Filippa Nocentini (an excerpt from The Second State)
Balestra and Berti sat with the engine running in the car park of a fake American burger bar in an industrial estate close to the motorway. Berti's crimson Alfa Romeo Giulietta rumbled and trembled with the passing lorries. The CD player was pumping out 1970s rock classics, causing Balestra to wince every time she heard the intro to something interminable by Zeppelin, Creedence or, horror of horrors, the Floyd. She limited herself to the odd sigh but avoided the subject. The last thing she needed was a lecture from Berti on the incomparable oeuvre of early Gabriel or King Crimson. Berti's and her tastes would never coincide.
Berti ignored her discomfort and bit deep into a filthy cheeseburger while murmuring his appreciation for the music. Gherkins and pickles tumbled out into his lap.
- Bugger - he said without conviction.
- You wanted to come here - said Balestra, staring at a bag of cheesy chips that she was going to have to force down. - Christ alone knows why you'd want to bring a girl here.
- See any police around? - Berti asked.
Clouds were climbing upwards to the north. It looked like there was a storm on the way.
- Exactly - he replied, fishing pickles from his lap and dropping them into a bag - Anyway, not my idea - he added through a full mouth and pointing across the cement forecourt as a green Citroen pulled in and parked up between a camper van and a white Fiat Doblò.
- It was hers - he added.
- You telling me that is our contact? - said Balestra, as an overweight woman in a younger person's pink top and denim miniskirt walked towards them with all the natural elegance of a haulier. She looked around nervously as she approached.
Balestra seized the moment and flicked the volume down on the stereo.
- You betcha - said Berti, swallowing as quickly as possible – That is Filippa Nocentini.
- Holy Mother of God... - muttered Balestra, all her ideals of feminist solidarity disappearing in that instant.
The back door of Berti's brand new Alfa Romeo opened and she slipped in. She reeked of a mixture of sweet perfume high notes swamping a musty accord of fryer fat, alcohol and body odour. A day in the swelter of the Questura had left its mark, there were large sweat marks beneath her underarms. She sat back in the middle of the back seat and Berti and Balestra twisted around to face her with welcoming smiles. They were greeted by the tough stare of a seasoned warrior.
Berti in particular had to make an effort to stay respectable: if his gaze wandered southwards he'd be looking straight into the dim chasm between her legs and her miniskirt. Filippa Nocentini was sporting bright pink panties, which was a relief, but she wasn't wearing a bra. Even if he looked straight into her eyes, all he could really see were the pert nipples of her ponderous breasts making a bid for liberation from a light cotton vest. He found himself checking out the plush new leather seats and the branding on the rear windows, all the time flushing as pink as her crop top.
There were no introductions. Nocentini began talking the moment she hit the leather.
- Bloody hell - she said - It's hot in here.
Balestra leaned across and turned on the aircon.
- You remember our deal? - she began - The two of you keep your mouths tight as a nun's snatch, okay? I ain't losing my job over this. Word gets out that I'm a blabberer and I'm toast.
Nocentini spoke with a thick local accent, her Italian approximate and peppered with dialect. She took a leaflet from her bag and began using it as a fan. Clearly the correct balance between chillbox and oven had now been reached.
- You have my word.
- Yeah, well, I don't give a shit about your word - she said - Because I really don't know you from Pippo Inzaghi. You make it worth my while, like we agreed.
Nocentini was on edge. If she didn't calm down, this was going to be tough-going.
- You a milanista then, Signora Nocentini? - Balestra asked, thinking it might break the ice. She was proud of herself for knowing that Inzaghi used to play for Milan. Berti raised an eyebrow.
- What's it to you if I am? - she snapped back - I like a winner, me.
So much for the broken ice, then. Defensive too.
- Me too - said Balestra, lying through gritted teeth. Jesus, she thought, pleading with Berti to get this over and done with as soon as possible.
Nocentini wasn't listening anyway. She turned to Berti, dealing with the man, the boss. Balestra was used to that. She let it pass for once.
- The deal? - she said again, pointedly, shifting on the leather. Balestra could hear the ripping noise of her hot flesh on the damp leather. She tried not to wince.
Berti handed her two fifties.
No one had told Balestra about this little financial agreement with Nocentini.
- We agreed two hundred - Nocentini said, voice cold and unimpressed.
- The rest later - Berti said - Let's hear what you've got to say.
There was an uncomfortable moment while Nocentini sized him up. Balestra wouldn't have been surprised if she'd leant across and grabbed Berti by the throat.
- You're the boss - Nocentini said under her breath instead.
- No, actually I am - said Balestra with a sarcastic smile.
Nocentini gave Balestra an ironic smile, like she knew just the type of woman Balestra was, then stuffed the money loose into her bag, a tiny lime green Mandarina Duck number that looked at least twenty years old. Balestra bit her lip so hard it hurt. She was starting to get a headache.
- Get talking, Nocentini. And I expect value for money, plenty of bangs for my buck, as they say - she said, licking grease from her fingers and putting the food carton on the top of the dashboard. Nocentini stared back at her from beneath overplucked eyebrows and thinning dyed hair.
- Oh there's plenty of bangs, darling, don't you worry - she said.
She then turned pointedly away from Balestra and towards Berti.
- You wanna know about Achille Foa? - she said
- That's why we're here - Berti said - Foa was an officer with the Forlì Questura.
- Sure was. Top guy, our Achille was - she said, almost wistfully - Shame he's dead. Couldn't keep it to himself, know what I mean?
She gave Berti a meaningful look, man to man, as it were.
- Couldn't keep his mouth shut? - Berti asked, playing stupid.
She laughed. She liked men that played dumb.
- No, mate, you ain't getting me. Couldn't keep Achille junior in his trousers.
She threw her head back with a laugh, showing a gaping mouth and a full set of surprisingly white teeth. She was enjoying this. She then made a vulgar gesture with her index finger and smirked as she did so to ram the point home. Berti made sure his stare didn't drop one centimetre, like his life depended on it. Playing dumb and coy.
Balestra looked on, glad that for the time being she was merely a passive observer.
- I got it - he said, knowing that Nocentini now regarded him as some kind of innocent, possibly a eunuch, most definitely a virgin.
- One man sex machine - she went on - Fucked anything that moved, black, white, yellow, married, single, young or old, rich or poor. Screwed like his life depended on it. Best fuck in Forlì by all accounts.
- By whose account? - Berti butted in.
Nocentini didn't answer, but she stopped talking for a second and touched her nose.
Oh God, no, thought Balestra, tell me it’s not true.
- Yeah, well, whatever, let's just call it common consensus - Nocentini added - People talk.
- He must have got into plenty of trouble with a reputation like that - Berti said, prompting her again for more information. Surely half the town must have had a grudge against him.
- Trouble? Fuck yeah! - Nocentini said, her voice rising an octave or two as she blurted it out - A few fights. But he could look after himself. He was pretty ripped, Achille.
- Anyone hold a grudge we should know about? - Berti added.
- I reckon so - she replied, slowly, like it was the most natural thing in the world.
- Jealous boyfriends, angry fathers?
Nocentini looked startled and opened her eyes wide.
- Bloody hell, you really haven't got a clue have you?
- Enlighten us, oh oracle - Balestra mumbled under her breath, but loud enough for Nocentini to hear her.
Nocentini was sizing Balestra up. Berti's hands moved towards his chin then he slipped his arm across between the two front seats.
- What the fuck's the matter with her? - Nocentini said to Berti, a sneer inches deep around her mouth.
- Progressive rock puts her in a foul mood. You wouldn't believe it.
- You not getting any, love? - Nocentini said to Balestra without blinking.
Balestra's lids drooped lower, and she looked Nocentini up and down like she was a cheap whore on the Via Emilia.
- Drop it! - Berti said again, this time to Balestra, who this time turned around and began rooting around in the glove compartment. Berti really, really hoped she wasn't looking for a weapon.
Fortunately, Nocentini wanted to talk about Achille Foa more than she wanted a fight.
- Achille really liked a high class girl. He liked a bit of danger, sure, but a bit of class too. And why not? You can't take it with you, can you?
- Wives and girlfriends – said Berti – getting back on topic.
- Whose wives and girlfriends?
Nocentini fell silent. She took a cigarette out and began to light it up.
- Do you mind... - Berti said, then stopped abruptly when he saw her raised eyebrow. If he wanted more information, there was no room for debate on that matter.
- Where you two from anyway? - she said - Secret services? Private business?
Balestra and Berti gave each other a look. If Nocentini wanted to think they were secret services, that was fine by them. Neither of them answered.
- You want names?
- It'll cost you.
She took a long puff and blew smoke in his direction.
- Just tell us all you know, Signora Nocentini, you'll get what we agreed - Berti said - Did he have a girlfriend?
She gave a laugh.
- Girlfriend? As if... he was balling Cossutta's wife, you dumb schmucks!
Berti and Balestra exchanged a look and she turned back around to stare at Nocentini, who was now looking very pleased with herself. The car rocked suddenly with a gust of wind. They felt a distant roar of thunder. The horizon to the north was now obscured. It was a wall of dust and light.
- Cossutta didn't mention that when I spoke to him - Balestra said.
- I bet he didn't - Nocentini said.
- Was that why Foa had to leave? - Berti asked - To avoid a scandal?
- That's what Cossutta says. But he's full of shit. It's not a crime to fuck the boss's wife, is it? Especially not an asswipe like Cossutta. You ask me, anyway, he should have asked for more to bone her, have you seen the woman?
- Cossutta hinted at some kind of drug problem.
Nocentini blew smoke in her direction.
- Don't know nothing about no drugs - she said.
Balestra took over.
- He also said that his personal view was that Foa had an undiagnosed condition, some kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and that he was on medication for depression.
Nocentini was pensive for a while.
- Obsessive, comp... what's that supposed to mean?
Balestra made it simple.
- Obsessive compulsive... it means he was like an addict.
- A junkie? Achille?
She laughed out loud.
- Bollocks! Really that Cossutta is just so full of shit. I mean, what a cunt. Just because Achille was drilling his tart while he was off mucking around in the hills with his fascist mates and all that wank.
How did one woman manage to fit so much obscene language into such a short space of time? Balestra felt almost envious. And how did she know they met on Sunday mornings?
- Any idea what he did when he left the force? - Berti asked.
Nocentini gave a shrug.
- No idea at all? - he added.
Nocentini had said all that she was going to say. She opened the door and hauled herself up out of the back seat and onto the tarmac, then opened Berti's door and held out a palm. He gave her another hundred euros in twenties, which she counted while she leant on the metal frame.
- You need to know any more, you know where to find me, lover boy - she said with a wink before she swaggered across the forecourt towards her rusty Citroen.
- Yeah, we know where to find you all right - said Balestra once she was out of earshot.
She was sucking on a chippy finger. The grease and quiet were blessed relief. The car still stank of sweet perfume. She closed the windows and stuck the aircon back on full. The quiet was broken by what sounded like an aeroplane warming up on the runway. They turned and looked north and saw that the fruit trees were now bending and straining in the wind as a dust storm approached at speed.
Berti took a deep sigh and turned the Clapton back on. Wonderful tonight, what else?
- Do you mind? - he asked.
Balestra looked shell-shocked.
- Just get me out of here - she said.