PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
‘My name is Domingo Salazar, I was born on the feast of Saint Dominic and brought up by the Dominican Fathers. I am a policeman, I see to it that the laws of our Holy Mother Church are respected and I work for the worldwide spread of that same Church. I never knew my parents, but from the colour of my skin I think they must have been Caribbean, or at least of mixed race. The Fathers found me beneath the rubble of the orphanage of the Holy Cross, in Haiti, in 2010, and brought me to Italy. I grew up in the boarding-school run by the Dominican sisters of Saint Imelda, I studied at the patriarchal monastery in Bologna and then at the Papal Police Academy in Rome, which I left with the rank of inspector in the fifth year of the reign of Pope Benedict XVIII.'
He had developed this mania for diary-keeping as a result of the time he had spent with the nuns. ‘Time to get writing!’ the mother superior would say after tea, throwing open the grey door to the wood-panelled main hall. You still wrote with pen and paper in those days, in an exercise-book backed with black cloth which was chained to the desk, and which the sisters would read through later. So this diary had become a detailed account of his life, divided up into years. But Domingo Salazar would always copy out those first same sentences in every new exercise-book he began, as though to remind himself of who he was.
It was almost time for his appointment. Outside it was already dark. He had slept much of the afternoon; he had thrown himself on to the bed the moment he’d arrived, without even opening his suitcase. His flight had left at dawn, and he’d spent the whole previous night writing, as he always did. He washed himself in cold water, then shaved and dressed slowly in front of the mirror in the bathroom. He picked up his pistol-case from the chair and strapped it on under his arm. He didn’t like the sound of this new mission. He didn’t yet know much about it, but hunting down angels of death was a job for an ordinary municipal policeman, not an inspector like himself. Those Free Death Brigades struck him as amateurs, hot-heads with few means and even less experience. For all he knew, they might not even be organized into a proper group; they were stray dogs embarking on wild-goose chases. But orders were orders, and at seven o’clock he would learn further details about his assignment from the Vicar.
He arrived at Sant’Andrea della Valle just as evening mass was ending. The priest gave the blessing and the faithful started trooping out. Salazar went up to the confessional to the right of the nave. The curtain was half-open, but the priest’s seat was empty, as was the one in the other confessional to the left. He walked up and down, pretending to examine the frescoes, then went back into the apse. By now the church was empty, except for an altar-boy who was putting out the candles. Salazar decided to go and kneel before one of the two confessionals at random, imagining that the Vicar, were he in the church, would come and join him. An agent and his Vicar must never see or know each other; they were not to use mobiles or e-mail; communication between them had to be exclusively oral. This was the number one safety rule for the secret agents of the papal police. The meeting-place was a confessional in the church referred to in the mission order, itself the only written document – unsigned – which would remain in the registers of the barracks to which the agent in question belonged. When an agent on a mission lost contact with his Vicar, he had to present himself at the nearest Swiss Guards post for an identity check. That was the only way he could be reinstated in the corps. Otherwise he himself became an outlaw, and might be eliminated. Salazar went back into the nave and up to the nearest confessional, the one on the left. Coming from the chapel, he couldn’t see the seat but, as he approached, he saw two black shoes on the footstool. Well, he thought, the Vicar’s here at last. He was about to kneel down when the purple curtain was nudged aside by an elbow; for one brief instant, Salazar saw the fingertips of two white hands holding a glass bulb, witnessed the delicate gesture made by a one-eyed man slipping his prosthesis into an empty socket. Then the curtain was almost closed again, and the man’s face was sunk in shadow. Embarrassed by his unintentional intrusion, Salazar took a few steps backwards before going to kneel down, hoping that the Vicar had not noticed anything. He could hear breathing through the openwork grille. As agreed, he recited the Credo, gave his registration number and then waited, in silence.
‘Inspector Salazar, I know you to be a faithful soldier in the service of our Holy Mother Church. I know your superiors, and they have confirmed your gifts in this regard. Furthermore I know you to have an excellent record, a decoration and various recommendations. I also know about your activities in Beirut and I congratulate you on them. We could do with more agents with such initiative! If I have called you here from Amsterdam, it is because I have a delicate task to entrust to you. You see, of all the dangers threatening our Holy Mother Church, none is more terrible than the practice of free death, which is becoming ever more widespread in this depraved world of ours. Euthanasia, as miscreants and scientists refer to it, destroys what God holds dearest, namely, the life He has given us. Euthanasia does away with the mystery of pain, which should be so revered. It’s not just a question of dogma, Salazar. Our hold on people’s consciences is also at stake. If men cease to fear death, or begin to regard it as something run-of-the-mill, our sway over them is seriously threatened. We are already conducting an active campaign of propaganda and dissuasion, but it’s no longer enough. What is called for is repression, carefully handled, and above all covert. People must not be aware of the restraints which bind them. The first part of your mission will be this, Salazar. You will inspect the hospitals in the fourth zone and keep an eye on such terminally-ill patients as might be seeking death. You will need to know everything about them, every last detail of their lives. You will have to glean information about their relatives, their friends, their intimate ties. You will have to delve into their past and know their every ambition and achievement. And also what they own: because, as you well know, inspector, the law authorizes the Church to seize the goods of those who die an unnatural death, and this is a powerful weapon in our armoury. Even the most ardent euthanasiast thinks twice before seeing his own children disinherited. You will also keep a close eye on the medical staff. As we know, despite the purges, many abortionists are still active within their ranks. Even the smallest detail should be taken into account, Salazar. You will have to keep the closest watch on every dying man. You will have to be able to tell from their expressions if theirs is willing suffering, or if they are rebelling against their fate. That is when they fall under the spell of the fanatics. We know that euthanasiasts make converts in hospitals. There they have a captive audience, and it is easy to convince sick people that they might wish to hasten their own end. But if you succeed in breaking this vicious circle, then we shall deprive them of their main sources of financial support. Because – and it is important to remember this – the sick actually pay to have themselves disposed of! It is only by thwarting their hold over sick people that we shall ultimately succeed in routing the angels of death!’
The Vicar was gripping the handrail of the confessional with such force that it positively creaked. Even through the brass grating, Salazar felt the priest’s breath on his face. It was that smell of musty material and mouthwash which were subsequently to inform him of the Vicar’s presence.
‘Now for the second part of your mission, inspector, the more tricky part: a manhunt. For years we’ve been trying to track down Ivan Zago, an abortionist doctor who works underground. We know that he has fled abroad; he’s currently living in Switzerland, where we are powerless to lay hands on him. We’ve had his parents under surveillance for some time, hoping to intercept him; they are the only members of his family who have stayed on in Italy. But some time ago we lost track of them. His mother is probably dead. We’re not certain, but she seems to have been buried in a common grave in the Flaminio Cemetery. We didn’t know anything about his father, either, until various clues led us to the Hospital of San Filippo Neri, where it seems that a certain Davide Zago was admitted with a brain tumour three months ago, and then discharged, according to the hospital register. But the address on his hospital file is false, as is the name of the doctor who was caring for him. In a word, we suspect that Davide Zago is still in that hospital, probably dying, hidden among the terminal patients. His son Ivan will be ready to do anything to spare him a lingering death. He will try to reach him in hospital to help him die, with the help of the accomplices who had him hidden there. And that’s where we must set our trap, inspector! The bait of the father will lead us to the son!’
‘But if we don’t know what name Zago is going under, how can we be certain that he’s still in San Filippo Neri and not another hospital?’
‘We can’t. That’s why we’ve installed agents in the other Roman hospitals. But everything points to San Filippo Neri. Davide Zago was recognized by two nurses at the time he was admitted, so we’re sure that it was him. After the operation we lost track of him. Someone falsified his hospital files. But in the oncology ward there turns out to have been one patient than there are beds. And in the last three months no terminally-ill patient has been transferred from San Filippo Neri.’
‘I see. Does anyone at the hospital know of my mission?’
‘Only the Medical Guarantor of Faith. He’ll be expecting you. You are to introduce yourself to the department as an assistant pilgrim priest. Thousands of pilgrim priests are arriving in Rome for the canonization of Benedict XVI. No one will be surprised by your presence in the hospital.’
The Vicar fell silent. Salazar heard a rustling of cloth from behind the grille and couldn’t help thinking about the glass eye he’d just seen.
‘One more thing, inspector. Leaflets issued by the Free Death Brigade have been found around the city. These people are dangerous terrorists who will stop at nothing. They are financed by foreign powers and other enemies of the Church. There is a risk that they may be preparing to strike on Easter Day, when Benedict XVI is to be canonized. The security services are on red alert. In the past we’ve discovered some of their hiding-places and seized various pieces of propaganda material. But this time something more serious is afoot. What we fear even more than the threat of a massacre itself is the spectacular nature of the possible attack. The whole world would be abuzz, and that is something we can never countenance. That is why the arrest of some abortionist or other enemy of the faith would serve our purpose. They might lead us to the Free Death Brigades. We must make them feel that we are on their heels! You may go now, inspector. Leave the church and do not linger. I’ll be waiting for you here every Friday after evening Mass, so call by if you have anything to report’. The priest fell silent and withdrew into the darkness. Salazar stayed there motionless for a few moments and smelt a slight whiff of scent coming from the other side of the grille; a pleasant smell of strawberries spread through the air.
Even without seeing his interlocutor, the inspector knew instinctively what kind of man the Vicar was: one of the old guard, a man who had lived through troubled times and then witnessed the birth of the Catholic Republic. In a word, an old zealot who saw enemies of the faith at every turn. Number 2354 of the Catholic Catechism, as redrafted by His Holiness Benedict XVI in 2005, runs as follows: The citizen is conscience-bound to ignore the orders of the civil authorities when these run counter to the demands of the moral order, to fundamental rights or the teachings of the Gospel. It was this that led many Catholics to rebel against the godless laws of the Italian Republic. When parliament rejected the first proposal for a law which, in accordance with paragraph 2354, made offences against chastity a crime, together with homosexuality, masturbation and fornication, there were outbursts of protest all over Italy, and a state of emergency was declared. Salazar was still a pupil at the patriarchal monastery at the time, but he had clear memories of the atmosphere of frenzy and alarm which marked the months preceding the New Concordat.
That autumn, the prior began delivering solemn lectures which talked of invisible enemies. We listened without understanding and, as we came out of the refectory where the priest would have us gather to hear his sermons, we were too scared to discuss them. For some months, lessons were given in the cramped classrooms which overlooked the courtyard rather than in the airy rooms overlooking the street. The Saturday walk was now a thing of the past. Pupils were allowed out only when accompanied by a guardian, in small groups and always in civilian clothes. Canons and novices alike spent a gloomy winter staring out of the refectory window watching the snow piling up on the roofs and then melting away. That was their only glimpse of the outside world. But Salazar also remembered that Sunday the following spring when the pope paid a visit to Bologna. That had been a memorable day. The bells rang out as they had never rung before. The fathers had received the news of the visit with trepidation. As time went by, relief was visible on their faces, as though some impending danger had been averted. As the event approached, they looked increasingly self-confident, and positively triumphant when the papal procession arrived at San Petronio. The square was heaving with little white and yellow flags. Salazar was in the first row of novices, lined up on the flight of steps in their splendid uniforms. Of all their number, it was he upon whom the pope had chosen to bestow his blessing.
Since then, almost twenty years had gone by. The Catholic Republic was by now on a firm footing. Internal dissent was minimal. The anti-papists preferred to leave Italy rather than mount any opposition. The pope’s rule was no longer in jeopardy. But a few hard-line canons still remained in the hierarchy. Such was their prestige that it was impossible to oust them from their posts. They still had the power to have people placed under surveillance, even bishops. Salazar sighed as he left the church. This was the kind of manhunt that would end in death. He would have preferred to have stayed in Amsterdam, busying himself with the Counter-Reformation, as he put it. That was something he did well. He was a hooligan at heart; he liked destroying things. He drew comfort from the fact that his mission in Rome would be short-lived. Wherever he was, with a brain tumour Davide Zago was not long for this world.
Salazar ate in a little restaurant in the Campo Marzio , then wandered through the narrow streets and, without realizing it, found himself back at the convent. It was still early, and he was not remotely tired. Nevertheless, he pushed open the main door, turned the key in the inner gate and went into the tiled entrance hall, which smelled of vinegar. A light was on in the corridor, but no noise came from beyond the glass doors. Those Carmelite Nuns had struck him as strange from the moment he arrived. There seemed too few of them for a convent of that size. The mother superior had told him that building work was going on, to turn the place into a proper pilgrims’ hospice, but he had never seen any sign of activity on his wanderings through the corridors. All that was to be seen were crates of books and old furniture packed up for some imminent move. Even the little chapel on the ground floor seemed disused. The nuns attended mass in the Cantonese Church on the other side of the street. The candle in front of the statue of the Virgin in the niche on the main staircase flickered as he walked past.
He had not noticed how large his room was when he arrived that morning: there were ten good paces between bed and table. He threw open the shutters and breathed in the damp air. It had stopped raining, but the wind was getting up.
His room looked out on to a courtyard, with galleries and terraces. Puddles of water rippled beneath the pots of rhododendrons; water was dripping from the eaves. Beyond the roofs, in the lamplight, the side of the church was visible in the lamplight. Every so often, the sound of traffic would drift in. Down in the narrow streets, he could hear the sound of voices, calling each other, laughing. Domingo Salazar unzipped the inner pocket of his suitcase and took out an object which looked like a holy-water sprinkler. He unscrewed the cap, took out a cigarette holder from the handle and put a small Dutch clay pipe into his mouth. He kept his Afghan black in a small enamelled box, together with his ear-plugs. He filled the brazier, lit the resin and allowed himself a mocking grin. Disguising his pipe as a holy-water sprinkler gave him a sense of deep satisfaction. It was a pity that no one ever had the temerity to search an agent of the papal police force. At the sight of his badge, even the Swiss Guards would back off. He felt the better for his smoke. He closed the window, put his black exercise-book on the table, opened it, lit the lamp and began to write.
Every time I come back to Italy I am seized by a sense of puzzlement. Here they have not yet understood that, in the West, conversion is no longer the way to extend the Church’s power. Western man is no longer susceptible to conversion; he is like those germs which become resistant to antibiotics. He cannot believe, even despite himself; he is too sure of what he knows. We persist in trying to bring the Church closer to the people. We ought to be doing the reverse: making it more remote, not more accessible. Restoring a sense of mystery. But not so that man may experience a facile, all-absolving sense of beatitude. No, man must feel impelled to revere God, to placate his wrath. Fear is of the essence. We should go back to the root of religion, which is above all fear of God. We should begin by reintroducing sacrifice. Did not the ancient Jews slaughter lambs on the altar? The sacrificial victim which draws evil to itself is always an excellent nostrum for the masses. Joseph Ratzinger said as much in his catechism: ‘The Lord is to be worshipped with words of praise, and thanks, and supplication; and by the offering up of sacrifices.' We have silenced the organs in our cathedrals and replaced them with guitars. But, by so doing, we have dispelled the fear of the numinous, and churches have become places of entertainment. Here in Italy, where the Church holds sway, the police are hunting down euthanasiasts; as though, by apprehending the odd suicide, atheism might be kept at bay. This is the mistake of those who delude themselves that they can win back a society which is completely lacking any sense of the divine. The curia fails to understand that the only way to re-establish the power of the Church is through immigration. Let us allow ourselves to be drowned out by millions without any hope, and that is how we shall hold sway over them. The strategy of the tenth parallel no longer makes any sense. It is useless to persist in defending a frontier between Christianity and Islam. That is no longer the line to be held. What we should be doing is getting out of the trenches, start fighting in the open. In Africa, our worst enemies are not the Muslims, but the Pentecostalists. So the way forward in reconquering the West is to import fresh masses of dispossessed humanity, Christian or otherwise, even the Polynesians with their pig god Kamapua’a. All that matters is that they be believers. Kamapua’a or Christ, for us it is immaterial, so long as there is faith.
While he was writing, a postcard had slipped out of the exercise-book; an old postcard, of the kind now found only on junk-stalls. Slightly faded, with wavy edges and a blue postmark. Salazar found himself peering at the little town of Veere, in Zeeland, at the little harbour, in whose still waters the imposing outline of the Grote Kerk was reflected. It looked like an overturned ship, covered with seaweed and shells. He lifted the post-card to his lips, reread the few words with a smile and slipped it back between the blank pages.
At that same moment, in a garage in Malagrotta, a man and a woman were getting out of a white van.
‘From tomorrow onwards I’ll be at Monte Spaccato. You’ll have to deal with the explosives on your own,’ said the woman, opening the van door.
‘We and the others will see to that. We’ve already made arrangements with Mirko. On Tuesday we’re seeing the Russians. We’ll be making two trips. They want to give us the components in two installments; for reasons of security, they say. They’re cautious people, but that’s no bad thing. Clearly, they know what they’re doing. The service area just before Civitavecchia, as usual. We’ll put everything together here in the basement. When will you have finished at San Filippo Neri?’ the man asked. He had turned off the engine. The light from the dashboard lit up his bearded face.
‘It depends on how things go. Usually I need three or four days. I’ll be doing the next one too, at the Gemelli. Then we’ll have to stop and lie low for a bit. Until things calm down.’
‘So, if all goes well, for quite some time!’ said the man with a nervous grin, locking the door of the van.
‘If all goes well …’ the woman murmured into the darkness.
Neither the black jacket, worn over a collarless grey shirt, nor the silver crucifix, sported in the buttonhole, could fool the sister on the palliative care ward. Despite his dress, she knew immediately that he was not one of those pilgrim priests who did good works for the Church in order to pay for their stay in Rome. But she proceeded as though she suspected nothing, checking the registration number he gave her on the computer. Then she nodded, and opened the door to the office. Dawn was just breaking. The neon lights in the corridors of San Filippo Neri were beginning to go out.
‘Sister, how many patients have you got on this ward?’
‘Twenty-seven. All stable. Nine unconscious.’
‘Four. All open and above board. All paying the official atheism tax.’
‘And the others?’
‘Twenty Catholics. Three Muslims.’
‘Do they receive visits from an imam?’
‘What time do you celebrate lauds for the Catholics?’
‘At seven every morning.’
‘Do their relatives attend regularly?’
‘All except for three. But the chaplain is authorized to act as proxy; and they pay the fine.’
‘Are their ecclesial documents up-to-date?’
‘We check them every time they come. All relatives have attended the requisite number of masses. But there have been lapses in the past, and they have been noted down.’
‘Thank you. Tomorrow I’ll need a list of the names and addresses of all the patients and their civil status. I’ll leave it here with you; but it must always be available.’
‘Are we still in time for lauds?’
‘The chaplain is waiting for me. Come this way.’
Salazar followed the sister through the glazed door. Several empty camp beds stood in the corridor, over whose light brown linoleum a cleaning women was wearily pushing a mop. The smell of the detergent mingled with the scent of coffee and cut flowers; some rooms were full of them. As he entered the large room, Salazar was instantly struck by the winking of bubbles in innumerable drips, the only things in that whole space that moved at all. Heavy white globs, they rose to the surface, then sank down again, unceasing in their regularity. The beds were arranged in two rows in front of an improvised altar, rigged up on a piece of furniture originally from a chemist’s shop. Several stretcher-bearers had just brought in the most recent arrivals, and were now quietly leaving. The relatives remained, like so many unmoving sentinels. Filtering in through the curtains, the daylight could not contend with the soft, tenacious shadow. Some patients were groaning, dark hands moving spasmodically over the dense white of the sheets. But the chaplain soon drowned the sound out with his prayers.
‘Lord of all mercy, may your victims’ prayers come unto you; show them the light which frees man from all pain! You are the life eternal, you are the way, the truth.’
‘Show them the light!’ chorused the shadowy figures in sepulchral unison. Salazar immediately sensed a jarring note, a lying note, among those voices. Lauds was a group prayer for which the patients in every ward in the hospital were brought together once a day. Visiting relatives were expected to join in. For the terminally ill it was an opportunity to take a reckoning, to see just how nearly their fellow-sufferers were approaching death. Only those who had received extreme unction were spared the lauds. But, for fear of reprisals, many relatives did not even dare ask for it. At the end of the rite the stretcher-bearers pushed the beds back into the rooms from which they had come, and suffering could carry on unimpeded.
The Medical Guarantor of Faith was a bony, shambling man with long, vein-threaded hands. He sported an eye-catching white goatee which he moved like a horn as he thrust his chin continually forwards. His heavy, wrinkled lids gave his small eyes the look of those of an aging mastiff. He wore an expensive-looking tie tucked into his surgeon’s white coat, and showy cuff links of gold and mother-of-pearl in the sleeves of the shirt he wore beneath it.
‘Welcome to our institution, inspector!’ he said, ushering Salazar into the bare room, which looked more like a mortuary than an office. The furniture was that of a consulting room. Steel and plastic, also pale brown in colour, like the lino. The glass doors to the two little cupboards to either side of the desk were engraved with Hippocrates’ serpent. A huge black wooden crucifix hung on the end wall. Salazar sat down in one of the two small armchairs flanking a small glass table on which stood a relief model of the hospital. The doctor sat down in the other, opening his white coat to reveal a grey double-breasted jacket.
‘Your superiors have informed me of your mission. Obviously, you can count on my total collaboration. We cannot be everywhere at once, inspector! And I know that the angels of death have infiltrated this hospital, as they have so many others. We are for ever vigilant, but that is not enough. Two years ago we arrested several abortionists who were making contact with their clients in our clinic. We reported the suspects and asked the police to carry out surprise inspections of our doctors’ premises and equipment. But more than that we cannot do!’
Salazar looked around him. He noted the tidy desk, its glass top immaculate; a photograph of a seaside villa in a silver frame, the doctor’s shoes, their soles still completely unmarked by use, the expensive fountain pen in the pocket of his white coat. He sensed that the man was a typical high-ranking civil servant, cut out for receptions and gala evenings rather than for detective work.
‘I quite understand, doctor. I’m here to give you a hand in just such matters. Tell me more about how the palliative care unit functions.’
‘The patients in that unit, as you know, have meagre chances of recovery. Their survival is in the hands of God in all His infinite mercy. So the only treatment they receive is the therapy of prayer, as indeed do all patients struck down by fatal illnesses before their cases become terminal.’
‘So, even before they come into the palliative care unit, you are already able to tell which patients have no faith in such therapy.’
‘Unfortunately, euthaniasists cannot be identified at this early stage. When a patient realizes that he has been stricken by a fatal illness, his natural reaction is to rebel against his fate. Prayer therapy serves to help him to resign himself and we have scientific proof that it can perform miracles, if scrupulously carried out. In this field, papal medicine is progressing by leaps and bounds. As you will know, a miracle occurs over three stages: predisposition, acceptance and accomplishment. Many of our patients get as far as acceptance, which is when clear signs of recovery appear. But lack of faith prevents them from entering the accomplishment phase. Of course, in such cases the collective prayers of other patients for those of their companions who have reached the state of acceptance would be extremely helpful; but human pettiness knows no bounds. One sick man does not willingly pray to save another. Governed by selfishness, he prays with a lie in his heart; God senses as much and lets them both decline. And this is just punishment for one who refuses to love his neighbour as himself. But, as I have said, we are studying the phenomenon of the miracle, and we are now in a position to give it something of a helping hand. We have discovered that intense prayer is at its most effective when the phase of predisposition is drawing to a close. The most recent research into the miracles performed by our saints is telling us that there is a hierarchy of grace. In other words, specific cures require the intercession of specific saints. It is no use doing what we Italians so often do, namely turn to those divine figures whom we love the most, for instance the Virgin Mary, regarding them as more influential. For centuries now the Church has been conducting a series of finely-tuned experiments proving that divine figures too much called upon tend to withdraw, to become more elusive. This is quite understandable: too much divine intervention would upset the balance between the prospect of salvation and the credibility of the Last Judgement. In a word, God cannot save us until the time is ripe. That is why turning to the saints, particularly in their areas of expertise, may be more effective. Furthermore, here we come upon yet another example of the wisdom of the Church, which has always pointed to the saints as examples of thorough-going humanity achieved through faith. This line of research is also leading to a heightened understanding of any one saint’s specific powers. To give a concrete example: nothing is more effective for the curing of a tumour on the breast than praying to Saint Agatha.’
Trying to conceal his impatience, Salazar heard him out.
‘I see. So, to go back to the more concrete side of my enquiries, can you confirm that the only effective route to catching a dying man bent on euthanasia is via his family?’
‘Undoubtedly. We have also had some arrested by allowing corrupt doctors to catch them in flagrante. But the price to be paid in human lives is too high for this to be a valid strategy. To catch a euthanasiast doctor, we have to allow him to kill too many patients. And that, from the point of view of our doctrine, is a cost that is not sustainable’.
Before continuing, the doctor leant towards Salazar, covered his mouth with his hand and whispered:
‘Even if, between the two of us, in the crusade against the Cathars, Arnold of Citeaux was not altogether in the wrong when he said: ‘Kill the lot of them. God will recognize his own!’
Having uttered there words, the doctor fell back into his chair with a malicious smile. Salazar looked away, lost in thought. He folded his hands and lifted them to his chin.
‘And how do you respond when you identify a terminally-ill patient who is hoping to have recourse to euthanasia?’
‘The first thing we do is to get him to confess. That way, at least his soul will be saved. Then we report the members of his family, and here justice and the law intervene. As you know, the punishment may vary: from fines to expropriation of property, down to excommunication and the loss of civil rights. But this does not concern us, inspector. We are on the battle field, counting the dead and wounded!’ explained the doctor, waving his goatee.
‘Just one last thing – how do you get a euthanasiast to confess? Excuse my curiosity, but I’ve been living abroad for years and I no longer know how things are done in Italy. I need to know as much as possible, to understand the mentality of those I’m dealing with.’ Salazar did not expect to benefit much from this conversation, but he felt something might be gained by keeping on the right side of the man.
‘Oh, I quite understand, inspector! That’s what I’m here for! And you’re quite right – confession is not something that can be enforced. It has to come from the heart. So we encourage it with persuasion. While he is still conscious, and not as yet too weakened by illness, we see to it that the patient has regular sessions with our psychologists, apparently “free-ranging’’ conversations which provide an outlet for him to express his fear, whereas for us they offer some window on to his state of mind. If these are not sufficient, we organize catechism sessions and obligatory prayer vigils for the patient and his family. It is often these which make him see the error of his ways, if not out of faith, then at least for form’s sake. As you may know, the law is more lenient with the relatives of a confessed criminal.’
‘Most interesting. What you have told me has given me a better idea of how to proceed,’ said Salazar, as though thinking aloud. The doctor was now gazing at him absently, as though his mind were elsewhere.
‘Inspector, do you believe in guardian angels?’ he asked a little hesitantly.
Salazar paused before answering. ‘Of course I do!. As number 328 of Joseph Ratzinger’s catechism puts it, angels are individual beings endowed with intelligence and will’’ was his prudent reply, when it finally came.
‘Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not trying to pry, nor do I doubt your faith. I know that practical men like you have no time to linger over such subtleties. But today we papal scientists, who are used to peering into the mysteries of creation, are giving new importance to these beings which Ratzinger’s catechism describes as purely spiritual beings, incorporeal, invisible and immortal. We are beginning to believe that this invisibility and incorporeality may not preclude a certain contact with the human world. Recent research in our department of parapsychology has discovered methods of making contact with guardian angels – with techniques derived from hypnotism, comparable to a mystic’s ecstasy. Simply put, by means of an induced trance, the human mind can discern the wavelength on which guardian angels communicate, a bit like tuning into a radio station whose frequency is normally imperceptible to the human ear. Here, though, it is the soul which does the tuning. Such practices must be conducted with caution, however, since this same frequency is also that used by demons. But, despite the risk, it is still worth a try. Our researchers have made contact with certain wingless angels, who are the easiest to reach because they are present on earth in considerable numbers. It is in this area that we may be of some assistance to you – by seeking to make contact with the guardian angels of the terminally ill. They are certainly in a position to tell us what is going on in their proteges’ hearts and minds. Obviously, we need time, and you would have to undergo specific training.’ The doctor had now assumed the air of someone who is giving a diagnosis and prescribing a cure. He bit his lip, and his goatee shot forwards as he did so.
‘Thanks for the suggestion, doctor. I’ll mention it to my superiors, though I doubt that my task will leave me time for training of this kind. But it may be a path to consider in the future,’ said Salazar, getting himself off the hook, he felt, with some adroitness.
‘As you prefer, inspector. We are at your service!’ replied the doctor, making an expansive gesture. Salazar nodded courteously. He could hardly wait to get out of that room.
‘I have no more questions for the moment, but if it’s not too much trouble I shall be back when I know more about the patients. One last thing. Do I have your permission to look at your doctors’ personal files?’ That was the only thing he really wanted to ask. The doctor raised a hand to his chin, and a large watch emerged from his shirt cuff as he did so.
‘Unfortunately we have no access to such files except in the case of explicit charges. For preliminary inquiries we need authorization from the Papal Medical Council, as required by professional ethics. Suspicion of our doctors would amount to lack of faith in the system. You will have to ask your superior about such matters. But I am sure that a secret agent in the papal force will have no difficulty in procuring a piece of paper with a couple of official stamps, inspector! Ah, bureaucratic procedure, what a thing it is! How could we live without it!’ exclaimed the doctor, rising elegantly from his chair to offer Salazar his hand. The inspector freed himself from the man’s sweaty grasp as quickly as he decently could, and left the room, after yet more thanks, received by their grim recipient with a series of goatee-waggles, in lieu of more orthodox leave-taking.