Story: ISABELLA DA LUNA
By: Gaither Stewart
When my taxi crossed the Ponte di Risorgimento the drizzle that had set in that afternoon had turned into a steady downpour. Yellow lights reflected eerily off the upriver part of the great avenue snaking along both banks of the Tiber. White police cars had cordoned off the elegant palazzo near the bridge, my destination. Ambulances were backed near the entrance. I was drenched when I reached the door. The policeman recognized me from other such occasions, checked my journalist credentials anyway, and let me go up to Cardinal Markovich’s apartment. The plush elevator, done in burnished wood and deep red velvet with mirrors on each side, opened directly into the entrance hall of the Cardinal’s palatial residence that occupied the entire top floor.
The penthouse was swarming with uniformed police, detectives and white-coats. The chief detective whom I’d known since our school years was standing in the middle of the huge double salon with a lost look on his face and an open passport in his hand.
“Drowned in the bathtub,” he said, showing me the passport picture. “They already took her out. What a beauty!”
“And what a waste!” I muttered, stunned and barely able to conceal my emotions.
I knew her. I know I paled. It was an old photo of Valentina.
“What color was she?” I asked.
“What? What color?” The policeman looked at me quizzically. “She was white. Why?”
“Who else?” I said automatically, examining her photograph. Yes, her blue light had gone out. Valentina had departed. Isabella was no more.
“The Cardinal,” he said. “And another guy.”
Her former clients will remember Isabella da Luna. Or perhaps one or the other of the Cardinal’s more intimate friends will recall the Slavic beauty who once adorned his penthouse apartment on the Lungotevere. Yet knowing how gossip and fable thrive in Rome, I suspect the story of the evil Cardinal and the beautiful Isabella will echo for future centuries through the dark corridors of the Vatican.
Surely some state functionary-client knows the truth behind this tragedy but I’ve never actually met anyone who was aware that the proud and lonely girl from Ukraine known as Isabella da Luna, whose real name was Valentina Kucheruk, nearly pulled off the biggest exposé ever of the netherworld of the Holy See.
I’m absolutely certain that only I in the city of Rome perceived the filmy blue light—deceptive as it proved to be—that surrounded the contours of her beautiful electric body. Mysterious Valentina always felt secure within the cocoon of her energic body, which she seemed to turn on or off at will.
I first met Valentina now over two years ago on her third or fourth day in Rome. She was standing at the exclusive bar of the luxurious Excelsior Hotel adjacent to the American Embassy where she had made her headquarters. She was conscious that the attention of everyone in the plush room was centered on her.
I stared at her. My first thought was, “Oh, for just an hour with her!” That would be enough for a lifetime. More, I intuited, would be too risky. I knew. She was the kind of woman who would take all of you. For Valentina had only the embarrassment of choosing. From the start her demeanor shouted that she was expensive. And also that she was fearless.
Then I saw her blue light. I understood her power. And I was hopelessly drawn into her net.
I am neither dashing nor brave when it comes to approaching women. Besides you don’t just approach women like Valentina. I am thin, neither tall not short, too much hair, a lousy dresser, rather shy, and certainly not a womanizer. But I am Italian and in my genes I must have some atavistic pride in my masculinity. The fact is I was mesmerized. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was dizzy from only two martinis. It was the pouring rain outside. It was the heat of the room. It was the proximity to beauty. The very air that day was pregnant with sensuality. I had no control.
Like a somnambulist I walked up to her, forced my hand through the thick blue light surrounding her, and said, “Io sono Gian Giacomo Salvati.”
At first she looked me over with amusement in her deep Mongol eyes. Then she glanced around the plush bar in her most arrogant manner, turned back to me, took my hand in her electric charged hand, and made her decision.
“I am Isabella da Luna,” she said in Italian.
Today, I believe she knew that I really saw her. I have that capacity.
I grinned drunkenly. “Isabella da Luna? What kind of a name is that?”
“You don’t know that name! Actually, I’m the second Isabella da Luna. The first was Spanish who came to Rome with the Court of Charles V. She was never afraid of anyone and she conquered Rome.”
Isabella ignored the rest of the room that day in the Excelsior bar. We sat at a small table, she ordered champagne, and we chatted like old friends. There was that certain feeling between us. She told me her life.
I always called her by her real name, Valentina. Her maternal grandfather, she told me, was an Italian from Padua, a Communist who immigrated to the USSR in the 1930s to escape persecution during Fascism. Her Ukrainian grandmother learned Italian at home where the family continued to speak Italian in secret and Italian was handed down to the next generation. Valentina then studied Italian at Kharkov University until in the bad times in the late nineties she decided to try her fortune in the country of her grandfather. She arrived in Rome in the early winter that year. She was twenty-two.
Valentina was sexually active early, but she claimed, too coldly I thought, that there was no place in her life for love. I was naïve enough not to believe her. But what better, she insisted, than the oldest profession in the world to emerge from misery.
I remember like yesterday her words and the expression on her face when she revealed to me her philosophy of life. “The world most people perceive is an illusion,” she said. “A world of dogmatic rules. But I have freed myself from all that. The price is high but not impossible to pay. I’ve learned that you can eliminate anything you want to from life—even romantic love. Since I took my freedom in my own hands, my life has become wonderful. And mysterious.”
I had never met anyone like her. I wanted to hold her. But Valentina was a free spirit. Maybe she was really Isabella da Luna resurrected.
It seems only yesterday that I showed her the wonders of Rome. During the most exciting six months of my life, at least once a week I slept over in her luxury apartment on a side street at the top of Via Veneto.
Valentina was a wizard. Or a witch. I marveled at her ability to seal off the diverse compartments of her life one from the other. With me she was the Valentina delighted like a child at the blooming flowers in the month of February. “Flowers in February!” she exclaimed when I stopped on a suburban Rome road to pluck a handful of lemon-colored mimosa flowers that she spread on her lap and stuck in her hair like a fairy queen.
But Valentina would never discuss Isabella’s affairs, her money, or her paying friends.
I felt special. And as any ingenuous person I fantasized about saving her from herself. I didn’t realize then that the word redemption didn’t exist in her vocabulary. I still didn’t know how special she was. Isabella, as I feared she would, soon flew away. I couldn’t hold her. I didn’t want to hold her.
Soon after she met a known ambitious social climber, Donald Jones, who introduced her to Cardinal Mark Markovich and thus into the labyrinth of the subterranean world of the Vatican. Instinctively, Valentina must have known the risks involved in a relationship with a corrupt Cardinal but she felt immune to the world’s dangers.
She believed in the protective blue light of her energic body. Her ancestors must have been Shamans. She seemed to prefer walking along the edge of the abyss. Alone.
A year and a half had passed until the day I saw her standing alone at the end of the Press Club bar. Her head of thick blond hair soared high in haughty remoteness. Her almond-shaped eyes of some Mongol ancestor were bottomless pools of turquoise. In that moment I fell in love with her again just as I had two years earlier.
Valentina was holding a slim glass of champagne in her peculiar way with thumb and forefinger, with her other fingers extended delicately as if pointing out first one man, then another. When then those eyes and those three fingers landed on me I felt the same numbness and shortness of breath that she provoked in any man who fell under her magic.
I took one step forward, and my lips again said, “Valentina!”
Her eyes sank into mine. Her thick lips spread in her spontaneous Slavic smile as she corrected loudly, “I’m Isabella!”
Silence descended around us in the crowded bar. Journalists, Vatican functionaries, press attachés, body guards, visitors and bartenders who had been eying the strange beauty and wondering how to penetrate her shell, stopped their small talk and observed our exchange.
Hesitation. One foot forward. Then another. In the same moment as I took a third step toward her, a foppish youngish man wearing dark glasses, who with his blond hair and fair complexion could have passed for her brother, rushed in from the side door, leapt to her side like a lithe leopard, and kissed her full on the lips. I stopped in my tracks.
“Isabella!” he said, slipping his arm familiarly around her narrow waist and letting it slide imperceptibly to her round hips and full derrière.
“Ciao, Donald,” she said, and put her glass on the bar. She’d turned off her blue light but I perceived her stiffening. Her light was on caution.
I knew him well. Donald Jones had been a struggling journalist and a member of the Rome Press Club until a few years back he met and for some reason impressed Cardinal Mark Markovich and soon became his assistant. Donald was a fanatical believer. He proclaimed to one and all that his faith was what brought him to Rome in the first place. He made no secret of his support for the radical fundamentalists of Cristi Militia.
It was still a mystery why the fun-loving and by nature corrupt Cardinal Markovich hired him. Probably, I thought, to bolster his slipshod religious image in the eyes of the Church.
When from the adjoining conference room the voice of the Cardinal boomed over the loudspeakers, Isabella looked up sharply as if called to order. She pulled away from Donald, indicating with her eyes the imposing man in civilian dress speaking at the conference table, who was looking toward us at the bar. An eternally alert man, adept at survival in Vatican circles, he had seen the three of us.
“Vatican finances have in fact never been better,” Cardinal Mark Markovich was saying to a packed press conference in his good English with an ever so slight French accent. Paparazzi were snapping left and right. TV cameras were whirring. After a polite round of applause, the baritone voice continued, “After its misguided and poorly planned investments in the past, I personally have reorganized and reformed Church financial policies—naturally with the Pope’s holy blessings. To still insinuations of improper investments, the report you have in your hands is the most detailed accounting on Vatican finances ever made public. I think you will find the answers to your questions there.”
The heavens above the skylight running the length of the conference room had suddenly turned black. In that moment a bolt of lightning zigzagged yellow and blue through the room. The simultaneous crash of thunder startled everyone. The Cardinal hesitated and took a step backwards. He dropped his big reddish hands gripping a sheaf of notes and stared upwards at the violent rainstorm as if he had seen a bad omen. Silence fell. Cynics in the bar glanced at the perplexed Cardinal and exchanged eloquent smirks.
Everyone in Rome knew the name of the dashing bon vivant Cardinal who preferred country clubs and golf courses, fashionable restaurants, the jet set and beautiful women—and according to long-standing rumors also the underworld—to the corridors of the Vatican, its bank of which he was the director, St. Peter’s and the world of priests and saints. His name was linked to the elite of Rome as well as Palermo. Despite his top status in Church hierarchy he asked people in his mundane milieu to call him Mark. Yet to his chagrin he forever remained “the Cardinal.”
A few years back when Bishop Markovich was named Cardinal and director of the Vatican’s IOR Bank, I myself was the first to refer to him in a reportage as “God’s banker,” which, I believed, tickled his fancy.
Now I looked hard at Valentina-Isabella, who glanced at me with an almost imperceptible smile, pushed Donald toward the conference room, and again looked attentively toward the famous Cardinal.
Valentina and Markovich were both Ukrainians, he a Catholic from Lvov and she Orthodox and a Russian speaker from Kharkov. Each had made his mark in the Eternal City.
As Donald took a seat behind the speakers’ table just next to the tall and robust Cardinal whose full face was again flushed with excitement, I moved toward Valentina. Since a group of loud talking journalists had blocked the Cardinal’s view of us, she looked me full in the eyes and smiled. It was a celestial glow.
I touched her waist just as Donald had and kissed her in the mouth. Her familiar perfume of the pungent aroma of lemons swept over me.
“Not here, Gian Giacomo,” she said in a way that seemed to mean, maybe later. She was doubtless the most beautiful whore in Rome.
“Isabella!” I said. “Donald? Your new love?”
“Hardly! Or rather—how can I say it?—he’s a former client. He’s too ambitious to risk. And he’s afraid of Markovich. Or he pretends to be. So he now treats me like his mother. But, he is jealous too.” She smiled as if she knew much more about Donald.
I knew, thank God, that Donald couldn’t afford her either. My arm still around her waist we looked toward the conference room. The Cardinal’s voice droned on, “… it goes without saying that we categorically deny those wild charges that the IOR Bank launders dirty money, whether from organized crime or political corruption….”
I should explain that I was the Vatican expert of Rome’s leading liberal newspaper. Since I myself am a non-believer, I could stand back, put my hands in my pockets, and objectively observe events around me. And then write my stories any way I pleased. My journalistic philosophy was to call a spade a spade and let the cards fall where they may. There was no restraint or reverence in my coverage of Church affairs. I had never agreed with Vatican foreign policy and said so. Nonetheless, my news stories, editorials and even speculation carried special weight in Rome—and also in the Vatican itself—I think because my readers knew I had no axe to grind. Everywhere they talked about Vatican matters, I, Gian Giacomo Salvati, was present like a circling hawk. I had the best journalistic subject in the world. It guaranteed my career. Vatican affairs, I knew, would always fascinate my readers.
Long before Valentina had arrived in Rome, I had sensed that Markovich was a crook and had implied that opinion in my articles. I knew too that pious Donald Jones from Chicago was a fanatic who dabbled with right-wing extremists. The Mafioso Cardinal and the fundamentalist Donald had good reason to fear me.
Since the Cardinal had always refused point blank to concede me interviews, I had long thought, OK, shit head, I’ll get you someday. Now, I admit, it was a personal affair.
Valentina cocked her head to one side in her speculative way. A half smile at the corners of her mouth and playfulness in her eyes, she nodded toward the conference room, and whispered, “I think I have the big story you’ve been waiting for.”
My heart stopped. Of course it concerned the Cardinal. Oh, the mystery of Isabella. What wonders out there on the edge of the abyss! I admitted to myself that from the time I’d learned she was the courtesan of that asshole Markovich, I knew that one day she would be the source of an explosive story … an Italian Deep Throat.
“Everything he’s saying is bare-faced shit.” Isabella was playful with language too. “That pretty boy Donald knows the true truth. He hates Mark for endangering the image of the Church with his mafia friends. He could kill him for that. And he knows that I know too. Donald’s deathly afraid I’ll make it public.”
“If he knows secrets about your friend Markovich, he’s walking with death. Remember the banker they found hanging under the bridge in London? That was true! He was also a friend of the Cardinal. And the one poisoned in his cell in Milan. They both knew secrets about Vatican finances. Valentina, you’d best stay far from such matters.”
She just smiled from the depths of her Mongol eyes and wiggled three fingers at me. I was lost.
When the crowd thinned in front of us and the Cardinal again raised his head from his notes, Valentina turned away and took her glass from the bar. “Meet me tomorrow at the Excelsior at three” she said in an aside as I moved away.
I was sitting at a small table in the rear when she arrived. She was dressed in fashionable jeans, a white sweater and red pumps and was wearing huge dark glasses and a wide hat that covered her blond hair. The bar was empty until the arrival of an innocuous looking little man in a green raincoat who sat down a few tables away.
“He’s laundering mafia money,” she said in her direct manner without preamble. She spoke of the mafia and the Vatican if she were speaking of the Rome soccer club. “I’ve seen the documents. Mark is such a fool. When he goes to the golf course, he forgets everything else. Leaves all kinds of papers lying around or the computer screen on. He thinks he’s close to God. He thinks he is God. He thinks I don’t understand anything.”
She arched her beautiful body and took out of a jeans pocket a thin slip of paper. “Here are some file names and passwords. All Mafiosi. All Mark’s contacts. Mark’s always getting calls from them.” Valentina was a realist as if straight out of a Moravia novel. She never wasted words. She had her reasons for such an affirmation.
“Tonight he’s going to a big party in some Cardinal’s villa out in the country. While he’s out I’m going straight into his new files. I know how to get to them.”
“Why are you telling me these things?”
“Sweet revenge! That’s why. He treats me like an object. He is a cold man. A heartless man. He thinks he can also buy affection. I sell my body but I don’t sell the real me. I sell Isabella. Not my soul. His heart is too full of pride to have doubts. His soul is as hard as the stones of Rome. I despise men like him. In reality his body is simply a waste of space.”
“This is very dangerous, Valentina. Dangerous for you. For me too … but it’s my work after all.”
“Gian Giacomo, there’s another aspect. Donald too knows the truth. He knows even more than I do. And you know him. He only pretends to be a harmless playboy. He’s also a fanatic and wants to protect the name of the Church … and he wants me too. And Mark knows that Donald knows. Yesterday, before the press conference I heard the end of Mark’s conversation with someone I’d never seen before. They were out on the terrace at the apartment. A tall thin guy, dark hair, high cheekbones. ‘I’ll take care of that little shit,’ he said. Then they both laughed.”
“You’d better warn Donald,” I said. “You don’t screw around with the mafia, Valentina … or corrupt Cardinals either.”
“I will today. Why don’t you come to Mark’s apartment tonight? Just tell the deskman you have an appointment with Donald. He’ll let you in. I’ll try to print out some new information and leave it at the desk earlier. Just in case!”
That afternoon while I pondered how best to exploit Valentina’s revelations, her intentions and her motives, I reminded myself that Cardinal Markovich was not a fool. If he knew that Donald was aware of the true nature of IOR finances, he could assume that also his Isabella, and Donald’s friend, was more than the beautiful body he had bought. The villa party in the country, Isabella’s behavior at the press conference among all those journalists-headhunters, she and Donald together at his office-apartment, and now I about to join them. What was the Cardinal to think? Valentina was in danger. She was danger itself. I knew something of their world. I tried not to think. I told myself to be still inside. What could I do? I felt a pang of fear. Too many coincidences, I was thinking as I scanned the national news on my newspaper’s website. Donald and Isabella confabulating with a known enemy journalist right under the Cardinal’s eyes. Suddenly there it was in the news, the proof that many forces were at play here – in a lightning action, Palermo Carabinieri had arrested a mafia boss in a farmhouse near Corleone. Documents had been found that linked mafia money and the Vatican.
I understood then that Valentina had passed her information also to some high politician who would get credit for the anti-mafia coup. For as always the mafia was a political affair. The Vatican too was a political affair.
That meant the Cardinal too was informed about her. About Donald. They were both under surveillance. There would be no party in the country for him tonight. Yes, Valentina was in great danger.
Strange. It wasn’t the first time I’d had the thought that she and Donald seemed to believe they had some special immunity—she because of her hold on men, Donald because he was on the side of right.
“The other two are still on the balcony,” my policeman friend said. “They shot each other. The cute curly-headed guy shot the Cardinal with a kind of cowboy Colt. But that churchman was one tough cookie. With a bullet nearly in his heart he had time to shoot the other one, his aide Donald Jones, with a small automatic. Four bullets in his body. That prelate could shoot! They’re still examining them. Take a look if you want.”
Rain was still pouring on the terrace. Reflections from the lamps on the exterior walls shot like sparks upward into the night and merged with the flashes of the headlights of cars and buses on the opposite Tiber bank.
Donald lay on his back, his mouth and eyes still open in an expression of surprise, his handsome face ashen and grotesque. Ironically the Cardinal had fallen partially under a kind of gazebo, even in death protected from exposure. He was lying face down. His head, turned to one side as if he had fallen asleep, was dry. I stared at his profile. His look was cynical. His look, I thought, seemed to contain his blasphemy against the divine. The blood that spread from both sides of his heavy body had mixed with and diluted the rainwater to a sacramental rose color.
Within a week the story of Isabella and the Cardinal was relegated to back pages of the Rome press and disappeared from TV newscasts. The Managing Editor of my newspaper so gutted my stories about Vatican finances as to render them meaningless. Accusations by a dead prostitute were worthless.