With a last flourish of the razor, the famous waxed mustachios were removed. The pince-nez were set aside in favour of horn-rimmed spectacles, and the famous Belgian detective emerged as a very modern sleuth. For this was to be Poirot’s last and most celebrated case: the murder of Pope Francis. And it was to appear as a trend-setting mini-series on the BBC.
The suspects, it had to be admitted, were many.
Already as Hercule crossed St Peter’s Square, bound for the office of Cardinal Parolin, a group of frenzied nuns from Apulia was chanting ‘Vi-gan-o! Vi-gan-o! Vi-gan-o!’. But Poirot knew what they did not. That the Archbishop had an unassailable alibi. The Swiss Guard had finally located him in hiding in a yurt in Outer Mongolia. He at least could be ruled out.
Accompanied by the Cardinal Secretary of State, the first task was to view the body. The room – it was little more a cell – was sparsely furnished. A camp bed, a threadbare easy chair, a small bedside table and a lithograph of Jan Peron was the sum total of the furnishings. The body, still in its well-worn sleeping bag, was laid out on the bed. There could be no doubt: the pontiff had been strangled with the ecclesiastical girdle which was lying on the floor beside him.
‘Who has done this terrible thing?’ asked Cardinal Parolin in a hoarse whisper.
‘We shall see,‘ replied Poirot, in firm tones. ‘We shall see.’
The Vatican, Hercule perceived, was swirling with rumour. The Lavender Mafia accused the traditionalists; the traditionalists accused the Lavender Mafia; the CDF accused the Vatican Bank; the Vatican Bank accused the Auditor General; and everybody accused the Dubia Cardinals.
But the little grey cells were already at work.
Instinctively he knew that an assassination of an absolute monarch was a circumstance that no sleuth had encountered since 1789. But the principles of investigation, he reassured himself, remained the same: establish the means, establish the motive, eliminate the superfluous. He was confident he would succeed. Was he not, after all, almost as infallible as the unfortunate victim?
Things did not go well. The Pontiff’s cell, it turned out, was unlocked at all times. Countless people had ready access, from the nuns who did the catering to the highest curial officials. And a stock of girdles identical to the murder weapon was to be found in the sacristy two doors away. Everyone, it seemed, had the means and the motive: the victim was universally disliked.
Poirot was getting nowhere, when, walking pensively up the Scala Regia, a figure emerged from behind the statue of Constantine. It was of less than average height, dressed in a cloak and hood which obscured the face. On the cloak was emblazoned an heraldic badge – a bear with a collar of steel.
‘I am well aware’, said the mysterious stranger, ‘of your habit of show-casing your deductive skills before a captive audience at the end of every investigation. Now you yourself are to be that audience. You must rein in your self-importance and listen. There will be no baroque conclusion, full of surprises, to this enterprise. Instead, I will tell you, quite simply, who committed this crime and how it came about.’
‘First, I need to take you back in time.’
‘Some years ago, when it became clear that the great advances of the Second Vatican Council were being threatened by a surge of reaction, a few of us, zealous for a reformed church, began meeting in Switzerland. It was at first an informal gathering, but as the years passed and the mission became more urgent, we formed ourselves into a regular sodality: our stated aim was to place one of our own in the shoes of the Fisherman. Bergoglio was that man. But time has shown how mistaken we were. He was not man enough for the job. Half radical, half traditionalist, he has merely sowed confusion. The time has come to end it all.’
‘This time resignation was not an option. It had to finish cleanly. No single hand was on the cord. No single assassin crept away into the darkness. But make no mistake: the Sankt Gallen Mafia was responsible. What we made, we can destroy.’
The figure had vanished. Poirot peered into the deepening gloom at the turn of the stairs. But there was nothing behind the statue except the dust of ages. Hercule might easily have missed the remaining clue. Written by a mysterious finger in the dust was the haunting inscription: CORMAC MURPHY O’CONNOR.
The dead speak. So the rumours had been true all along.