Inkheart, p.36
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       Inkheart, p.36

         Part #1 of Inkworld series by Cornelia Funke
 

  I curse you, Basta – I curse you by the bones of the dead man lying in this coffin. I’ll bet there’s no old priest in it now, but someone you disposed of. Isn’t that right?’

  Basta did not answer, but his silence was more eloquent than any words.

  ‘Of course. An old coffin like this makes a wonderful hiding-place.’ Dustfinger caressed the cracked lid with his fingers as if trying to call the dead back to life with the warmth of his hand. ‘May his spirit haunt you, Basta!’ he said in a solemn voice. ‘May he breathe my name in your ear at every step you take, may he—’

  Meggie saw Basta’s hand leap to his rabbit-foot.

  ‘That thing won’t help you!’ Dustfinger’s hand was still on the coffin. ‘Poor Basta! Are you feeling hot already? Do your limbs begin to tremble?’

  Basta lunged at him with the knife, but Dustfinger, light on his feet as he was, avoided the blade. ‘Fire is faster than you, Basta!’ he whispered. ‘Much faster.’

  ‘Give me the note you handed her!’ Basta screamed in his face.

  Dustfinger just put the note in his trouser pocket.

  Meggie stood motionless as a doll. Out of the corner of her eye she saw her mother put her hand in the pocket of her dress. When she brought it out again she was holding a stone in it, a grey stone not much bigger than a bird’s egg.

  Dustfinger passed his hands over the lid of the coffin, then held them out to Basta. ‘Shall I touch you?’ he asked. ‘What happens when you touch a murdered man’s coffin? Tell me. You know all about such things.’

  He took another step aside, like a dancer circling round his partner.

  ‘I’ll cut your filthy fingers off if you try to touch me!’ yelled Basta, his face red with rage. ‘Every one of them, and your tongue into the bargain.’ He lunged with the knife again, cutting through the air with the bright blade, but Dustfinger avoided it. He was leaping around Basta faster and faster, ducking, retreating, advancing, but suddenly he found that his fearless dance had trapped him. He had only the bare wall behind him now, the grating cut off his retreat to the right – and Basta was coming straight at him.

  At that moment Meggie’s mother raised her hand. The stone hit Basta on the head. Astonished, he spun round, looked at her as if trying to remember who she was, and put his hand to his bleeding face. She never knew how Dustfinger did it, but suddenly he had Basta’s knife in his hand. Basta was staring at its familiar blade in amazement, as if he couldn’t grasp the fact that the faithless thing was pointing at his own chest.

  ‘Well, how’s this, then?’ Dustfinger slowly brought the tip of the knife close to Basta’s stomach. ‘Do you feel how soft your flesh is? The human body is a fragile thing, and you can’t get a new one. What is it you and your friends do to cats and squirrels? Flatnose likes describing it—’

  ‘I don’t hunt squirrels.’ Basta’s voice cracked. He was trying not to look at the blade, now scarcely a hand’s breadth from his snow-white shirt.

  ‘No, so you don’t. I remember now. It doesn’t amuse you as much as it does the others.’

  Basta’s face was white. All the furious red had ebbed out of it. Fear is not red. Fear is pale as a dead man’s face. ‘What are you going to do now?’ he gasped. He was breathing hard, as if he were drowning. ‘You don’t think you’ll get out of this village alive, do you? They’ll shoot you down before you’re across the square.’

  ‘Well, I’d prefer that to a meeting with the Shadow,’ replied Dustfinger. ‘Anyway, none of you are very good shots.’

  Meggie’s mother came up to him, and mimed writing with her finger in the air. Dustfinger put his hand in his trouser pocket and gave her the note. Basta followed the paper with his eyes as if the strength of his gaze would draw it to him. Resa wrote something on it and handed it back to Dustfinger, who read what she had written, frowning. ‘Wait until dark? No, I won’t wait. But perhaps the girl had better stay here.’ He looked at Meggie. ‘Capricorn won’t harm her. After all, she’s his new Silvertongue, and some time her father will try to rescue her.’ Dustfinger put the note away again and ran the tip of the knife down Basta’s shirt buttons. They clinked as the metal touched them. ‘You go to the stairs, Resa,’ he said. ‘I’ll finish this business off, and then we’ll stroll across Capricorn’s square and walk away like an innocent pair of lovers.’

  Cautiously, Resa opened the cell door. She came out past the grating and took Meggie’s hand. Her fingers were cold and rather rough, a stranger’s fingers, but her face was familiar, although it had looked younger and less anxious in the photograph.

  ‘Resa! We can’t take her with us!’ Dustfinger seized Basta’s arm and forced him back against the wall. ‘Her father will murder me if she gets shot out there. Now, turn round and cover her eyes, unless you want her to watch ….’ The knife was trembling in his hand. Resa looked at him, horrified, and shook her head vigorously, but Dustfinger acted as if he didn’t see her.

  ‘You must thrust hard, Dirtyfingers!’ hissed Basta as he pressed his hands against the stone behind him. ‘Killing isn’t easy. You have to practise to do it well.’

  ‘Nonsense!’ Dustfinger grabbed him by the jacket and held the knife under his chin, the way Basta had pulled his knife on Mo that time in the church. ‘Any fool can kill. It’s easy – as easy as throwing a book on the fire, breaking down a door, or frightening a child.’

  Meggie began to tremble, she didn’t know why. Her mother took a step back towards the grating, but when she saw Dustfinger’s stony face she stopped. Then she turned, drew Meggie’s face against her breast, put her arms round her and held her tight. Her smell seemed familiar to Meggie, like something long forgotten; she closed her eyes and tried not to think of anything, not Dustfinger or the knife or Basta’s white face. And then, for a terrible moment, there was only one thing in the world she wanted – to see Basta lying dead on the floor, limp as a doll thrown away, an ugly, stupid toy which always seemed a little scary.

  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.

  50

  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.

  Charles Dickens,

  Oliver Twist

  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.

  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?’

 
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