Three

The last piece of physical evidence had been removed from the studio in the Vicolo del Divino Amore. But the smell of death — sweet, noxious, sickly — remained. Agata feigned not to notice. Rosa Prabakaran and Peroni, on the other hand, both made excuses to stand outside. Costa understood why. Something — perhaps the work in lifting the floors or the exposure of so much dull, dark earth itself — made the stench worse than it had been at the moment the first body was found.

There was, surely, nothing left of interest to be removed from the charnel house that had been the lair of the Ekstasists. Nevertheless, Teresa Lupo, as she guided her visitors around its interior, explaining its grim, dark secrets, insisted each of them wear the standard white forensic suit and move within the tapes while she went through each and every victim with painstaking care and in exact detail.

Agata listened, asking questions only rarely, eyes wide open in wonder mostly, occasionally misted with shock and dismay.

“What do you know about these women?” she asked when Teresa had finished her main exposition. “Who they were. Where they came from.”

“Not much,” Teresa said sadly. “Not real names. Not history. They worked the streets, probably in the rougher parts of town. That much we know. Not a lot more.” She hesitated. “You understand what AIDS is?”

“Of course,” Agata answered with a sigh.

“Four of them were HIV-positive. One possibly was developing AIDS itself.”

Agata shook her head. She looked oddly young in the white bunny suit. “Poor things…”

“They weren’t alone in that,” Costa pointed out. “V?ronique Gillet suffered from AIDS too.”

“What a world you inhabit,” Agata murmured. “And you think that of Caravaggio was primitive by comparison. Did you find any artist’s materials that didn’t seem to be modern?”

This was a subject that clearly didn’t interest the pathologist.

“There was some paint and a small number of brushes that were a few years old. They hadn’t been used in a while.” Teresa glanced around her. “This was a studio, though, wasn’t it? You can see how it would be suitable for that purpose? Tell me I’m correct, Agata.”

“I think so,” she answered.

“Caravaggio’s studio?” Costa asked.

Agata gave him a stern look. “You can’t give me firm answers about events that happened here in the past few months. Yet you expect me to illuminate you on matters that may or may not have occurred four hundred years ago?”

Teresa folded her strong arms. “Yes, Sister, we do. Otherwise why are you here?”

Agata laughed. “Very well. Let me tell you what I read about last night, in the deadly quiet of Nic’s lonely farmhouse. Caravaggio did live in this street, right up until the moment he fled Rome after killing Ranuccio Tomassoni in a brawl, involving several others on both sides, and knives. It’s difficult to be more precise than that. In those days this street had a different name. It was the Vicolo dei Santi Cecilia e Biagio — don’t ask me why it changed, I have no idea.”

She turned and stared around the room. “When Caravaggio fled, the authorities made an inventory of his home. Most of the possessions, one assumes, were his, not those of his boyfriend or servant.” A look of brief dejection crossed her face. “Reading the list of his belongings, you wonder what he had come to. It was pathetic. A guitar. Some very old and poor furniture. Some weapons, of course, among them a pair of duelling swords in an ebony case, possibly the most valuable things he owned.”

She stared at them. “That was the man. He saw everything, lived everything. Good and evil. The touch of grace, the absence of it. He simply wished to paint it all, every last detail. But here?” Agata Graziano held out her arms in empty despair. “I don’t know. Perhaps he lived and worked in the same room. Many did when they were poor. The street name has changed. The numbers have changed. I have no idea. Did you find nothing?”

“We were looking for evidence from now,” Teresa answered. “We’re forensic scientists, not archaeologists. Of course we found other material. We were digging up bare earth.”

“Old brushes? Papers? Anything with writing on it?”

Teresa brightened a little and said, “Let me show you what we have.”

They followed the pathologist over to a set of bright red plastic boxes stacked four deep. They were positioned next to the rear exit to the yard behind, a sight that brought back too many memories for Costa, so that he turned and looked away for a while, wondering if it was really possible to feel the past, to detect the presence of an extraordinary human being through some odd sixth sense that defied explanation.

When he turned, Agata was rummaging forcefully through the boxes, turning over broken crockery and trash and piece after piece of unidentifiable rubbish accrued across the centuries in the black Roman dirt.

“A brush,” she said, and threw something on the floor at his feet. “It’s probably of the period. But it could be anyone’s. This is a waste of time. There’s nothing…”

She stopped. Costa and Teresa watched in silence as she withdrew an object from the box and put it to one side. Then she tore into the second box with flailing hands, raked through the contents for a minute or more before finding something else and removing it.

They scarcely had a chance to see what she had found before both items went into her bright new shiny black satchel.

Agata Graziano gazed at her small, silent audience.

“I don’t care to remember things that happened months ago,” she declared. “It seems to me a waste of my time to dwell too much on the immediate past. But…” There was a sharp glint of excitement in her eyes. “I do recall a conversation I had with V?ronique Gillet one night when they were opening that exhibition at the Palazzo Ruspoli, the one that had so much Caravaggio material from abroad.”

Costa closed his eyes. He had worked security for that event. He and Emily had decided, at its close, to marry.

“I teased V?ronique. She was French, for pity’s sake, and the French demand it. Besides, they have stolen so much of ours, and do not even deign to share it either. This was” — she pointed at them to emphasise the matter — “the subject of our little playful argument. There was a painting that ought to have been there. The Death of the Virgin. The Louvre wouldn’t allow it out of their grasping hands. Some excuse about security or preservation or whatever. It should have been in Rome, not sitting in Paris, gawked at by tourists who haven’t the slightest understanding of what they see. Listen to me now. Caravaggio painted from life. Always.”

“I’ll try,” Teresa replied. “And the point you’re making…?”

“There was an outcry when he delivered that painting of the Virgin. The Madonna was swollen and lifeless. She was dead, after all. Very obviously human, not some goddess awaiting the call to divinity. Worse, there was a widespread belief that he painted her from the corpse of a common Roman whore recovered from the Tiber. I believe this too. It’s there for the world to see. In the way she looks. In the sympathy with which she is regarded by the figures around her — a common sympathy. Disegno. He sought the sign of God in all of us.”

She stared into space, not seeing anything, intent only on the questions racing through her head. “We know precisely when that work was executed, because it was a Church commission. There are records. If this was Caravaggio’s studio, that corpse must have lain here,” Agata said finally, staring at Costa with eyes that brimmed with both shock and a terrible knowledge. Her fingers pointed to the ground. “Here. Four hundred years before your poor black street women…”

“If…” Teresa murmured.

Agata shook her head free of the forensic suit’s hood and started to struggle out of the white plastic. “I wish to go to the Doria Pamphilj immediately,” she declared, then, still fighting with the bunny suit, swept through them, marching for the door. No one moved.

“I can phone Commissario Esposito if you like!” she shouted, turning to face them, beckoning with her short, skinny arms.

“So you could,” Costa groaned, and followed.

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