It was a diary, one that covered a period of nine years, from June 13, 1597, to May 29, 1606, the day after Ranuccio Tomassoni’s murder. She had spent much of the previous night reading it, but parts had still, Agata said, only been skimmed. She had focused on those that appeared to contain the most activity. Then, when she had made the excuse to visit the convent, she had consulted with another sister there, one skilled in documents of that period and capable of translating some of the words and terms with which she was unfamiliar.

There were many. Agata Graziano’s dark complexion hid her blushes, mostly. The front page of the book bore the title, in ornate gilt lettering, Gli Ekstasisti e Evathia, “The Ekstasists and Eve.” It concealed the private chronicle of the Ekstasists by-week account of a secret male brotherhood that began as a prank of wild young men and developed over the years into something darker, more malevolent. The contents were, to begin with, frank and boastful, the record of a private gang of talented and often moneyed men who spent their days in the bright, chattering intellectual society of Renaissance Rome and their nights in the bleak, hard, physical violence of the Ortaccio underclass. There were wild tales of sexual adventures with society women and prostitutes, and practises among the members themselves that could have attracted a quick death sentence had the truth become known to the Vatican. There were sketches, pornographic cartoons, and ribald, obscene poems. And the pages recorded rituals, too: ceremonies only hinted at, but, Agata said, with pagan and alchemical antecedents.

Among the ancient scribbles were preliminary drawings for paintings, at least some of which were the work of Caravaggio.

“Here,” she said, indicating the strange rough outline of three naked muscular figures seen from below, set around a globe. “This is a sketch for his only fresco, commissioned by Del Monte for the casino of the Villa Ludovisi. It’s still there today. Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto, although in truth these are allegories for the triad of Paracelsus, and alchemical conceit… sulphur and air, mercury and water, salt and earth. The casino was used by Del Monte for dabbling in pursuits the Vatican would have regarded as heretical. Possibly with Galileo at his side.”

She turned to the beginning of the book and another sketch, one occupying two full pages as the frontispiece.

Evathia in Ekstasis. Eve in Ecstasy. The moment those worldly sins they worshipped in secret entered our lives.”

They all crowded round to see. Even this sketch, in crude ink, took Costa’s breath away. It possessed the finished work’s subtle play upon the mind, the ability to shift in perspective and daring, depending on how the viewer gazed on the rapturous woman’s tense and highly physical moment of bliss.

“She,” Agata said quietly, “was the goddess of them all. Mother and wife. Whore and slave. Bringer of both joy and damnation. This was what they worshipped. This” — her fingers traced the sensuous outline of the female nude on the page — “is what Franco Malaspina worships today. Like his ancestor.”

There were, she said, seven of them, never referred to by name, only by trade or postion: the Painter, the Caporione, the Merchant, the Servant, the Poet, the Priest, and, more often than any, il Conte Nero, the Black Count. This was Ippolito Malaspina, she believed, while Ranuccio Tomassoni was the Caporione, Caravaggio the Painter, and the Priest someone in the service of Cardinal Del Monte, the artist’s landlord at the turn of the century.

“How do you know about the Priest?” Falcone demanded.

“It was” — a sly smile flickered in Costa’s direction — “guesswork. I was in luck. The records of Del Monte’s household still exist. In these days of modern miracles, I can even examine them in the Vatican repository on Christmas Day, at two in the morning, on someone else’s computer. There was a name there… Father Antonio L’Indaco, son of an artist recorded in the annals of Vasari, one who had worked with Michelangelo. This was a bohemian household.”

“And it was him… because?” Costa asked, half knowing the answer.

“Because at the end of May 1606, Antonio L’Indaco disappeared and was never seen again. Why?”

They waited, listening, all of them, the police officers and the lawyer, and scene-of-crime people in their suits.

“He is the one who went to Malta with Caravaggio and pretended to be Ippolito Malaspina, while the man himself was dead, inside this house, murdered in the violence that also brought about the death of Ranuccio Tomassoni.”

Costa touched the pages. The paper was thick and felt a little damp. It was not hard for him to imagine Caravaggio and the other Ekstasists standing over this book, scribbling down the details of their exploits, and small sketches, almost doodles, in the margins.

“Why did he die?” he asked. “Do you know?”

“I can guess,” she answered with a marked, quiet reluctance. “This book covers nine years. A substantial part of many a man’s life in those days. In the beginning” — she frowned — “it’s nothing more than a game. Drinking and fighting and women. The way it began for Franco, I think. Until something — the ‘sport in the blood’ — took hold of him. Then…”

She flicked to a page with a yellow bookmark, towards the end of the book. They crowded round and gazed at what was there: an ink drawing of a terrified woman naked on her back, surrounded by grinning, laughing men.…

He followed the line of her extended finger. In the margin of the page was written, God forgive me, for I know not what I do…

The flowing, easy writing, sloping, somehow almost regretful in its very nature, was the same as that on the missing painting, the same as that of Caravaggio himself.


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