“Christmas,” Franco Malaspina declared, “the same thing every year. A party for the Barberini. A line of cheques to be written. Everyone presumes on my charity, Sister Agata. Why did I do this? Tell me. Please.”
Agata laughed. It was a deliberate taunt, cheerfully delivered, though Costa felt the atmosphere was not as cordial as Malaspina pretended. The three men by his side had shambled away when they approached. The trio seemed unhappy, uncomfortable, as if they had been bickering, stopping only because of the arrival of company.
Malaspina possessed the kind of too-perfect Mediterranean tan that seemed to be
“You do this because you are a good man at heart, in spite of all your pretences, Franco,” Agata replied happily. “One day you’ll be married and have children of your own. Then you’ll think differently. Then you’ll remember Christmas as it was when you were a child.”
Malaspina looked her up and down. “I spent Christmas with servants,” he complained. “It’s not the same. Besides, of course I’m a good man. Don’t you read the papers? I can show you the accounts if you like.” He hesitated, staring now at Costa. “So why have you brought a policeman to interrogate me?”
“I’m not here to interrogate anyone,” Costa replied politely. “Sister Agata and I were working together. She merely suggested I come along. If this offends you…”
“Why should it offend me?”
“Some people are not fond of us…”
“Not me!” Malaspina raised a glass. “To law and order. But
Costa sipped his
“Of course, Agata,” Malaspina continued, “if I marry, I should marry you. Imagine the publicity. I finally find the last worthwhile virgin left in Rome.”
She said nothing.
Malaspina looked at Costa and tapped the side of his nose. “Agata is a fan of Dante, as are we all, though for different reasons. She sees herself as Beatrice. Beautiful, chaste, alluring. And dead.”
He laughed at his own joke. No one else did.
“You are too intelligent to make such a foolish comparison,” Agata objected. “You know Dante as well as any of us. He loved Beatrice, and she died. Through that he discovered there was a greater love than the physical. A spiritual love.”
Costa caught his breath. Something in Agata’s words had produced a moment of bleakness in Franco Malaspina’s eyes. It was only there for a second, but it was unmistakable, and also unreadable. Anger? Sadness? Grief?
“You sound like the Pope,” the man groaned. “This is Christmas. Even for a pagan like me, it’s not a time to talk of death.”
Agata nodded in agreement. “I’m meant to sound like the Holy Father, aren’t I?”
“No. It’s a waste, Agata. A beautiful woman. Someone with feelings. I know you have them. You know too. We’re all human, the same little animals with the same desires and fears. What’s the problem?”
He stared into her eyes.
“Be like the rest of us, bold now and chaste afterwards,” Malaspina murmured, watching her draw back to stand closer to Costa. “Who’s to know? Is that all your god is? Just a spy in the bedroom?”
“Franco does this to me all the time,” she told Costa, half serious, half joking. “It’s one of his tricks.”
“Tricks,” he answered softly. “You bring a policeman into my palace and accuse
“I told you,” Costa insisted. “I was invited to a party. Nothing more. If it’s a problem…”
The man took a deep breath, as if disappointed by the mild reply. “You’re the one whose wife died. I saw it somewhere. In the paper, I believe. They took pictures of you at the funeral. How does that feel?”
“Franco!” Agata intervened. “Don’t be so rude.”
“But I’m curious,” he protested. “He has no need to answer. Not if it offends him.”
“I’m not offended,” Costa cut in. “How does what feel exactly?”
“Being followed by scum like those reporters. Nosy bastards, invading your life. When you’ve done nothing wrong. I’ve had them too.”
“Not like this,” Costa replied sourly.
“No.” And the man had changed again. He seemed genuinely upset. Almost penitent. “It was wrong of me to presume in that way. I’m sorry. To lose the woman you love… I should never have asked. It was rude of me. Here…”
Malaspina’s right hand, the one Costa believed, when he entered that room, had taken the life of Emily, was extended now. “Shake, please,” Malaspina said. “Accept my apologies and my condolences. It’s the fate of everyone to be bereaved one day.” That strange, lost expression crossed his face once more. “I am merely fortunate never to have lost anyone who mattered to me. An absentee father scarcely counts.”
“Thank you,” Costa said, and took his hand. Malaspina had an extraordinary grip, strong and insistent. And then it was gone, and the aristocrat stood rocking on his heels, seemingly embarrassed by his own actions.
“You know a little of Caravaggio, then, do you?” he asked, as if it were small talk.
“A little,” Costa confessed.
“Only the art, I imagine. Not the man. The life. What made him.”
“Only the art.”
Costa shook his head. Agata came to his aid.
“Oh, not that rot again, Franco. ‘Without hope or fear.’ It was the motto of a certain kind of Roman individual in those times.” She glanced across the room, at Buccafusca and Castagna, or so it seemed to Costa, then turned back to Malaspina.
“So you’ve read Domenico Mora, Franco?” she asked him. “Or do you just spout what the others tell you?”
“I read,” he answered immediately, stung by the question. “We all do.”
“You’ve lost me,” Costa confessed.
“They have a certain little club, Nic,” she explained. “Men without girlfriends often do, I believe. They think it’s their duty to behave like stuck-up pigs when they feel like it because that is what a true Roman gentleman does, and has done for five centuries or so—”
“A knight offends fearlessly,” Malaspina interrupted, sounding as if he were quoting something. “For therein, and only therein, lies true distinction.” Then he smiled, as if it were all a joke. “But only in the right circumstances. Most of the time I’m an absolute angel.”
Agata Graziano looked at him the way a teacher would regard a stupid child.
“So was Caravaggio. Yet he spent the last four years of his life fleeing a murder charge and squandering his talent,” she observed mildly. “Violence in the name of honour. What did it get him?”
“We’re still talking about him, aren’t we?” Then, with no warning, he turned to Costa and asked, “Are you part of this investigation into the death of V?ronique Gillet and those prostitutes?”
“I’m not part of any investigation,” Costa said simply. “I thought I’d made that clear. Tonight…” He raised his glass again. “.…I’m merely happy to drink your wine. Why?”
“Because I knew her, of course,” Malaspina responded. “We all did.”
“Poor V?ronique,” Agata added. “I met her once or twice, only briefly. This is a small world. Not that she said very much. I never did understand why she visited Rome so often, to be frank. The Louvre never bought anything or lent much in return either.”
“The French stole what they wanted two centuries ago,” Malaspina muttered. “What happened?”
“I have no idea,” Costa answered with a shrug. “As I said, that is not my case.”
Agata shook her head. “She was murdered, surely? What other explanation is there?”
Malaspina sighed, then said, “V?ronique was a very sick woman. She didn’t have long to live. She told me so. Perhaps she was no innocent party, Officer. Have you thought of that?”
“I’ve thought of nothing.”
That answer displeased his host. “Then offer an opinion. You do have one, don’t you?”
“An opinion?” Costa drained the glass and handed it to the passing waitress, refusing another. “From what little I know, I would guess she was involved somehow. But I doubt one woman could achieve such a succession of deaths on her own. Someone must have helped her. Perhaps even instigated what went on.” He glanced at Agata, wondering whether to say what he wanted, then reminding himself that sometimes duty came before tact. “She had sex shortly before she died.”
“Well, that’s a comforting thought, anyway,” Malaspina said. “Tell me. Is that painting genuine, do you think?”
“You’ve seen it?” Costa asked.
Malaspina laughed. “Of course I’ve seen it!” he responded. “The money I give to the Barberini… If they didn’t call me in to get a private view of something like that, I’d want to know why.” He enjoyed Agata’s discomfort. “Oh dear. You feel some misplaced sense of ownership towards the thing. That’s a pity.”
He leaned down to peer into her pert face. “It’s called ‘privilege’ for a reason, dearest. So… is it genuine?”
“The painting is part of a serious investigation, sir. While this is none of my business, I would suggest that is not a question one should address publicly. For reasons of—”
“I’ll address it,” Agata interrupted. “Professionally I will not be able to say this for many weeks. All the obvious signs are there. We had some results for the pigment tests and the canvas this afternoon. They date to the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century. The X-rays show it is a virgin work, with nothing of any import underneath except some preliminary sketches. All the trademarks… the incisions, the stylistic peculiarities we associate with the artist. More than that” — she smiled at Costa openly, with some affection — “when I stand near a Caravaggio, I feel something. A little faint, a little excited, and more than a little scared. Don’t you agree, Nic?”
He nodded. “Exactly.”
“And I don’t?” Malaspina asked angrily. There was heat in his cheeks now. The transformation was immediate and astonishing. “You think I am somehow less perceptive than the two of you?”
“I have no idea, Franco,” she replied sweetly. “Your true feelings about anything are entirely unknown to me. When I see evidence of them, I shall judge.”
“Best be nice to me, Agata.” Malaspina nodded at the room around him. “That way you can hope to come and see it here if I happen to be feeling generous. This will be one Caravaggio the hoi polloi won’t sully. The Palazzo Malaspina is not the Doria Pamphilj. You’ll have to beg to get in.”
Both of them stared at him mutely for a moment. It was if a different man were now talking to them.
“What do you mean?” she asked eventually. “The painting is in the custody of the Barberini. No one’s mentioned it may be moved elsewhere.”
“They will. Soon too. Didn’t I tell you? I’m amazed the police haven’t found out yet. The hovel where they found it belongs to us. The Malaspina estate has been unchanged for three centuries. We never sold off one square metre. I own so much around here I find it tedious to keep track of it all. There’s even a whole precinct near the Piazza Borghese we picked up from a Pope somewhere along the way. Gambling debts or a woman, one or the other. What’s new?”
“Ownership of the studio in the Vicolo del Divino Amore scarcely makes the painting yours,” Costa pointed out.
“No? Talk to my lawyers.” His sharp black eyes held Costa. The man was laughing at them now. “If this painting isn’t mine, then whose is it? In the absence of proven title, ownership falls to the landlord. I checked with the idle little agent we employ to look after these matters. The place hasn’t been rented out for years. As far as that idiot knew, it was empty, which rather begs the question why he wasn’t seeking to rent it. If no one else can claim it, the thing is mine.”
“That may be the law,” Costa agreed. “But possession—”
“You are not listening to me,” Malaspina barked, becoming animated for the first time since Costa had been introduced to him. “Lawyers. The more you have, the more you gain. Now that I know Agata’s opinion, I will stake my claim tomorrow. Let’s see if anyone dares come to court to dispute it. I doubt it will be a long wait. You should be grateful for that, shouldn’t you? One less thing for you to worry about.”
“I wouldn’t expect any early judgments,” Costa replied, scanning the room, wondering what the others were doing.
“It’s mine!” Malaspina’s voice had risen to a shriek.
Costa stared at him. “That painting is not yours, sir. Not yet, if ever. It is evidence in a murder case in which several women have died through extreme violence. Possibly crucial evidence. That we shall see.”
“Lawyers!” Malaspina yelled. Agata took a step back. Costa stood his ground. “I will drown you in lawyers. I will send them to your home. I will have them throwing stones at your windows when you lie in bed alone at night. The painting is mine.”
“One day, possibly,” Costa acknowledged. “But not now. And not soon. Whatever case you may have for title, we are the police and we have ultimate claim when it comes to matters of physical evidence.” The thought came from nowhere and it pleased him to say it. “That which we have in our possession already, to hand.” He paused, for effect. “Identifiable and tagged.”
“As long as this murder investigation stays current,” Costa interrupted, “that painting will remain in police custody, secure and out of sight of everyone. Once we can put someone in jail for these terrible crimes” — he smiled at Malaspina — “perhaps you can see it then.”
The man swore and with a sudden, strong flick of his wrist sent the contents of his glass flying into Costa’s face.
“You do not know with whom you are playing, little man,” he spat viciously.
Costa took out a handkerchief and, with no visible sign of anger, wiped the drink from his face. “I think I’m beginning to get an idea,” he observed calmly.
He looked into Malaspina’s eyes and wondered what he saw there. A kind of fury, surely. But an irrational desperation bordering on fear and despair, too. This man did not simply desire the painting they had under lock and key in the Barberini studio. He craved it, like an addict longing for his fix.