Hold your breath. Listen.
He is shrinking back into the shadow of the doorway, out of the spread of the torchlight as his pursuer stands at the mouth of the alley, holding the light aloft.
He can’t have lost him. He hit him. Surely.
He could feel the knife judder against the man’s jawbone.
He hit him.
But how badly?
Enough to kill?
Cautiously, the attacker moves forward on the uneven street as his victim flattens himself against the door, pressing his body into the shadow of the porch. Scarcely breathing, he watches as the light comes closer, and then pauses only yards away. He can smell the smoke, see the shimmer of illumination rise and fall as his attacker lifts and lowers his light. And then he takes another step forward – and stops.
There are only yards between them. In the doorway, Michelangelo Merisi, known as the painter Caravaggio, is hiding, wounded. Reaching up, he can feel the violence of the attack, the slashing of flesh from the outer corner of his eye, down his cheek to his jawbone. But missing the artery.
He breathes in. So softly, hardly making a sound in his own lungs. If he can escape, he can survive. Disfigured, but alive. He can feel the blood running into his shirt, the night air burning into the open wound.
His attacker is pausing, only twelve feet away.
Rigid, Caravaggio realises that one breath, one twitch, one muscle flicker will give him away. The silence is so complete, so absolute, that any noise will betray him as readily as cannon fire. And then he feels it. The first trickle of blood running from his jawline, down his chest, towards his arm. He tenses. The blood, sticky and treacherous, slides down to his wrist, then crosses his palm. For an inexplicable instant it seems to pause, lingering at the tips of his fingers for an eternity before, finally, losing its hold.
And dripping, loud as a pistol shot, onto the ground at his feet.
Cork Street, London January 2014, 8.36 a.m.
The police had cordoned off the area with yellow tape, closed both ends of the street to prevent any traffic entering or leaving. An ambulance, its siren muted, was parked at the entrance of The Weir Gallery and two police officers stood guard at the door.
It was seven thirty on a winter’s morning. Sleet was making the capital’s streets unwelcoming, a mordant sky promising a fitful, chilly, January day. But inside the gallery, where the heating had been turned up to the maximum, over a hundred degrees, a distraught man was sitting with his head in his hands by the stairs that led to the downstairs gallery.
Hearing his name, he looked up. ‘Gil. Thanks for coming.’ He stared at the thickset man standing in front of him. Wiry dark hair, nose broken from a fight in his teens, stevedore’s hands. Not the kind of man anyone would expect to see in an art gallery.
‘You were the only person I could turn to . . .’ His eyes moved towards the back of the main gallery, where a partition screen had been pulled across. ‘I was going to call the police straight after I’d phoned you – but Oscar beat me to it.’
The name resonated in Gil’s head. Relax, he thought. There are a lot of men called Oscar. But he knew before asking which Oscar this would be.
‘He was here until a few minutes ago. You just missed him. I need you to help me. I need you to take on the case.’ When Gil didn’t reply, Jacob hurried on. ‘The police won’t let me leave. Surely they can’t think I had anything to do with it?’
‘They want to talk to you because you found the bodies,’ Gil said, sitting on the steps next to the dealer. ‘They just want to ask some questions.’ He felt in his inside pocket and then remembered that he didn’t smoke any more. Hadn’t smoked for over seven years. Since Berlin. ‘How did Oscar find out what had happened?’
‘I don’t know. He didn’t say. You know Oscar, always in on everything.’
As he talked, Gil noticed the smell of alcohol on Jacob’s breath. At 8.45 in the morning? Jacob Levens had been a heavy drinker for a long time, but the previous year ill health had forced him to give up. Supposedly.
‘Why were you here, Jacob?’
‘We had a breakfast meeting at eight. I was early, but the door was unlocked and so I walked in. The lights were on, so was the heating—’
‘You’re not kidding. It must be over a hundred degrees in here. Why doesn’t someone lower the thermostat?’
‘I was going to, but we can’t touch anything.’
Gil watched the tableau that was taking shape at the end of the gallery. Old memories, unpleasant and unwanted, forced themselves on him.
‘I haven’t been here for a long time.’ ‘I’m surprised the police let you in—’
Gil shrugged. ‘I know the officer on duty.’
‘Still got influence?’
‘I hope not.’
He glanced at Jacob — the man who had hired him many times, and over the years had become a friend. The man who had stood by him after the death of his first wife and introduced him to his second. The man Gil liked, admired, even though his weaknesses were common knowledge. But friendship only went so far. Now Jacob Levens was calling Gil back to the world he had rejected. And if it had been anyone other than Jacob he would have refused.
‘I’ll be back in a minute,’ Gil told him, as he moved towards the partition.
The officer who had let him into the gallery was talking to a detective, another man familiar to Gil. Detective Phil Simmons, around forty, with bags under his eyes and an angry rash running from his neck up to his forehead. Seeing Gil, Simmons gestured for him to approach.
No, he thought. If I walk behind this screen, I’m involved. I’m back where I used to be, investigating the art world, down in the midden with the crooks and the grandees who pose as honest men. Among the money men who manipulate them all. If I go behind the screen I go back to my other life. Before I met Bette. Do I really want to risk the future by revisiting a past I despised?
Well, do I?
‘I thought you’d given all of this up,’ Simmons said, again beckoning for Gil to come forward. ‘Seem to remember that you swore off the investigating work.’ He scratched at his blotchy skin. ‘Heard you were a researcher now.’
‘So why are you here?’
‘Jacob called me in. He’s a friend.’
Simmons glanced over his shoulder towards the dealer. ‘He found the bodies.’
‘Yeah. He said.’
‘You know you’ve put on weight?’ Simmons remarked, grinning.
‘I got married again.’
‘She can obviously cook.’
‘We’re having a baby.’
‘Are you carrying it?’
To his surprise, Gil laughed, slipping back into the old informality.
‘You ready?’ Simmons asked, jerking his head to indicate that Gil could walk behind the partition.
And still he hesitated.
‘Come on!’ Simmons barked. ‘I haven’t got all bloody day.’ The Weir brothers were obviously dead. Sitting, stripped naked, back to back, their necks bound together with picture wire. Their legs had been bent into the yoga lotus position, their genitals exposed, their scrotums bloodied, punctured by deep, lacerating wounds.
‘Nail gun,’ Simmons said, pointing to the discarded tool lying only inches from Sebastian Weir’s left foot. ‘Tortured. Both of them.’
Gil stared at the brothers, at the twins who had been preeminent on the London art scene for over a decade. Two successful dealers, skin white as coconut milk, hair bleached blond. Vicious and generous by turns. Never seen apart. Not even dead.
‘Oh, shit,’ Simmons said suddenly, leaning down towards the brothers and staring into their bloated faces. He glanced over to the pathologist who was examining the bodies. ‘Is that what I think it is?’
Dunning paused. ‘I don’t know. What d’you think it is?’ ‘Around the mouth. Is that—’
‘Rabbit size glue,’ Gil interrupted.
‘Thank God. I thought it was semen,’ Simmons replied. ‘What’s “rabbit size glue”?’
‘A mixture used to prepare canvases. It goes on first, before the canvas is primed.’
‘So why put it in their mouths?’
‘Search me,’ Gil replied, still staring at the corpses, wondering when Dunning – or Simmons – would notice what he had seen at once. What he hadn’t wanted to see, because he knew what it meant.
‘Come on,’ Simmons urged the pathologist. ‘What killed them?’
Dunning looked like a kid in a man’s suit. Ignoring the detective, he reached out his gloved hand and touched the bloodied head of Benjamin Weir, then frowned as the scalp moved, slipping forward over the victim’s face, exposing the skull.
Gil took in a breath and Simmons glanced at him.
‘What? You want to say something. What is it?’
‘Sebastian will have been scalped too.’
The pathologist touched the head of the second corpse, and then nodded.
Curious, Simmons glanced back to Gil. ‘How did you know?’
‘I’ve seen it before.’
‘Anything else you want to tell me?’
‘Only that the killer will have swapped the scalps. Benjamin will have Sebastian’s scalp, and Sebastian, Benjamin’s.’
He was back in the past without realising it. Back in time seven years to a case he had been working on. Not in London – this time it was Berlin. An eminent art dealer, Terrill Huber, had been found in a storage facility naked, bound with picture wire, his genitals mutilated with a nail gun, rabbit skin glue in his mouth. And he had been scalped. An hour later his wife, Alma, was found naked and bound in their gallery on the Friedrichstrasse, also scalped. Her breasts were spotted by wounds from a nail gun and rabbit skin glue had been poured into her mouth after death.
What had given the events a hideous comedic slant was that fact that the husband was wearing his wife’s scalp and she was wearing his. The sight of a pot-bellied, ageing man lying disfigured and bloodied had been made ridiculous by the topping of his wife’s dyed hair. It had added a cruel, morbidly vicious touch. As for the wife, she had been slumped against the gallery’s inner office door, her husband’s bloodied bald pate crowning her beautiful face.
The image had never left Gil. It had remained lodged in his psyche. And for all his investigations – and those of the Berlin police – the killer was never found.
Two months later Gil’s own wife was dead.
Grieving, he had given up his investigative work. Had gone into research instead, hired by writers to help with their books. The subjects varied: crime, the art world, even sport. But that suited Gil. He snuggled down into words, took comfort in a lullaby of facts, all the time knowing that it had been an accident, a fluke which had killed Holly. A set of traffic lights malfunctioning. Sticking on green when they should have changed to red. So that the car coming towards her didn’t expect Holly’s vehicle – and couldn’t avoid it in time.
‘Were they gay?’
Drawn back to the present, Gil shook his head and glanced over to Simmons. ‘No.’
‘Yeah. They were asexual. Advertised the fact. They’d been celibate for years.’
Both men watched as the corpses were lifted into body bags, put onto stretchers, and wheeled out. A group of onlookers had already gathered around the gallery entrance, the slam of the ambulance doors echoing in the dead morning.
‘You said you’d seen something like this before.’ Simmons glanced over to Gil. ‘Where?’
‘Berlin. I was called in on the case, but I had no luck. Neither did the police. I thought I was close to him once, but didn’t get him.’
‘When was this?’
Preoccupied, Simmons scratched at his neck, Gil watching him.
‘How d’you get that rash?’
‘I won it in a raffle,’ Simmons replied drily. ‘The doctor said it was something I ate. I’ve tried three different creams, but nothing works.’ Still raking at his neck with his nails, he turned back to Gil. ‘Were there other similarities, apart from the scalping?’
‘The other victims were naked too. And the man’s genitals had been mutilated.’
‘Last time it was a man and a woman,’ Gil explained. ‘Husband and wife. The woman’s breasts were mutilated.’
‘What about the rabbit shit?’
‘Rabbit skin glue. There was some in both of the victim’s mouths.’
Simmons raised his eyebrows. ‘And the scalps were swapped?’
‘Yes. Their bodies were found in different locations. The killer took the husband’s scalp all the way across Berlin.’
‘Where he then stuck it on the wife’s head? After he’d scalped her?’
‘And then he crossed Berlin again with her scalp to put it on her husband’s head?’ Simmons paused. ‘So he killed the husband first?’
‘Why did he scalp them?’
‘We never found out, because we never found him.’
‘And now the Weir brothers have been murdered the same way. Same killer?’
‘Maybe.’ Gil shrugged. ‘I don’t know what’s been going on for the last seven years. I’m out of touch. Perhaps there have been other murders like this—’
‘Not in London.’
‘Well, maybe you should check out what’s been going on in Germany. And everywhere else, if it comes to that.’ Gil sighed. ‘Look, it was a long time ago, when I used to do this for a living.’
‘You’re doing it now—’
‘No. I only came because Jacob called me. I’m not directly involved.’
‘But you know I’ve got to ask you about Berlin, don’t you?’ Gil nodded. ‘Yes. But if I help you, you have to help me. Give me access to the pathologist, to your witness statements – the usual. I’m discreet, you know that. You can trust me.’
Simmons put his head on one side. ‘So you are taking the case?’
‘I’ll have a quick look at it for Jacob. But I’m not getting caught up again. I’m retired, remember?’
‘Oh, I remember,’ Simmons replied, pointing across the gallery to where Jacob Levens was still sitting. ‘Question is, does he?’
He was using straighteners, because he hated the way his hair crinkled up. Liked it to look groomed. Not like coarse, peasant hair. Still, he thought with pleasure, it was a luscious head of hair for a man over forty. Leaning towards the mirror Luca then studied his teeth, checking there was no plaque, no irritating reminder of a rushed lunch.
The only part of his face he truly liked were his eyes. Dark brown, but not welcoming. Hard. Compelling. At times inviting, at other times cold. Rough trade eyes . . . His gaze moved down to the waiter’s uniform he was wearing. An outfit soaked in resentment, sticky with humiliation. Everything that a customer thought was in their eyes: words were irrelevant. Their expression said it all as they looked at him: man nudging middle age, waiting on tables. Trying to be pleasant and obsequious instead. An outsider, with his slicked-down Mediterranean hair and rent boy lips. Overblown, slipping out of his good looks and youth . . .
Yes, Luca thought. I know how you see me. But not for much longer.
Breathing in, he relaxed. Everything was in place at last. Within hours he would launch himself on the internet. He would also contact the papers, magazines, radio and television, and begin his blog. Facebook and Twitter were poised like greyhounds in the slips, ready to run.
He had the name, after all. A name that was famous and, more importantly, infamous. The name of a painter who was also a murderer. Of course Luca knew that people might not believe him. Might never accept that he was a descendant of Caravaggio and the notorious Roman prostitute Fillide Melandroni. But he was prepared for that. Prepared for people to scoff and think him a madman.
He knew better. He knew his bloodline, and what it meant. How it carried a secret. How he was the only man alive who knew the whereabouts of Fillide Melandroni’s portrait, long thought destroyed. But that wasn’t all. Luca also knew the hiding place of the most famous missing painting in the art world – The Nativity with St Lawrence and St Francis, stolen from Palermo, Sicily, in 1969. Allegedly by the Mafia.
The portrait of Fillide was believed to have been destroyed in Germany in 1945. The Nativity had been missing since 1969. Although both works were valuable, The Nativity was a legend. Too famous to be sold on, too valuable to be destroyed.
As he had been. Waiting.
Of course when he went public Luca Meriss knew that he would be setting himself up as a target, and not just for abuse. Revealing the portrait would be a coup. Its history was extraordinary, likely to catch the interest of the world. Luca wanted that. Fillide Melandroni was his ancestor: a beautiful, violent whore whose image shimmered out of many of Caravaggio’s paintings. Who wouldn’t want to own it? But The Nativity would stagger the art world. A painting valued at more than £60,000,000 would incite interest and greed across the globe. Every collector, gallery, connoisseur – and villain – would want it.
But only he knew its whereabouts. Only Luca Meriss. Anyone who wanted it had to come to him. And if anything happened to him? It would be lost forever.
As guarantees went, it was irrefutable.
Excerpted from The Caravaggio Conspiracy by Alex Connor. Copyright © 2014 by Alex Connor.
First published in Great Britain in 2014 by Quercus Editions Ltd, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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