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The intruder's eyes blazed with a cold fire. He raised a powerful hand and swept another row of vases off the shelf. The fragile objects crashed to the floor and shattered into a hundred shards. He moved on to a display of small statues.
"I advise you to make haste with your packing, Mrs. Lake," he said as he turned his violent attention to a host of fragile clay Pans, Aphrodites, and satyrs. "The carriage will leave in fifteen minutes, and I promise you that you and your niece will be aboard, with or without your luggage."
Lavinia watched him from the foot of the stairs, helpless to stop the destruction of her wares. "You have no right to do this. You are ruining me."
"On the contrary, madam. I am saving your neck." He used a booted foot to topple a large urn decorated in the Etruscan manner. "Not that I expect any thanks, mind you."
Lavinia winced as the urn exploded on impact with the floor. She knew now that it was pointless to berate the lunatic. He was intent on destroying the shop and she lacked the means to stop him. She had been taught early in life to recognize the signs that indicated it was time to stage a tactical retreat. But she had never learned to tolerate such annoying reversals of fortune with equanimity.
"If we were in England, I would have you arrested, Mr. March."
"Ah, but we are not in England, are we, Mrs. Lake?" Tobias March seized a life-size stone centurion by the shield and shoved it forward. The Roman fell on his sword. "We are in Italy and you have no choice but to do as I command."
It was useless to stand her ground. Every moment spent down here attempting to reason with Tobias March was time lost that should be spent packing. But the unfortunate tendency toward stubbornness that was so much a part of her nature could not abide the notion of surrendering the field of battle without a struggle.
"Bastard," she said through her teeth.
"Not in the legal sense." He slammed another row of red clay vases to the floor. "But I believe I comprehend what you wish to imply."
"It is obvious that you are no gentleman, Tobias March."
"I will not quarrel with you on that point." He kicked over a waist-high statue of a naked Venus. "But then, you are no lady, are you?"
She cringed when the statue crumbled. The naked Venuses had proved quite popular with her clientele.
"How dare you? Just because my niece and I got stranded here in Rome and were obliged to go into trade for a few months in order to support ourselves is no reason to insult us."
"Enough." He whirled around to face her. In the lantern light, his forbidding face was colder than the features of any stone statue. "Be grateful that I have concluded that you were merely an unwitting dupe of the criminal I am pursuing and not a member of his gang of thieves and murderers."
"I have only your word that the villains were using my shop as a place to exchange their messages. Frankly, Mr. March, given your rude behavior, I am not inclined to believe a single thing you say."
He pulled a folded sheet of paper from his pocket. "Do you deny that this note was hidden in one of your vases?"
She glanced at the damning note. Only moments ago she had watched in stunned amazement while he shattered a lovely Greek vase. A message that looked remarkably like a villain's report to his criminal employer had been tucked inside. Something about a bargain with pirates having been successfully struck.
Lavinia raised her chin. "It is certainly not my fault that one of my patrons dropped a personal note into that vase."
"Not just one patron, Mrs. Lake. The villains have been using your shop for some weeks now."
"And just how would you know that, sir?"
"I have watched these premises and your personal movements for nearly a month."
She widened her eyes, genuinely shocked by the infuriatingly casual admission.
"You have spent the past month spying on me?"
"At the start of my observations, I assumed that you were an active participant in Carlisle's ring here in Rome. It was only after much study that I have concluded you probably did not know what some of your so-called customers were about."
"That is outrageous."
He gave her a look of mocking inquiry. "Are you saying you did know what they were up to when they came and went in such a regular fashion?"
"I am saying no such thing." She could hear her voice climbing but there was little she could do about it. She had never been so angry or so frightened in her life. "I believed them to be honest patrons of antiquities."
"Did you indeed?" Tobias glanced at a collection of cloudy green glass jars that stood in a neat row on a high shelf. His smile was devoid of all warmth. "And how honest are you, Mrs. Lake?"
She stiffened. "What are you implying, sir?"
"I'm not implying anything. I am merely noting that most of the items in this shop are cheap replicas of ancient artifacts. There is very little here that is truly antique."
"How do you know?" she shot back. "Never say you are an expert in antiquities, sir. I will not be taken in by such an outlandish claim. You cannot pass yourself off as a scholarly researcher, not after what you have done to my establishment."
"You are correct, Mrs. Lake. I am not an expert in Greek and Roman antiquities. I am a simple man of business."
"Rubbish. Why would a simple man of business come all the way to Rome in pursuit of a villain named Carlisle?"
"I am here on behalf of one of my clients who employed me to make inquiries into the fate of a man named Bennett Ruckland."
"What was the fate of this Mr. Ruckland?"
Tobias looked at her. "He was murdered here in Rome. My client believes it was because he learned too much concerning the secret organization that Carlisle controls."
"A likely story."
"Nevertheless, it is my story and mine is the only tale that matters tonight." He hurled another pot to the floor. "You have only ten minutes left, Mrs. Lake."
It was hopeless. Lavinia took two fistfuls of her skirts and started up the stairs. But she paused midway as a thought struck her.
"This business of making inquiries into murders on behalf of your clients -- it seems a rather odd sort of profession," she said.
He smashed a small Roman oil lamp. "No more odd than selling false antiquities."
Lavinia was incensed. "I told you, they are not false, sir. They are reproductions designed to be purchased as souvenirs."
"Call them what you wish. They look remarkably like fraudulent imitations to me."
She smiled thinly. "But as you just said, sir, you are no expert in rare artifacts, are you? You are merely a simple man of business."
"You have approximately eight minutes left, Mrs. Lake."
She touched the silver pendant she wore at her throat the way she often did when her nerves were under a great strain. "I cannot decide if you are a monstrous villain or merely deranged," she whispered.
He looked briefly, chillingly, amused. "Does it make any great difference?"
The situation was impossible. She had no choice but to concede the victory to him. With a soft exclamation of frustration and anger, she whirled and rushed on up the stairs. When she reached the small, lantern-lit room, she saw that, unlike herself, Emeline had made good use of the time allotted to them. Two medium-size and one very large trunk stood open. The smaller trunks were already crammed to overflowing.
"Thank goodness you are here." Emeline's words were muffled, as her head was inside the wardrobe. "Whatever took you so long?"
"I was attempting to convince March that he had no right to toss us out into the street in the middle of the night."
"He is not tossing us into the street." Emeline straightened away from the wardrobe, a small antique vase cradled in her arms. "He has provided a carriage and two armed men to see us safely out of Rome and all the way home to England. It is really very generous of him."
"Rubbish. There is nothing at all generous about his actions. He is playing some deep game, I tell you, and he wants us out of his way."
Emeline busied herself rolling the vase into a bombazine gown. "He believes we are in grave danger from that villain Carlisle, who used our shop as a place to send and receive messages from his men."
"Bah. We have only Mr. March's word that there is any such villain operating here in Rome." Lavinia opened a cupboard. A very handsome, extremely well endowed Apollo gazed out at her. "I, for one, am not inclined to put much faith in anything that man tells us. For all we know, he wants the use of these rooms for his own dark purposes."
"I am convinced he has told us the truth." Emeline stuffed the cushioned vase into the third trunk. "And if that is the case, he is right. We are indeed in danger."
"If there is some villainous gang involved in this affair, I would not be surprised to discover that Tobias March is their leader. He claims to be a simple man of business, but it is obvious to me that there is something distinctly diabolical about him."