“While I was at work I heard that this man, William York, was associated with the Palazzo Riccardi. That’s all I heard.”
The hand lifted from her shoulder.
Raven strained her ears, listening for any movement.
The man leaned over her, bringing his nose to her neck. She jumped at the contact, for his nose, like his hand, was cool.
The intruder inhaled slowly and deeply. Raven angled away from him, desperately trying to tamp down the nausea that was climbing the back of her throat.
He grunted and stepped back, as if he’d smelled something revolting.
“I can tell when you’re lying. What else did you hear?”
“Uh, that Mr. York donated money to the Uffizi in order to be invited to the opening of a special exhibit a couple of years ago.”
“Who said this?”
When she didn’t respond, a single finger made contact with her neck, sliding down her throat.
“Someone named Emerson. I didn’t see who he was talking to.”
He brought his lips to her ear. “Try again.”
“Emerson was talking to Dottor Vitali.”
At this, the man straightened. “Vitali? Are you sure?”
“Did you mention this conversation to anyone? A friend or the Carabinieri?”
The intruder was silent.
Raven waited for him to do something.
But he did nothing. He didn’t move. He didn’t sigh. She couldn’t even hear him breathe.
She fidgeted, tapping her feet against the floor. She wondered if she could use the chair as a weapon, swinging it in the direction of his head and giving herself enough time to make it to the door. No doubt he’d be faster than her, and if she missed, he’d respond in kind.
She tapped her feet more quickly, wondering if she dared make a move.
Then the intruder’s voice sounded near her ear. “You went to an orphanage and a mission today. Why?”
“You followed me?”
“Answer my question. And tell the truth.”
“I volunteer at the orphanage after work sometimes. A friend of mine, a homeless man, is missing. I went to the Franciscan mission to see if he was there. But he wasn’t.”
“A homeless man?”
“He’s the one who sits by the Ponte Santa Trinita, on the other side of the river. He’s disabled, like me.”
She heard the man move, almost imperceptibly.
“Um, that is, I used to be disabled. I’m not anymore.”
“Had Ordo Fratrum Minorum seen him?”
“Ordo Fratrum Minorum?” she repeated.
“The Franciscans,” he clarified impatiently.
“No, they hadn’t. I’m worried something happened to him.”
“You care for this creature?” The intruder sounded incredulous.
“Don’t call him that.” Raven bristled. “Yes, I care for him. Most people ignore him. Some people, like you, ridicule him. But he’s a beautiful person.”
“I suppose you care for the orphans as well?” The man was contemptuous.
She frowned. “Of course.”
“If someone attacked your precious homeless man and tried to kill him, would you intervene?”
Raven hesitated. “I’d be afraid to intervene, but I couldn’t stand there and do nothing. I’d call for help.”
The man hummed, as if her answer displeased him.
“I couldn’t do nothing,” she repeated, her voice breaking on the last word. An old memory tried to overtake her, but she stubbornly placed it aside.
She heard something then, as if he were rattling change in his pocket.
“If you had to choose between justice and mercy, what would you choose?”
“Mercy,” she whispered.
“And if you were brought face-to-face with those who abused your homeless man, would you offer them mercy?”
She hesitated, and he laughed.
“I expected as much. Even the most magnanimous want mercy only for those who deserve it.”
“No one deserves mercy. Not deserving it is what makes it mercy.”
The man was quiet for so long, she wondered if he’d left. She looked behind her, scanning the darkness for any sign of him.
“What am I to do with you?” he wondered softly.
“Let me go. I answered your questions. I don’t know anything.”
“I made a grave mistake with you. Now it seems I’m destined to pay for it.” The man’s tone changed; it was low and ached with resignation.
“Please let me go,” she repeated. “I won’t be any trouble.”
“I’m afraid that trouble is not what you do. Trouble is what you are.”
The man sighed and Raven heard movement that sounded like he was rubbing his face.
“Leave Florence and never return.”
“But this is my home,” she protested. “My life is here. My friends—”
“Friends are of no consequence if you’re in jail or dead,” he snapped.
“Dead?” She shifted forward on the chair, preparing to run.
“You’ve attracted the attention of a group far more dangerous than the Carabinieri. For the moment, at least, you’re safe. When they realize who you are, they will hunt you.”
“But I didn’t take the illustrations, I swear!”
The intruder laughed darkly.
“They care little enough about art, I assure you. No, their interest in you will be personal.”
Raven’s body tensed. “Why?”
“The less you know, the better.”
Her spine stiffened. “I don’t understand what they would want with me. I’m no one special.”
“That’s where you’re wrong.” The intruder grasped her wrist, plucking it out of the darkness as if it were low-hanging fruit. He placed two of his fingers across her pulse point and pressed.
Raven was seized with a sudden vision of being restrained in a hospital bed, an intravenous tube transferring blood to her body. Except the blood flowing through the tubes was black.
With a cry, she leapt to her feet. She lifted the kitchen chair, swinging in the direction of his voice, before turning toward what she thought was the door. She took only two steps before he caught her from behind.
She struggled, kicking and screaming, but his arms were like bands of steel. He pulled her flush against his front, lifting her so her feet dangled above the floor.
“Silence!” he hissed.
Raven’s heartbeat was erratic. She tried to inhale but his arms squeezed too tightly.