THE PASSED PAWN is the story of one woman’s desperate crusade to prevent genocide, and another’s raging battle to come to terms with the insanity of her life, as each in her own way, face a nefarious labyrinth of chauvinism and depravity. It is the story of their intersecting lives, contained within a narrative assembled like a Faberge egg. Vast in scope, spanning three continents, THE PASSED PAWN is a profoundly humane story. It is a story about redemption, longings, and the will to rise above hate. It is about clashing civilizations and religions, good and evil and everything that falls somewhere in between. It is a complex story but one that is painted with the stuff of life.
The irritated mechanical squawking of a mosquito follows doctor Zolkov out of the freight elevator and through the length of the grim hallway that leads to the pathology lab. It makes him think of Saint Bartolomeo, flayed alive and exposed to flies and for the hundredth time he tells himself that it is all right. His being here serves a purpose he is not entirely aware of but, as the Neapolitans implied, it is part of a greater scheme. They counted on him not to lose his wits. They told him to perform an honest autopsy.
He steps into the arctic ambience of the pathology lab and stops in front of the corpse on the stainless steel autopsy table, thinking he can detect, under the familiar stench of formaldehyde and decaying flesh, the kitchen odor of skin—her skin—dirty towels and bistecca al sangue, topped with a hint of the cheap perfume she insisted on wearing despite the Chanel Coco Mademoiselle he had bought her. He removes the white sheet.
Feodora Romanovna Lebedeva. First time he saw her she reminded him of a tragic heroine in a melancholy story he had been read as a child, some Chechen folk tale. Her curls got into her eyes and she made exaggerated movements to clear her face. See? Look at me. She is now a corpse, covered in deep-purple bruises. He puts on his lab coat and washes his hands, eyeing the slash wounds on the left side of her chest. He is careful not to put any weight on his right leg as he bends. His eyes fleet over the Authorization for Autopsy issued by the Ministry of Interior. He reads the paragraph on Competent ID and wonders how the carabineers have identified her so quickly. Zolkov has been a medical examiner with the carabineers for a decade now. He knows the military cops are competent—a lot more so than the polizia—but identifying her so quickly is too efficient even for them.
He skips the Affidavit and Chief Post-Mortem Findings pages of the Death Report and sets his eyes on the Schedule of Observations. He reads: Short beige skirt, one black lace bra, one black thong panties… He remembers the lingerie. It was an over-priced La Perla set he had bought her. There is something else, something pawing at his subconscious, something about her clothes… He tries to remember what it is but he can’t. He cannot think straight.
He would have disposed of the body entirely. There are ways this can be done. The Neapolitans left the corpse in a public place in a way that it would be unearthed and identified quickly. This, he assumes, must be part of the greater scheme as well.
His eyes fleet to the last page, Special Observations. Satanic insignia were found on and near the body. Nothing on how the body was found or why it has been moved to the military base, why the royal carabineers are involved. Based on his experience the Murder Squad of the polizia should have been assigned not the carabineers. The military police are a lot more ferocious than the polizia, but Zolkov doesn’t feel threatened. He cannot be connected to Feodora in anyway. He has never been to her apartment. She was independent—there is no modeling agency that may have records of Zolkov. The Neapolitans took the corpse out under the cover of darkness and the pied-à-terre, where he and Feodora met once a week, was wiped clean. Even if the investigators were to reconstruct her itinerary—a bus driver who noticed an exceptionally pretty girl, a passerby who followed her a block—and find the pied-à-terre, it cannot be connected to Zolkov. The financial wiz who arranged the rental agreement through an invisible financial institution in the Caymans assured him that there was no paper trail, nothing that could be traced back to him. The Neapolitans knew he would be summoned for the autopsy. Perhaps the thugs are powerful enough even to arrange that. Perform an honest autopsy, they said. By now the phrase has become a mental stammer in his head. He dabs a touch of menthol cream to the base of his nostrils, pulls on his gloves, and begins to make the standard Y-shape incision, ignoring the outline of the Florentine breasts, right shoulder to chest, left shoulder to chest and then down across her smooth belly, all the way down to the pubis. Her ribs crackle under the scalpel. The crisp sucking sounds echo off the walls. The atrocious satanic insignia is carved across the tattered skin of her heart. He glances the macabre sketch, and cringes. She might have been conscious when they did that.
He delves into the intestines. They are shaped like sausage-links, always remind him of Germany: sausage, potatoes, and beer. He hates Hamburg now. It seemed like a paradise after Montenegro but now he can live in no place on earth but Milan. No city can rival its multiplicity, the sensuality you breathe in the air, the assortment of its whores.
Feodora was different. She was like him, a kindred spirit. He knows that there was more to it than the act itself. Of course, it had started like that, but going forward she had glimpsed his soul, heard the music in his heart. Everyone tells you that it never happens. It’s an illusion: the contractor who applies the promised third coat of paint, the hostess in first class who is flirting because she actually finds you attractive, the call-girl who falls in love.
There is no blood from the incision. The tissue separates revealing a thin layer of yellow fleshy tissue. Mentally he gauges her body fat: 16 percent, and it is all in the right places. Vital statistics: one-hundred-seventy-six centimeters, fifty-two kilos, five hundred. That’s how much she charged: five hundred Euros for one hour. She said she took a Valium and a glass of red wine to fall asleep. But he has never seen her sleep. She always had to go after the one hour. To study, she said, and he believed her. He knew she wanted to stay awhile, listen to Mozart, sip wine and converse, but she had to study.
Feodora was born in Serbia. She kept a diary. He tries to remember if she had the diary with her when she came over Friday night. Feodora’s breasts are soft to the touch on the surface but hard as billiard balls if you pry a little. 36Bs, he thinks, can’t get any larger than that for the runway. He knew that despite all the setbacks, she still believed she would make it as a model and her perseverance was one of the qualities he admired in her.
He removes each lung. They’re apparently healthy but lungs can be tricky. Positioned on either side of the chest cavity, like wings of an angel, the lungs are indistinct masses, purple and large. The right one is larger than the left one which is often the case with right-handed people. The heart is tucked between and behind the lungs. He places the lungs in a solution of formaldehyde to determine if she were breathing at the time of death. This interests him. He wants to know how much she endured.
He picks her liver and cuts it into slices, trying not to think of his favorite Venetian plate. According to the hanging balance her heart weighs 263 grams. He writes that down; then cuts her heart into slices. When they took her to the bedroom he emptied her purse on the living room sofa but could not find her diary. The heart vessel is almost entirely occluded with atherosclerosis, consistent with the frequent use of cocaine. He suspected she took something stronger than Valium.
In death her eyes are pale, lucid, glistening like glass, a doll’s eyes. He notes something about the face, tiny pinkish dots like an outburst of small pox that could hint at suffocation as probable cause of death. She had cranberry lips. Now they’re purple and black. He remembers the glistening lips parting as he touched her. He turns the corpse and closes his eyes, conjuring the young-girl scent of her, and leans toward her as if nudging part of him to enter her. “Cunt,” He whispers in a hypnotic chant. For a brief instance he expects her to respond. “You stupid, lovely cunt.” He clenches and unclenches his fingers and slaps her left buttock with the flat of his hand. The corpse is past rigor mortis and the muscles are flaccid now. They tremble like jelly under the force of the slap. He has never taken her from behind. She wouldn’t allow it. Perform an honest autopsy, the Neapolitans had said. He remembers the lithium white skin of her ass cheeks. Now her skin has taken the black-purplish hue of death. He slaps her ass again. His head reels. In his vision shadows and light mix, driven like the heat waves of a furnace sliding over him.