In the following days, Dias found his thoughts going back to the Commissario's question, as the Clinic routine brought him into almost daily contact with the policeman. At forty years of age, he recognized that there was something private, perhaps primitive, in his concept of justice. It was an island trait that he had never had need to question: centuries of distrust had been passed along intact to the younger generations even though the authorities were no longer foreign invaders or colonizers, but their own elected representatives. It was almost an instinct. Justice was best handled privately, like the clan feuds over grazing rights or the serious crime of sheep stealing, for what court of law could ever know what they knew or weigh the damage done as scrupulously as they themselves? Certainly, thought Dias, this was not what the Commissario had in mind in the way of justice for the infected youngsters.
But time to think was something Dias found he had less and less of. The direction of Infectious Diseases, as chance would have it, had fallen on his unwilling shoulders in those decisive months of the year 198_. The head of the Clinic had suffered a bout of heart trouble in the spring and had preferred to go to the Continent for treatment. The Assistant Chief had managed to find funds, at what price Dias ignored, to finance a year of specialization in the States. The choice had fallen on an Assistant Dias despite his lack of political backing, in recognition of his superior competence in the field of Infectious Diseases, and while the honor had secretly pleased him, the additional responsibilities were taking their toll on him.
One of his more pleasurable routines in the Clinic was his weekly visit to Piro in the Tower, for Piro alone of all the staff had managed to appropriate a laboratory facing the gulf, on the southwest corner of the roof. How the old doctor had managed it was the object of much speculation on the floors below, a mystery deepened by the odd and irregular hours the man kept often appearing just once a week and by the secrecy which surrounded his research.
The Piro Laboratory
Little, in fact, was known about Piro. Common knowledge had it that he had participated in a project for the fight against malaria at the end of the war, and that a few years later, when malaria had all but disappeared from the island, he had been assigned to the Clinic as Assistant in Infectious Diseases, despite the disapproval of the Chief. The death of the Chief, the first of many in Piro's long career, had in no way inspired in him an ambition for the higher position and perhaps this very indifference had originated some of the gossip regarding the man. Piro had grown old as an assistant, disregarded by most, except for the few ill-advised who attempted from time to time to send him into an early retirement. Sister Maria always alluded to strange powers when she was forced to talk about the doctor. There was no other way, she claimed, to account for the fact that he was allowed to haunt the Clinic like a ghost and to continue his devilry unsupervised up in the Tower.
Dias and Piro met once a week, half an hour before sunset; or rather, once a week Piro granted private audience to his young colleague. Dias enjoyed the meetings, they were a welcome change in his hospital routine even though he was not always able to penetrate the obscure parables and abstract dialectics of the man. More than once had he left the Tower with only a vague notion of what they had been discussing. At other times, he had found himself bewildered by Piro's peculiar habit of comparing the Tower to an impartial, if not to say celestial, observation post. When Piro stood at the window which dominated the bastion and the lower city, his frameless glasses set aside and his arms crossed on his chest, Dias would suppress a smile thinking of the unholy images that his countenance would inspire in Sister Maria.
The windows were open wide that day and the noise of a crowd on the bastion below filled the small room. Piro was hunched over his tiled lab table in the center of the room, peering nearsightedly into the microscope. At the sound of Dias' step, he slid his glasses down onto his nose, stepped off the stool, and crossed the room to the window.
Near the palm trees, a small crowd had gathered around a hastily built stage where Dias could make out a dark-skinned bald head which seemed to be the center of interest. "Our Secretary of Health is kicking off the campaign a bit early, don't you think?" asked Piro with a mysterious grin.
Piro always seemed to know more than he said and kept a sharp eye on events which were of marginal interest to Dias. The regional and municipal elections were scheduled for September, he knew, though whether or not it was early to start campaigning he could not have said.
"These are great times," Piro went on, rubbing his hands together in a caricature of a gesture. "I wonder what they will think up to keep in the limelight for the next four months."
Dias observed Piro's delighted expression as he watched the crowd on the bastion. Masses of people, pressed together like a culture on a glass slide, always reminded Piro of his "little beasts", as he called the microorganisms dangerous to man.
"Every little beast," Piro never tired of saying, "has a world all of its own, like yours and mine." He maintained that a good scientist could learn to identify with it, understand its needs, and anticipate its next move. With experience, it became a skirmish between old acquaintances, or more precisely, a cat and mouse game, since the scientist would inevitably get the upper hand. Piro had none of Dias' doubts about the final outcome.
Dias watched Piro's small, deep-set, blue eyes turn from the bastion to the Marina, "the incubator of the profession", where tuberculosis, syphilis, gonorrhea and hepatitis bred, then to the swamps at the edge of the gulf, where cholera and salmonella hibernated. He seemed to be taking the pulse of the city. Then he straightened, his long, angular face becoming hard as his glance returned to the bastion. "People like that," he said with contempt, indicating the vociferous speaker on the stage, "make our victories over the little beasts futile. More often than not, our vaccines reach the people ten or twenty years after we've perfected them." He turned his back on the window and looked hard at Dias for the first time. "Priorities, you know." The sun was shining wet red west of the hills of Capoterra and Piro's angular face glowed with the pink light that filled the room. His gauzy white mane stirred in the breeze that was just beginning to rise from the sea, creating a ghostly effect that Dias associated with the man: a ghostly effect that didn't make him smile as long as Piro's eye held him.
Then the eye blinked and Piro turned away. Dias followed the doctor's jerky, rheumatic gait to the desk in the corner where they both sat down. It was time, Dias knew, for his report on the latest cases. Piro would close his eyes and listen, interrupting only to clarify a point, and would remain so still that Dias would wonder if he had fallen asleep. There would be a long silence before Piro would speak and if there was a particularly mysterious case among those described, he would rise to pick a book from his well furnished shelves and consult it before giving his impressions. When Piro would sit forward with both hands on the desk, Dias would know that the meeting was over.
It was almost dark and the noise on the bastion had ceased when Dias got to his feet.
"You haven't seen my latest acquisition," said Piro, indicating the incubator against the wall at his shoulders. Dias stepped to the machine and peered through the glass window. Five pink phials, suspended from the rack, were all he could make out in the dim light.
"It was nearly impossible to obtain them," Piro went on, joining Dias at the incubator and looking with pride at his possessions, "and I hope to keep them alive. I'm not well enough acquainted with them yet to know if they are thriving under my care or not."
Piro grew mysterious when Dias asked what they were.
"Let's say they are the cells of the most famous cancer patient in the world," was all he would say, putting his arm around Dias' shoulders and leading him to the door. Piro would say no more until he was ready, Dias knew. For today, he had had enough.