When the corpse of the shady Bologna industrialist who owns the local football team is found both shot and stabbed with a Parmesan knife, Aurelio Zen is summoned to oversee the investigation. Anxious for a break from his girlfriend, who attributes Zen’s slow recovery from routine surgery to hypochondria, he is only too happy to take on what first appears to be an undemanding assignment. The case quickly spins out of control, becoming entangled with the fates of a student semiotics, a mysterious immigrant claiming to be royalty, and Bologna’s most incompetent private detective. Meanwhile a prominent postmodern academic accuses Italy’s leading celebrity chef of being a fraud. Back to Bologna is dazzlingly plotted and delivers both comic and serious insights into the realities of today’s Italy.
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'Someone should kill him.'
Bruno didn't reply.
'Well, I don't actually mean that, of course,' Nando went on.
'As in a knife through the heart.'
'You were speaking allegorically.'
'Er . . . yes.'
'My client's intention in allegedly uttering the phrase "Someone should kill him" was entirely euphemistic, not to say parabolic.'
'Right. It's just that if the smarmy bastard should happen to drop dead . . .'
'Which God forbid.'
'. . . then that would solve all our problems.'
'Says who? The next one could be even worse.'
'Worse than Curti? You must be joking.'
'Plus you're assuming that anyone in his right mind would be prepared to buy a club where half the players are on a loan or time-share deal with other teams, and the rest will be sold off at the end of the season to meet the budgetary shortfall. It would take years, not to mention very deep pockets, to turn i rossoblù around.'
'All right, so hold the heart attack, cancel the stroke. Now what? One more season like this and I'll . . .'
Nando broke off as the car's headlights picked out an amazing pair of black legs displayed up to the white silk triangle of the crotch.
'Keep your eyes on the road,' Bruno grunted sourly.
'By her? Any time.'
'With legs like that, who cares? God, I'm bored.'
Nando turned the radio back up.
'. . . created several good chances, particularly in the second half, but this merely served to underline the thing that Bologna fans have been talking about all season, and in all honesty for many seasons past, namely the lack of a worldclass striker who could capitalise on the many opportunities going to waste out there and put the ball in the net. The service from the wings and the midfield is always reliable and occasionally inspired, but when it comes to finishing it's the same sad story week after week . . .'
Bruno yawned massively.
'So how are the kids?' he asked, cutting the volume of the radio to a plaintive whine.
'All doing well except Carmelo. He's got some sort of canker on his ribs just below the wing. It must be bothering him because he keeps gnawing at it.'
'Can't you put some sort of bandage on it? Or just tie him up till it heals?'
They drove past a rare prominence in this two-dimensional landscape, one of the vast tumuli where the city's garbage was interred, its burning vapours a perpetual flame of remembrance.
'They go crazy if you try and restrain them. I'm taking him to the doctor tomorrow. He needs to get on a course of antibiotics.'
'They say now you shouldn't overdo that stuff. Lowers your immunity to flu or something.'
'Birds don't get flu.'
'Sure they do. Remember that Chinese chicken scare?'
'Carmelo isn't a chicken.'
Nando was a handsome hunk from some village down in the Abruzzi that Bruno had never heard of, whose latest doomed dream was to get his hands on the ten-cylinder, 500 bhp, 300 km/h Gallardo coupé which the Lamborghini company had recently donated to the Polizia di Stato for mutual public relations purposes. Built like a wrestler, with a neat black beard and an amiable but unfocused smile, he had for some reason married himself off to a skinny, neurotic harridan from Ferrara. Presumably to compensate for the fact that their marriage was and would remain childless, the couple kept a total of eleven parrots and cockatoos in their two-bedroom apartment. The birds perched on your shoulder, nibbled your ear and shat on your jacket, and the whole place stank. Bruno had been there for dinner. Once.
He and Nando were on their way back to headquarters after having been called to the scene of an alleged burglary out in Villanova. The complainant was a slyly pugnacious electrical contractor whose wife had just left him and gone home to live with her mother, taking their six-year-old son with her. He claimed to have come home after work to find the apartment gutted of just about everything except the plumbed-in washing machine. Since the sophisticated alarm system that he had himself installed had failed to respond, then clearly his estranged spouse, the only other person who knew the deactivation code, must be the guilty party.
It had taken over three hours to take the man's statement and to question his neighbours, none of whom had noticed anything amiss. Bruno more than half suspected that the electrician had cleaned the place out himself over a period of several days, put the stuff in storage under a false name, and was now making a formal denuncia to back up an insurance claim and ensure that the 'thankless bitch' who had made his life hell got a fair ration in return. As far as the police were concerned, it would almost certainly be a total waste of time, demanding wads of completed forms, written reports and lengthy communication with the authorities in Ferrara, and never getting anywhere.
Bruno didn't care, even though being rostered that night had meant missing Bologna FC's local derby at Ancona, postponed from shortly before Christmas after the original fixture was cancelled due to a pitch invasion. He was bored and hungry and tired and looking forward to going off shift as soon as they got back to the Questura, but at a deeper level he was still blissed out, even though months had elapsed since the miracle had occurred to cut short his 'hardship posting' in the far north of the country and bring him back to Bologna. The young patrolman had stopped going to mass when he left home, but he had recently paid several visits to San Domenico, his neighbourhood church, and on each occasion had set ten euros worth of votary tapers burning before an image of the saint in a chapel where they still provided real sweet-smelling beeswax candles, not the moulded plastic electric bulbs that were replacing them these days and which always reminded Bruno of an amusement arcade. Maybe it had even been fifteen euros the first time. Anyway, at least he'd paid for them, unlike some people, hence the coin-in-the-slot replicas.
On a rational level, of course, he knew precisely how his early return from the German-speaking Südtirol region had come about, but this didn't alter the fact that a miracle of some sort had definitely been involved. Consider the odds. First, this high-flyer from the Criminalpol squad in Rome named Aurelio Zen gets sent up to Bolzano on some shady case with important political ramifications the exact nature of which Bruno had never understood. Second, he, Bruno, is detailed to drive the ministerial envoy or whatever he was to a windswept inn on a God-forsaken pass way up in the mountains on a back road to Cortina. Third, Bruno himself--stuck in said inn for the rest of the day while his passenger goes off with a young Austrian witness to pursue his investigations--finally cracks up under the dour cloud of graceless silence and the glares of loathing lasered his way by the locals, and finally freaks out completely at a café where he and Zen stop on the way back down the mountain, screaming actionably offensive abuse at the stocky, stolid Teutonic blockheads who have made his life and those of all his fellow recruits a misery for months on end. Fourth, instead of putting him on a charge for grossly inappropriate behaviour such as to cause serious unrest in an area notorious for its political sensitivities and separatist aspirations, this Vice-Questore Zen offers, without even being asked, to try and have Bruno transferred back to Bologna immediately, despite the fact that his posting still had over three months to run. Fifth, and most unlikely of all, his benefactor delivers. Was that a miracle, or what?
The two patrolmen were taking the shortest way back into the city centre, along the state highway that parallels the A14 autostrada from Ancona and the Adriatic coast, looping through the unlovely dormitory suburbs to the north of Bologna to connect with the spinal cord of the A1. There was little traffic about, so when a huge eighteen-wheeler overtook them aggressively by running the orange signal at an intersection it made quite a statement.
'Let's take that cocksucker,' Nando said, reaching for the siren and lights.
Bruno laid a hand on his arm.
'Calm down. There's some German name on the front end and the trailer has Greek plates. Probably on his way north from Bari out of his mind on amphetamines, pulled off the autostrada to have his personal needs attended to by a colleague of that young lovely we spotted back there. Okay, he was blatantly disrespecting us, but do you really want to spend hours of overtime this evening finding an interpreter, phoning whichever consulate is involved, and then dealing with the lawyer his firm will hire, not to mention the mountains of paperwork? We've had enough aggravation for one day.'
'All right, all right!'
Nando sounded peeved.
'You're right about Curti, though,' Bruno added in a conciliatory tone.
'That stinking parmigiano! As far as he's concerned, Bologna's just another glitzy status toy like his yachts and his whores and his villa in Costa Rica. The only thing he couldn't buy was his hometown club. Sorry, Lorenzino, Parma FC is not for sale. No problem, he just jumps in his Mercedes, drives a few exits south on the A1 and buys the red-and-blues instead. But he doesn't give a damn about us!'
'You're right. The fans could forgive almost anything else, but there's no sense of passion, no deep commitment.'
'Above all, no money.'
Bruno yawned again, staring sightlessly at the neat rows of identical six-storey apartment blocks now sliding past the car like packaged goods on a conveyor belt.
'Well, he's got problems in that department.'
'How do you mean?'
'This tax scandal.'
'Tough. Why should he pull the club down with him? And now they say that half the sponsors are going to pull out to avoid the risk of being tainted if the case ever comes to court.'
'Which it won't.'
'Of course not, but that doesn't help us. The damage has already been done. We're just . . .'
It was then that they saw the car parked at the roadside, its emergency blinkers flashing. Nando braked hard, swerving sharply to the right in a controlled skid, and pulled up behind it.
'Blow job,' he said.
'Or breakdown,' Bruno replied. 'I'll go and check.'
He stepped out into the freezing February night. For some reason, the cold seemed colder here than it had in Bolzano, harder and seemingly obdurate. Maybe it was the humidity seeping down from the Po delta, he thought, or more likely the pollution. Average winter temperatures were a good ten degrees lower up north, but there the air was bone-dry and crystal clear. Still, spring would soon be here, and he was home. That was all that mattered.
The illegally parked vehicle was a blue Audi A8 luxury saloon. Bruno automatically noted down the licence number. That was about all he could make out in the glare from the patrol car's headlights behind. The headrests on the front seats made it impossible to see whether there was anyone in the car. Bruno walked round to the passenger side and peered in through the window, then rapped sharply on the glass. There seemed to be a man sitting in the driving seat, but he did not respond and the door was locked.
Bruno was about to return to the patrol car for a torch when the full beams of a van coming in the other direction bathed the interior of the Audi in light. The illumination lasted only a few moments, but it was enough. The driver of the Audi was sitting quite still. The expression on his face suggested that he was struggling to achieve some trivial but impossible task, like drawing out the plosive 'p' into a long dying murmur.
Bruno stepped away from the car and called in on his radio. He spoke little but listened intently, shielding his left ear against the roar of traffic on the banked and cambered curve of the motorway above. When he returned to the patrol car, his face was blank.
'It's not a Merc,' he said, slamming the door shut and shivering.
Nando looked at him askance.
'I know, it's an Audi. So what?'
'That conversation we just had?'
Bruno did not look at him, just sat staring ahead at the blue Audi saloon.
'Just don't mention it, that's all. When they get here.'
'When who gets here?'
Bruno slammed his open palm loudly on the dashboard.
'We never discussed the matter, all right? We don't give a shit about football.'
'But that's all I do give a shit about! That and my birds. Oh, and Wanda, of course.'
'That a new purchase?'
'Wanda's my wife!'
Right! Worked as a PA for some lawyer downtown. Nando did not deign to reply. A heavy silence fell.
'That car is registered in Lorenzo Curti's name,' Bruno remarked quietly. 'There's a man sitting in the driving seat. It's hard to tell in this light, but he looks quite a bit like the photographs and TV footage I've seen of Curti. Quite tall, slim, a well-trained beard, salt-and-pepper hair.'
'Did you talk to him? Why did he stop?'
Bruno opened the window a fraction and cocked his head as though listening.
'You know those knives they use for splitting blocks of Parmesan cheese? Well, they're not really knives, more like triangular chisels. Thick, sharp and very rigid.'
'For fuck's sake, Bruno, you're starting to sound like that singing chef on TV. What have Parmesan knives to do with anything?'
'The man in that car has what looks like one of them sticking out of his chest. As in a knife through the heart.'
Through the opened window, a loud and rapid chopping sound asserted itself in the distance. Bruno opened the door.
'Help me get the flares out and clear a space where the helicopter can land.'
At about the time that the blue Audi A8--covered in a tarpaulin, with the driver's body still behind the wheel--was being winched on to a low-loader for transport to the police garage, Aurelio Zen and his phantom double were deep underground somewhere in the wilds of Tuscany.