Inspector Montalbano awoke to the unfamiliar rattle of passing trams. In something of a daze, he opened the curtains of his budget room in a hotel in Melbourne. Fog! This was far from the continuous sunshine promised by the glossy brochures in the travel agent in Montelusa. But he was not here, he reminded himself, for pleasure. Montalbano had deserted his beloved Sicily (and a long-awaited holiday with Livia) to track down (and bring to justice) the Australian branch of a ‘family’ who had repeatedly crossed his path back in Vigata.
The Sinagras thought themselves untouchable. From their seventeenth century villa near Caltanisetta their web of intrigue spread to all corners of the country and to all parts of the world. It was the Sinagra’s involvement with the finances of the Holy See which had recently interested Montalbano. A colleague in Rome had drawn his attention to their complicity in the ‘removal’ of the recently appointed Chief Accountant.
Like the European Union, the Vatican (as everybody knows) is a stranger to audited accounts. Just as Pope Francis’s financial supremo, Cardinal George Pell, was getting to the bottom of things, Signor Paolo Alfieri, the Pope’s recent appointment, was found in the wreckage of a blue Alfa Romeo which had crashed into the Tiber. Both Alfieri and his passenger were killed.
Not content with silencing the auditor, the Sinagras had determined to rid themselves of Pell himself. Only then would their systematic programme of embezzlement be secure. It was at this point that the Australian branch of the Family proved invaluable.
Don Baldissero, the family head in Australia, had extensive contacts (as Sinagras invariably do) with senior figures in the Victorian constabulary and legal establishment. It would be easy to entangle Pell in legal proceedings in Melbourne. which would require his return from Rome. It was this covert entanglement which Montablano had been sent to investigate.
Montalbano had just returned from the buffet breakfast. and was cursing the saints for the lukewarm, limpid coffee, when the telephone rang.
Who knew he was in Australia? He picked up the receiver. An emollient, almost priestly voice answered.
‘My name is Alfonso Parolin. I am chaplain to Don Baldissaro Sinagra. The Don presents his compliments. and would be delighted to see you this afternoon at the Villa Sinagra, just out of town on the Ballarat road. You will recognize it by the large copy of Michelangelo’s David at the end of the drive.’
That was all. The priest put down the phone abruptly and Montalbano was left assessing the situation. No sooner had he arrived in the country, than he was being summoned to a meeting with his principal adversary. Of course he must go.
The concrete David was unmissable. Beside it were impressive wrought iron gates which opened on his approach. Montalbano sped along the curving driveway amd stopped beside an impressive flight of steps leading up to an intimidating front door. The door opened automatically and he found himself in an huge courtyard, dotted with large pots of oleanders. At the far end was an elegant bench with silk cushions and a small table with three glasses.
‘Welcome!’ exclaimed Don Baldissaro, as his chaplain wheeled him across the gravel. I have been looking forward to meeting you for a long time. My brother speaks well of you. He says that for a policeman you are civilised and intelligent’.
Montalbano took the old man’s hand. and sat down as directed.
‘You will not mind my chaplain Fr Alonso accompanying us?’
‘I have asked you here to save you both time and energy. You want to know how we silenced Cardinal George Pell. and I will tell you.’
‘When it became apparent that his interference in our business with the Vatican Bank was likely to be troublesome, the Family had an international conference call. It was Arturo in Chicago who made the capital suggestion that we make use of the current paedophile scandals to end Pell’s useful life at the Vatican. He gave us the template. Some American priest had been convicted of raping a boy in his sacristy. The details were lurid but implausible; a conviction was secured nevertheless.’
‘We realised that it was not beyond our means, here in Australia, to play the same game. We identified two men (over whom we had some sort of hold) and fed them the details of the American case – drinking communion wine, rape in sacerdotal vestments and the rest. From there on it was plain sailing. We have, as you would expect, excellent relations with the Victorian Police. We knew that they would take up the case with alacrity.’
‘The only hitch was when one of the men got cold feet, and confessed to his mother that the whole child molestation story was a put up job. He promptly and inconveniently died. Would a jury convict on the uncorroborated evidence of one alleged victim, we wondered? It was hard to tell. But my dear Montalbano, no one should underestimate the visceral anti-Catholicism of the Australian public! In no time we had the press on our side (with little in the way of intimidation, I have to say). And when it came to the appeal, we had no fears.’
‘Pell is in gaol, the Vatican finances are back in our control, and all things considered, nothing could have been simpler. Until you came on the scene our involvement was not even suspected by anyone.’
‘But I don’t understand,’ said Montalbano, ‘why are you telling me all this?’
‘To save you the fruitless pursuit of evidence. You will find none. The Vatican will close ranks, the Victorian legal establishment will never admit so egregious a miscarriage of justice, and the so-called victim will make enough from the press coverage to keep him in comfort for the rest of his life. It is a crime which nobody committed, and unlike your Sicilian adventures, nobody is dead.’
‘And now, if you will excuse us, we must go. Fr Parolin always says Mass for me at five o’clock.’