Beneath a scarlet sky, p.19
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       Beneath a Scarlet Sky, p.19

           Mark Sullivan
 

  “Like what?” she said, sounding interested.

  “I can’t talk about it,” Pino insisted.

  Anna blew out the candle, leaving them in darkness. “Then I must go.”

  Before Pino could protest, she climbed out of the Daimler and shut the door behind her. Pino struggled out of the backseat in time to see her shadow going up the steps to the front door of the apartment building.

  “Buona notte, signorina Anna-Marta,” Pino said.

  “Good night, Vorarbeiter Lella,” Anna said, and went inside.

  The rain had stopped, and he stood there a long while, looking at that spot where she’d disappeared and reliving every moment of his time in the backseat of the staff car, with her smell all around. He noticed it after the food was gone, when she’d laughed that he’d been hungry as a wolf. Had there ever been anything that smelled like that? Had there ever been a woman who looked like that? So beautiful. So mysterious.

  At last he climbed back into the driver’s seat and pulled his cap down over his eyes. His thoughts still on her, he questioned everything he’d said to her and dissected her every word as if they were clues to the puzzle of Anna. The horror of Mr. Beltramini’s death, being branded a traitor—all these things had vanished from his consciousness. All he knew until sleep took him was the maid.

  A sharp rap came at the window, waking Pino. It was barely cracking light. The back door opened. His first happy thought was that Anna had come down to feed him again. But when he looked over his shoulder, he saw the silhouette of General Leyers.

  “Fly my flags,” Leyers said. “Get me to San Vittore Prison. We don’t have much time.”

  Going for the glove compartment and the flags, Pino fought off a yawn and said, “What time is it, mon général?”

  “Five a.m.,” he barked. “So move!”

  Pino bolted from the staff car, mounted the flags, and then drove fast through the city, relying on the flags to get them quickly through checkpoints until they arrived at notorious San Vittore. Built in the 1870s, the prison had six three-story wings connected to a central hub. When San Vittore opened, it was state-of-the-art, but seventy-four years of neglect on, it was a nasty starfish of cells and halls where men fought for their lives every moment of every day. Now that it was under Gestapo rule, Pino couldn’t name a place he feared more besides the Hotel Regina.

  On Via Vico, which paralleled the prison’s high eastern wall, they confronted two lorries stopped by an open gate. The first lorry was backing up through the gate. The other idled on the street, blocking the way.

  Dawn glowed over the city when General Leyers got out and slammed the door. Pino jumped out and followed Leyers as he crossed the street and went through the gate with the guards saluting. They went into a large triangular yard that narrowed where the walls of two opposing arms of the prison joined the central hub.

  Four steps beyond the gate, Pino stopped to take it all in. Eight armed Waffen-SS soldiers stood about twenty-five meters to his left at ten o’clock. In front of them was an SS captain. Beside the captain, Gestapo Colonel Walter Rauff held a black riding crop behind his back and watched with great interest. Leyers went to Rauff and the captain.

  Pino hung back, not wanting Rauff to notice him.

  The flaps at the back of the lorry opened. A squad from the Muti Legion of the Black Brigades climbed out. Fanatically dedicated to Mussolini, the elite Fascist commandos wore black turtlenecks, despite the warm air, and jawless death-head symbols on their hats and chests.

  “Are you ready?” the SS captain said in Italian.

  A Black Shirt brushed past Pino as he called, “Bring them out.”

  The guards split into two groups of four and moved to open doors set in the walls of the prison wings. Prisoners began to shuffle out. Pino moved, trying to see the men better. Some of them looked like they couldn’t handle another step. Those that looked fitter had beards and such long hair that he didn’t know if he’d recognize anyone he knew.

  Then, from the left-hand door, a tall, imposing young man appeared in the yard. Pino recognized him as Barbareschi, the seminarian, aide to Cardinal Schuster and forger for the resistance. Barbareschi must have been caught and arrested again. Though other men shuffled into a loose formation, staring fearfully at the Black Shirt commandos, Barbareschi went defiantly to the front row.

  “How many?” Colonel Rauff said.

  “One forty-eight,” one of the guards yelled back.

  “Two more,” Rauff said.

  The last man out the right-hand door tossed his head to get the hair from his eyes. “Tullio!” Pino gasped softly.

  Tullio Galimberti didn’t hear him. Over the sounds of the last men moving into place, no one did. Tullio trudged out of sight behind the lorry. The Black Shirt commander stepped forward. General Leyers confronted Colonel Rauff and the SS captain. Pino could see and hear them arguing. Rauff finally gestured with the riding crop at the Black Shirt and said something that shut Leyers down.

  The Fascist commander pointed to his far left and shouted, “You there, start counting off in tens. Every tenth man step forward.”

  After a moment’s pause, the man farthest left said, “One.”

  “Two,” said the second.

  It went on down the line until one of the weaker-looking men said, “Ten,” and stepped uncertainly forward.

  “One,” said the eleventh man.

  “Two,” said the twelfth.

  A moment later, Barbareschi said, “Eight.”

  The second tenth man stepped forward, and soon the third. They were joined by twelve more, all of them standing shoulder to shoulder in front of the assembled prisoners. The count still ongoing, Pino stood on his tiptoes, remembering some of the conversation General Leyers had had with Cardinal Schuster.

  To his horror, he heard Tullio say, “Ten,” becoming the fifteenth man.

  “You fifteen in the lorry,” a Black Shirt said. “The rest of you return to your cells.”

  Pino didn’t know what to do, torn between wanting to go to General Leyers and to Tullio. But if he went to Leyers and admitted Tullio was his close friend, and Tullio was in San Vittore for spying for the resistance, wouldn’t he begin to suspect—?

  “What are you doing in here, Vorarbeiter?” Leyers demanded.

  Pino had been so mesmerized by the unfolding scene that he’d lost track of Leyers, who now stood beside him, glaring.

  “I’m sorry, mon général,” Pino said. “I thought you might need a translator?”

  “Go to the car, now,” Leyers said. “Bring it up after this lorry exits.”

  Pino saluted, then ran out through the prison gates to the Daimler and climbed in. The lorry parked outside San Vittore began to roll. Pino started the staff car just as the first sun hit the prison’s upper walls and around the arch of the gate. In the shadows below, the lorry bearing Tullio and the other fourteen emerged and followed.

  Pino drove up to the gate. The general didn’t bother waiting for him to open the door. He climbed into the back, his face twisted in barely controlled fury.

  “Mon général?” Pino asked after they’d sat there a moment.

  “The hell with it,” Leyers said. “Follow them, Vorarbeiter.”

  The Daimler quickly caught up to the lorries as they lumbered through the city. Pino wanted to ask the general what was happening. He wanted to tell him about Tullio, but didn’t dare.

  As he drove around the piazza in front of the Duomo, he glanced up at the highest spire on the cathedral, saw it embraced by the sun while the gargoyles on the lower flanks of the church remained in the deepest of dark shadows. The sight troubled him deeply.

  “Mon général?” Pino said. “I know you said not to speak, but can you tell me what is going to happen to the men in that lorry?”

  Leyers didn’t answer. Pino glanced in the mirror, feared a tongue-lashing, but found the general looking coldly at him.

  Leyers said, “Your ancestors invented what’s going to
happen.”

  “Mon général?”

  “The ancient Romans called it ‘decimation,’ Vorarbeiter. They used it throughout their empire. The problem with decimation is that the tactic never works for long.”

  “I don’t understand.”

  “Decimation functions psychologically,” Leyers explained. “It’s designed to quell the threat of revolt through abject fear. But historically, using brutality against civilians in reprisal breeds more hatred than obedience.”

  Brutality? Pino thought. Reprisals? The violent acts Leyers warned the cardinal about? What were they going to do to Tullio and the others? Would telling General Leyers that Tullio was his close friend help or—?

  In the streets parallel to them, he heard the blaring of loudspeakers. The man spoke in Italian, calling “all concerned citizens” to Piazzale Loreto.

  Two companies of Black Shirt Fascists had cordoned off the rotary. But they waved the lorries and General Leyers’s car through. The lorries drove toward Beltramini’s Fresh Fruits and Vegetables, stopped just shy of it, backed up, and turned so the vehicles’ backs faced the blank common wall where several buildings joined.

  “Drive on around the rotary,” Leyers said.

  As Pino drove past the fruit stand, the awning still torn, he flashed on the bomb going off there. He was shocked to see Carletto coming out of the shop, staring at the lorries, and then starting to look his way.

  Pino hit the accelerator and got quickly out of sight. Three-quarters of the way around the rotary, Leyers ordered Pino to pull into the Esso station, the one with the big iron girder system above the petrol pumps. An attendant came out nervously.

  “Tell him to fill the tank and that we are going to park here,” Leyers said.

  Pino told the man, who looked at the general’s flags and scurried away.

  With the loudspeakers still calling, the people of Milan came at a trickle of a curious few at first, but then the flow of new arrivals built to a steady stream of pedestrians, coming into Piazzale Loreto from all directions.

  Black Shirts put up wooden barriers from the fruit stand west thirty meters and to either side of the lorries heading north forty-five meters. As a result, there was a large open space around the lorries with a crowd building at the fences.

  Pino soon figured there were a thousand people, maybe more. Halfway between the 150 meters that separated the Daimler from Tullio’s lorry, a second Nazi staff car appeared, pulled to the edge of the rotary, and stopped. From this distance and angle, Pino could not tell who was in the car. More people streamed into the piazza, so many that they soon blocked the view.

  “I can’t see,” General Leyers said.

  “Non, mon général,” Pino said.

  Leyers paused, looked out the window, and said, “Can you climb?”

  A minute later, Pino stepped off the top of the petrol pump and pulled himself up onto one of the low girders. He held tight to an iron post and a second girder at head height.

  “Can you see?” General Leyers asked from below, standing by the staff car.

  “Oui, mon général.” Pino had a clear, unobstructed view over the heads of the fifteen hundred people now in the piazza. The lorries were still there, flaps closed.

  “Help me up there,” Leyers said.

  Pino looked down, saw the general had already climbed onto one of the pumps, his hand outstretched. Pino helped hoist him up. Leyers hung on to the overhead cross girder while Pino hugged the post.

  In the distance, the Duomo’s bells rang the hour nine times. The Black Shirt commander from the prison yard climbed down from the cab of the nearby lorry. The Fascist disappeared from Pino’s view behind the other lorry, the one holding the prisoners.

  Soon the fifteen began to stream out, one by one, going to the wall to the right of the fruit stand, shoulder to shoulder, facing toward the crowd, which was growing uneasy. Tullio was the seventh man out. By then, Pino knew in his gut what was about to happen, if not how, and he had to wrap his arms around the steel post to keep from falling.

  The empty lorry pulled away. The crowd gave it room, and the transport vehicle was soon gone onto the rotary. Hooded Black Shirt gunmen poured out the back of the other transport, and then it was driven away as well. Armed with machine pistols, the Fascist commandos lined up no more than fifteen meters from the prisoners.

  A Black Shirt shouted, “Every time a Communist partisan kills a German soldier or a soldier of the Salò army, there will be swift punishment with no mercy.”

  The piazza fell quiet but for murmurs of disbelief.

  One of the prisoners began shouting at the Fascists and the firing squad.

  It was Tullio.

  “You cowards!” Tullio roared at them. “You traitors! You do the Nazis’ dirty work and hide your faces. You’re all a bunch of—”

  The machine pistols opened up, cutting Tullio down first. Pino’s friend danced backward with the bullet impacts and then sprawled slack on the sidewalk.

  Chapter Eighteen

  Pino screamed and screamed into the crook of his arm as the shooting went on and more men fell. The crowd went mad, crying in horror and stampeding to get away from the machine gunners who sprayed the walls of Piazzale Loreto with blood and gore that dripped and pooled around the fifteen martyrs long after the gunfire had stopped.

  Eyes closed, Pino slid down and straddled the lower girder, hearing the screams in Piazzale Loreto as if they were far away and muffled. The world doesn’t work like this, he tried to tell himself. The world is not sick and evil like this.

  He remembered Father Re summoning him to a higher cause, and then found himself reciting the Hail Mary, the prayer for the dead and the dying. He’d gotten to the last line, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our—”

  “Vorarbeiter! God damn it!” General Leyers shouted. “Do you hear me?”

  In a daze, Pino looked around and up at the Nazi, who was still standing on the girder, his face stony and cold.

  “Get down,” Leyers said. “We’re leaving.”

  Pino’s first thought was to pull the general’s feet out from under him, have him fall on his back on concrete from more than four meters up. Then he’d jump down and strangle him with his bare hands just to make sure. Leyers had let this atrocity happen. He’d stood by when—

  “I said get down.”

  Feeling like a part of his mind had been permanently burned, he did so. Leyers climbed down after him and got into the back of the Daimler. Pino shut his door and slid behind the wheel.

  “Where to, mon général?” Pino asked numbly.

  “Did you know one of them?” Leyers asked. “I heard you screaming.”

  Pino hesitated, his eyes welling with tears. “No,” he said finally. “I’ve just never seen anything like that before.”

  The general studied him in the rearview mirror a moment before saying, “Go. There’s nothing more to be done here.”

  The other German staff car was already turning around, heading for the checkpoint, when Pino started the Daimler. The rear window of the second staff car was down. He could see Colonel Rauff looking out at them. Pino wanted to floor the accelerator and T-bone the Gestapo chief’s car. Rauff’s vehicle would be no match for the Daimler. Maybe he’d even kill Rauff, make the world an infinitely better place.

  General Leyers said, “Wait until they’ve gone ahead.”

  Pino watched Colonel Rauff disappear into the city before he started the Daimler.

  “Where to, mon général?” he said again, unable to stop seeing Tullio rage against his executioners before dancing on the bullets that killed him.

  “Hotel Regina,” Leyers said.

  Pino started in that direction. “If I may, mon général, what will happen to the bodies?”

  “They’ll lie there until dark, when their relatives can claim them.”

  “All day?”

  “Colonel Rauff wants the rest of Milan, especially the partisans, to s
ee what happens when German soldiers are killed,” Leyers said as they left the checkpoint. “The savage idiots. Don’t they see this will just increase the number of Italians who want to kill German soldiers? You, Vorarbeiter, do you want to kill Germans? Do you want to kill me?”

  Pino was shocked by the question, and he wondered if the man could read his mind. But he shook his head, said, “Non, mon général. I want to live in peace and prosperity like anyone.”

  The Nazi’s Plenipotentiary for War Production fell silent and pensive while Pino drove back to Gestapo headquarters. Leyers got out and said, “You have three hours.”

  Pino dreaded the task ahead, but he left the Daimler and tore off his swastika armband. He went to the new purse store, but the girl who worked there said his father had gone over to Albanese Luggage.

  When Pino entered the leather goods shop, Michele, Uncle Albert, and Aunt Greta were the only ones inside.

  His uncle saw him, rushed out from behind the counter. “Where the hell have you been? We’ve been worried sick!”

  “You didn’t come home,” his father said. “Oh, thank God you’re back.”

  Aunt Greta took one look at Pino and said, “What’s happened?”

  For a few moments, Pino couldn’t say a word. Then he fought back tears as he said, “The Nazis and the Fascists, they did a decimation at San Vittore in retaliation for the bombing. They counted off every tenth man until they got fifteen. Then they took them to the Piazzale Loreto and machine-gunned them to death. I saw . . .” He broke down. “Tullio was one of them.”

  Uncle Albert and his father looked gut-shot.

  Aunt Greta said, “That’s not true! You must have seen someone else.”

  Pino, crying, said, “It was him. Tullio was so brave. Yelling at the men who were about to shoot him, calling them cowards . . . and . . . oh God, it was . . . horrible.”

  He went to his father and hugged him while Uncle Albert held Aunt Greta, who had turned hysterical. “I hate them,” she said. “My own people and I hate them.”

  When she’d calmed down, Uncle Albert said, “I have to go tell his mother.”

  “She can’t get Tullio’s body until sundown,” Pino said. “They’re keeping the bodies on display as a warning of what happens when partisans kill Germans.”

  “The pigs,” his uncle said. “This changes nothing. It only makes us stronger.”

  “That’s what General Leyers said would happen.”

  By noon, Pino was sitting on the steps of La Scala where he could see the front of the Hotel Regina and the Daimler parked nearby. He was numb with grief. Gazing across the street at the statue of the great Leonardo and listening to the chatter of citizens who hurried past, he wanted to cry again. Everyone was talking about the atrocity. More than a few called Piazzale Loreto a cursed place now. He was seeing it all again and again in his mind, and he agreed.

  At three o’clock, Leyers finally emerged from Gestapo headquarters. He got into the car, told Pino to drive to the telephone exchange yet again. There, Pino waited and thought about Tullio. Merciful night began to fall. Pino felt a little better knowing that his friend’s body could be retrieved and readied for burial.

  At seven, the general exited the telephone exchange, got in the back of the staff car, and said, “Dolly’s.”

  Pino parked in front of her place on the Via Dante. Leyers had him carry the locked valise. The crone in the lobby blinked behind her glasses and seemed to sniff after them as they passed and climbed up the stairs to Dolly’s apartment. When Anna opened the door, he could see she was upset.

  “Are you in for the night, General?” Anna asked.

  “No,” he said. “I’m thinking of taking Dolly out for dinner.”

  Dolly came to the hallway in a dressing robe, a highball glass in one hand, and said, “A perfect idea. I go crazy sitting here all day, waiting for you, Hans. Where shall we go?”

  “That place around the corner,” Leyers said. “We can walk. I feel like I need to.” He paused, and then looked at Pino. “You can stay here, Vorarbeiter, and eat. When I return, I’ll tell you whether I’ll have further need of you tonight.”

  Pino nodded and sat on the bench. Looking unhappy, Anna bustled through the
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