Irene's driving was fast and competent, and though I think James was hoping for her to be either slower or less able, he was looking slightly impressed as we zoomed down the road. I tried to pay attention to where we were going, looking out for roadsigns and landmarks, and Isabella did a pretty good job of trying to distract me. After a while, when I realised that I was seeing the same tall building going past us for the third time, I gave up trying to work out where we were and accepted that Irene was taking us the long way round to wherever we were going, and listened to Isabella instead. Some of her stories were thoroughly hair-raising, and my respect for her abilities rose. As did my worry about what exactly I was getting myself into, and my confidence that this book of Miracles that she was taking me to was the real thing. It seemed like a fair trade-off.
When the car finally stopped we were at a small café of some kind, just along a muddy side-track from the main road. Irene had indicated and turned off so smoothly that at first I thought we were just striking out across a field. The car stopped in a car park that was equal parts mud and gravel, sending up a spray of muddy water, and Isabella opened her door.
"We'll have breakfast here," she said. "They speak English and don't have much small talk. The food's not wonderful, but it's cooked from scratch and most of the ingredients are locally sourced, which makes it better than any convenience store that's ever inconvenienced me. We're not far from where we're going, but I doubt there'll be much food there."
"I'm happy if they do bacon," said James. "Nothing beats a proper bacon sandwich."
I noticed Irene smiling too, and figured that made two bacon-lovers. I looked over at Isabella.
"Not for me," she said, but she was smiling as well. "I prefer less preserved foods. Eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms, potatoes."
"Sounds vaguely Spanish, especially for breakfast," I said. "I think I'm probably in the bacon camp, though the eggs and potatoes sound pretty good too."
Isabella led the way into a single-storey building that appeared to have been made in the log-cabin fashion of piling wood up and filling in the gaps with whatever was handy. It was warm and dry inside, with the light coming from hurricane lanterns hanging from the ceiling every ten feet or so. There were tables; two were already occupied, and another eight were waiting for hungry breakfasters. We picked one and sat down, and a menu written in five languages was put in front of me by a tall, lethargic looking waiter.
We ordered, and while we waited Isabella told us what to expect next.
"We're going to a safe-house," she said. "It's safe because it's well protected, but it's not infallible. If you draw enough attention to yourselves, then even the safe-house will only buy us a small amount of time. They're difficult and expensive to put up, so please don't compromise it. I'm not letting you know where it is so that you can't tell anyone if they do capture you."
"Capture me?" I said. This was the first time Isabella had mentioned anything like this.
"Any of you," said Isabella. "We're going to look at a very precious and rare book, without its owners' knowledge. There is a trade-off for this."
I nodded my understanding but I could see that James still wasn't happy. "What happens if they capture us? And... who are they for that matter?"
"Eventual death," said Isabella, her voice curiously flat. As for who they are, they're the people who own the Book. They will feel that they have certain rights because of this.
"They don't sound all that pleasant," I said. "Why did you pick them for our little visit?"
"Because their Book is the best fit with what you told me you're looking for," said Isabella. "Did you think that these things are put into little community libraries in a back-room somewhere with a couple of cheap aluminium bars on the window and an elderly Doberman as a guard dog?"
"Would definitely be easier," said James. Irene smiled, though I think only I spotted it.
"And after the safe-house?" I said.
"That's when the adventure really begins," said Isabella.