Ultima, p.1

Ultima, page 1

 

Ultima
 



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Ultima


  Praise for

  ‘Like a ritzy 50 Shades meets The Da Vinci Code . . . ’

  INDEPENDENT

  ‘Funny and clever, entertaining and well written’

  THE TIMES

  ‘A rip-roaring read’

  DAILY MAIL

  ‘Fantastically good fun . . . L.S. Hilton can write’

  THE SUNDAY TIMES

  ‘Brimming with scandal, intrigue and mystery’

  HEAT

  ‘Deliciously decadent . . . a glamorous and racy adventure’

  SUNDAY MIRROR

  ‘Patricia Highsmith crossed with Gone Girl’

  HARPERS BAZAAR

  ‘Smart, pacy and very rude’

  GLAMOUR

  ‘A gloriously dark thriller’

  GRAZIA

  ‘A whirlwind thriller’

  COSMOPOLITAN

  ‘At least two jaw-on-the-floor moments and sex scenes that would make Christian Grey blush’

  RED MAGAZINE

  ‘Expertly woven’

  ELLE MAGAZINE

  ‘A feisty, morally complex and sharp heroine’

  NEW YORK TIMES

  ‘Features a sexually voracious heroine eager to make her mark on the world’

  IRISH DAILY MAIL

  ‘The character of Judith Rashleigh is a modern day anti-heroine’

  IRISH EXAMINER

  ‘Deliciously decadent . . . a glamorous and racy adventure’

  SUNDAY MIRROR

  ‘Utterly unputdownable, a shocking and sexy psychological thriller’

  POPSUGAR

  ‘A book that begs to be devoured in one sitting!’

  READER’S DIGEST

  ‘This art world caper is something of a masterpiece’

  THE PEOPLE

  ‘The hot book on the street . . . a sexy thriller with a Gone Girl vibe’

  DEADLINE HOLLYWOOD

  Contents

  Prologue

  Part One

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Part Two

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Part Three

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Acknowledgements

  Letter from Author

  Copyright

  For Michael Platt, with thanks

  Prologue

  The night before the sale, we had walked across the city hand in hand. London seemed remade. A rare, soft night, the lights strung out along the Embankment a stream of phosphorescence in the river’s tail, the still pools of shadow in St James’s Park amethyst beneath the summer-heavy trees.

  Later, in our bedroom, there was still the ghost of my scent on his mouth when he kissed me. I didn’t switch on the light, just opened the window. I wanted to feel the watershed of the sweet, dirty London air as it met the heat of my skin. I straddled his face, feeling the spread of the lips of my cunt around his tongue. Slowly, I leaned back, arching towards the tip of his cock, his hand gripping the tense column of my neck, my bent body a comma of anticipation, suspending us, holding us there, before he flipped me onto the side of my hips so that my legs lay along his chest. He kissed the inside of my ankle as he slid inside me, moving lazily, his fingers splayed across my belly.

  ‘Ti amo, Judith.’ I love you.

  ‘Show me.’

  ‘Where do you want it?’

  I wanted it everywhere.

  ‘I want it in my cunt. I want it in my hair, in my throat, on my skin, in my arse. I want every drop of it. I want to drink you, I want to drink your cum.’

  He turned me again, setting me on all fours with my palms against the bedhead. He grabbed my wrist and twisted it behind my back, pitching me forward into the pillows, slammed into me with all his weight, just one heavy, dull stroke. I spread my legs wider, offering him the wet slash between them.

  ‘Again?’

  Another.

  ‘Again?’

  He knelt back to slide a finger into me, then two, then three.

  ‘I want to hear you beg for it. Go on. Beg for my cock.’

  ‘Please. Don’t stop. You have to fuck me. Please.’

  ‘Good girl.’

  I was so soaked I felt him slip when his cock pushed up me again, I reached round under my thigh to cradle his taut balls as he went faster, faster, shoving into the red core of me until I came in one acute, twisting gasp.

  ‘Now. Turn over and open your mouth.’

  Later, I felt for his face in the dark, kissed his eyelids, the sides of his mouth, the sweet hollow under his ear.

  ‘Can I ask you something?’ My face was in his neck, my lips on the steady, familiar throb of his pulse.

  ‘Anything, my love.’

  ‘Just when exactly were you planning to kill me?’

  His heart remained quiet. No tension, no reaction. He turned on his elbow above me and set his mouth on mine, a kiss with the warm promise of a bruise.

  ‘Tomorrow, sweetheart. Or maybe the day after.’

  PART ONE

  PRIMING

  1

  Six Months Earlier

  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 spun 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.

  It was a Concorde clip, about four inches long, curved to fasten hair into a chignon. I flexed my icy fingers and tugged it out. Think, Judith. The clip was no kind of weapon, even if the gunman allowed me to get close enough to use it. He’d done his bit for chivalry; I doubted he had any profound qualms over collateral damage. I shoved it between my teeth and strained forward, a few further, desperate metres, then slid sideways towards the sea, my legs gripping the pipe, reaching out the clip as I took in a lungful of air. Eyes scrunched tight against the salt, I felt between the stiff ridges with my left hand behind my thigh, then stabbed the clip into the thick rubber of the pipe. It went in clean. Squeezing with all my strength, I pulled it loose.

  The pipe cracked violently to the right like the tail of a giant rattlesnake as the compressed water shot free. It bucked me momentarily to the surface before another wave twisted me back under. I tried to reach my arms around it, but it was too thick and I had no grip; it thrashed again and spun me off altogether. A few heaving upward strokes brought me back to the air, though I could feel the insistent tug beneath me, dragging me in the direction of the roiling pipe. There was no sign of the gunman. Gasping, I trod water, hacking burning brine from my throat. The container was still about fifty metres away, but the currents were already pulling me in the opposite direction at alarming speed. I bobbed helplessly. Any attempt at swimming was futile; already exhausted, encumbered by my clothes, there was nothing to do but drift. Float for a while. As I let my head fall back into the deep, indifferent water, I remember thinking how strange it was that I no longer felt cold.

  ‘Here! Over here!’

  I wondered why I hadn’t heard the engine of the dinghy, but da Silva’s voice was almost swallowed by the swishing shell-song in my head. His cries cut through the odd, soft calm. Why couldn’t he just give up, just leave me? At least I could deprive him of the satisfaction. I stopped moving my legs then, and slipped down, into the cradle of the sea.

  *

  It was dark when I opened my eyes. That is, it seemed to be night – the clouds were charcoal against brief glimpses of a crescent moon. The cold had woken me. Inside my soaked, sea-stiff clothes, my whole body was trembling, my teeth clattering together like one of those wind-up children’s toys. I seemed to be lying on the board bottom of the dinghy, which bumped painfully against the small of my back each time it bounced over a swell. The hum of the engine drilled icicles into my throbbing ears. A row of LED lights in the stern showed da Silva sitting placidly at the rudder. For a moment, I considered the idea that this might be Hell – maybe I was condemned to cruise the Styx for eternity with da Silva for company? – but the ache in my thighs and the cloying thirst in my throat suggested, disappointingly on the whole, that I was still in the land of the living. I tried to sit and banged my head on the boat’s rear seat. Da Silva turned at the sound.

  ‘You’re OK, then.’

  My bare right arm was stretched uncomfortably above my head; when I tried to move it I felt metal encircling my wrist, chafing the wet skin. Da Silva had cuffed me to the underside of the bench.

  ‘There’s some water next to you.’

  My left hand groped, found a plastic bottle. The Evian tasted better than a ’73 Lafitte.

  ‘You fucker,’ I remarked conversationally.

  ‘Why?’

  ‘I saved your life back there! He could have shot you. He could have shot me instead of you!’

  ‘I saved you, didn’t I?’

  I had to admit there was a certain logic there.

  ‘Where are we going?’

  ‘Shut up.’

  ‘I’m cold.’

  ‘Shut up.’

  I stretched my sore legs as far as they’d go, but there was still a decent gap between da Silva and my feet. Even if I succeeded in kicking him overboard, there was no way I could reach the tiller with the cuff attached. And then? Then I had no money, no phone, no ID. If I reached land, wherever land was, I supposed I could hitch the 700-odd miles back to my flat in Venice. Which currently housed a corpse. Not the most appealing of prospects. Plus I felt appalling – nauseated from swallowing seawater, limbs bruised and aching, freezing in my sodden jeans and T-shirt in the December dark. So here I was, marooned in the middle of nowhere with a crooked Italian cop who’d planned on shooting me hours ago, a man who was himself, it seemed, being pursued at the wrong end of a rifle. Quite the little mini-break.

  ‘What’s with the boat?’

  ‘I borrowed it, OK? From the container ship. There wasn’t time to ask permission, I just untied it.’

  ‘Did you see what happened to our friend?’

  ‘I told you about the currents. He’s no longer a problem. I thought I asked you to shut up, by the way?’

  ‘I need to pee,’ I whinged.

  ‘You can piss in your clothes. I’m not untying you.’

  ‘Charming.’

  ‘I told you to shut the fuck up.’<
br />
  There didn’t seem to be much else to do apart from watch the scudding skeins of cloud cobwebbing over the blackness. When I got tired of that, I watched da Silva. When I got tired of that, I somehow went back to sleep.

  *

  The second time I awoke, it was to the crunch of the boat being pulled up the beach, hard ground beneath the hard boards. Da Silva stooped over me, kindly setting his kneeling weight on my stomach, as he unsnapped the cuff. Footsteps on the shingle told me we were not alone, though my vision was blocked by da Silva’s chest.

  ‘You can ditch the boat.’ He sounded calm, but I could smell the salt on his skin, the sweat beneath it. He was afraid.

  ‘On your feet.’

  I stood, gingerly. The back of the dinghy, where da Silva had been steering, was still lurching in the waves. Hands reached under my arms and lifted me clear as I peered into the darkness, trying to make out a face, but as soon as my feet touched the shingle a cloth was tied around my eyes, so swiftly and professionally that I knew there was absolutely no point in screaming.

  ‘You two walk her. I’ll follow.’ Da Silva wasn’t speaking Italian but a thick southern dialect that I could scarcely follow.

  A grip under each elbow.

  ‘Come this way, signorina.’ Fish and onions on the speaker’s breath. My frozen legs protested as I stumbled up a steeply inclined beach.

  ‘Just a minute. Here we are now.’ Fish-Breath’s voice was flat and practical, as though he’d done this many times. ‘You’re going to get into the car, now. That’s right. Attenzione alla testa.’

  Soft leather pillowed under my bruised backside. Fish-Breath leaned over and snapped a seat belt over me as the car shifted with the weight of the other men. Warm – blissfully, deeply, luxuriously warm. If they’d just get on with it now, I could die happy.

  *

  At first, as we drove, I tried to count the seconds, so as to know how far we were from the sea, but soon gave it up. Anti-kidnap strategies weren’t exactly relevant: it wasn’t like there was anyone to send my sliced-off ear to who cared. They were presumably taking me somewhere quiet, out in the country, where they’d shoot me and roll my body into a ditch.

 
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