Nine

There was a storeroom. It took all his strength to drag her there, as she kicked and fought, his hand over her mouth, his arms tight around the rough fabric of her black dress. The door was ajar. Costa levered it open with his foot, grabbed her more tightly, and dragged the two of them through into the darkness.

She struggled all the way, wrestling in his arms. They fell against the shelves. Cans of paint tumbled to the floor, old easels, dusty, unused for years.

“Nic!” she screeched.

He pulled the door shut, then, in the meagre light that fell from the cracks above and below, he pushed her to the end of the small, enclosed chamber and held her close. In the gloom her eyes glittered with emotion.

“They have weapons,” he said simply. “They kill people. We keep quiet. We wait.”

She stared at him and withdrew from his grip, standing back against the shelves he could just make out in the stripes of yellow illumination from the room beyond. They contained the junk of ages: fusty books, small canvases wrapped in sackcloth, and palette after palette of long-dried paint.

“Why did you bring me into this?” she whispered with obvious bitterness. “What did I do?”

He glanced at the door. “You knew enough to unlock the painting,” he answered immediately. Then, before she could say another word, he placed his finger to his lips.

They were there, outside, moving swiftly, arguing. Angry voices. Two. And a further sound too: a man in pain, howling, pleading for help. The security guard surely, from along the entrance corridor.

One voice, more than the other, seemed familiar from the Barberini’s party that evening. Franco Malaspina. Agata surely thought so too. She listened in shock and covered her mouth with her small, dark hand.

The noise of them grew louder. It was obvious what they wanted. The painting. The canvas was large, perhaps manageable by one man, but much easier for two. They were talking about how to remove it, what to cover it with, how to proceed.

And they were different: one confident, masterly, the second scared, fearful.

Finally, the other, weaker one spoke up.

“You shot him,” he moaned in a high-pitched, almost feminine whimper. “You shot him. For God’s sake.”

“What do you think we brought these things for?” the second voice snapped.

“He’s alive!”

There was a pause. Costa watched Agata. She seemed ready to break.

The bolder intruder spoke. “I’ll deal with that on the way out. Don’t squawk. You can wash the blood off later. Now help me move it. We don’t have time…”

Agata’s eyes went glassy. She stumbled. Her elbow caught something — a box file, covered in dust — teetering on the edge of the shelf. As it balanced in the darkness, she reached for it, caught thin air, her flailing fingers sending more old and grubby objects tumbling noisily to the floor, a telltale cacophony of sound announcing their presence.

The room beyond became silent.

Then a voice, the one he thought he knew, said loudly and full of confidence, “I wondered why the lights were on. Careless…”

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