Ultima concludes L.S.Hilton's Maestra series in thrilling and explosive fashion. Judith Rashleigh - the sexy, sophisticated and deadly art-dealer - is back and in more trouble than ever. Now out in paperback, it's an ideal addition to your summer reading. Read on for a taste to whet the appetite.
I’d never been to the south of Italy before, and the way things were looking my visit was going to be both short and final. Mainly because Inspector Romero da Silva of the Guardia di Finanza was aiming his gun at my heart. We were standing on a beach somewhere in Calabria; more precisely on a concrete platform built into the churning, sulphurous sea. A boxy, rusted container ship was moored about a hundred metres out, connected by a thick rubber pipe to the low cube of the water purification plant next to us. I’d thought about swimming for it but da Silva had already informed me that the currents would have me if he didn’t. And although I’d worked out in the past few hours that da Silva’s ability to lead a double life made me look like an amateur, I believed him. On the other hand, I get a kick out of risk. And I could see something da Silva couldn’t. Over his shoulder, the man who was moving slowly and purposefully towards us along the beach. I doubted he was a random passer-by, since he was holding an assault rifle.
‘Either we stop here or you come back with me and we see if we can work together for a while’
Da Silva’s voice was as steady as his hand on the gun.
‘Work together’? I hissed.
I could have thought, then, of all that I’d done, of all that had happened to bring me here, of all that I’d been and all that I’d become. But I didn’t.
‘Go on, then,’ I answered. ‘Do it. Go ahead.’
When the shot came, da Silva looked more surprised than I did, but then this was the second time in a week that someone had tried to kill me. The bullet was not from da Silva’s Caracal, which was still aimed firmly at my chest, but from behind, on the beach. Slowly, maintaining his position, da Silva swivelled his head until he saw the figure at the foot of the cliff. The man had fired in the air, a warning. I was tempted to point out that at least someone round here meant business, but it wasn’t the moment. Faintly, I could smell the powder as it rose to the dull steel of the hard December sky.
‘The girl. Leave the girl!’ the man shouted.
I hissed to da Silva ‘Can you swim?’
‘The currents,’ da Silva answered slowly. ‘I wasn’t joking about the currents.’
‘Grab me.’ I told him. ‘Move me in front of you. Then use the pipe.’
‘What if he shoots you?’
‘You were just about to shoot me.’
‘The girl!’ The rifle was pointing towards us now. Da Silva lunged forward, seized my shoulder, flipped me against him as he span as though we were dancing so that we changed places, his back to the pulsing waves. The rifle was now definitely aimed at me. At least that was a change.
‘I told you. Leave her!’ The gun and the man behind it were now advancing down the litter-strewn shingle. Shielding his body with mine, his arm crooked under my chin, da Silva took a step back, then another. One more, and I felt his grip ease, then he released me and a second shot cracked over my head as I hit the concrete flat, palms under my shoulders. A splash, and a long moment of silence. I twisted my head. Da Silva had told me just moments ago that if I tried to escape the currents would finish me off in minutes, but he’d made it to the pipe. I could just see his locked arms, crunching his body along its length beneath the scurf of the waves. The man on the beach had started running. I had maybe twenty seconds before he reached me, which didn’t make for a considered decision. The pipe was to the left, I could reach it in a few strokes. Rolling sideways, I held my breath and let my body drop into the water.
Da Silva hadn’t lied. The undertow was so strong I could hear it, a thick, insistent gulping in the swell beneath the thud of the pressurised pipe. The cold would have knocked the breath out of me, but the current had already done that. My heavy down jacket, already a sodden shroud, was tangled over my head, I flailed and clawed, blind with salt and the fatal tremors of panic, broke the surface in time for another bullet, straining desperately for the pipe’s ridged curve. I got my leg half over, slimy rubber digging into my face, swaying on the pulse of the contained water, used my teeth to tug the jacket from my shoulder and get my right arm loose. Reaching it back under the pipe for purchase I let my left arm flop free just as a wave hit me full in the face and the musty water sucked the bastard thing off me. I was smaller than da Silva and the pipe was too wide for me to move underneath it for protection and still breathe; I had to hump along half on top, pulling my weight forward with my arms. At least that meant I could see, though when I looked up and saw the man from the beach straddling the pipe where it joined the platform, lining up another shot, I rather wished I couldn’t. He fired again, but he wasn’t aiming at me. If he needed to get lower, da Silva must be somewhere along the water ahead. The man moved forward tentatively, gripping the thick column Comanche-style between his thighs. There was no sign of life from the bobbing ship. Were the three of us going to duke it out on the deck, if we made it? I hadn’t got anything to defend myself with except the hairclip in the back pocket of the jeans I’d pulled on last night in Venice, when I was convinced da Silva was arresting me for murder. Back when life was relaxing. If I’d had the time, I could have felt quite wistful.
Lisa Hilton is the author of five historical biographies and three novels. Her Maestra series is the first of her books to be written under the name L.S. Hilton. She is also the librettist of opera Love Hurts, and works as a regular feature writer and reviewer, journalist, lecturer, broadcaster. She grew up in the north of England and read English at New College, Oxford, after which she studied History of Art in Florence and Paris. Lisa has lived in New York, Paris and Milan, and now in London.