Beneath a scarlet sky, p.18
Beneath a Scarlet Sky, p.18Mark Sullivan
overwhelmed that he couldn’t say a thing. He stood up finally and stepped back.
“Move on,” a German officer said. “Clear the sidewalk for the ambulances.”
Pino took one last look at the Beltraminis before walking south toward the telephone exchange, feeling like the blast had cut out part of his heart.
That sense of loss still tortured Pino seven hours later when he parked the Daimler in front of Dolly Stottlemeyer’s apartment building. General Leyers got out, handed Pino his briefcase, and said, “You’ve had quite the first day.”
“Oui, mon général.”
“You’re sure you saw a red scarf around the bomber’s neck?”
“He had it tucked beneath his shirt, but yes.”
The general hardened and entered the building with Pino lugging the valise, which had only gotten heavier since morning. The old crone was right where they’d left her, sitting on her stool and blinking at them from behind those thick glasses. Leyers never gave her a glance, just charged up the stairs to Dolly’s apartment and knocked.
Anna opened the door, and at the sight of her, Pino’s heart mended a little.
“Dolly’s held dinner for you, General,” Anna said as he moved past her.
Despite everything that had happened to Pino that day, seeing Anna again was as dazzling an experience as it had been the first two times. The pain of seeing Mr. Beltramini die and losing his friend endured, but he had faith that if he could tell Anna about it all, somehow she’d make it make sense.
“Are you coming in, Vorarbeiter?” Anna asked impatiently. “Or are you just going to stand there staring at me?”
Pino startled, moved past her, and said, “I wasn’t staring.”
“Of course you were.”
“No, I was somewhere else. In my mind.”
She said nothing and closed the door.
Dolly came into view at the other end of the hall. The general’s mistress wore black stiletto heels, black silk hosiery, and a tight black skirt below a pearl-colored short-sleeve blouse. Her hair looked freshly coiffed.
“The general says you saw the bombing?” Dolly said, lighting a cigarette.
He nodded and put the valise on the bench, feeling Anna’s attention on him, too.
“How many dead?” Dolly asked, and took a puff.
“Many Germans, and . . . and several Milanese,” he said.
“Must have been horrid,” Dolly said.
General Leyers appeared again. His tie was gone. He said something in German to Dolly, who nodded and looked to Anna. “The general would like to eat.”
“Of course, Dolly,” Anna said, glanced at Pino again, hurried down the hallway, and disappeared.
Leyers walked toward Pino, studying him, before picking up the valise. “Return at oh seven hundred sharp.”
“Oui, mon général,” he said, and stood there.
“You are dismissed, Vorarbeiter.”
Pino wanted to linger, to see if Anna might reappear, but instead he saluted and left.
He drove the Daimler back to the motor pool, trying to replay his day, but his mind kept lurching between images of Mr. Beltramini dying, Carletto’s grief-driven rage, and the look Anna had given him before leaving the front hall.
Then he remembered his encounter with Mussolini and his mistress, and as he gave the night sentry the keys to the Daimler and walked on through the streets of San Babila toward home, he wondered if he’d hallucinated them. The August night air was thick and warm. The smells of fine cuisine dueled in the air, and many Nazi officers sat at outdoor cafés, drinking and carousing.
Pino reached Albanese Luggage and went around back to the sewing room entrance. When his uncle answered his knock, he felt waves of emotion.
“Well?” Uncle Albert said after he’d come inside. “How did it go?”
Raw grief burst out of Pino. “I don’t even know where to start,” he cried.
“What in God’s name happened?”
“Can I eat something? I haven’t had a thing since morning.”
“Of course, of course. Greta has saffron risotto waiting for you, and once you’ve eaten, you can tell us everything, right from the beginning.”
Pino wiped at his tears. He hated that he’d cried in front of his uncle, but the emotions had just come over him, or out of him, like a pipe bursting. Wordlessly, he ate two helpings of his aunt’s risotto, and then described everything that had happened to him during the course of his day with General Leyers.
They were shocked by his description of the slaves in the rail tunnel, though Uncle Albert said they’d been getting reports of the Germans taking factories and ammo dumps underground.
“You really went to Mussolini’s house?” Aunt Greta said.
“To his villa,” Pino said. “He and Claretta Petacci were there.”
“Yes,” Pino insisted, and repeated what he’d heard about the factory strikes being resolved in return for Mussolini’s getting a seat at Kesselring’s table, and the promise of a phone call from Adolf Hitler. Then he recounted the worst of it: how Mr. Beltramini died thinking Pino was a traitor, and how his best friend never wanted to see him again because he was a Nazi, a disgrace.
“Not true,” Uncle Albert said, looking up from the pad where he’d taken notes. “You’re a quiet hero for getting this information. I’ll get it to Baka, and he’ll transmit what you’ve seen to the Allies.”
“But I can’t tell Carletto,” Pino said. “And his father—”
“I hate to be blunt about it, Pino, but I don’t care. Your position is too valuable and sensitive to risk telling anyone. You’re just going to have to swallow all that for now, and have faith that your friendship will come back when you’re able to reveal all. I’m serious, Pino. You’re a spy behind enemy lines. Take every insult someone may hurl at you, ignore it, and stay as close to Leyers as you can, for as long as you can.”
Pino nodded, but without enthusiasm. “So you think what I found out helps?”
Uncle Albert snorted. “We now know of a large ammo dump inside a tunnel near Como. We know the Nazis are using slaves. And we know Mussolini is a eunuch, powerless and frustrated because Hitler won’t take his calls. What more could I expect on day one?”
Pino felt good about that and yawned. “I need to sleep. He expects me early.”
He hugged them both, went downstairs and through the small factory. The alley door opened. Baka, the radio operator, came in, looked at Pino, and studied his uniform.
“It’s complicated,” Pino said, and left.
His father had gone to bed by the time Pino walked home and went through a quick security check in the lobby. He set his alarm, stripped, and collapsed on his bed. Terrible images, thoughts, and emotions created a whirlwind in his mind that had him sure he’d never sleep again.
But when he was finally able to limit his spiraling memories to Anna, he felt soothed, and with the maid firmly in his mind, he slipped off into darkness.
August 9, 1944
Pino jumped from the Daimler he’d parked on Via Dante. He went into Dolly’s building, hurried past the blinking old crone and up the stairs, eager to knock on the general’s mistress’s door.
He was disappointed when Dolly answered. General Leyers was already in the hallway, drinking coffee from a china cup and looking eager to leave.
Pino went and got the valise, still not seeing the maid, and turned back toward Dolly and the apartment door, feeling even more disappointed.
Dolly called out, “Anna? The general needs his food.”
A moment later, and to Pino’s nervous delight, the maid appeared with the thermos and a brown paper bag. The general headed toward the apartment door. Pino went to Anna and said, “I’ll take them.”
Anna actually smiled at him as she handed him the thermos, which he slid under one arm before accepting the lunch bag.
“Have a nice day,”
He grinned and said, “I’ll do my best.”
“Vorarbeiter!” General Leyers barked.
Pino startled, spun around, and grabbed the valise. He hurried after Leyers, past Dolly, who held the apartment door open, and gave him a knowing look as he left.
Leyers had a four-hour meeting with Field Marshal Kesselring at the German House that morning. Pino was not invited to the table. The general appeared irritated and upset when he emerged after noon and told Pino to drive him to the telephone exchange.
Pino sat in the Daimler or lounged near it, mad with boredom. He wanted to go somewhere to eat but did not want to leave the car. He was mere blocks from Piazzale Loreto, and debated whether he should go find Carletto, tell him enough that he didn’t think him a traitor anymore. It would make Pino feel better, but should—?
He heard a voice calling over a loudspeaker and coming closer.
An SS vehicle with five speakers on top came rolling down Viale Abruzzi.
“A warning to all citizens of Milan,” a man brayed in Italian. “The cowardly bombing of German soldiers yesterday will not stand. Turn the bomber in today, or face punishment tomorrow. Repeat: A warning to all citizens of Milan . . .”
Pino was so hungry he felt hollow and jittery as he watched the vehicle go by and heard the echoes of the loudspeakers as it went up and down the streets that fanned off Piazalle Loreto. German soldiers came past him midafternoon, nailing printed copies of the same warning about the bomber on telephone poles and gluing others to the sides of buildings.
Three hours later, General Leyers stormed from the telephone exchange and looked furious when he climbed into the backseat of the Daimler. Pino had not eaten since six that morning, and he felt lightheaded and nervous getting into the driver’s seat.
“Verdammte Idioten,” Leyers said in a cutting voice. “Verdammte Idioten.”
Pino had no idea what it meant, and glanced in the rearview in time to see General Leyers pound the seat with his fist three times. It left him red faced and sweaty, and Pino looked away for fear the general would turn his anger on him.
In the backseat, Leyers was taking deep breaths. When Pino at last looked again in the mirror, he saw the general: eyes closed, hands across his chest, his breathing slow and even. Was he sleeping?
Pino didn’t know what to do other than to wait and swallow at the hunger that had him shaking.
Ten minutes later, General Leyers said, “The chancellery. Do you know it?”
Pino looked in the rearview, saw Leyers’s unreadable face had returned. “Oui, mon général.” He wanted to ask when he might stop to get something to eat but held his tongue.
“Take down my flags. This is not an official visit.”
Pino did as he was asked, started the car, and put it in gear, wondering what the general wanted at the chancellery. He kept glancing at Leyers as he wove through the city to Via Pattari. But the general seemed lost in thought and revealed nothing.
By the time they reached the chancellery gate, the sun had set. There were no guards, and Leyers told him to pull through to park. Pino drove on into a cobblestoned courtyard surrounded by two-story colonnades. He shut off the Daimler and climbed out. A fountain bubbled at the center of the courtyard. Dusk fell in a listless heat.
Pino opened the door for General Leyers, who stepped out. “I may need you.”
Pino wondered whom they were talking to tonight. Then it seemed obvious, and his heart began to pound. They were going to talk with Schuster. The cardinal of Milan had a legendary memory. He would recall Pino as surely as Colonel Rauff had, but unlike the Gestapo chief, the cardinal would remember his name. Cardinal Schuster would also see the swastika and judge him severely, probably damn him to some eternal misery.
General Leyers took a left at the top of the stairs, went to a heavy wooden door, and knocked. It was opened by an older priest, who seemed to recognize Leyers with distaste, but stood aside to let him in. The priest gave Pino the evil eye as he passed.
They went down a paneled hallway to an ornate and impressive sitting room with Catholic iconography sewn into fifteenth-century tapestries, carved into thirteenth-century crucifixes, and cast at every turn in gold and gilt. The only thing not Italianate in the room was the desk, where a short, bald man in a simple crème-colored cassock and red skullcap was writing with his back to Pino and Leyers. Cardinal Schuster seemed unaware of them until the priest knocked on the door frame. Schuster stopped writing for a moment, but then wrote on another four or five seconds, finishing his thought before he looked up, and turned.
Leyers removed his hat. Pino reluctantly did the same. The general walked toward Schuster, but spoke to Pino over his shoulder. “Tell the cardinal that I appreciate his willingness to see me on such short notice, but it is important.”
Pino tried to stay behind the general’s shoulder where it would be more difficult for the cardinal to see him clearly, and translated Leyers’s words into Italian.
Schuster leaned over, trying to see Pino. “Ask the general how I can help him.”
Pino looked at the rug and translated into French, which caused the cardinal to interrupt. “I can summon a priest who speaks German if he wishes to make communication easier.”
Pino told Leyers.
The general shook his head. “I don’t want to take up his time or mine unnecessarily.”
Pino told Schuster that Leyers was happy with the interpreting as it stood.
The cardinal shrugged, and Leyers said, “Your Eminence, I’m sure you have heard that fifteen German soldiers were killed in a partisan bombing in Piazzale Loreto yesterday. And I’m sure you know that Colonel Rauff and the Gestapo want the bomber turned in before dawn, or the city faces harsh repercussions.”
“I do,” Cardinal Schuster. “How harsh?”
“Any act of violence upon German soldiers by partisans will be countered by an appropriate act of violence on local males,” the general said. “The decision was not mine, I assure you. General Wolff has that dishonor.”
Pino was shocked as he translated, and saw that the potential repercussions had the same impact on Schuster’s face.
The cardinal said, “If the Nazis follow that path, you will turn the population against you, harden the resistance. They’ll show you no mercy in the end.”
“I agree, Your Eminence, and have said so,” General Leyers said. “But my voice isn’t being heard here or in Berlin.”
The cardinal asked, “What do you want me to do?”
“I don’t know that there’s much you can do, Your Eminence, other than to ask the bomber to surrender before punishment is imposed.”
Schuster was lost in thought for a moment before saying, “When will that happen?”
“Thank you for informing me personally, General Leyers,” the cardinal said.
“Your Eminence,” Leyers said, bowed his head, clicked his heels, and pivoted toward the door, exposing Pino to Schuster.
The cardinal gazed at Pino with an inkling of recognition.
“My Lord Cardinal,” Pino said in Italian. “Please do not tell General Leyers you know me. I’m not what you think I am. I beg you, have mercy on my soul.”
The cleric looked puzzled but nodded. Pino bowed, and walked away, following Leyers back out into the chancellery’s courtyard and thinking about what he’d just heard inside.
Repercussions in the morning? That wasn’t good. What would the Germans do? Appropriate acts of violence on adult males? That was what he’d said, wasn’t it?
When they reached the car, Leyers said, “What were you and the cardinal saying at the end?”
Pino said, “I was wishing him a good evening, mon général.”
Leyers studied him a moment before saying, “Dolly’s, then. I’ve done all I can.”
Although Pino was upset about the pending repercussions, he thought of Anna and drove as fast as he dared through the winding streets around
“I’ll bring it up,” the general said. “Stay with the car. We may go out again later.”
That blew the wind out of Pino’s lungs.
If Leyers caught his disappointment, he didn’t show it as he disappeared through the front door. Only then did Pino’s hunger pangs return with a vengeance. What was he supposed to do? Never eat? Never drink?
Miserable, Pino looked up the face of the building, saw slivers of light showing through the blackout curtains across Dolly’s windows. Was Anna disappointed? Well, she had definitely smiled at him that morning, and it had been more than your ordinary, run-of-the-mill smile, too, hadn’t it? In Pino’s mind, Anna’s smile had spoken of attraction, possibility, and hope. She’d told him to be safe and used his name, hadn’t she?
In any case, Pino wasn’t going to get to see her. Not tonight. Tonight he had to sleep in a car and starve. His heart felt heavy, and then heavier still when thunder drummed. He got the Daimler’s canvas top up and snapped down before the rain came in torrents. He slumped in the driver’s seat, deafened by the storm and feeling sorry for himself. Was he supposed to sleep out here all night? No food? No water?
A half hour passed, and then an hour. The rain had slowed, but it still pattered off the roof. Pino’s stomach was aching, and he thought of driving to his uncle’s to report and get some food. But what if Leyers came down and he was gone? What if—?
The front passenger-side door opened.
Holding a basket of delicious-smelling food, Anna climbed inside.
“Dolly thought you might be hungry,” she said, closing the door. “I was sent to feed you and keep you company while you ate.”
Pino smiled. “General’s orders?”
“Dolly’s orders,” Anna said, peering around. “It will be easier to eat in the backseat, I think.”
“That’s the general’s territory.”
“He’s busy in Dolly’s bedroom,” she said, climbed out, opened the back door, and got in. “He should be in there for a long while, if not the night.”
Pino laughed, threw open the door, ducked through the rain, and climbed into the back. Anna set the basket where the general usually put his valise. She lit a small candle and set it on a plate. The light flickered, making the staff car’s interior golden as she drew back a towel over the basket to reveal two roasted chicken legs with thighs, fresh bread, real butter, and a glass of red wine.
“I have been delivered,” Pino said, which made Anna laugh.
On another night, he might have gazed at her as she laughed, but he was so hungry he just chuckled and ate. As he did, he asked her questions, learning that Anna was from Trieste, she had worked for Dolly for fourteen months, and she had gotten the job through a friend who saw Dolly’s ad in the newspaper.
“You don’t know how much I needed that,” he said, finishing his meal. “I was ravenous. Like a wolf.”
Anna laughed. “I thought I heard someone howling outside.”
“Is that your whole name?” he asked. “Anna?”
“I also go by Anna-Marta.”
“No last name?”
“Not anymore,” the maid said, cooling, and repacking the basket. “And I must be going.”
“Wait,” Pino said. “Can’t you stay just a little longer? I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone as lovely and elegant as you.”
She made a dismissive flip of her hand but smiled. “Listen to you.”
“How old are you now, Pino?”
“Old enough to wear a uniform and carry a gun,” he said, annoyed. “Old enough to do things that I can’t talk about.”
Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan / History & Fiction have rating 5.1 out of 5 / Based on82 votes