Beneath a scarlet sky, p.24
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       Beneath a Scarlet Sky, p.24

           Mark Sullivan
 

  a more beautiful place in the world than northern Italy.

  He followed Leyers up onto the villa’s colonnade and to the terrace, which was empty and strewn with leaves. The French doors to Mussolini’s office were thrown open, however, and they found Il Duce inside, standing at his desk, the suspenders of his riding pants hanging by his sides and his tunic well undone. The dictator had a phone pressed to his ear, and his face was twisted into something spiteful.

  “Claretta, Rachele’s gone crazy,” Il Duce was saying. “She’s coming for you. Don’t talk to her. She says she’s going to kill you, so close the gate, and . . . Okay, okay, call me back.”

  Mussolini hung up the phone, shaking his head before noticing General Leyers and Pino standing there. He said, “Ask the general if his wife is insane over Dolly.”

  Pino did. Leyers looked surprised that Il Duce knew about his mistress, but said, “My wife is insane over most things, but she knows nothing of Dolly. How can I be of service, Duce?”

  “Why does Field Marshal Kesselring always send you to see me, General Leyers?”

  “He trusts me. You trust me.”

  “Do I?”

  “Have I ever done anything to make you question my honor?”

  Mussolini poured himself some wine and then shook his head. “General, why doesn’t Kesselring trust my army enough to use it? I have so many loyal, well-trained men, true Fascists willing to fight for Salò, and yet they sit in their barracks.”

  “It doesn’t make sense to me, either, Duce, but the field marshal has a far greater military mind than mine. I am but an engineer.”

  The phone rang. Mussolini grabbed it, listened, and said, “Rachele?”

  The dictator pulled his head off the receiver, wincing while his wife’s voice came screaming out into the room with remarkable clarity. “The partisans! They’re sending me poems, Benito! One line says over and over again, ‘We will take you all to Piazzale Loreto!’ They blame me, they blame you, and they blame your bitch of a mistress! For that she’s going to die!”

  The dictator smashed the phone down in its cradle, looking shaken, and then stared at Pino for an indication of how much he’d heard. Pino swallowed and became fascinated by the stitchwork in the rug.

  Leyers said, “Duce, I have a busy schedule.”

  “Preparing your retreat?” Mussolini sneered. “Your run toward the Brenner Pass?”

  “The Gothic Line still holds.”

  “I hear it has holes in it,” Il Duce said, and drained his wine. “Tell me, General, is it true that Hitler is building a last redoubt? Somewhere underground in the German Alps, where he will retreat with his most loyal followers?”

  “One hears many such stories. But I have no direct knowledge of that one.”

  “If there is, will there be a place in that underground fortress for me?”

  “I can’t speak for the führer, Duce.”

  “That’s not what I hear,” Mussolini said. “But at the very least, maybe you can speak for Albert Speer. Surely Hitler’s architect would know if there was such a place.”

  “I’ll ask the Reich Minister the next time we speak, Duce.”

  “I’ll need a room for two,” the dictator said, and poured himself more wine.

  “Duly noted,” the general said. “And now I must leave. I have a meeting in Turin.”

  Mussolini looked ready to argue, but the phone rang. He winced, picked it up. Leyers turned to go. As Pino started to follow, he heard Mussolini say, “Claretta? Did you shut the gate?” There was a pause before Il Duce roared, “Rachele’s there? Get your guard to get her off the gate before she hurts herself!”

  They heard more shouting as they walked off the terrace and down the stairs.

  Back in the Fiat, General Leyers shook his head and said, “Why do I always feel like I have been to a madhouse when I leave this place?”

  “Il Duce says many strange things,” Pino said.

  “How he led a country is beyond me,” Leyers said. “But they say the train system ran like German clockwork when he was in full power.”

  “Is there an underground fortress in the Alps?” Pino asked.

  “Only a lunatic would believe in something like that.”

  Pino wanted to remind the general that Adolf Hitler wasn’t exactly stable, but he thought better of it and they drove on.

  Shortly after sunset on Tuesday, October 31, 1944, General Leyers told Pino to drive him to the train station in the city of Monza, about fifteen kilometers northeast of Milan. Pino was exhausted. They’d been on the road almost constantly, and he wanted to sleep and to see Anna. They’d barely had ten minutes together since the night of the strafing.

  But Pino followed orders and turned the Fiat north. The second full moon of the month—the true blue moon—rose, casting a pale light that made the countryside look like dark turquoise. When they reached the Monza station, and the general climbed out, Organization Todt sentries locked at attention. They were Italians, young men like Pino, trying to survive the war.

  “Tell them I’m here to oversee a transfer in the yard,” General Leyers said.

  Pino did, and they nodded and gestured to the far end of the platform.

  A small lorry pulled up. Two OT soldiers and four men in shabby gray clothes got out. They had patches on their chests. Three said “OST”; the fourth said “P.”

  “Wait here, Vorarbeiter,” General Leyers told Pino in a cordial tone. “I won’t be long, no more than an hour, and then we can get that well-needed sleep and see our lady friends. Okay?”

  Feeling punchy, Pino smiled and nodded. He wanted to lie down on one of the benches and go to sleep right then. But watching Leyers take a flashlight from one of the soldiers and lead the way toward the far end of the platform, he came alert.

  The general didn’t have the valise with him!

  It was in the Fiat out in front of the station. An hour, no more, Leyers had said. But that was plenty enough time to go through the valise, wasn’t it? Uncle Albert had never gotten him the camera he said he’d look into. But Pino had the general’s camera, loaded with what he knew to be a fresh roll of film. Leyers insisted on keeping the camera in the car so he could take pictures of sites for possible artillery installations. And when the general did take pictures, he always removed the film and replaced it with a new roll, even if it wasn’t full.

  Pino decided that if he came across something that looked important, he’d photograph the papers, take the film, and replace it with another fresh roll from the glove compartment.

  He’d taken two steps toward the Fiat when something beyond fatigue bothered him, something about the way Leyers had walked off just then, leading the four slaves and the two OT soldiers. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but he wondered what Leyers might be transferring by the light of the full moon. And why didn’t the general want him to see the transfer? That was odd. Where Leyers went, Pino usually went as well.

  A train whistled not far away. Torn in two directions, Pino went with his gut and padded off toward the end of the platform where Leyers had disappeared. By the time he’d jumped down into the yard and walked well away from the station without seeing the general or the others with him, a freight train came rumbling into the station and squealed to a stop.

  Pino scrambled under one of the train’s boxcars and crawled over the tracks. When he reached the other side, he heard voices. Peering out from under the train and to his right, he saw the two OT soldiers silhouetted by the general’s flashlight. They were coming Pino’s way.

  Pino pressed himself tight to the wheels of the boxcar and watched the soldiers go by. He looked out and to his right again and made out Leyers standing with his back to him about sixty meters away. The general was watching the four gray men. They had formed a line and were moving objects from a boxcar that was part of the freight train to a lone boxcar on the adjacent track. The objects weren’t very big, but the slaves had to put their entire bodies into holding and moving the heavy lo
ads.

  If Pino couldn’t tell his uncle what he’d seen in Leyers’s valise, he at least wanted to be able to tell him what the general was transferring after dark, and why he was personally overseeing the slaves doing the work.

  After scrambling back to the other side of the freight train, Pino tried to be as light on his feet as possible and moved forward with the boxcars between him and Leyers, thankful to hear the clunking of heavy metal objects the closer he got. Thunk. Thunk. Clunk.

  He caught the rhythm of the timing and moved with it, one foot to the other, until he felt he’d drawn even with the group, and then one knee and hand to the other as he crawled under the freight train. He peeked out the other side to find himself fewer than ten meters from the general.

  Leyers had the flashlight aimed at the cinders between the rails, so the men worked in the glow of a light at their feet. Pino could see one man in the boxcar above Leyers handing out narrow rectangular objects that he couldn’t quite make out as they were passed above the waist from one man to another and into the opposite boxcar, which was a rusty-orange color.

  What the hell was—?

  The third man in line fumbled and almost dropped one. Leyers shifted the flashlight beam, shone it on the object in the man’s hands, and Pino had to fight not to gasp.

  It was a brick, a brick made of gold.

  “Das ist genug,” Leyers said, telling them in German, “That’s enough.”

  The four slave laborers looked at the general expectantly. He waved with the flashlight toward the boxcars, indicating they should shut and lock them.

  Pino realized the gold transfer was complete, which meant Leyers would soon be heading toward the station and the Fiat. He crabbed backward slowly, and then quicker when he heard the door to the boxcar above him sliding shut.

  He was back on his feet on the other side of the train when the second boxcar door shut. Pino danced away on his tiptoes and to the side of the cinders where weeds grew and muffled the sound of his passing.

  Within a minute, he was clambering up onto the train platform. The freight train’s locomotive grumbled at the far end of the track. The wheels creaked, whined, and gained speed. The couplings between the cars ground. And every rail tie crossed made a solid, steady thump, thump, thump. And still Pino heard the flat crack of gunshots clearly.

  The first one he doubted. But not the second, third, or fourth, which were spaced at intervals of two to four seconds and coming from Leyers’s direction. It was all over in less than fifteen seconds.

  The two OT soldiers whom Leyers had ordered away from the transfer site came out onto the platform as if they, too, had heard the shots.

  With horror and growing anger, Pino thought, Four slaves dead. Four witnesses to a gold diversion dead. Leyers had pulled the trigger. He’d cold-bloodedly executed them. And he’d planned to do it long before tonight.

  The last of the freight train boxcars passed the platform and thumped off into the night, carrying a fortune in what Pino assumed was looted gold. There was a fortune out there in the train yard, too. How much gold had there been?

  Enough to kill four innocent men, Pino thought. Enough to—

  He heard the crunch of General Leyers’s boots before he saw him as a shade of darkness out there in the moonlit night. Leyers flipped on the flashlight, played it on the platform, and found Pino, who raised his forearm to block the beam and had the quick, panicked thought that the general may have decided to kill him, too.

  “There you are, Vorarbeiter,” General Leyers said. “Did you hear those shots?”

  Pino decided dumb was his best strategy. “Shots, mon général?”

  Leyers came to the platform, shaking his head in bemusement. “Four of them. All clean misses. I’ve never been able to shoot worth a damn.”

  “Mon général? I don’t understand.”

  “I was transferring something important to Italy out there, protecting it,” he said. “And when I had my back turned, the four laborers took their chance and ran for it.”

  Pino frowned. “And you shot them?”

  “I shot at them,” General Leyers said. “Or rather, over them and behind them. I’m a horrible marksman. I didn’t care, really. I don’t care. Good luck to them.” Leyers clapped his hands. “Take me to Dolly’s, Vorarbeiter. It’s been a long day.”

  If General Leyers was lying, if he’d killed the four slaves, he was also a superb actor or someone who had no conscience, Pino thought as he drove back to Milan. Then again, Leyers had been shaken by the Jews of Platform 21. Maybe he had a conscience when it came to certain things and not to others. The general seemed in a happy enough mood during the ride, chuckling to himself or smacking his lips with satisfaction every once in a while. And why not? He’d just stashed away a fortune in gold.

  The general said he’d done it for Italy, protecting it, but as Pino pulled the Fiat up in front of Dolly’s, he remained skeptical. Why would Leyers protect anything for Italy after he’d stolen so much from the country already? And Pino had heard enough stories in life to know that men acted strangely, irrationally, when gold was involved.

  When they reached the apartment on the Via Dante, General Leyers climbed out of the car with the valise in his hand.

  “You have the day off tomorrow, Vorarbeiter,” Leyers said.

  “Thank you, mon général,” Pino said, bobbing his head.

  Pino needed a day off. He also needed to see Anna, but he was obviously not being invited to go upstairs for a glass of whiskey.

  The general made a move toward the front door, but then stopped.

  “You may use the car tomorrow, Vorarbeiter,” he said. “Take the maid anywhere you want to go. Enjoy yourselves.”

  The next morning, Anna came down the stairs to the lobby just as Pino was coming through the front door. They both nodded uncertainly to the crone blinking on the stool, and then left, laughing and happy to be in each other’s company.

  “This is nice,” she said, taking the passenger seat next to him.

  Pino felt good to be out of his OT uniform. He was someone completely different. So was Anna. She wore a blue dress, black pumps, and a fine wool shawl around her shoulders. She’d put on lipstick, and mascara, and . . .

  “What?” she said.

  “You’re just so beautiful, Anna. You make me want to sing.”

  “You’re so sweet,” she said. “And I’d kiss you if I didn’t want to smear Dolly’s expensive French lipstick.”

  “Where shall we go?”

  “Somewhere pretty. Somewhere we can forget the war.”

  Pino thought about that, and said, “I know just the place.”

  “But before I forget,” Anna said, reaching in her purse and handing him an envelope. “General Leyers says it’s a letter of passage, under his signature.”

  It was astonishing how attitudes changed when Pino showed the letter to sentries along the route to Cernobbio. Pino drove Anna to his favorite spot on Lake Como, a small park near the southern end of the lake’s west arm. It was a clear, unusually warm, breezy autumn day. The sky was a thin blue, and snow dusted the tallest crags, the mountains and their reflection in the lake like two joined watercolor paintings. Pino felt hot, and took off his heavy shirt, revealing a sleeveless white T-shirt.

  “It’s so beautiful,” Anna said. “I see why you love it here.”

  “I’ve stood here a thousand times, and it still doesn’t look real to me, like it’s God’s vision, nothing human about it, you know?”

  “I do.”

  “Let me take a picture of you here,” Anna said, pulling out General Leyers’s camera.

  “Where did you get that?”

  “In the glove compartment. I’ll just keep the film and put the camera back.”

  Pino hesitated, and then shrugged. “Okay.”

  “Stand in profile,” she said. “Chin up, and get your hair back. I want to see your eyes.”

  Pino tried, but the breeze kept blowing his curly hair over his
eyes.

  “Hold on,” Anna said, digging in her purse. She came up with a white headband.

  “I’m not going to wear that,” Pino said.

  “But I want to see your eyes in the picture.”

  Seeing how disappointed she’d be if he didn’t go along, Pino took the headband, put it on, and made a funny face to make her laugh. Then he stood in profile, lifted his chin, and smiled.

  She clicked the camera twice. “Perfect. I’ll always remember you like this.”

  “Wearing a headband?”

  “So I could see your eyes,” Anna protested.

  “I know,” he said, and hugged her.

  When they broke, he pointed to the far northern stretch of the lake. “Up there, below the snow line? That’s Motta, where Father Re runs Casa Alpina. The place I told you about.”

  “I remember,” Anna said. “Do you think he’s still helping them? Father Re?”

  “Of course,” Pino said. “Nothing gets in the way of his faith.”

  In the next moment he thought about Platform 21. It must have shown in his face, because Anna said, “What’s wrong?”

  He told her about what he’d seen on the platform and how terrible he’d felt watching the red cattle cars pull away, and the tiny fingers waving.

  Anna sighed, rubbed his back, and said, “You can’t be the hero all the time, Pino.”

  “If you say so.”

  “I do say so. You can’t carry the world’s problems on your back. You have to find some happiness in your life, and just do your best with the rest.”

  “I’m happy when I’m with you.”

  She seemed conflicted, but then smiled. “You know, I am, too.”

  “Tell me about your mother,” Pino said.

  Anna stiffened.

  “Sore scar?”

  “One of the sorest,” she said, and they began to walk along the lakefront.

  Anna told Pino her mother went slowly crazy after her husband drowned at sea and her daughter survived. Her mother told Anna that she was responsible for her father’s death and for all the miscarriages she’d had after Anna’s birth.

  “She thought I had the evil eye,” Anna said.

  “You?” Pino said, and laughed.

  “It’s not funny,” Anna said, dead sober. “My mother did horrible things to me, Pino. She made me think things about myself that just weren’t true. She even had priests perform exorcisms on me to cast out the demons.”

  “No.”

  “Yes. When I could, I left.”

  “Trieste?”

  “Home, and soon after, Trieste,” she said, and looked away toward the lake.

  “Where did you go?”

  “Innsbruck. I answered an ad, and met Dolly, and here I am. Isn’t it strange how life is always taking you to places and to people you’re supposed to see and meet?”

  “You believe that about me?”

  A wind came up, blew strands of her hair across her face. “I guess. Yes.”

  Pino wondered whether God’s plan was for him to meet General Leyers, but when Anna brushed back her hair and smiled, he forgot all about that.

  “I don’t like lipstick from Paris,” he said.

  She laughed. “Where else can we go? What other beautiful place?”

  “You pick.”

  “Around Trieste, I could show you many places. But here, I don’t know.”

  Pino thought, looked reluctantly at the lake, and then said, “I know a place.”

  An hour later, Pino drove the staff car over railroad tracks and up a farm lane to the hill where his father and Mr. Beltramini had performed “Nessun Dorma,” “None Shall Sleep.”

  “Why here?” Anna asked skeptically as dark clouds were rolling in.

  “Let’s climb up there, and I’ll show you.”

  They got out and started up the hill. Pino described the trains that had left Milan every night during the summer of 1943, how they’d all come here for safety in the thickest, sweet-smelling grass, and how he and Carletto had seen Michele
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