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Beneath a Scarlet Sky, Page 30

Mark Sullivan

  Pino didn’t quite understand. But he did hear the sound of a room door slamming. Someone was leaving. General Leyers?

  He bolted back down the side of the villa and to the cedar hedge. He ran down the length of it, peering through breaks, seeing Field Marshal Vietinghoff storm from the villa. His driver leaped from his car, opened the door to the backseat, and they soon drove off.

  Pino had a moment of indecision. Should he go back to the window, try to hear more? Or should he go back to the car and wait, not risk his luck?

  Leyers came out the front door and made the decision for him. Pino eased out through the hedge and jogged to meet him, trying to remember what Vietinghoff had shouted before leaving.

  Was du redest ist Verrat!

  He kept repeating the phrase silently as he opened the door for a very unhappy General Leyers, who looked ready to bite off a kitten’s head. Pino climbed into the front seat, feeling the rage coming off the German like waves.

  “Mon général?”

  “Gargnano,” Leyers said. “The insane asylum.”

  Pino drove the car through the gates of Mussolini’s villa above Lake Garda, fearing what they might encounter. When General Leyers announced himself at the front door, one of Il Duce’s aides told him that it was not a good time.

  “Of course it’s not a good time,” Leyers snapped. “That’s why I’m here. Take me to him, or I’ll have you shot.”

  The aide became irate. “Under whose authority?”

  “Adolf Hitler’s. I am here under the führer’s direct orders.”

  The aide remained furious, but nodded. “Very well, if you’ll follow me.”

  He led them to the library and opened the door slightly. Despite the dwindling day, there were no lights on yet in Mussolini’s library. The only light came in through the French doors. The pale beam cut diagonally through the room, revealing books strewn everywhere, and papers, and broken glass, and furniture busted and turned over.

  In the aftermath of what had to have been a colossal tantrum, Il Duce sat behind his desk, elbows on top, brick jaw in his hands, staring straight down as if looking through the desktop at the ruins of his life. Claretta Petacci lounged in an easy chair in front of Mussolini, smoke lazing from a cigarette in one hand while the other clamped an empty wineglass to her bosom. To Pino, it looked like they could have been frozen in those positions for hours.

  “Duce?” General Leyers said, moving deeper into the shambles of a room.

  If Mussolini heard him he didn’t show it, just stared dully at the top of his desk while Leyers and Pino walked closer and closer. The dictator’s mistress heard them, though, and looked over her shoulder with a wan smile of relief.

  “General Leyers,” Petacci slurred. “It’s been a trying day for poor Beno. I hope you’re not going to add to his troubles?”

  The general said, “Duce and I need to have a frank talk.”

  “About what?” Mussolini asked, head still down.

  Closer now, Pino could see the puppet dictator was staring at a map of Italy.

  “Duce?” Leyers began again.

  Mussolini raised his head, glowered bizarrely at the general, and said, “We conquered Ethiopia, Leyers. And now the Allied swine have brought Negroes north into the land of Tuscany. Negroes rule the streets of Bologna and Rome, too! It is a thousand times better for me to die now than to live. Don’t you think?”

  Leyers hesitated after Pino translated, and said, “Duce, I can’t begin to advise you on such things.”

  Mussolini’s eyes wandered as if searching for something long lost, and then brightened as if enchanted by some new and shiny object.

  “Is it true?” the puppet dictator asked. “Does dear Hitler have a secret superweapon up his sleeve? A missile, a rocket, a bomb like we’ve never seen before? I hear the führer is just waiting to use the superweapon when his enemies have drawn close enough to wipe them all out with a series of devastating strikes.”

  Leyers hesitated again, then said, “There are rumors of a secret weapon, Duce.”

  “Aha!” Mussolini said, springing to his feet with a finger held high. “I knew it! Didn’t I say so, Clara?”

  “You did, Beno,” his mistress replied. She was pouring herself another drink.

  Mussolini was as high now as he’d been low. He strode around the desk, full of excitement, almost gleeful.

  “It’s like the V-2 rocket, isn’t it?” he said. “Only so much more powerful, capable of leveling an entire city, isn’t that right? Only you Germans have the scientific and engineering brainpower to do such a thing!”

  Leyers said nothing for several moments, then nodded. “Thank you, Duce. I appreciate the compliment, but I was sent to ask what your plans are, should things worsen.”

  That seemed to confuse Mussolini. “But there’s a great rocket bomb. How could things worsen in the long run if we have the great rocket bomb?”

  “I believe in planning for contingencies,” Leyers said.

  “Oh,” the dictator said, and his eyes started to drift.

  Claretta Petacci said, “Valtellina, Beno.”

  “That’s it,” Mussolini said, focused again. “If we are pushed, I have twenty thousand troops who will follow me to the Valtellina Valley north of here, right up against Switzerland. They will defend me and my fellow Fascists until Herr Hitler launches his rocket of maximum destruction!”

  Mussolini was grinning, looking off and reveling in anticipation of that wondrous day.

  General Leyers said nothing for several moments, and Pino glanced at him sidelong. Did Hitler have a superweapon? Was he going to use it on the Allies if they got close enough to Berlin? If Leyers knew one way or the other, he wasn’t showing it.

  The general clicked his heels and bowed. “Thank you, Duce. That’s all we wished to know.”

  “You’ll alert us, Leyers?” Mussolini said. “When Hitler is going to use his magnificent rocket bomb?”

  “I’m sure you’ll be among the first to know,” General Leyers said, turning.

  He stopped in front of the dictator’s mistress. “Will you, too, go to Valtellina?”

  Claretta Petacci smiled as if she’d long ago accepted her fate. “I loved my Beno when times were good, General. I’ll love him even more when they’re bad.”

  Later that day, before describing the visit to Mussolini, Pino repeated the few words he’d heard below the window at the villa in the hills east of Lake Garda.

  “Was du redest ist Verrat.”

  Aunt Greta sat upright on the couch. She’d been living at the apartment since Uncle Albert was taken, and helping Baka with the daily radio transmissions.

  She said, “Are you sure it was Vietinghoff who said that?”

  “No, I’m not sure, but the voice was angry, and right afterward, I saw the field marshal leave the villa very angry. What does it mean?”

  “Was du redest ist Verrat,” she said. “‘What you suggest is treason.’”

  “Treason?” Pino said.

  His father sat forward. “You mean like a coup against Hitler?”

  “I would have to assume so, if they were talking to Vietinghoff in that way,” Aunt Greta said. “And Wolff was there? And Leyers?”

  “And others. But I never saw them. They arrived before we did, and left afterward.”

  “They see the writing on the wall,” his father said. “They’re scheming to survive.”

  “The Allies should know that,” Pino said. “And about Mussolini and the superweapon he thinks Hitler has.”

  “What does Leyers think about this superweapon?” Aunt Greta said.

  “I can’t tell. He has a face like granite most of the time. But he would know. He told me himself he started working for Hitler by building cannons.”

  “Baka is coming in the morning,” his father said. “Write down what you want London to know, Pino. I’ll have him send it along with the other transmissions.”

  Pino took paper and pen and scratched his report out
. Aunt Greta wrote down the words of treason he’d overheard.

  At last Pino yawned, checked his watch. It was almost nine. “I have to report to the general, get my orders for tomorrow.”

  “Will you be back home tonight?”

  “I don’t think so, Papa.”

  “Be careful,” Michele said. “You wouldn’t have heard those generals talking treason if the war wasn’t close to being over for good.”

  Pino nodded, went for his overcoat, saying, “I haven’t asked about Uncle Albert. You saw him this morning in San Vittore, yes? How is he?”

  “He’s lost weight, which isn’t a bad thing,” Aunt Greta said, smiling wanly. “And they haven’t broken him, though they’ve tried. He knows many of the other prisoners, so it helps. They protect one another.”

  “He won’t be in there much longer,” Pino said.

  Indeed, as he walked through the streets back toward Dolly’s apartment building, Pino’s sense of the time that remained between now and the end of the war was small, much smaller than time after the end of the war, which felt infinitely long, and filled with Anna.

  Thoughts of a limitless future with her buoyed Pino to Dolly’s door. To his relief, Anna answered, smiling, no longer sick, and very happy to see him.

  “The general and Dolly have gone out,” Anna said, letting him in.

  She closed the door and fell into his arms.

  Later, in Anna’s bed, their singing bodies glistened with sweat and love.

  “I missed you,” Anna said.

  “You’re all I think about,” Pino said. “Is it bad that when I’m supposed to be spying on General Leyers, or trying to memorize where we’ve been, and what we’ve seen, I’m instead thinking of you?”

  “It’s not bad at all,” Anna said. “It’s sweet.”

  “I mean it. When we’re apart, I feel like all the music stops.”

  Anna gazed at him. “You’re a special person, Pino Lella.”

  “No, not really.”

  “You are,” she insisted, running her finger on his chest. “You’re courageous. You’re funny. And you’re beautiful to look at.”

  Pino laughed, embarrassed. “Beautiful? Not handsome?”

  “You are handsome,” Anna said, caressing his cheek now. “But you are so full of love for me, it beams from you, makes me feel beautiful, which makes you beautiful to me.”

  “Then beautiful we are,” he said, and nuzzled her closer.

  Pino told Anna about his sense that everything that would happen from now until the war’s end would someday seem very short, while time after the war seemed to stretch out toward an invisible horizon.

  “We can do anything we want,” Pino said. “Life is limitless.”

  “We can chase happiness, live passionately?”

  “Is that really all you want? To chase happiness, and live passionately?”

  “Can you imagine any other way to do it?”

  “No,” he said, kissing Anna and loving her all the more. “I guess I really can’t.”

  Chapter Twenty-Six

  General Leyers and Pino were on the move again almost constantly the following two weeks. Leyers went twice to Switzerland after visits to the train yard in Como, not Monza, which caused Pino to think that the general had had the boxcar with the gold moved. Apart from those trips to Lugano, Leyers spent the majority of his time inspecting the state of roads and train lines running north.

  Pino didn’t understand why, and it wasn’t his place to ask, but when they drove to the Brenner Pass road on March 15, the general’s intentions were laid plain. The train tracks up through the pass to Austria had been bombed repeatedly. Service had been interrupted in both directions, and gray men were toiling to repair the line.

  The Brenner Pass road went through a snowpack that still ran all the way down to the valley floor. The higher they drove, the higher the snowbanks flanking them became, until it seemed they were in a roofless tunnel of gritty white. They came around a bend that gave them a stunning view of the vast Brenner drainage.

  “Stop,” Leyers said, and climbed out with his binoculars.

  Pino didn’t need binoculars. He could see the road ahead and a mob of gray men like a single enslaved organism that dug, chopped, and shoveled the snow that blocked the way to the top of the Brenner Pass, and Austria.

  They’re a long way from the border, Pino thought, and gazed higher. There had to be ten or twelve meters of snow up there. And those dark smudges way up, back toward Austria, looked like avalanche tracks. Below those smudges, there could be fifteen meters of snowpack and debris across the road.

  Leyers must have made a similar assessment. When they drove far enough to get to the Waffen-SS troops overseeing the slaves, the general climbed out and lit into the man in charge, a major by his insignia. They had a shouting match, and for a moment Pino thought they were going to come to blows.

  When General Leyers returned to the car, he remained in a fury.

  “At the rate they’re moving, we’ll never get the hell out of Italy,” he said. “I need lorries, backhoes, and bulldozers. Real machines. Or it’s impossible.”

  “Mon général?” Pino said.

  “Shut up and drive, Vorarbeiter!”

  Pino knew better than to press the general, and kept silent, thinking about what Leyers had just said and finally understanding what they’d been doing recently.

  General Leyers had been put in charge of the escape route. The Germans had to have one to retreat. The train tracks were busted. So the Brenner Pass road was the only sure way out, and it was blocked. Other passes led to Switzerland, but the Swiss had stopped allowing German trains or convoys through their borders in the past few days.

  As of now, Pino thought happily, the Nazis are trapped.

  That night, Pino wrote out a message for Baka describing the huge snow barrier between Italy and Austria. He said the partisans or Allies needed to start bombing the snowy ridges above the road to cause more avalanches.

  Five days later, he and Leyers returned to the Brenner. Pino was secretly pleased when the general turned apoplectic over news that Allied bombs had set off huge slides that blocked the road with walls of snow.

  With every hour that passed, Leyers grew more erratic, talkative one moment, silent and sullen the next. The general spent six days in Switzerland toward the end of March, which allowed Pino almost unlimited time with Anna and made him wonder why Leyers hadn’t moved Dolly to Lugano or even Geneva.

  But he didn’t think about any of that for very long. Pino was in love, and as love does, it had warped his sense of time. Each moment with Anna seemed breathless and brief, and filled with endless yearning when they were apart.

  March turned to April of 1945, and it was as if some cosmic switch flipped. The cold, snowy weather that had plagued northern Italy and the Allied advance gave way to late spring temperatures and melting snow. Pino drove General Leyers to the Brenner Pass road nearly every day. There were backhoes at work on the road by then, and dump trucks hauling away the snow and avalanche debris. The sun beat down on the gray men digging beside the mechanical shovels, their faces burned by its brilliant reflection off the snow, their muscles twisted by the weight of the slush and ice, and their wills broken by the years in slavery.

  Pino wanted to comfort them, to tell them to take heart, that the war was almost over. Weeks left, not months now. Just hold on. Just stay alive.

  Long after dark on April 8, 1945, Pino and General Leyers reached the village of Molinella, northeast of Bologna.

  Leyers took a cot in a Wehrmacht encampment there, and Pino slept fitfully in the Fiat’s front seat. By dawn, they were on higher ground, west of the village of Argenta where they could look down on the flatter, wetter terrain on both sides of the Senio River, which ran into Lake Comacchio, an estuary near the coast. The lake blocked the Allies’ ability to flank around fortifications Leyers had built on the river’s north side.

  Tank traps. Minefields. Trenches. Pillboxes.
Even from several kilometers away, Pino could see them all clearly. Beyond them, on the other side of the river in Allied territory, nothing moved beyond the odd lorry heading to or from Rimini and the Adriatic Sea.

  For many hours on that hill that day there was little sound save that of spring birds and insects, and a warm breeze carried the scent of fields under plow. It all made Pino realize that the earth did not know war, that nature would go on no matter what horror one man might inflict on another. Nature didn’t care a bit about men and their need to kill and conquer.

  The morning dragged on. The heat built. Around noon, they heard distant thuds, the echoes of explosions coming from the waters off Rimini, and soon, in the distance, Pino could see smoke rising far out to sea. He wondered what had happened.

  It was as if General Leyers heard him.

  “They’re bombing our ships,” he said matter-of-factly. “They’re choking us off, but down there is where they’ll try to break me.”

  The afternoon ticked on, and soon it was as hot as a summer’s day, but not as dry. Instead of baking heat, all the moisture that had fallen during the winter steamed from the ground, making the air thick and oppressive. Pino sat in the shade of the car while Leyers kept up his vigil.

  “What will you do after the war, Vorarbeiter?” Leyers asked at one point.

  “Moi, mon général?” Pino said. “I don’t know. Maybe go back to school. Maybe work for my parents. And you?”

  General Leyers lowered his binoculars. “I can’t see that far ahead yet.”

  “And Dolly?”

  Leyers cocked his head, as if wondering whether to reprimand him for his impudence, but then said, “When the Brenner opens, she’ll be taken care of.”

  They both caught a rumbling, droning noise to the south. Leyers threw up his glasses and studied the sky.

  “It begins,” he said.

  Pino jumped to his feet, shaded his eyes, and saw the heavy bombers coming out of the south, ten across and twenty deep. Two hundred warplanes flew right at them until they were so close Pino began to fear they’d release their payloads over his head.

  A mile out, and a mile up, however, they banked in formation, showing their bellies as the bomb bays opened. The lead flight of bombers dropped altitude, set their wings, and swooped above the Gothic Line and German territory. They released bombs that whistled and trailed behind them, looking like so many fish diving from the sky.

  The first one struck well behind the German defenses and erupted, hurling debris and throwing a rainbow of fluorescence and flame. More bombs started blowing up behind the Gothic fortifications, leaving charred blastholes and copper-red fires stitched in a carpet of violence and destruction that rolled east toward the estuary and the sea.

  The last of the birds in the first wave were followed ten minutes later by a second, and a third, and a fourth—more than eight hundred heavy bombers in all. The lumbering planes let loose their ordnance in that same rhythmic pattern, only off by a degree or two so the new bombs struck in different parts of the German rear guard.

  Armories exploded. Petrol supplies erupted. Barracks and roads and lorries and tanks and supply dumps evaporated in the initial assault. Then medium and light bombers flew in low over the river, attacking the defensive line itself. Sections of Leyers’s tank traps blew up. Pillboxes disintegrated. Cannon emplacements fell.

  In the course of the next four hours, Allied bombers dropped twenty thousand bombs on the area. In the gaps between the aerial assaults, two thousand Allied artillery pieces shelled the Gothic Line in thirty-minute-long barrages. When the late afternoon sun shone into the smoke plumes up and down the river, the spring sky looked hellish and low.

  Pino glanced at Leyers. As he scanned the battleground south of his broken defenses through the field glasses, the general’s hands trembled and he cursed in German.

  “Mon général?” Pino said.

  “They’re coming,” Leyers said. “Tanks. Jeeps. Artillery. Entire armies are advancing on us. Our boys will hold as long as they can, and many will die for that river. But at some point, not long now, every soldier down there will be confronted with the inevitable loser’s choice: retreat, surrender, or die.”