Inkheart, p.24
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       Inkheart, p.24

         Part #1 of Inkworld series by Cornelia Funke
 

  better make sure of that for ourselves, don’t you?’

  Flatnose nodded distractedly, looking around him. ‘Hey, hear that?’

  There was a scratching sound under the bed. Flatnose knelt down, pushed the hanging edge of the sheet aside, and poked around under the bed with the barrel of his gun. Spitting, the grey cat shot out of hiding, and when Flatnose tried to grab it the cat raked his ugly face with its claws. He leaped to his feet with a yelp of pain. ‘I’ll wring its neck!’ he bellowed. ‘I’ll break that cat’s neck!’

  Meggie was about to stand in his way as he lunged for the cat, but Basta got in first. ‘You’ll do no such thing!’ he spat at Flatnose, as the grey cat disappeared under the wardrobe. ‘Killing cats is unlucky. How often do I have to tell you?’

  ‘Nonsense! Superstitious garbage! I’ve wrung several of the brutes’ necks already!’ said Flatnose angrily, pressing one hand to his bleeding cheek. ‘And has my luck been worse than yours? You could send a man crazy, the way you carry on: don’t walk in that shadow, it’s unlucky; oh, watch out, you put your left boot on first, that’s unlucky; oh my, someone yawned – mercy me, that means I’ll fall down dead tomorrow!’

  ‘Shut up!’ snapped Basta. ‘If anyone around here is talking nonsense it’s you. Get those children to the door!’

  Pippo clung to Meggie as Flatnose forced them out into the corridor. ‘Why are you bawling like that?’ he growled at the little boy. ‘We’re off to see your grandfather now.’

  Pippo never let go of Meggie’s hand once as they stumbled after Flatnose. He was clutching it so hard that his stubby fingernails dug into her skin. Oh, she thought, why didn’t Mo listen to me? We could have gone home. It was still raining heavily. Raindrops ran over Meggie’s face and down her neck. The streets were empty; there was no one around to help them. Basta was walking just behind her, and she heard him quietly cursing the rain. When they reached Fenoglio’s house Meggie’s feet were wet through, and Pippo’s curls were plastered to his head. Perhaps he won’t be at home, Meggie hoped. She was just thinking about what Basta would do then, when the red door opened and Fenoglio stood facing them.

  ‘What on earth do you children think you’re doing, running around in weather like this?’ he said angrily. ‘I was just going out to look for you. Come on in, and hurry up.’

  ‘May we come in too?’

  Basta and Flatnose had been standing either side of the door with their backs to the wall, so that Fenoglio wouldn’t see them immediately, but now Basta moved up behind Meggie and put his hands on her shoulders. Fenoglio stared at him in surprise as Flatnose stepped forward and planted a foot in the open doorway. Pippo scurried past him, nimble as a weasel, and disappeared into the house.

  ‘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!’

  ‘Wait!’

  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—’

  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. ‘Th
e 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.

  ‘Those stay here,’ he said.

  Mo did not return in time to meet them as they walked to Basta’s car. All that long, endless way, he didn’t appear.

  31

  In the Hills

  ‘Let him alone,’ said Merlin. ‘Perhaps he does not want to be friends with you until he knows what you are like. With owls, it is never easy-come and easy-go.’

  T.H. White,

  The Sword in the Stone

  Dustfinger looked across to Capricorn’s village. It seemed close enough to touch. Some of the windows reflected the sky, and one of the Black Jackets was repairing a couple of broken tiles on a roof. Dustfinger saw him wipe the sweat from his brow. The fools never took their jackets off even in this heat – as if they were afraid of falling apart without that black uniform. Not that crows take off their feathers in the sun either, and these men were just a flock of crows: robbers, carrion-eaters who liked to plunge their sharp beaks into dead flesh.

  The boy had been uneasy when he saw how close Dustfinger’s chosen hiding-place was to the village, but Dustfinger had explained why there couldn’t be anywhere safer to lie low among the surrounding hills. The charred walls were hardly visible, camouflaged as they were by the gorse and wild thyme that had taken root among the soot-blackened stones. Capricorn’s men had set fire to the house soon after taking over the deserted village. The old woman who had lived there had refused to leave, but Capricorn wouldn’t tolerate prying eyes so close to his new hideout and gave his followers a free hand. His crows, his black vultures, had set fire to the home-made chicken run and the one-roomed cottage. They had trampled over the carefully tended beds in the garden, and shot the donkey that was almost as old as its mistress. They came under cover of darkness as usual, and the moon, so one of Capricorn’s maidservants had told Dustfinger, shone particularly brightly that night. The old woman had tottered out of the house, weeping and screaming. Then she’d cursed them. She cursed them all, but her eyes were turned on only one of them. Basta, who was standing a little way from the others because he feared the fire, his shirt very white in the moonlight. Perhaps she had hoped that shirt might conceal something like innocence or a kind heart. On Basta’s orders, Flatnose had put his hand over her mouth to shut her up. The others had laughed – until, unexpectedly, she fell down dead and lay there lifeless among her trampled garden beds. Ever since that day, Basta had feared this place more than anywhere else in the hills. No, there could be nowhere better to keep watch on Capricorn’s village.

 
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