Scotland Street Volume 16, Chapter 42: The Entity

In the café at Valvona & Crolla, Fat Bob and his companion were still apparently unaware of the fact that they were being observed, admittedly with discretion, from a table at the far end of the room. That was the table at which Angus and Roger, having been engaged in a conversation about art and national epics, had been interrupted by the arrival of Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna. No conversation joined by the celebrated socialite nun remained on its original tracks, and although Roger valiantly tried to return to the subject of the Ossianic verses of James Macpherson, and made several remarks about the potential of the courtly epic, Fergus of Galloway, his efforts were expertly headed off by Sister Maria-Fiore. With a dismissive wave of her hand, and the simple formula, “Be that as it may”, she precluded any further discussion along those lines with the disclosure, delivered sotto voce, that she had followed Fat Bob all the way from North Bridge and had seen him meeting the woman with him below the equestrian statue of Wellington.

44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

“A very discreet place for an assignation,” remarked Angus, with a smile.

Sister Maria-Fiore shook her head. “I take it from your tone of voice that you mean the opposite of what you say,” she scolded. “That is a common habit here, I have observed. In Italy we mean what we say . . .” She paused. “Although we don’t always reveal everything we think.”

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“Who does?” said Angus. “If all were revealed all the time, then social life as we know it would be impossible.” He turned to Roger. “What do you think, Roger?”

Roger smiled. “I couldn’t say,” he replied.

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This might have been an opportunity for Sister Maria-Fiore to coin an aphorism, but she resisted. “I’m only following this man out of a sense of duty,” she said. “I believe that he is deceiving Big Lou, you see, and I don’t think he should get away with it.”

Angus sighed. “I fear that you’re right,” he said. “But I’m not sure about whether we should intervene. These matters are usually somewhat delicate.” He gave Sister Maria-Fiore an enquiring glance. “It can’t be easy to follow somebody and not be observed – particularly if one is, oneself, somewhat – how shall we put it? – conspicuous.”

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The remark was gently made, and Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna did not take exception to it.

“I take your point, Angus,” she said. “But I happen to have had experience of these things.”

Angus looked doubtful. “Experience? You?”

Roger remained tactfully silent.

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Sister Maria-Fiore had been talking quietly, but now she lowered her voice even further. Angus and Roger strained to hear what she said, as did two women at a neighbouring table who had been enjoying, in so far as they could hear, the discussion.

“You may or may not be aware,” she began, “of the fact that the Vatican has an intelligence service.”

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Angus looked doubtful, but Roger smiled.

“Oh, that is well known,” Roger said. “It has been operating for at least five centuries – somewhat longer, I would venture to suggest, than MI6 or the CIA. They’re newcomers by comparison.”

“Exactly,” said Sister Maria-Fiore. “Of course, you’ve written on the papacy, Roger – you’ll know all about it.”

“It used to be called the Holy Alliance,” Roger said. “Then it became known as the Entity. It is still very much in business. It enjoys a very high reputation amongst intelligence services. It has, shall we say, excellent sources.”

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“That is quite true,” said Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna. “And although I am bound by certain obligations of secrecy . . .”

At the neighbouring table, the two women were now leaning out of their chairs at the maximum angle compatible with remaining seated.

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“Although I normally don’t talk about this,” the nun went on, “in the circumstances I feel that I need to explain. I was, you see, at one point seconded by my order to serve with the Entity in Rome. I was . . .” She paused, and then, barely whispering, continued, “I was originally given a junior role in the administrative section, but Monsignor Rinaldi, who was at that time a senior figure in the personnel department – he’s now Nuncio in Asunción – arranged for me to serve for several months in the field, as we call it. Of course, I can’t tell you what I did there . . .”

“Quite right,” said Angus.

“I am glad you understand,” Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna went on, “but what I can say is that I did manage to get some experience of following people of interest, as we called them. I also received training in codes.”

Angus looked at Sister Maria-Fiore in frank astonishment.

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“All that is in the past,” she said airily. “But I do recall very well a particular lecture we had on the technique of merging with your surroundings. The message we came away with was very clear.”

They waited as Sister Maria-Fiore took a sip of her coffee. As she put down her cup, she glanced down the room towards Fat Bob’s table.

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“They told us that it was a complete fallacy that one should try to look the same as everyone else. What you should do, they advised, is to look different. If you look out of place, then the last thing that anybody will conclude is that you are trying to conceal anything. You will immediately be relieved of any suspicion.”

With the delivery of this surprising piece of information, Sister Maria-Fiore sat back in her chair and smiled. At the neighbouring table, the two women looked at one another in disbelief.

“No,” said Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna,” it is absolutely true. Stand out in order to disappear; fit in, in order to stand out.”

Angus laughed. “So, if Fat Bob over there sets off down Leith Walk, and you trail after him – nobody, not even Fat Bob himself, will turn a hair? Is that what you’re suggesting? Seriously?”

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Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna frowned. “You may mock, Angus, but if you care to accompany me, you will see what I mean. Nobody will pay the slightest attention to us.”

“Remarkable,” said Roger. “But possibly quite true. Shall we put the matter to the test?”© Alexander McCall Smith, 2022. Love in a Time of Bertie (Scotland Street Volume 15) is in bookshops now. The Enigma of Garlic will be published in November by Polygon, price £17.99