Copyright © 2017 L.S. Hilton
I only wanted to get it over with, but I forced myself to go slowly. I closed the shutters at all three windows, opened a bottle of Gavi, poured two glasses, lit the candles. Familiar, recognisable, comforting rituals. He set down his bag and removed his jacket slowly, hung it on the back of a chair, watching me. I raised my glass and took a sip without speaking. His eyes played over the paintings as I let the silence between us lengthen until he fell into it.
‘Is that an . . . ?’
‘Agnes Martin,’ I finished for him. ‘Yes.’
‘Thank you.’ I kept the small, amused smile playing on my lips. Another pause. The thick stillness of Venice at night was broken by the sound of footsteps crossing the campo below, we both turned our heads towards the window.
‘Have you lived here long?’
‘A while,’ I answered.
The cockiness he had shown earlier in the bar had vanished, he looked awkward and painfully, terribly young. I was going to have to make the first move, obviously. I was standing, holding my glass with my elbow crooked across my body. We were two steps apart. I took one, holding his eyes with mine. Could he see the message there?
Run, it said. Run now and don’t look back.
I took the second step and reached out to caress his stubbled jaw. Slowly, still keeping his gaze, I bent forward to his mouth, nuzzling him, letting the sides of my lips brush his, before his tongue found mine. He didn’t taste as bad as I’d expected. I pulled out of the kiss and drew away, threw my dress over my head in one movement, dropping it to the floor, followed by my bra. I brushed my hair off my shoulders, drawing my palms slowly over my nipples as my hands fell to my sides.
‘Elisabeth,’ he murmured.
The bathtub was positioned at the foot of the bed. As I held out my hand and led him around it towards my Frette sheets, I felt a stifling wave of weariness sigh over me, an absence of that which had once been so familiar. There was no rage left in me, nor any flicker of desire. I let him get on with it, and when he was done I sat up with a giggle in my voice and my eyes all starry. I couldn’t have him dozing off. I flopped forward on the dampened sheet, dropping the limp condom with its sad little weight of life on the floor, and reached out for the hot tap.
‘I feel like a bath. A bath and a blunt. Shall we?’
‘Sure. Whatever.’ Now we’d fucked he’d lost his manners. ‘You wanna do those pics?’ I’d managed to dissuade him from taking selfies when we’d had drinks earlier. He was already fumbling in his discarded jeans for the sodding phone; it was a miracle he hadn’t tried to Instagram his own climax. I’d forgotten, for the few moments he humped away inside me, what a total dick he was. This suddenly felt so much easier.
‘Snap away, lover. Just a second though.’ I trotted naked to the dressing room and scrabbled in a drawer for a packet of Rizla, pausing to connect the Wi-Fi scrambler as a precaution. No more real-time updates for him. I added some cold and a dollop of almond oil to the bath and opened the heavy antique linen press for a couple of towels. The sweet scent of the oil rose around us in the steam.
‘Hop in,’ I said over my shoulder as I busied myself loosening the tobacco from a cigarette. My Hermès scarf, the turquoise-and-navy Circassian design, was knotted around the strap of my handbag. I crossed behind him as he eased into the water.
‘Just getting a light,’ I murmured. ‘Here.’
I put the joint between his lips. There was nothing in it, but he’d never know that—while he inhaled I got the scarf round his neck and pulled it up tight beneath his ears. He choked instantly on the smoke, splashing his hands into the deep tub. I braced my feet against its edge and leaned back against the bed, pulling harder. His feet flailed in the water, but there was no purchase on the oily porcelain. I closed my eyes and started counting. His right hand, still absurdly holding the sodden roll-up, was straining to grab at my wrist, but the angle was wrong and his fingers merely fluttered against mine. Twenty-five . . . twenty-six . . . Nothing but the anaerobic fizz in my muscles as we struggled, nothing but the deep rasp of my own breath through my nostrils as his body thrashed. Twenty-nine, this is nothing, thirty, this is nothing. I felt him weakening, but then he managed to work a finger and then a fist between the scarf and his Adam’s apple and catapulted me violently forward, but the release sent him under and I twisted over the rim of the tub, getting my left knee on his chest and pushing down with all my weight. There was blood in my eye and in the steaming water, but I could see bubbles popping at the surface as he thrashed. I let go the scarf and reached blindly down for his face and neck. He was twisting his jaw, the yellowed overbite snapping at me. The bubbles stopped. I slowly got my breath back and my face relaxed from its rictus strain. I couldn’t see his face through the pinkish milk of the bathwater. I was gingerly easing my pelvis forward when the water slopped up in a wave just before he reared up at me. I fell against him in a straddle as his head strained desperately upwards. I managed to take him under again with my elbow, then manoeuvred myself so that I had one leg on each of his shoulders. We stayed like that for a long time, until a teardrop of blood from my face plopped into the bath.
Perhaps it was the clarity of that one, tiny sound. Perhaps it was the mist of almond oil in the swirling steam, or the cooling scurf on the water’s surface. That cold afternoon, that endless silence, that first dead thing under my hands. The fault-line inside me split into an engulfing crevasse, and with a force that seared the breath out of me, I was there. Time was suddenly compressed, the past condensed and returned to me. I had left her so long ago. She had never been part of the life I had told myself, but I was seeing her as though for the first time. Numbly I reached again into the deep water, but I found only a stranger’s flesh. This had been necessary, although I couldn’t now remember why. His hand bobbed up and I paddled the fingers with my own, a watery little tune. It might have been a few minutes that I watched the ripples, it might have been an hour. By the time I came back to myself, the water was chilled.
When I eventually hauled him up from underneath me his eyes were open. So his last sight on earth would have been my gaping cunt.
His slippery skin was pinkish, puffed out like new bread, the lips already tinged grey. His head lolled back; in the candlelight his throat seemed unmarked. Gripping the side of the bath, I climbed out, legs shaking. As soon as I’d let him go he slid back under and I had to fumble for the plug beneath his bobbing hair. While the water drained, I hunched in one of the towels. When his chest was clear I rested a hand against the heart. Nothing. I rolled up from the waist and stretched. The floor was soaking, the rim of the bath smeared with blood and specks of tobacco. More hot water to clean him down.
I had to embrace him from the side to heave him over the edge of the bath. The corpse was limp and floppy. When I had him laid out I covered him with the other towel and sat next to him cross-legged on the floor until he was cold.
I peeled back enough of the towel to expose the face again, bent in and whispered in his ear.
‘It’s not Elisabeth. It’s Judith.’
Revue de presse
“The best-selling Hilton is back. In a just-as-thrilling sequel, Judith returns....If you’re into the underbelly of the glamorous uberrich—or being able to say you were a fan before the inevitable screen version hit theaters—this series is not to miss.”—Marie Claire
“The sequel to Hilton’s masterful Maestra… [is] even more impossible to put down, more twisted. The concluding installment in the trilogy can’t come soon enough for fans of psychological thrillers.” —Booklist (starred review)
"Hilton hasn’t lost her gift for climactic set-pieces, particularly the blood-soaked pair that bookend the novel."—Publishers Weekly
“[C]ompulsively readable—like a ritzy 50 Shades meets The Da Vinci Code. It's got sex, shopping, a few Old Masters and plenty of murder—what more could you want?”—Irish Independent
Praise for Maestra
“It’s hard not to feel vicariously empowered by a woman unapologetically in pursuit. Let’s call her the Sheryl Sandberg of sociopaths, leaning in to the hilt.”—O, The Oprah Magazine
“Maestra will be one of this year’s most talked-about novels...More mayhem, more art—and certainly more sex—lie ahead for insatiable Judith and for all those consenting adults who will delight in her endless ups and downs.”—The Washington Post
“This year’s most erotic novel makes Fifty Shades look like the Bible...Bound to be the It beach book of the summer...Unapologetic, confident and quite the sociopath, protagonist Judith Rashleigh is no Anastasia Steele.”—New York Post
“[A] shopathon travelogue thriller that has billionaires, art world scheming and a sociopathic heroine who can unfasten belt buckles with her tongue.”—The New York Times
“An unpredictable London auction-house assistant turned high-class escort slips effortlessly into the world of the glamorous and wealthy, crossing international borders and leaving destruction in her wake.”—The Wall Street Journal
“The European art world mixes with an underground world (hint: sex parties). This thriller is like The Talented Mr. Ripley meets The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Warning: it’s VNSFW. That V is for very.”—The Skimm
“[J]ubilantly mordant...Already optioned for the big screen by Amy Pascal, [Maestra is] the story of a twenty-first-century femme fatale as lethal as Tom Ripley and as seductive as Bacall.”—Vogue