ario, sporting his usual two or three-day grizzle. Hard, slate-gray eyes. Dressed up for the occasion in a grubby green tracksuit with a logo I didn’t recognize. That we should meet here for pizza was his idea, in a part of Milan on the south side of a railway line that didn’t get much use anymore.
“I don’t drink much wine,” he said. “But this friend of mine, he says this is a good one. For Pescatore he said, make sure he gets it.” A long arm reached under the cafe table and came up with a bottle wrapped in white tissue paper.
I took it in hand. “A friend?”
“Yeah,” said Mario. “Somebody who likes you. Doesn’t want to see you get hurt.”
I stared into his stony eyes. “Hurt?”
He leaned across the table, lowered his voice. “You could break your legs. Or maybe your head.” He leaned back, eyes wide open, head cocked, and made an effort to smile. Then the eyes grew narrow and the smile disappeared. “It happens.”
I tore the paper from the bottle. Dark bottle, red wine.
“From Argentina,” said Mario. “I never been there. You?”
I shook my head. I had a postcard once from Buenos Aires, but that was as close as I’d ever got.
Mario beckoned the waiter over. “Open it,” he said. “And bring us a couple of glasses.” The waiter did his job and went away.
I peered at the label. Puramun Reserva, 2011 above a drawing in thin gold lines, and then Malbec in red over Valle de Uco — Mendoza.
Two glasses appeared on the Formica tabletop. Thick green glass, ribbed. The waiter poured, set the bottle on the table and disappeared. I stared at the wine (inky, dark), lifted the glass, swirled, took a whiff and a sip. I let some time go by and then said, “Not bad. A little softer than the French. What do you think?”
Mario grunted, sloshed the wine in his glass and drank it down, wiped his mouth with the back of a hand. “That piece-a-crap crime rag you write for?”
“Cronaca Nera Italiana. What about it?”
“You got the story all wrong.”
“What story are we talking about?”
“Guy shot himself in Buenos Aires-Nisman?”
“Yeah. He was a writer, too. Three hundred pages, they found it in his apartment.”
“He made it all up. And look what happened.”
Johnny put me on the story a couple weeks ago. Not the Nisman story, another one. Follow the money, Pescatore. It didn’t take a bloodhound to track it down. Rivers of cash pouring into the city, channeled into the Expo 2015 sites and high-priced apartments in the heart of the Milan. It was all about Mario and his friends, the boys around town handling cash from the coke trade, buying up property and politicians. I’d written one article and promised more.
“So what do you want me to do?”
Mario grinned and poured himself another glass. “I always said you were a man we could talk to. Have another drink, Pescatore.” He topped up my wine.
I took a sip and picked up the bottle. A tangle of thin gold lines on the label.
Mario reached over and pressed a fat finger on the drawing. “What is it?”
“A maze,” I said. “A labyrinth.”
“Bravo. That’s your story.”
I thought about that, flipped it over in my head for a while. Still didn’t make any sense to me, so I took another swallow, set the glass down and said, “I’m dumber than I look.”
“Ah.” He pulled a hand down his face, cracked his knuckles, looked up and smiled. “Okay, I’ll give it to you straight. The maze is a message from my friend.”
“That much I figured.”
A long sigh. “That story you’re writing, the money trail? It’s all a big mystery. Starts in a fog, ends in a cave.”
I shrugged. “There’s always a way through. You’re only blind until you find it.” I squinted at the lines in the golden labyrinth, saw myself running through it, smack up against a wall, backing up and starting over.
Mario watched me for a while. “Just a bunch a dead ends, Pescatore. That’s all it is.”
I stood up, pulled on my coat. “So?”
“So pick one. Write about that. Tell everybody how you lost your way.”
“Thanks for the wine.” I walked out. Milan in winter. Cold and gray.
Argentine Malbec is generally less tannic than its French counterpart. The Puramun Reserva 2011 is from the Mendoza area where most of the Argentine Malbec is grown. The maze on the label says a lot about the wine. So many things can go wrong in the process. A hard one to get right, but when it’s right, it’s good. Very good.