Beneath a scarlet sky, p.26
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       Beneath a Scarlet Sky, p.26

           Mark Sullivan
 

  bring Anna, to risk her life needlessly like this. But the second he pushed the door open, she burst into laughter, hanging on him and singing snatches of a Christmas carol.

  Be someone else, Pino thought, and joined her as they stumbled into the lobby.

  Two armed Waffen-SS sentries Pino did not recognize stood at the base of the elevator and stairway, looking at them intently.

  “What is this?” one of them asked in Italian, while the other covered them with a machine pistol. “Who are you?”

  “I live here, sixth floor,” Pino said with a slur, holding out his papers. “Michele Lella’s son, Giuseppe, loyal soldier of the Organization Todt.”

  The German soldier took the papers, studied them.

  Anna hung on Pino’s arm with an amused look until the other soldier said, “Who are you?”

  “Anna,” she said, and hiccupped. “Anna-Marta.”

  “Papers.”

  She blinked, went for the purse, but then rolled her head drunkenly. “Oh no, this is a new purse, my Christmas present, and I left the papers in my other one at Dolly’s. You know Dolly?”

  “No. What is your business here?”

  “Business?” Anna snorted. “I’m the maid.”

  “The maid for the Lellas has already left today.”

  “No,” she said, waving a hand at them. “General Leyers’s maid.”

  That got their attention, especially when Pino said, “And I am the general’s personal driver. He gave us Christmas Eve off, and . . .” Pino tilted his head to his right shoulder, exposing his neck, and took a step toward them, smiling sheepishly. In a low, conspiratorial voice, he said, “My parents are away. We’ve got the night off. The apartment is empty. Anna and I thought we’d go up, and, you know, celebrate?”

  The eyebrow of the first sentry rose appreciatively. The other one leered at Anna, who responded with a saucy smile.

  “Okay?” Pino said.

  “Ja, ja,” he said, laughing as he gave Pino his papers. “Go on up. It’s Christmas.”

  Pino took the papers, stuffed them sloppily in his pocket, and said, “I owe you.”

  “We both do,” Anna said shyly, and hiccupped again.

  Pino thought they were home free when he went to pick up the leather suitcase. But when he did the bottles inside made a distinct clinking noise.

  “What’s in the suitcase?” the other sentry said.

  Pino looked at Anna, who blushed and laughed. “His Christmas present.”

  “Show me,” he said.

  “No,” Anna complained. “It’s supposed to be a surprise.”

  “Open it,” the second sentry insisted.

  Pino looked at Anna, who blushed again and shrugged.

  Pino sighed, knelt, and undid the straps.

  Lifting the lid revealed two more bottles of Chianti; a red satin bustier with matching panties, garters, and thigh-high red stockings; a black-and-white French maid’s outfit with garter belt, panties, and sheer black silk stockings; and a black lace bra and panties.

  “Surprise,” Anna said softly. “Merry Christmas.”

  The first soldier howled with laughter and said something fast in German that Pino did not catch. The other soldier cracked up, and so did Anna, who said something back to them in German that got them laughing even more.

  Pino didn’t know what was going on, but he took the opportunity to remove one of the wine bottles and shut the suitcase. He held the wine out to the sentries. “And merry Christmas to you.”

  “Ja?” one sentry said, taking it. “Is good?”

  “Magnifico. From a winery near Siena.”

  The SS soldier held it up to his partner, who was still grinning, and then looked back to Pino and Anna. “Thank you. Merry Christmas to you, and your cleaning lady.”

  That sent him, his partner, and Anna into another round of laughing. As they made their way to the birdcage elevator, Pino laughed, too, though he didn’t know why.

  As the elevator began to rise, the Nazi sentries were babbling happily and opening the wine bottle. When the elevator reached the third floor and they were out of sight from below, Anna whispered, “We did it!”

  “What did you tell them?”

  “Something naughty.”

  Pino laughed, leaned over, and kissed her. She stepped over the suitcase and into his arms. They were embracing as they passed the fifth floor and the second set of Waffen-SS sentries. When Pino opened his eyes for a peek at them over Anna’s shoulders, he caught a glimpse of two envious men. They got inside the apartment, closed the door, turned on a light, and put the suitcase and the radio in a closet before falling into each other’s arms on the couch.

  “I’ve never felt like this,” Anna gasped, her eyes wide-eyed and glassy. “We could have died down there.”

  “It makes you see what matters,” Pino said, covering her cheeks and face with soft kisses. “It cuts everything else away. I . . . I think I love you, Anna.”

  He’d hoped she’d say the same, but she pulled back from him, her face hardening. “No, you shouldn’t say that.”

  “Why not?”

  Anna struggled, but then said, “You don’t know who I am. Not really.”

  “What could make me not listen to the music in my heart every time I see you?”

  Anna wouldn’t look at him. “That I’m a widow?”

  “A widow?” Pino said, trying not to sound deflated. “You were married?”

  “That’s usually how it works,” Anna said, studying him now.

  “You’re too young to be a widow.”

  “That used to hurt, Pino. Now it’s just what everyone says.”

  “Well,” he said, still struggling with the news. “Tell me about him.”

  It had been an arranged marriage. Her mother, who continued to blame Anna for her husband’s death, was keen on getting rid of her and put up a house she’d inherited as dowry. His name was Christian.

  “He was very handsome,” Anna said with a bittersweet smile. “An army officer. Ten years older than me the day we were married. We had a wedding night and a two-day honeymoon before he was shipped off to North Africa. He died defending a desert town called Tobruk, three years ago now.”

  “Did you love him?” Pino asked, his throat closed tight.

  Anna cocked her chin and said, “Was I crazy for him as he set out to fight Mussolini’s stupid war? No. I barely knew him. There’d been no time for real love to kindle, much less burn. But I admit I liked the idea of falling in love with him when I believed he would return to me.”

  Pino could see she was telling the truth. “But you . . . made love to him?”

  “He was my husband,” she said, irritated. “We made love for two days, and then he went to war and died and left me to fend for myself.”

  Pino thought about that. He looked into Anna’s searching, wounded eyes and felt the music stir in his chest. “I don’t care,” he said. “It only makes me adore you more, admire you more.”

  Anna blinked back tears. “You’re not just saying that?”

  “No,” Pino said. “So can I say I love you?”

  She hesitated, but then nodded and came to him shyly.

  “You can show me you love me, too,” Anna said.

  They lit a candle and drank the third bottle of Chianti. Anna undressed for Pino. She helped him from his clothes, and they lay down on a bed they made of pillows, cushions, sheets, and blankets on the living room floor.

  Had she been any woman other than Anna, Pino might have fixated on the thrill of her skin and touch. But beyond her lips’ beckoning and her eyes’ bewitching, Pino was seized by something much more compelling and primal, as if Anna were not human but a spirit, a melody, a perfect instrument of love. They caressed, they joined, and in that first ecstasy, Pino felt himself fuse with Anna’s soul as deeply as her body.

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  There was no sleep and no war for Pino that night, only Anna and the pleasure of their duet.

&nb
sp; As dawn came on Christmas Day 1944, they drowsed in each other’s arms.

  “Best present ever,” Pino said. “Even without Dolly’s outfits.”

  Anna laughed. “They’re not my size anyway.”

  “Makes me glad the sentries didn’t demand a fashion show.”

  She laughed again and slapped him softly. “Me, too.”

  Pino began to drift and was right on the verge of falling off into a deep, satisfied sleep when he heard the sound of boots coming down the hall from the bedrooms. He jumped up, clawing for the Walther in his holster on a chair. He got it and spun around.

  Already aiming a rifle at his brother, Mimo said, “Merry Christmas, Nazi boy.”

  Mimo bore a nasty, livid scar down the left side of his face. The rest of him looked as battle-hardened as the German soldiers down along the Gothic Line. Uncle Albert had reports that Mimo had engaged in ambush and sabotage, that he had seen combat and shown great courage in battle. By the hard patina to Mimo’s eyes, Pino knew it was true.

  “What happened to your face?” Pino asked.

  Mimo sneered. “A Fascist put a knife through it and left me for dead, coward.”

  “Who’s a coward?” Anna said, standing up angrily with the sheets around her.

  Mimo took one look at her, shook his head at Pino, and said with disgust, “Not only are you a coward and a traitor, you bring some whore to Mama and Papa’s house on Christmas and screw her in the living room!”

  Before he even felt rage, Pino flipped the pistol, caught it by the barrel, and whipped it overhand at his brother. The Walther hit the wounded cheek, threw Mimo off balance, and he howled with pain. Pino came over the couch in two huge bounds, tried to punch his brother in the face. Mimo dodged and tried to hammer him with the rifle butt. Pino grabbed the gun, twisted it from his brother’s grasp, and hit Mimo in the gut the way Tito had hit him back at Casa Alpina. It was enough to blow the wind out of his brother and send him sprawling backward onto the dining room floor.

  Pino tossed the rifle aside, leaped astride Mimo, and grabbed him by the throat, wanting to drive a fist into his younger brother’s face, once and hard, wound or not. But as he cocked back, Anna cried out.

  “No, Pino! Someone will hear, and then everything will have been for nothing.”

  Pino desperately wanted to hit him but released his throat and spun off him to his feet.

  “Who is he?” Anna asked.

  “My little brother,” Pino said with loathing.

  “Used to be your brother,” Mimo said from the floor with equal hatred.

  Pino said, “Get out of here before I change my mind and kill you on Christmas.”

  Mimo looked like he wanted to go at him, then settled back on his elbows. “Someday, very soon, Pino, you’re going to hate yourself for turning traitor. The Nazis will fall, and when they do, may God have mercy on you.”

  Mimo got to his feet and picked up his rifle. He didn’t glance back but walked down the hall toward the bedrooms and disappeared.

  “You should have told him,” Anna said after Mimo was gone.

  “He can’t know. It’s for his own good. And mine.”

  Pino was suddenly shivering. Anna opened the blankets wrapped around her and said, “You look cold and alone.”

  Pino smiled and went to her. She wrapped the blankets around them both and held him tight, saying, “I’m sorry that had to happen to you on Christmas morning, after the most wonderful night of my life.”

  “Was it?”

  “You’re a natural,” she said, and kissed him.

  He grinned sheepishly. “Think so?”

  “Oh, my, yes.”

  Anna and Pino lay down again and, snuggled in each other’s arms, drifted off into the last good sleep they’d have for weeks.

  Storm after storm struck northern Italy in the following days. New Year’s brought bitter Russian winds and snow that further buried the landscape in dull whites and sullen grays. For Milan, it was the cruelest winter on record.

  Vast sections of the city looked macabre. Scorched fragments of buildings still stood in the rubble and the bomb debris, looking to Pino like so many jagged black-and-white teeth gnashing at a sky that almost constantly threw snow, as if God were doing everything in his power to blot out the scars of war.

  The people of Milan suffered for God’s cold effort. With Leyers’s looting of supplies, heating oil was scarce and allocated to German installations. People began cutting down the city’s magnificent old trees for firewood. Campfire smoke belched from ruins and standing buildings alike. Tree stumps flanked Milan’s famous shaded streets. Many of the parks were attacked and denuded. Anything that would burn was burned. The air in some neighborhoods turned as foul as a coal stove.

  General Leyers rarely stopped moving in the first half of January, which meant Pino rarely stopped moving. Again and again they made the snowy, dangerous drive to the Gothic Line, making sure the troops suffering in the cold would get their rations.

  Leyers, however, seemed indifferent to the average Italian’s misery. He stopped all pretense of paying the Italians for what they made or provided for the German war effort. If there was something the general needed, he ordered it commandeered. In Pino’s eyes, Leyers returned to that reptilian state in which he’d first met him. Cold, ruthless, efficient, he was an engineer tasked with a job and hell-bent on getting it done.

  One frigid afternoon in the middle of January, the general ordered Pino to drive him to the Monza train station, where he made his valise heavier before asking to be taken to the Swiss border above Lugano.

  Leyers was gone for five hours this time. When he climbed from the sedan that brought him back to the frontier, he carried the valise as if it weighed twice what it had leaving Italy, and he seemed to stumble in the path he took across the border to the Fiat.

  “Mon général?” Pino said after Leyers had climbed into the backseat with the valise. “Where now?”

  “It doesn’t matter,” Leyers said. He smelled of liquor. “The war’s over.”

  Pino sat there, stunned, unsure he’d heard him correctly.

  “The war’s over?”

  “It might as well be,” the general said in disgust. “We’re in economic collapse, on the run militarily, and the ungodly things done for Hitler are about to be uncovered. Take me to Dolly’s.”

  Pino got the Fiat turned around and running downhill while trying to dope out what the general had just said. He understood what an economic collapse was. He also knew from his uncle that the Nazis were in retreat after the Ardennes Offensive in eastern France during the Battle of the Bulge and that Budapest was about to fall.

  The ungodly things done for Hitler. What did that mean? The Jews? The slaves? The atrocities? Pino wanted to ask Leyers what he meant, but feared what might happen if he did.

  Sipping steadily from a liquor flask, the general sat in silence the entire ride back to Milan. As they were closing on the center of the city, something piqued his interest, and he told Pino to slow. He seemed fixated on the buildings still standing, peering up at them as if they held secrets.

  At Dolly’s, Leyers slurred, “I need time to think, to plan, Vorarbeiter. Drop the car at the motor pool. Consider yourself on leave until Monday at oh-eight hundred hours.”

  “Monday,” Pino said. “Oui, mon général.”

  Before he could get out to open the rear door, Leyers lurched out and across the sidewalk to Dolly’s apartment building and disappeared inside with nothing in his hand. He’d forgotten . . . Pino twisted around and looked over the seat. The valise was there, right on the floor.

  After stopping at home to change clothes, Pino drove straight to Uncle Albert’s. He parked, got out the valise, which was lighter than he expected. Looking through the leather shop’s window and seeing Aunt Greta waiting on two German officers, he went around the back and knocked on the sewing room door.

  A worker opened it, stared at him, and said, “Where is your uniform today?”
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  “I have the day off,” Pino said, feeling unpleasantly scrutinized as he walked past her. “Can you tell my uncle I’ll be upstairs in the kitchen?”

  She nodded, but not happily.

  When Uncle Albert arrived, something seemed to be hanging heavy about him.

  “Are you all right?” Pino asked.

  “How did you come in?”

  Pino told him.

  “Did you see anyone watching the store?”

  “No, but then again, I wasn’t looking. Do you think . . . ?”

  His uncle was nodding. “Gestapo. We have to back off, slow down, fade into the shadows if we can.”

  Gestapo? Had they seen him get out of General Leyers’s staff car with the valise?

  Suddenly the threat of discovery felt as real as it ever had. Was the Gestapo onto Uncle Albert? Were they onto a spy inside the German High Command? He flashed on Tullio raging at his executioners and wondered if he’d have that kind of courage if he were discovered and put against the wall.

  Half-expecting Gestapo agents to come bursting through the door, Pino quickly described General Leyers’s trip into Switzerland, how he came back drunk and said the war was over, and how he’d walked away from his valise.

  “Open it,” Uncle Albert said. “I’ll get your aunt to translate.”

  When his uncle left, Pino dug out the key they’d made from the wax mold, said a silent prayer, and then slipped it into the first lock. He had to jigger with it before it gave. The second lock turned more easily.

  Coming into her kitchen, Aunt Greta looked pale and uncertain when she saw the folders Pino had removed from the valise.

  “I almost don’t want to look,” she said, but flipped the top file open and started scanning the pages inside as Uncle Albert returned. “These are fortification plans on the Gothic Line. Whole sections. Get the camera.”

  Uncle Albert hustled off to retrieve the camera, and they started photographing pages and recording positions on the maps that they deemed valuable to the Allies. One file detailed train timetables going to and from Italy into Austria. Others described munitions and their locations.

  At the bottom, they found an incomplete, handwritten note from Leyers addressed to General Karl Wolff, the head of the SS in Italy. The note made the case for the war’s being lost, citing the rapidly dwindling industrial base, the Allied advance before the snows came, and Hitler’s refusal to listen to his combat generals.

  “‘We must face the fact that we cannot go on much longer,’” Aunt Greta said, reading. “‘If we do, there will be nothing left of us or the Fatherland.’ That’s it. No signature. He’s not done with it yet.”

  Uncle Albert thought, and said, “A dangerous thing to put down in writing. I’ll make note of it, and tell Baka to send it in the morning.”

  The radio operator, posing as a carpenter at work on cabinets and bookcases in the Lellas’ apartment, had been transmitting to the Allies over the piggyback radio connection every day since Christmas. So far it had worked like a charm.

  “What do you want me to do now?” Pino said after he’d returned the files to the valise.

  “Take the valise back to him,” Uncle Albert said. “Tonight. Tell him someone in the motor pool found it and found you.”

  “Be safe,” Pino said, and went out through the now quiet factory and into the alley.

 
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