Dias was the eldest assistant at the Clinic of Infectious Diseases; he was the first to arrive in the morning and the last to leave. He was known to accompany his patients when they needed special exams, to speed along the bureaucratic process. Unlike the other assistants, he never failed to attend the weekly seminars on pathology, surgery, and radiology, though, reserved as he was, he rarely raised a question or made a point.
His day began with a round of visits with Sister Maria and usually ended after dinner, which was served to the patients at 6 o'clock, when he made his "nightly round", his third visit of the day. On these visits, more informal than the others, he walked through the rooms, telling a story here and listening to one there, consoling or provoking when necessary. He rarely left the Clinic before eight, often after having had coffee with the night nurse and informing her on the latest developments. At times, particularly when a new patient had been admitted and the diagnosis was still open, he spent the night between the patient's room and the nurses' station, awaiting the decisive diagnostic sign. "A good diagnostician," he would say at these times, putting on a celebrative pot of coffee, "is faster than lab data." These were the moments that meant the most to Dias. Little time was left to him to dedicate to other activities, but that was a choice he had made years before and he had long since grown accustomed to his Spartan life. A few childhood friends and an occasional dinner date were all he required in the way of recreation. A more serious lacking in a city like Casteddu was Dias' total disinterest in politics. Intrigue for him was but a nuisance and he had a natural distaste for the art of eloquence, both of which made political meetings seem baroque and tedious. That day, beside the "canary" in the hepatitis ward, Dias had eight new patients to visit. Those young patients, like the son of the police Commissario, had been given a separate ward just to the right of the front waiting room to avoid contagion from the other infectious diseases and had already been spoiled mercilessly by the night nurses. Dias noted a different atmosphere in that room full of children and family members, mothers, in particular, who seemed as intent on unraveling their skeins of cotton as they were on the intricacies of the law.
And they had ample motives for their desperate interest. The children's story was a tragic one: they had Cooley's Disease, a blood affection that was rare elsewhere. Due to the isolation of the island in the middle of the Mediterranean and to the limited contact of its inhabitants with foreigners, along with a certain amount of inbreeding in some small towns of the interior, the disease had spread among the islanders to an extent unheard of in the rest of Europe. Dias knew that out of a million and a half inhabitants, there were more than two thousand children whose blood, just months after birth, was unable to transport sufficient oxygen. Without regular transfusions, some twenty a year, those children could not survive. As a result, blood donation drives were a common occurrence on the island. Even the soldiers stationed at the NATO base not far from Casteddu had grabbed at the chance to improve their public image through vast campaigns, a fact that was to have serious consequences.
So it was that the children's already precarious health was further weakened by the introduction of a rare virus during transfusions. To worsen matters, in June of the preceding year, the Ministerial decree which prescribed the adoption of a series of new tests on donated blood to insure the safety of recipients had, to be sure, been delivered to the transfusion center, but had somehow been mislaid over the summer. And by the time the new measures had taken effect, the damage had been done. The mothers whose children were suspected of having contracted the virus were rightfully incensed and would not find peace until the responsible parties were incriminated.
It was Dias' sad duty to examine each of the youngsters for signs of the virus. When he entered the ward at one o'clock that afternoon, he found the mothers gathered around a tall figure, talking all at once. It was thus that Dias first saw the Commissario and later, even after observing him in more dramatic and tragic circumstances, he was to remember him as he was that first day, with the intent air of a serious and critical listener. The chattering stopped as he entered and the Commissario approached him and introduced himself. "How were the tests?" he asked right away, drawing Dias out of earshot of the children.
"It'll be some days before we get the confirmation," Dias answered. "In the meantime, he'll get all the care and spoiling he can take."
"I'll be glad to get him home," the Commissario said with a long and lonely look in the direction of the small figure in the bed.
Dias visited the young patients, though there was nothing he could do for them but help them pass the time till the results of the second and definite tests came back. He observed the Commissario conversing gently with his son and his playful jostling before taking his leave. Dias found him again, leaning against the wall just outside the door of the room.
"Do you believe in justice, Doctor?" he asked as Dias passed.
"I think so," Dias answered automatically, turning to face the Commissario. It wasn't something he had dedicated much thought to. It wasn't something that touched his life personally, unless in the general sense of doing justice to his patients.
The Commissario's mouth was drawn into a narrow line and his eyes seemed to be contemplating something beyond the bare corridor wall. "I deal with murder everyday, you know," he said. "But this is worse. This is too hard to accept." He suppressed a tremor and looked hard at Dias. "And we mustn't accept it." His eyes closed for a moment, then he straightened and, with long, elastic steps, reached the exit, leaving Dias with a pain he thought he had long since learned how to cope with.
Later that evening, as Dias was preparing a pot of coffee in anticipation of a long night beside a patient who had been admitted in a coma, the night nurse called him to the phone. It was Gaetano Cannas. "I thought you detested interviews," said his old childhood friend in a tone he assumed when drinking. Cannas made a very insecure living selling articles to the "Island Union", supplementing his income with an odd assortment of jobs that Dias had never been able to fathom. "Or has Ersilia got something that I haven't got?"
It wasn't easy to explain to his friend, who had been after an interview for years, how he had been forced into accepting. He had a hard time explaining it to himself. The truth was that the director of the newspaper was an old friend of his father's and pressure had been put on him, in a friendly way, to "let Ersilia ask him a few questions". But it wasn't exactly an interview, he insisted. "Sure, sure," Cannas said, now completely serious. "Have you heard about the murder at the Lido?"
"Only the details I get from the Sister," Dias admitted. His protected life in the Clinic, away from mundane excitement and scandals, always provoked a reaction in Cannas.
But not that day. Cannas apparently had something on his mind. "They're treating it like a robbery case, but it's more than that. Listen, you've got to do me a favor."
Dias held his breath.
"I'd like to talk to someone in the Community but I can't get my foot in the door. Don't you have some patients in there?"
Dias was thinking fast. It would be a risk to take Cannas into the Community. It managed to survive, he knew, as long as no one made waves.
"All you have to do is introduce me to Father Efisio," Cannas added. "I'll do the rest. When do you have to go again?"
Dias couldn't refuse his friend. "The day after tomorrow," he said. "First thing in the morning. But behave yourself."
"Would nine be too late for you?" Cannas asked. "I'll meet you at the entrance."
Dias hung up. He felt uneasy. Once Cannas had his foot in the door of the Community there would be no stopping him. It was useless to hope in Cannas' discretion, for the man had none.
A few years back, Cannas had had his bit of journalistic fortune, uncovering widespread political clientelism in the construction of the new port channel. The Directors of the project had all been jailed, but "further investigation" had not only exonerated them but put Cannas into a very delicate position. Introducing Cannas to Father Efisio was inviting trouble. At least he could be sure that at nine in the morning he would be sober.
That night Dias slept two hours on his office visiting table. By morning, he had diagnosed the case of the comatose patient and started treatment.
The heavy slap of Sister Maria's leather slippers against the hall floor told him it was 9 o'clock, time for the morning visits. She wouldn't mind carrying on alone this morning, he thought. As eyewitness to the sumptuous rites of the Archbishop's funeral, she had the honor and the duty to share her experience with all those she could touch. He left the Clinic in her capable hands and drove home faster than was his custom, savoring the thought of a morning swim.