One

Thirty minutes later they stood on the steps of the Palazzo Malaspina. The entrance dominated much of the narrow seventeenth-century street that led, in a few short minutes, to the Mausoleum of Augustus, a place Costa had yet to find the courage to revisit. The Vicolo del Divino Amore was even closer around the corner, as was the Barberini’s small external studio, where the canvas of Venus with her satyrs now resided. Everything about this case, it seemed to Costa, was contained in the small, secretive warren of dark, dingy alleys here, the labyrinth that was once Ortaccio.

They stopped at the foot of the curving stone staircase. A heraldic decoration ran the length of each side: a stone shield half a metre high, divided into two halves, one stippled, one plain. A bare angular tree in the centre with three short horizontal branches on the left and two on the right. From each emerged sharp spines, top and bottom of the branches. Mala spina. The bad thorn.

Agata Graziano looked at him, a shadow of guilt in her charming face.

“I lied a little, Nic,” she confessed. “This isn’t simply the Barberini’s Christmas party. We’re sharing it with one of the private galleries too. It’s about money, of course. We can’t afford it on our own anymore.”

He thought of Falcone and realised he should have expected this.

“Let me guess. The Buccafusca Gallery.”

“Yes,” she replied, impressed. “You’re quite the detective. How did you know?”

“Falcone told me. After a fashion.”

“Ah. He is an… interesting man. He likes you. I can see that.”

“Interesting,” Costa agreed.

“I merely wish you to know that some of the things you see here will be Buccafusca’s,” she added. “Not ours.”

“I can’t wait,” Costa replied, and then followed her through the front doors into a grand marbled reception area set beneath an alcove with a carved scalloped half shell many times the size of that over the Madonna del Parto. He watched the private security men, who seemed to know Agata Graziano, nod gravely and take off their caps before ushering the pair of them into a square, echoing hall of pillars and shining stone fa?ades, an extravagant lobby more in keeping with that of an embassy than a private home. A palace like this was, for Costa, a rare blank sheet. The home of the Malaspina dynasty — now occupied, as far as he knew, by its sole surviving member — was a sprawling complex that covered a vast area of this part of Rome, and never opened its doors to the public, not even for a day.

The place was a wonder; the crowds would have flocked there. Smaller mansions, such as the Palazzo Altemps, had been acquired by the state and turned into grand museums, former aristocratic homes that were as much exhibits themselves as the rich and varied collections they held. The Malaspina clan had escaped such a fate. They maintained their secret hidden lives behind the soot-blackened walls of a city fortress that was dark and forbidding from the outside and full of light and beauty within.

Beyond the entrance was a vast cobbled courtyard, with a large statue of Cupid stretching his bow at its centre. On all sides rose three floors, the first two open to the elements, with an arched colonnade on the ground, and a balustrade balcony on the second. Lights blazed from every level, silhouetting a sea of bodies talking animatedly, members of a society to which Costa knew he would never belong. He felt hopelessly out of place, and perhaps she saw that, because Agata Graziano took his arm for one brief moment, and said, “Don’t worry. I’ll look after you if you look after me.”

“Agreed,” he murmured, and then they pushed their way through the first ground-floor hall, where a noisy throng of people gossiped. The Buccafusca Gallery insignia, a black mouth, open in greed or ecstasy, it was unclear which, appeared everywhere; all the objects surrounding them appeared modern and ugly.

Salut,” Agata declared, grabbing two glasses, orange juice for her, prosecco for him, as a scantily clad waitress fought her way past. “I may join you in that before long.”

He cast his eyes around the room: bright, shiny people, beautiful, fixed on each other, looking as if they owned the world.

“So this is how the upper classes live,” he observed. “I always wondered what I was missing. Perhaps…”

He could see them now, across the room, and the sight of them blended with the images in his head: of Rosa Prabakaran’s photographs, and that dreadful experience close by a long-dead emperor’s tomb, just a short walk away from where they now stood in this strange, artificial party.

Looking at the four — Malaspina, Buccafusca, Castagna, and the stocky, uncomfortable Nino Tomassoni by their side — he realised that any of the taller men could, in theory, have been the hooded figure. But there was something about Malaspina — the commanding, stiff stance, the smug assumption of superiority — that convinced Costa he was the man, could only be the man.

“Are you comfortable with the aristocracy?” Agata Graziano asked, watching him.

“I don’t have much experience,” he admitted.

“Well,” she said, shrugging, and beginning to fight her way through the sea of silk-clad bodies with a jabbing elbow and a forceful determination, “let’s start.”

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