They were sitting in the office at Cronaca Nera Italiana with a bottle of red from somewhere in Sicily. Nothing special, no DOC, but good enough to wash down the pizza. Thin crust, just in from around the corner, courtesy of me, Pete Pescatore. Sometime crime writer, all-around delivery boy.
I ripped open the pizza box and pulled up a chair.
“So what do you think, Pescatore?”
“Trash,” said Anastasia. “Garbage. Merde.” She looked at me.
Johnny grabbed a slice and talked around it. “There’s a photograph for sale.”
“Hmn,” I said. The pizza was cold. I threw it back in the box. “Who’s the star?”
“Member of the government,” said Johnny. “A minister.” He snorted and reached for a toscano, lit up and coughed.
I shot a look at Anastasia, who was studying her nails, shaking her head. “Merde,” she said, ice in her eyes and in her voice. “Sorry for my French.”
I snagged the wine, poured and drank. “With?”
“A 14-year-old.” Johnny blew a smoke ring and watched it rise.
“Boy or girl?”
“Hard to tell, apparently.”
“Crissake, Johnny. You going tabloid on me?” He’d always liked that sort of thing, but he’d never bid on a photo before, not so far as I knew. “Anything to sell a few more copies-“
He puffed and launched a couple more rings. “It’s news, Pescatore. And I run a newspaper.”
“It’s garbage,” I said. “Stazz is right.”
Anastasia unfurled a dazzling smile, sent a long, lovely arm across the table and snatched the bottle of wine. I took it from her and filled her glass. Another smile as she took back the bottle.
“Point is, Pescatore,” said Johnny. “People eat this stuff up.”
“Only if you stuff it down their throat.” I shot another look at Anastasia. She was studying the label. I shifted my gaze back to Johnny. “Have you seen it?”
“No. But Stazz has.” He jerked a thumb in her direction.
“Merde,” she said without looking up. “My vote is not. Pescatore not. Democracy, no?”
Not. I threw a hand out to Johnny. He sighed, drank, and sighed again. “If we buy we can sell a million copies. Print the story without it, they just sue us for slander.”
“So drop it.”
“Porca miseria, Pescatore.” Johnny slammed a fat hand on the table. “If we don’t run with it, somebody else will — “
“No — ” Anastasia broke in. “You know that is not how business work.”
“No?” Johnny turned to her, aping surprise.
“Listen,” she said. “We have this hunter in Russia too. Paparazzi?”
Johnny nodded and reached for his glass.
Anastasia pushed on. “Follow rich and famous idiot with good reputation. Famous guy go to hotel with little friend. Hunter wait. Boring.” She yawned and took a sip. “Big camera, big as cannon. Wait for target, shoot and run. Sell photographs to trash.” She turned her big blue eyes on Johnny. “Merde.”
“Ugly, but legal,” said Johnny.
“This is different,” she said. “Hold gun to minister’s head.”
“You lost me, Stazz.” I wanted her to spell it out.
She shook her head. I turned to Johnny. “Boss?”
There was another side to the business, he said, where the game was all about finding the customer with the most to lose. If the photo was any good at all — if it had the potential to ruin his life or even just make him look like a fool, the target would pay whatever it took.
“But sometimes they never get the chance?” It was beginning to sound familiar.
“You got it,” said Johnny. The photo in question was getting shopped around. It could easily go to a rival paper. Or to the minister himself. Or to one of his friends. You never knew when something like that might come in handy.
I sat there silent for a while, breathing in Johnny’s gray exhaust. Finally I said, “No.”
“No, what?” said Johnny. “No, it’s not news, so we just ignore it?”
“It’s dumb,” I said. “And it stinks.”
“Trash,” said Anastasia. She didn’t look up. She was peering at the back of the wine bottle, reading. “It is like this,” she said, setting the bottle in front of Johnny. “You are in? I am out. Arrivederci, Johnny.”
She was on her feet. She looked at me, lifted her eyebrows.
“Make up your mind, Pescatore,” said Johnny. “In or out.”
“You put it that way, boss-” I got up, flipped him a salute and walked out.
I caught up with Anastasia at the door.
Johnny called out from down the hall. “Hey, come on. Pete? Stazz? Where you goin’?”
Anastasia smiled. I closed the door behind us.
The wine we drank that night has a blood-red label and goes by the name of Placido Rizzotto Rosso. An IGT from Sicily made by Centopassi from grapes grown on land confiscated from the mafia.