The follow-up to Murder in Chianti finds ex-NYPD detective Nico Doyle recruited by Italian authorities to investigate the murder of a prominent wine critic.
One year after moving to his late wife’s Tuscan hometown of Gravigna, ex-NYPD detective Nico Doyle has fully settled into Italian country life, helping to serve and test recipes at his in-laws’ restaurant.
But the town is shaken by the arrival of wine critic Michele Mantelli in his flashy Jaguar. Mantelli holds his influential culinary magazine and blog over Gravigna’s vintners and restaurateurs. Some of Gravigna's residents are impressed by his reputation, while others are enraged—especially Nico's landlord, whose vineyards Mantelli seems intent of ruining.
Needless to say, Mantelli’s lavish, larger-than-life, and often vindictive personality has made him many enemies, and when he is poisoned, the local maresciallo, Perillo, has a headache of a high-profile murder on his hands—and once again turns to Nico for help.
Release date: August 10, 2021
Publisher: Soho Crime
Print pages: 336
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The Bitter Taste of Murder
Gravigna, a small town in the Chianti hills of Tuscany
A Tuesday in June, 7:50 a.m.
Ex-homicide detective Nico Doyle parked his red Fiat 500 under a cloudless sky that promised another hot day and followed his dog across the deserted main piazza. It was too early in the day for tourists. The tables and chairs outside Trattoria da Gino wouldn’t be set up for another two hours. The benches where the four pensioners sat daily to exchange their news were empty. In the far corner, Bar All’Angolo, open since 6 a.m., would offer him breakfast.
OneWag rushed into the café through the open door, nose immediately canvassing the floor. Nico followed, scanning the tables. There were only a few customers. Last week at this hour, he had found the place full of students chattering with mouths full of cornetti, their colorful backpacks getting in everyone’s way. School had since ended, and they were now having breakfast at home. The few locals who didn’t have to travel far for work were standing at the bar counter with espresso cups in their hands, talking among themselves.
Sandro, one of the café’s two owners, was manning the cash register as always. He looked up.
Some locals turned to nod their hellos.
“Salve,” Nico replied to all. He walked to the cash register. “How goes it?”
“So far the morning is good,” Sandro replied with a smile. He was a good-looking, lanky man somewhere in his mid-forties with a small gold stud shining in one ear. “It’s still cool enough, but get your fan out. We’re going to fry today.”
“I’ve been trying to convince him to air-condition the place,” his husband Jimmy said. Jimmy’s job was to work the huge, very hot stainless-steel espresso machine at the far end of the bar and the oven that baked the most delicious cornetti this side of Florence.
Sandro shook his head. “Costs too much. Besides, it’s bad for you. Freezes your guts like that ice water Americans like.”
Jimmy shrugged and turned to start Nico’s Americano. There was no need to order, as Nico always had the same thing. While Nico paid Sandro, OneWag’s nails clicked back and forth over the tiles, his snout a periscope sweeping left and right. The café floor was usually scattered with sugar-laced crumbs. After two rounds across the room, the dog sat and barked a protest.
“Sorry, Rocco,” Sandro said. “I swept. I didn’t want those floppy ears of yours to get dirty.” The Italians called Nico’s dog Rocco. They claimed OneWag was too hard to pronounce and that an Italian dog should have an Italian name. The dog wisely answered to both with his signature one wag, which usually brought good things. In this case, a day-old cornetto tossed by Sandro and caught on the fly.
“Bravo!” Sandro clapped.
“No more, please,” Nico said. The morning the small stray had led him to a murdered man, he’d been a skinny, dirty runt. Nine months later, his long white and orange coat was clean and fluffy, and his stomach looked as if it held a full litter.
Nico walked over to his usual table by the open French doors and sat down, as he had nearly every day since he’d moved to his late wife Rita’s hometown of Gravigna a year ago. In that time, he had slowly made new friends. Gogol was the first, a man who lived in a reality all his own. A good man with an incredible memory. Gogol’s ability to quote every stanza of Dante’s Divine Comedy was what had first attracted Nico to him. Having breakfast with him became another part of this morning routine.
The old man stood by the door, wrapped in his strong cologne and the overcoat he wore in winter and summer. It had first earned him the nickname of Gogol, after the Russian writer whose most famous story was titled “The Overcoat.” His face was a maze of wrinkles, his long hair clean and brushed. The old-age home where he lived took good care of him. His coat had been recently mended. “Another day to live through, amico,” he said to Nico.
“Let’s live it well, Gogol.” Nico stood up and held out a chair. “I’m glad to see you.”
Gogol shuffled to the table and took the chair closest to the open door, minimizing the effect of his cologne. He held up the two crostini he’d gotten from the butcher around the corner. “Our friend made them for me especially. A man with a noble heart.” Gogol placed the two squares of bread carefully at the center of the table. “‘It pleases me, whatever pleases you.’”
Gogol coughed a laugh. “Inferno, amico.”
Trying to guess which section of the Divina Commedia the quotes came from was a new game Gogol had suggested, hoping Nico would study the poetry. Back in the Bronx, Nico had once had his ears filled with Dante by his wife, who also loved quoting the Tuscan poet. He found old Italian too difficult; it reminded him of struggling through Chaucer in high school. Modern Italian he could handle pretty well, thanks to Rita’s lessons and Berlitz.
Nico took the salame crostino, knowing Gogol liked the lard best. He rarely guessed the quote. “It sounded too nice for Inferno.”
Gogol bit into his lard crostino, swallowed quickly and said, “I begin to abandon hope of you ever climbing the slope. Also from Inferno. My adaptation for this occasion.”
“Why abandon hope on such a beautiful day?” asked a voice with a Neapolitan accent.
Nico turned around. Maresciallo Salvatore Perillo stood outside the open French doors, chatting with a group of cyclists about to take off for the steep hills of Chianti. Perillo had been one of them until last year, having even won a few races. He was a short, stocky man with shiny black hair beginning to gray at the temples, a chiseled handsome face with large, dark liquid eyes, thick lips and an aquiline nose. He was out of uniform as usual, wearing jeans, a perfectly pressed blue linen shirt and, despite the heat, his beloved leather jacket flung over his shoulder.
Nico smiled, glad to see the man who had become a good friend since involving Nico in a murder investigation last September. They hadn’t seen each other or talked in the last week. The maresciallo’s carabinieri station was in Greve, nineteen kilometers away.
Nico pushed back a chair. “Join us.”
Perillo stepped into the café, looked at Gogol hunched over the table and hesitated. “Gogol, am I welcome?”
Gogol grinned, showing his brown teeth. “You were Nico’s Virgil through last year’s journey into hell, or perhaps he was yours. Whichever it is, friends of Nico are welcome today. Tomorrow perhaps not.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Perillo sat down next to Nico. Gogol made him uncomfortable. His overpowering cologne didn’t help. The man was crazy, mentally disabled or putting on an act to get attention. Perillo eased his discomfort by bending down to pet Rocco, who was sniffing his suede ankle boots.
Sandro brought over two Americani and two whole wheat cornetti straight out of the oven, a Bar All’Angolo specialty. “Espresso for you, Salvatore?”
Perillo raised two fingers, then a thumb for his double espresso to be corrected with grappa. The inclusion of grappa meant things weren’t going well with the maresciallo.
“That bad?” Nico asked before biting into his cornetto. The salame crostino, he pushed Gogol’s way. The old man always ended up eating both.
“I will happily tell you.” Perillo looked in Jimmy’s direction, eager for his espresso. “No murders, may God be praised.”
Sandro hurried over with the double espresso. Perillo thanked him and emptied the cup with one swallow. “Yesterday, Signor Michele Mantelli drove into Greve, found that the parking spots in Piazza Matteoti were occupied, parked his Jaguar in the middle of piazza, locked it and went off to lunch. In the center of the town! Can you believe it? There’s perfectly good parking nearby. Of course, one of my men called the car removal service. What followed was Mantelli stomping into the station preceded by a hailstorm of insults directed at me. It was clear I had no brains, I didn’t know who he was, headquarters in Florence would hear about this, I would be demoted and so on. You would not believe the fury of the man.”
“Who is he?” Nico asked.
“A ball breaker. Michele Mantelli is considered a famous critic of Italian wines, said to have the power to make or ruin a new vintage. He runs a very successful biannual magazine called Vino Veritas, written in Italian and English and distributed globally. Also a blog, which he posts to monthly for thousands of readers. The pied piper and his rats, I say. If they only knew he was the head rat.”
“I’m sorry he’s gotten to you. Where’s he from?”
“Milan, but he has an old villa in Montefioralle.”
“Words aren’t necessary,” Gogol said. “The face shows the color of the heart.”
“Well said, Gogol. My wife considers him very handsome.” Perillo sniffed. “I suspect he’s also a smooth talker when not shouting insults.”
“I haven’t seen Ivana since last year’s barbecue. How is she?” Nico asked.
“She’s fine. She was in the piazza getting bread.”
Gogol chuckled to himself. “‘The eyes of Ivana were all intent on him.’ A very bad adaptation of Paradiso, canto one. Amusing nonetheless.”
Perillo didn’t look amused. He sat back in his chair and closed his eyes.
“Refreshed?” Nico asked after a minute of silence had gone by.
“It’s a drug,” said Perillo.
“The grappa or the coffee?”
“Love is a drug,” Gogol announced. Clasping his hands on the rim of the table, he slowly stood. “The only woman I love is my mother. ‘Watching her, I changed inside.’ No point in guessing. Tomorrow, if I live.” Gogol’s mother had died when he was just a boy.
Nico stood up. “Tomorrow. I’m counting on it.”
Gogol stepped through the open French doors, his powerful scent leaving with him.
“That was abrupt,” Perillo said.
“I think Gogol knows he annoyed you with that quote about your wife.”
“He didn’t, though.” Perillo had mostly been annoyed at his wife’s comment about Mantelli. “That man is very pleasant to look at, don’t you think?” she’d asked with a smile on her face. He’d answered her with a long kiss. Ah, yes, that reminded him of why he’d come to the café.
“How are Aldo and Cinzia?” Perillo asked.
Aldo Ferri, who owned the Ferriello vineyard, rented the small run-down stone farmhouse at the edge of his olive grove to Nico. “Fine. They invited me over for dinner last week. Spaghetti all’arrabbiata. Just as good as Cinzia’s carbonara.” Nico bunched his fingers to his lips and released them with a kiss. “I convinced her to give me the recipe.”
“You can get a recipe for that from any cookbook.”
“Maybe, but I’d use hers.”
“Has there been any tension between Cinzia and Aldo?” Gogol’s comment—“Love is a drug”—brought back the scene he had witnessed last night. Luckily, he hadn’t been seen. Perillo felt a sudden pang of remorse. Should he tell Nico? But maybe there was an explanation for what had happened. It would only be spreading malicious gossip.
“Not that I’ve seen.” Nico watched Perillo’s expression carefully. “Why are you asking about them?”
A couple walked in and ordered from Sandro in French-tinted Italian. Perillo heard laughter and turned to look at them. They were hugging, mussing up each other’s hair.
“No reason. Just that I haven’t seen them around in some time.” He stood up. “I’d better get back to the station. Say hello to Tilde and Enzo for me. Tell them not to work you too hard at the restaurant. Be well.”
Nico stood too. “I’m not working Thursday night. Any chance of dinner?” It was clear his friend was holding something back. Maybe he was having problems with his wife? Getting out of the house for an evening might help. Besides, he missed Perillo’s company.
“Maybe. If no one does anything stupid or cruel. I’ll let you know.” Perillo walked over to the counter and paid Sandro for his corrected double espresso.
Nico waved goodbye to Sandro and Jimmy and, with OneWag running ahead, went to his car. Tuesday was laundry day, part of the routine he had set up for himself when he first moved to Gravigna. Back in the Bronx, he had made fun of Rita’s need to follow a routine that wavered only when she fell sick. At the beginning of his new Italian life, he’d found that maintaining a routine helped him find his footing. Now that he was fully settled, it was possible he kept it up out of laziness.
There was no need for OneWag to join Nico in the car. The dog had his routine down pat. Nico would find him waiting in the heart of the medieval part of town, at the aptly named laundromat Sta A Te, which meant, “It’s up to you.”
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