinforcements?’ That was what people did in stupid films about cops and robbers – the police were always asking for reinforcements.
The policeman here with her ran his hand through his sparse hair and nodded as if he had already thought of that. ‘Yes, of course,’ he said, reaching for his radio. ‘Reinforcements won’t hurt, but they’d better keep in the background. The first thing is to ask a few questions.’
Over the radio, he asked for five men. Not many against Capricorn’s Black Jackets, thought Elinor, but better than nothing, certainly better than a desperate father, an Arab boy, and an overweight book collector.
‘There it is!’ she said as Capricorn’s village appeared in the distance, grey and insignificant-looking amidst all the dark green.
‘Yes, that’s what I thought,’ replied the policeman, after which he was silent again. When he just nodded to the guard in the car park Elinor simply refused to believe the worst. Only when they were standing in front of Capricorn, and he was handing her over like lost property being restored to its rightful owner, was she forced to admit to herself that nothing was going to turn out well after all. Everything was ruined now – and oh, how stupid she had been, how dreadfully stupid.
‘She’s spreading slander about you,’ he heard the policeman tell Capricorn, avoiding Elinor’s eyes. ‘Something about child abduction. And there was talk of fire-raising …’
‘All nonsense!’ replied Capricorn, answering the unspoken question in a bored voice. ‘I love children – as long as they don’t come too close to me. Children and business don’t mix.’
The policeman nodded, and looked unhappily at his hands. ‘And she said something about an execution …’
‘Did she indeed?’ Capricorn looked Elinor up and down as if amazed by such fantasies. ‘Well, as you know, I have no call for anything of that nature. People do as I say without my having to resort to such drastic measures.’
‘Of course,’ murmured the policeman, nodding. ‘Of course.’
He couldn’t wait to leave. As his rapid, clipped footsteps died away Cockerell, who had been sitting on the steps, laughed. ‘He has three small children, right? It ought to be compulsory for all policemen to have small children. That one was a pushover! Basta just had to stand outside the school twice. What about it – should we pay him another visit, to refresh his memory?’
Capricorn shook his head. ‘I don’t think that will be necessary. Let’s just think what to do with our guest here. How should we deal with someone who tells such shocking lies about us?’
Elinor felt weak at the knees as he turned his colourless eyes on her. If Mortimer offered to read me into some book now, any book, she thought, I’d accept. I wouldn’t even want to pick and choose.
Three or four black-clad men were standing behind her, so trying to run away was pointless. All you can do is submit to your fate with dignity, Elinor, she told herself. But reading about such a thing was much easier than doing it.
‘The crypt or the sheds?’ asked Cockerell, strolling up to her. The crypt, thought Elinor. Dustfinger said something about that. And it was nothing nice.
‘The crypt? Why not? We have to dispose of her, or who might she bring here next?’ Capricorn hid a yawn behind his hand. ‘Very well, we’ll give the Shadow a little more work to do this evening. He’ll like that.’
Elinor wanted to say something – something bold and heroic – but her tongue wouldn’t work. It just lay there in her mouth, numb. Cockerell had already hauled her as far as that ridiculous statue when Capricorn called him back.
‘I quite forgot to ask her about Silvertongue!’ he cried. ‘Ask her if she happens to know where he is at the moment.’
‘Well, come on, out with it!’ growled Cockerell, seizing her by the nape of the neck as if to shake the answer out of her. ‘Where is he?’
Elinor tightened her lips. Quick, Elinor, quick, she told herself, think of a good answer. And suddenly her tongue was working again.
‘Why ask me?’ she said to Capricorn, who was still sitting in his chair as pale as if he had been left in the wash too long, or the sun burning down out in the square had bleached him. ‘You should know! He’s dead. Your men shot him – and the boy.’ Look at him, Elinor, she thought. Look him straight in the face the way you used to look at your father when he caught you with the wrong book. A few tears would come in useful too. Go on, just think of your books, all your burnt books! Think of last night, the fear, the despair – and if none of that works pinch yourself!
Capricorn was gazing at her thoughtfully.
‘There!’ Cockerell called to him. ‘I knew we’d hit him!’
Elinor was still looking at Capricorn, a blurred sight through the veil of her false tears.
‘We’ll see,’ he said slowly. ‘My men are searching the hills for an escaped prisoner. I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me where they should look for the two bodies?’