Book 1 A Child in Darkness
Book 2 Between Worlds
Book 3 Flesh and Bone
Book 4 The Midnight God
Book 5 The Seventh Sacrament
About the Author
Also by David Hewson
Mithras, God of the Midnight, here where the great bull dies,
Look on thy children in darkness. O take our sacrifice!
Many roads thou hast fashioned: all of them lead to the Light,Mithras, also a soldier, teach us
to die aright!
from “A Song to Mithras: Hymn of the XXX Legion,” by Rudyard Kipling
Pino Gabrielli, warden of the Piccolo Museo del Purgatorio
Nic Costa, an agente in the Rome Questura
Gianni Peroni, a fellow agente
Leo Falcone, Costa and Peroni’s inspector
Teresa Lupo, chief pathologist
Emily Deacon, Costa’s partner
Raffaella Arcangelo, Falcone’s partner
Ornella Di Benedetto, warden of the church of Santa Maria dell’Assunta
Rosa Prabakaran, a junior police agente
Bruno Messina, police commissario over Leo Falcone
Arturo Messina, Bruno’s father, now retired from the police in disgrace
Enzo Uccello, a criminal on release
Beatrice Bramante, former wife of Giorgio, mother of Alessio
Dino Abati, a homeless man
Prinzivalli, a police sovrintendente
Silvio Di Capua, Teresa Lupo’s deputy
Cristiano, a biologist specialising in worms
Judith Turnhouse, an archaeologist
Lorenzo Lotto, a left-wing aristocrat and magazine owner
Alessio Bramante, a schoolboy
Giorgio Bramante, his father, an archaeologist
Ludo Torchia, Toni LaMarca, Dino Abati, Sandro Vignola, Andrea Guerino, Elisabetta Giordano,Bernardo Giordano, and Raul Bellucci, students under Giorgio Bramante
Leo Falcone, a police sovrintendente
Arturo Messina, police commissario over Leo Falcone
MITHRAISM ORIGINATED IN PERSIA before the sixth century BC. From around AD 136 onwards, it wasadopted as one of the most important cults among Roman and government officials. SubterraneanMithraic temples built by Imperial troops are common in all of the empire’s militaryfrontiers, from the Middle East to England. Three have been identified along Hadrian’s Wall,in northern England; more than a dozen, out of a suspected hundred or more, have beendiscovered in Rome itself.
At the heart of Mithraism lay several features which seem to have appealed to the military andbureaucratic mind. The cult was highly organised, secretive, and confined to men. It demandedinsistence on absolute hierarchical obedience, first to local, higher-ranking members of thecult, and ultimately to the emperor. It also used a series of different “sacraments” to markthe passage of followers from one of its seven ranks to the next. Indeed the very word“sacrament,” while religious in nature today, stems from the original Latin term used for theoath of allegiance sworn by soldiers on joining the army. What those sacraments were, we can
only guess, but they appear to have involved a separate initiation ceremony, with a swearing ofoaths and on occasion a sacrifice, for each of the specific ranks, from the most junior, Corax,to the leader, Pater.
Mithraism shared some similar ideas and features with early Christianity, though the idea thatthe Catholic Church copied deliberately from the cult is probably far-fetched. None of theMithraic scriptures remain, however, since this was a religion fated to be wiped from thehistory books. On October 28, AD 312, at the conclusion of a civil war, Constantine won controlof the empire at the battle of the Milvian Bridge, a strategic point at which the Flaminian Waycrossed the Tiber River into Rome. Though a follower of pagan ways himself at the time,Constantine, probably for political reasons, decided to make Christianity the sole religion ofthe empire. As his troops sacked Rome, the repression of Mithraism began.
The most visible relic of Mithras in Rome today is the archaeological find uncovered by IrishDominican monks excavating the basilica of San Clemente close to the Colosseum. Here, an entireunderground temple has been revealed, with chambers for ceremonies, and the focal point of
mithraeum itself, where the ceremonial altar, with its image of Mithras slayingworship, the
the bull, would have stood. San Clemente is open to the public; many more underground sites,including other mithraeums, are open by appointment. The visits offered by the voluntaryorganisation Roma Sotterranea (www.underrome.com) offer the best way to explore the extensivehidden city that lies beneath modern Rome. Many sites are difficult, dangerous, and illegal tovisit without expert assistance.
Since history is invariably written by the victors, we have no independent contemporaryaccounts of what happened on the day the victorious Constantine entered Rome. However, we doknow that he “disbanded” the imperial elite troop of the Praetorian Guard, which had sidedwith his opponent, Maxentius, and destroyed entirely their headquarters, the Castra Praetoria,which possessed a mithraeum in the vicinity for their private worship. A glimpse into theevents of that day can be found in a less well-known Roman mithraeum, on the Aventine hill, notfar from the area where much of this book is set. Excavations beneath the small church of SantaPrisca in the 1950s revealed that the original Christian building had been built on the remainsof a Mithraic temple. When the archaeologists made their way into the heart of the mithraeum,they discovered it had been desecrated, probably sometime shortly after Constantine’s victory,and statues and wall paintings had been destroyed with axes. What happened to the templefollowers during this turbulent period is unknown.
THE BOY STOOD WHERE HE USUALLY DID AT THAT TIME of the morning: in the Piazza dei Cavalieri di
Malta, on the summit of the Aventino hill, not far from home. Alessio Bramante was wearing thenovelty glasses that came in the gift parcel from his birthday party the day before, peeringthrough them into the secret keyhole, trying to make sense of what he saw.
The square was only two minutes’ walk from Alessio’s front door, and the same from theentrance to the Scuola Elementare di Santa Cecilia, so this was a journey he made every day,always with his father, a precise and serious man who would retrace his steps from the schoolgates back to the square, where his office, an outpost of the university, was located. Thisroutine was now so familiar Alessio knew he could cover the route with his eyes closed, no
longer needing that firm, guiding adult hand every inch of the way.
He adored the piazza, which had always seemed to him as if it belonged in a fairy-tale palace,not on the Aventino, which was a hill for ordinary, everyday men and women. Ones with money,like bankers and politicians. But not special people, kings and queens, banished from theirhomelands to live in the grand villas and apartment blocks dotted through its leafy avenues.
Palms and great conifers, like Christmas trees, fringed the white walls that ran around threesides of the piazza, adorned at precise intervals with needle-like Egyptian obelisks and thecrests of great families. The walls were the work, his father said, of a famous artist calledPiranesi, who, like all his kind in the Rome of the past, was as skilled an architect as he wasa draftsman.
Alessio wished he could have met Piranesi. He had a precise mental image of him: a thin man,
always thinking, with dark skin, piercing eyes, and a slender, waxy moustache that sat above
his upper lip looking as if it had been painted there. Piranesi was an entertainer, a clown who
made you laugh by playing with the way things looked. When he grew up, Alessio would organise
events in the piazza, directing them himself, dressed in a severe dark suit, like his father.
There would be elephants, he decided, and dancers and men in commedia dell’arte costumes
juggling balls and pins to the bright music of a small brass band.
All this would come at some stage in that grey place called the future, which revealed itself alittle day by day, like a shape emerging from one of the all-consuming mists that sometimesenshrouded the Aventino in winter, making it a ghostly world, unfamiliar to him, full ofhidden, furtive noises and unseen creatures.
An elephant could hide in that kind of fog, Alessio thought. Or a tiger, or some kind of beastno one, except Piranesi in his gloomiest moments, could imagine. Then he reminded himself ofwhat his father had said only a few days before, not quite cross, not quite.
No one gains from an overactive imagination.
No one needed such a thing on a day like this either. It was the middle of June, a beautiful,warm, sunny morning, with no hint of the fierce inferno that would fall from the bright bluesky well before the onset of August. At that moment he had room in his head for just a singlewonder, one he insisted on seeing before he went to Santa Cecilia and began the day, asbefitted a school dedicated to the patron saint of music, with a chorus of song in which he
made sure his own, pitch-perfect voice was always uppermost.
“Alessio,” Giorgio Bramante said again, a little brusquely.
He knew what his father was thinking. At seven, tall and strong for his age, he was too old forthese games. A little—what was the word he’d heard his father use once?—headstrong too.
Or perhaps, as his grandmother once said, he recognised himself in his son. They were alike, orso some claimed. And, at the party, his father was the one who picked out the parcel with theglasses, hoping, perhaps, to bring the event to an end as quickly as possible. So it was onlyright that he bear some accountability for the toy.
Alessio was unsure how old he was when his father first introduced him to the keyhole. He hadsoon realised that it was a secret shared. From time to time others would walk up to the greendoor and take a peek. Occasionally taxis would stop in the square and release a few baffledtourists, which seemed a sin. This was a private ritual to be kept among the few, those wholived on the Aventino hill, Alessio thought. Not handed out to anyone.
THE SECRET WAS to be found on the river side of the piazza, at the centre of a white marblegatehouse, ornate and amusing, one of the favourite designs, he had no doubt, of that man withthe moustache who still lived in his head. The upper part of the structure was fringed with ivythat fell over what looked like four windows, although they were filled in withstone—“blind” was the word Giorgio Bramante, who was fond of architecture and buildingtechniques, used. Now that he was older Alessio realised the style was not unlike one of the
mausoleums his father had shown him when they went together to excavations and exhibitions
around the city. The difference was that the gatehouse possessed, in the centre, a heavy, two-
piece door, old and solid and clearly well used, a structure that whispered, in a low, firm
Mausoleums were for dead people, who had no need of doors that opened and closed much. Thisplace, his father had explained all those years ago, was the entrance to the garden of themansion of the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, leader of an ancient and honourable order,with members around the world, some of whom were fortunate enough, from time to time, to make apilgrimage to this very spot.
Alessio could still remember first hearing that there were knights living nearby. He’d lainawake in bed that evening wondering if he’d hear their horses neighing in the warm summer
breeze, or the clash of their swords on armour as they jousted in the secret garden beyond
Piranesi’s square. Did they take young boys as pages, as knights in the making? Was there a
round table? Some blood oath which swore them to silent, enduring brotherhood? A book where
their good deeds were recorded in a hidden language, impenetrable to anyone outside the order?
Even now Alessio had no idea. Hardly anyone came or went from the place. He’d given upwatching. Perhaps they only emerged in the dark, when he was in bed, wide awake, wondering whathe’d done to be expelled from the living world for no good reason.
A Carabinieri car sat by the gatehouse most of the time, two bored-looking officers insideostentatiously eyeing visitors to make sure no one became too curious. That rather killed theglamour of the Knights of Malta. It was hard to imagine an order of true gallantry would needmen in uniforms, with conspicuous guns, to watch the door to its grand mansion.
But there was a miracle there, one he’d grown up with. He could still remember the days whenhis father used to pick him up, firm arms beneath his weak ones, lifting gently, until his eyereached the keyhole in the door, old green paint chipped away over the centuries to revealsomething like lead or dull silver beneath.
Piranesi—it must have been him, no one else would have had the wit or the talent—hadperformed one last trick in the square. Somehow the architect had managed to align the keyholeof the Knights’ mansion directly with the basilica of St. Peter’s, which lay a couple ofkilometres away beyond the Tiber. Peering through the tiny gap in the door produced an imagethat was just like a painting itself. The gravel path pointed straight across the river to its
subject, shrouded on both sides by a tunnel of thick cypresses, dark green exclamation marks so
high they stretched beyond the scope of the keyhole, forming a hidden canopy above everything
he could see. At the end of this natural passageway, framed, on a fine day, in a bright,
upright rectangle of light, stood the great church dome, which seemed suspended in the air, as
if by magic.
Alessio knew about artists. The dome was the work of Michelangelo. Perhaps he and Piranesi had
You build your church, I’ll make my keyhole, and one day someonemet sometime and made a pact:
will spot the trick.
Alessio could imagine Piranesi twirling his moustache at that idea. He could imagine, too, thatthere were other riddles, other secrets, undiscovered across the centuries, waiting for him tobe born and start on their trail.
Can you see it?
This was the ritual, a small but important one that began every school day, every weekend walkthat passed through Piranesi’s square. When Alessio peered through the keyhole of the mansionof the Knights of Malta, what he saw through the lines of trees, magnificent across the river,was proof that the world was whole, that life went on. What Alessio had only come to realise oflate was that his father required this reassurance as much as he did himself. With this small
daily ceremony the bond between them was renewed.
Yes, the young child would say, day after day, earnestly squinting through the narrow metalhole, trying to locate the vast white upturned coffee cup across the river hovering mysticallyin the bright air, a solid if mysterious fact in the world around them, one that never changed,one that predated their own existence and would stay with them forever through never-endingtime.
Yes. It’s still there.
The day could begin. School and singing and games. The safe routine of family life. And otherrituals too. His birthday celebration was a kind of ceremony. His entry into the specialage—seven, the magical number—disguised as a party for infants. One where his father hadpicked out the stupid present from the lucky dip, something that seemed interesting whenAlessio read the packaging, but just puzzled him now he tried it out.
The “Fly Eye Glasses” were flimsy plastic toy spectacles, large and cumbersome, badly made,too, with arms so weak they flopped around his ears as he tucked the ends carefully beneath his
long jet-black hair in an effort to keep them firm on his face. Perhaps Giorgio was right. He
was too old for toys like this. But Alessio Bramante was aware of what he had inherited from an
archaeologist father, digging the past out of the ground, and an artist mother, whose paintings
he admired but never quite understood. For him the world was, and always would be, intensely
physical: a visual maze to be touched, examined, and explored, in as many different ways as he
The glasses were supposed to let you witness reality the way a fly did. Their multifaceted eyeshad lenses which were, in turn, hosts to many more lenses, hundreds perhaps, like kaleidoscopeswithout the flakes of coloured paper to get in the way, producing a universe of shifting viewsof the same scene, all the same, all different, all linked, all separate. Each thinking it wasreal and its neighbour imaginary, each, perhaps, living under the ultimate illusion, because
Alessio Bramante was, he told himself, no fool. Everything he saw could be unreal. Every flower
he touched, every breath he took, nothing more than a tiny fragment tumbling from someone
else’s ever-changing dreams.
Crouched hard against the door, trying to ignore the firm, impatient voice of his father,Alessio was aware of another adult thought, one of many that kept popping into his head oflate. This wasn’t just the fly’s view. It was that of God too. A distant, impersonal God,somewhere up in the sky, who could shift his line of vision just a millimetre, close one greateye, squint through another, and see His creations a myriad of different ways, trying better to
Alessio peered more intently and wondered: is this one world divided into many, or do wepossess our own special vision, a faculty that, for reasons of kindness or convenience, he wasunsure which, simplified the multitude into one?
Fanciful thoughts from an overimaginative, headstrong child.
He could hear his father repeating those words though they never slipped from his lips.Instead, Giorgio Bramante was saying something entirely different.
“Alessio,” he complained, half ordering, half pleading. “We have to go. Now.”
What did it matter if you were late? School went on forever. What were a few lost minutes whenyou were peering through a knights’ keyhole searching for the dome of St. Peter’s, trying towork out who was right, the humans or the flies?
“Because today’s not an ordinary day!”
Alessio took his eyes away from the keyhole, then, carefully, unwound the flimsy glasses fromhis face, and stuffed them into the pocket of his trousers.
His father snatched a glance at his watch, which seemed unnecessary. Giorgio Bramante alwaysknew the time. The minutes and seconds seemed to tick by in his head, always making their mark.
“There’s a meeting at the school. You can’t go in until ten thirty…”
He could have stayed home and read and dreamed.
His father sounded a little tense and uncomfortable, with himself, not his son.
“So what are we going to do?”
Giorgio Bramante smiled. “Something new,” he said, smiling at a thought he had yet to share.“Something fun.”
Alessio was quiet, waiting.
“You do keep asking,” his father continued. “About the place I found.”
The boy’s breathing stopped for a moment. This was a secret. Bigger than anything glimpsedthrough a keyhole. He’d heard his father speaking in a whispered voice on the phone, noticedhow many visitors kept coming to the house, and the way he was sent from the room the momentthe grown-up talk began.
“Yes.” He paused, wondering what this all meant. “Please.”
“Well.” Giorgio Bramante hesitated, with a casual shrug, laughing at him in the way they bothknew and recognised. “I can’t tell you.”
“No.” He shook his head firmly. “It’s too…important to tell. You have to see!”
Giorgio leaned down, grinning, tousling Alessio’s hair.
“Really?” the boy asked, when he could get a word out of his mouth.
“Really. And…”—he tapped his superfluous watch—“…now.”
“Oh,” Alessio whispered. All thoughts of Piranesi and his undiscovered tricks fled.
Giorgio Bramante leaned down farther and kissed him on the head, an unusual, unexpectedgesture.
“Is it still there?” he asked idly, not really looking for an answer, taking Alessio’ssmall, strong arm, a man in a hurry, his son could see that straightaway.
“No,” he answered, not that his father was really listening anymore.
It simply didn’t exist, not in any of the hundreds of tiny, changing worlds Alessio had seenthat morning. Michelangelo’s dome was hiding, lost somewhere in the mist across the river.
THEY WERE FIFTY METRES BENEATH THE RED EARTH of the Aventino hill, slowly making their way
along a narrow, meandering passageway cut into the soft rock almost twenty centuries before.The air was stale and noxious, heavy with damp and mould and the feral stink of unseen animalsor birds. Even with their flashlights and the extra shoulder lanterns stolen from thestoreroom, it was hard to see much ahead.
Ludo Torchia trembled a little. That was, he knew, simply because it was cold, a good tendegrees or more chillier below the surface, where, on that same warm June day, unknown to him,Alessio Bramante and his father now stood at the gate of the mansion of the Cavalieri di Malta,not half a kilometre away through the rock and soil above them.
Ludo should have expected the change in temperature. Dino Abati had. The young student fromTurin wore the right clothes—a thick, waterproof, bright red industrial jumpsuit that clashedwith his full head of curly ginger hair, heavy boots, ropes and equipment attached to hisjacket—and now looked entirely at home in this man-made vein tunnelled by hand, every last,tortuous metre. The rest of them were beginners, in jeans and jackets, a couple even wearing
sneakers. Aboveground Abati had scowled at them before they started work on the locks of the
flimsy iron entrance gates.
Now, just twenty minutes in, their eyes still trying to acclimatise to the dark, Toni LaMarcawas already starting to moan, whining in his high-pitched voice, its trilling notes reboundingoff the roughly hacked stone walls just visible in their lights.
“Be quiet, Toni,” Torchia snapped at him.
“Remind me. Why exactly are we doing this?” LaMarca complained. “I’m freezing my nuts offalready. What if we get caught? What about that, huh?”
“I told you! We won’t get caught,” Torchia replied. “I checked the rosters. No one’scoming down here today. Not today. Not tomorrow.”