Beneath a scarlet sky, p.15
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       Beneath a Scarlet Sky, p.15

           Mark Sullivan
 

  calf-high black leather combat boots; olive pants, shirt, and peaked cap; a black leather belt; and a holster with a Walther pistol. A red-and-white band high on his left arm completed the uniform and branded him.

  Across the white top it read “ORG.TODT.” A large black swastika dominated a red circle below. The patch on his other shoulder revealed his rank: Vorarbeiter, or private first class.

  Vorarbeiter Lella had little faith in God’s plan for him by that point. Indeed, as he entered the station, he was still fuming mad at his predicament. His mother had railroaded him into this. At Casa Alpina, he’d been doing something that mattered, something good and right, guiding as an act of courage, no matter the personal risk. Since then, his life had been boot camp, an endless parade of marches, calisthenics, lessons in German, and other useless skills. Every time he looked at the swastika he wanted to tear it off and head for the hills to join the partisans.

  “Lella,” called out Pino’s Frontführer, or platoon leader, breaking him from his thoughts. “Take Pritoni and guard Platform Three.”

  Pino nodded without enthusiasm and went to his post with Pritoni, an overweight kid from Genoa who’d never been away from home. They took up position on the elevated platform between two of the most heavily used tracks in the station, which had a high arched ceiling. German soldiers were loading crates of weapons into open boxcars on one track. The other was empty.

  “I hate standing here all night,” Pritoni said. He lit a cigarette, puffed it. “My feet and ankles, they swell and hurt.”

  “Lean up against the roof support posts, move one foot to the other.”

  “I tried that. My feet still hurt.”

  Pritoni kept up a litany of complaints until Pino tuned him out. The Alps had taught him not to fret and whine at difficult circumstances. It was a waste of energy.

  Instead, he started thinking about the war. During boot camp, he hadn’t heard a thing. But in the week since he’d been assigned to guard the train station, he’d learned that Lieutenant General Mark Clark’s US Fifth Army had liberated Rome on June 5. Since then, however, the Allies had only managed to advance sixteen kilometers north toward Milan. Pino still figured the war would be over by October, November at the latest. Around midnight, he yawned and wondered what he might do after the war. Go back to school? Head to the Alps? And when would he find a girl to—?

  Air raid sirens started to moan and wail. Antiaircraft guns opened up. Bombs fell, angry buzzing hornets that rained down on central Modena. At first, the bombs detonated at a distance. Then one exploded outside the rail yard. The next three all struck the train station in rapid succession.

  Pino saw a flash before the blasts hurled him backward off the platform and through the air. Still wearing his pack, he landed hard on the empty train tracks and momentarily blacked out. Another explosion roused him, and he instinctively curled into a ball as glass and debris showered down on him.

  When the raid ended, Pino tried to get up, smelling smoke and seeing fire. He was dizzy, and his ears had a roar in them like an angry ocean. Everything was disjointed, a broken kaleidoscope, until he saw Pritoni’s body on the tracks behind him. The kid from Genoa had taken the brunt of the blast. A chunk of shrapnel had taken off most of his head.

  Pino crawled away and vomited. His head pounded so hard he thought it might burst. He found his gun, struggled to get back up on the train platform, and did so before puking again. His ears roared louder. Seeing dead soldiers and others wounded, he felt dizzy and weak, on the verge of passing out. Pino threw out his hands to grab one of the steel support posts still holding up the train station’s roof.

  Intense, fiery pain shot through his right arm. It was only then that he realized the index and middle fingers of his right hand had nearly been chopped off. They dangled there by ligament and skin. Bone stuck out of his index finger. Blood spurted from the wound.

  He passed out a second time.

  Pino was taken to a field hospital where German surgeons reattached his fingers and treated him for concussion. He lay in the hospital for nine days.

  Upon discharge on August 6, Pino was judged temporarily unfit for duty and told to go home for ten days to recuperate. As he rode in the back of a newspaper lorry that gave him a lift back to Milan on a humid, showery summer day, Pino felt nothing like the happy, purposeful man-child who’d left the Alps. He felt weak and disillusioned.

  The Organization Todt uniform had its benefits, though. It got Pino waved through several checkpoints, and he was soon walking the streets of his beloved San Babila. He encountered and greeted several old friends of his parents, people he hadn’t seen in years. They stared at his uniform and the swastika on the armband and acted like they didn’t know him or want to.

  Pino was closer to Albanese Luggage than he was to home, so he went there first. Walking down the sidewalk on Via Monte Napoleone, he noticed a Daimler-Benz G4 Offroader, a six-wheel-drive Nazi staff car, parked right in front of the leather store. The hood was up. The driver was under it, working on the engine in the rain.

  A Nazi officer wearing a trench coat over his shoulders stepped out of the showroom and said something sharp in German. The driver jerked up and shook his head. The officer looked disgusted and went back inside the leather shop.

  Always interested in cars, Pino paused and said, “What’s the problem?”

  “What’s it to you?” the driver said.

  “Nothing,” Pino said. “I just know a little about engines.”

  “And I know next to nothing,” the driver admitted. “She won’t start today, and when she does, she backfires. The idle is horrible, and it bucks between gears.”

  Pino thought about that and, mindful of his healing hand, looked around under the hood. The G4 had an eight-cylinder engine. He checked the spark plugs and wire heads, saw them gapped correctly. He checked the air filter, found it filthy, and cleaned it. The fuel filter was also clogged. Then he studied the carburetor and saw the screw heads glinting. Someone had recently made adjustments.

  He got a screwdriver from the driver, and with his good hand, fiddled with several of the screws. “Try it.”

  The driver got in, turned over the ignition. The engine caught, backfired, and blew a black cough of smoke.

  “See?”

  Pino nodded, thought of what Alberto Ascari might do, and tuned the carburetor a second time. Hearing the front door to his uncle’s shop open, he said, “Try again.”

  This time the engine roared to life. Pino grinned, set the tools down, and shut the hood. When he did, he saw that same German officer standing on the sidewalk beside his uncle Albert and aunt Greta. He’d taken off his trench coat. Pino saw by his insignias that he was a major general.

  Aunt Greta said something to the general in German. He spoke back.

  “Pino,” his aunt said, “General Leyers would like a word with you.”

  Pino swallowed, came around the front of the car, and saluted him with a halfhearted “Heil Hitler,” even as he realized that he and the general wore the same uniform and distinctive armband.

  Aunt Greta said, “He wants to see your orders, Pino, and to know where you are positioned in the Organization Todt.”

  “Modena,” Pino said, dug in his pocket, and showed the general his papers.

  Leyers read them, and then spoke in German.

  “He wants to know whether you can drive in your present condition,” Aunt Greta said.

  Pino raised his chin, wiggled his fingers, and said, “Very well, sir.”

  His aunt translated. The general spoke back. Aunt Greta responded.

  Leyers looked at Pino and said, “Do you speak any German?”

  “A little,” he said. “I understand more than I can speak.”

  “Vous parlez français, Vorarbeiter?”

  Pino said, “Oui, mon général. Très bien.” Yes, my general, very well.

  “You are now my driver, then,” the general said. “This other one is an idiot who knows nothin
g about cars. You are sure you can drive with your hand like that?”

  “Yes,” Pino said.

  “Then report to Wehrmacht headquarters, the German House, tomorrow morning at oh six forty. You’ll find this car in the motor pool there. I will leave an address in the glove compartment. You will go to that address and pick me up. Do you understand?”

  Pino bobbed his head. “Oui, mon général.”

  General Leyers nodded stiffly and then climbed in the back of the staff car, saying something sharp. The driver gave Pino a filthy look, and the car rolled away from the curb.

  “Come inside, Pino!” Uncle Albert cried. “My God! Get inside!”

  “What did he say there to the driver?” Pino asked his aunt as they followed him.

  Aunt Greta said, “He called him a jackass good only for latrine duty.”

  His uncle shut the shop door, flipped the sign to “Closed,” and shook his fists in triumph. “Pino, do you realize what you’ve done?”

  “No,” Pino said. “Not really.”

  “That’s Major General Hans Leyers!” Uncle Albert said, sounding giddy.

  Aunt Greta said, “His formal title is Generalbevollmächtigter fur Reichsminister für Rüstung und Kriegsproduktion für Italien. It translates as ‘Plenipotentiary to the Reich Minister for Armaments and War Production in Italy.’”

  Seeing Pino didn’t understand, she said, “‘Plenipotentiary’ means ‘full authority.’ It’s given to someone so high ranking that they have the full authority of a Reich Minister, free to do whatever is necessary for the sake of the Nazi war machine.”

  Uncle Albert said, “After Field Marshal Kesselring, General Leyers is the most powerful German in Italy. He works with the full authority of Albert Speer, Hitler’s Reich Minister for Armaments and War Production, which puts him two steps from the führer! Whatever Leyers wants to happen, happens. Anything the Wehrmacht needs in Italy, Leyers gets it, or forces our factories to build it, or steals it from us. He makes all of the Nazis’ guns, cannons, ammunition, and bombs here. All the tanks. All the lorries.”

  Pino’s uncle paused, staring off at something dawning, and then said, “My God, Pino, Leyers has to know the location of every tank trap, pillbox, land mine, and fortification between here and Rome. He built them, didn’t he? Of course he did. Don’t you see, Pino? You are the great general’s personal driver now. You’ll go where Leyers goes. See what he sees. Hear what he hears. You’ll be our spy inside the German High Command!”

  Chapter Fifteen

  His head still reeling from his sudden and dramatic change of fate, Pino rose early on August 8, 1944. He ironed his uniform and ate breakfast before his father was even out of bed. As he sipped coffee and ate toast, he remembered that Uncle Albert had decided that no one but he and Aunt Greta should know Pino’s covert role as driver for Major General Hans Leyers.

  “Don’t tell anyone,” Uncle Albert said. “Not your father, mother, Mimo. Carletto. Anyone. Telling someone could lead to someone else knowing, and then a third someone else, and soon you’ll have the Gestapo at your door, taking you away for torture. Do you understand?”

  “You’ve got to be careful,” Aunt Greta said. “Being a spy is beyond dangerous.”

  “Just ask Tullio,” Uncle Albert said.

  “How is he?” Pino said, trying to get his mind off getting caught and tortured.

  “The Nazis let his sister see him last week,” his aunt said. “She said he’d been beaten, but never talked. He was thin and sick with some stomach thing, but she said his spirits were high, and he spoke of escaping to fight with the partisans.”

  Tullio will escape and fight, Pino thought as he hurried through the streets as San Babila began to awaken. And I am a spy. So I am kind of in the resistance now, aren’t I?

  Pino was at the German House near the Porta Romana by 6:25 a.m. He was directed to the motor pool, where he caught a mechanic under the hood of Leyers’s Daimler-Benz staff car.

  “What are you doing there?” Pino demanded.

  The mechanic, an Italian in his forties, scowled. “My work.”

  “I’m General Leyers’s new driver,” Pino said, looking at the carburetor settings. Two had been moved. “Stop messing with the carburetor.”

  The mechanic, taken aback, sputtered, “I did no such thing.”

  “You did,” Pino said, taking a screwdriver from the mechanic’s box and making several readjustments. “There, she’ll purr like a lioness now.”

  The mechanic stared at him as Pino opened the driver’s door, stepped up on the running board, climbed into the seat, and looked around. Convertible roof. Leather seats. Buckets up front, bench in the back. The G4 was easily the biggest vehicle Pino had ever tried to drive. With six wheels and a high ground clearance, it could go virtually anywhere, which was the point, Pino guessed.

  Where does a Plenipotentiary General for War Production go? With this car and total authority, anywhere he wants to.

  Remembering his orders, Pino looked in the glove compartment and found an address on Via Dante, easy to find. He didn’t want to aggravate his wounds, so he played with the shifter to get his hand position and grip right. Then he tested the clutch and found every gear. He used his ring finger and the thumb of his right hand to turn the key. The raw power of the engine vibrated through the steering wheel.

  Pino eased out the clutch. It had a hard release. His hand slipped off the shifter. The Daimler lurched forward and stalled. He glanced at the mechanic, who gave him a sneering grin.

  Ignoring him, Pino started the car again and teased the clutch out this time. He rolled through the motor-pool yard in first and then second gear. The roads at Milan’s center, laid out in horse-and-carriage times, were narrow at best. At the wheel of the Daimler, Pino felt as if he were driving a minitank down the twisting lanes.

  The drivers of the two cars he encountered looked at the red Nazi general’s flags fluttering on either front fender of the Daimler and immediately backed out of the way. Pino parked the staff car on the sidewalk just beyond the address on Via Dante Leyers left for him.

  Pino got looks from several pedestrians, but no one dared protest with those Nazi general’s flags flying. He took the keys, climbed out, and went into the lobby of a small apartment building. Sitting on a stool by a closed door near the staircase, an old woman, a crone with thick-lensed glasses, peered his way as if barely seeing him.

  “I’m going to three-B,” Pino said.

  The crone said nothing, just nodded and blinked at him through her spectacles. She was creepy, he decided as he climbed to the third floor. He checked his watch. It was exactly 6:40 a.m. when he rapped sharply on the door.

  He heard footsteps. The door opened inward, and his entire life changed.

  Flashing her slate-blue eyes at him and smiling, the maid said, “You are the general’s new driver?”

  Pino wanted to reply, but he was so stunned that he couldn’t. His heart boomed in his chest. He tried to speak, but no sound came out. His face felt hot. He ran a finger in his collar. Finally, he just nodded.

  “I hope you don’t drive like you talk,” she laughed, playing with the braid of her tawny-blond hair with one hand and gesturing him inside with the other.

  Pino stepped past her, smelled her, and felt so dizzy he thought he might fall.

  “I’m Dolly’s maid,” she said behind him. “You can call me—”

  “Anna,” Pino said.

  When he turned to look back at her, the door was closed, her smile had fallen, and she was regarding him as if he were some form of threat.

  “How did you know my name?” she said. “Who are you?”

  “Pino,” he stammered. “Pino Lella. My parents own a purse store in San Babila. I asked you to go the movies with me outside the bakery near La Scala last year, and you asked how old I was.”

  Anna’s eyes unscrewed as if she were retrieving some vague, buried memory. Then she laughed, covered her mouth, and studied him anew. “You do
n’t look like that crazy boy.”

  “A lot can change in fourteen months.”

  “I can see that,” she said. “Is that how long it’s been?”

  “A lifetime ago,” Pino said. “You Were Never Lovelier.”

  Anna’s eyebrows shot up, annoyed. “Excuse me?”

  “The movie,” he said. “Fred Astaire. Rita Hayworth. You stood me up.”

  Her chin dropped; so did her shoulders. “I did, didn’t I?”

  There was an uncomfortable moment before Pino said, “It’s a good thing you did. That theater was bombed that night. My brother and I were inside, but we both made it out.”

  Anna looked up at him. “True?”

  “One hundred percent.”

  “What’s wrong with your hand?” she said.

  He looked at his bandaged hand and said, “Just some stitches.”

  An unseen woman with a thick accent called, “Anna! Anna, I need you, please!”

  “Coming, Dolly,” Anna cried. She pointed to a bench in the hallway. “You can sit there until General Leyers is ready for you.”

  He stood aside. The maid passed him close in the narrow hallway. It took his breath away, and he stared after her swinging hips as she disappeared deeper into the apartment. When he sat and remembered to breathe, Anna’s female-and-jasmine scent lingered in the air. He considered getting up and wandering through the apartment, just to see and smell her again. He decided he had to take the risk, and his heart began to pound wildly.

  Then Pino heard approaching voices, a man and a woman talking and laughing in German. Pino sprang to attention. A woman in her early forties appeared at the other end of the short hall. She sashayed toward him wearing an ivory lace-and-satin robe and beaded gold slippers. She was leggy and pretty in a showgirl way with pendulous breasts, green eyes, and a riot of auburn hair that fell artfully about her shoulders and face. She wore makeup even at this early hour. She eyed Pino while smoking a cigarette.

  “You are tall for a driver, and good-looking, too,” she said in Italian with a heavy German accent. “Too bad. Tall men are always the ones who die in war. Easy targets.”

  “Guess I’ll have to keep my head down.”

  “Mmmm,” she said, and took a drag. “I am Dolly, Dolly Stottlemeyer.”

  “Vorarbeiter Lella, Pino Lella,” he said with none of the earlier stammering.

  Dolly seemed unimpressed, and called out, “Anna? Do you have the general’s coffee ready?”

  “Coming, Dolly,” Anna yelled back.

  The maid and General Leyers converged on the short hallway at the same time. Pino snapped to attention, saluted, his eyes darting to Anna as she came over to him, her smell all around him as she held out a thermos. He looked at her hands and fingers, how perfect they were, how—

  “Take the thermos,” Anna whispered.

  Pino startled, and took it.

  “And the general’s valise,” she muttered.

  Pino flushed and awkwardly bowed to Leyers, then picked up the large leather valise, which felt full.

  “Where is the car?” the general asked in French.

  “Out front, mon général,” Pino replied.

  Dolly said something to the general in German; he nodded and replied.

  Then Leyers fixed his eyes on Pino and snarled, “What are you doing there, staring at me like a Dummkopf? Take my bag to the car. Backseat. Center. I’ll be down soon.”

  Flustered, Pino said, “Oui, mon général. Backseat center.”

  Before leaving, he dared a last glance at Anna and was discouraged to see that she was looking at him as if he had mental problems. He left the apartment and lugged the general’s valise down the stairs, trying to remember the last time he’d thought of Anna. Five, six months ago? The truth was he’d stopped believing he’d ever see her again, and now here she was.

  Anna was all he could think about as he passed the blinking old crone in the lobby and went outside. The maid’s smell. Her smile. Her laugh.

  Anna, Pino thought. What a beautiful name. Rolls right off the tongue.

  Did General Leyers always spend the nights with Dolly? He desperately hoped so. Or was it an unusual thing? Once a week or something? He desperately hoped not.

  Then Pino realized he’d better focus if he wanted to see Anna again. He had to be the perfect driver, he decided, one that Leyers would never dismiss.

  He reached the Daimler. It was only then, as he was lifting the valise into the backseat, that he thought about what might be inside. He almost tried to open it right there, but then realized that foot traffic was building and there were
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