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Beneath a Scarlet Sky, Page 31

Mark Sullivan

  As the day gave way to gathering dusk, Allied soldiers with flamethrowers invaded the German trenches and the pillboxes. A black and starless night fell. As hand-to-hand combat waged out there in the darkness, all Pino could see were explosive flashes and slow whips of fire.

  “They’ll be overrun by morning,” Leyers said at last. “It’s over.”

  “In Italy, we have a saying that it’s not over until the fat lady sings, mon général,” Pino said.

  “I hate opera,” the general grunted, and walked toward the car. “Get me out of here, back to Milan, before I’m caught without options.”

  Pino didn’t know what that meant exactly, but he eagerly climbed behind the wheel. The Nazis can retreat, surrender, or die now, he thought. The war itself is dying. Only days now from peace and, well, Americans!

  Pino drove through the night back to Milan, elated at the thought that he might at long last get to meet an American. Or an entire army of them! Maybe after he and Anna were married they’d go to the United States like his cousin Licia Albanese did, bring his mother’s purses and Uncle Albert’s leather goods to New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. He would make his own fortune there!

  Pino felt a thrill go up his spine at that idea, and he caught a glimpse of a future unimaginable to him just a few moments before. The entire drive back he did not once think of the biblical-scale destruction he’d just witnessed. He thought about doing something good and profitable with his life, something con smania, and he couldn’t wait to tell Anna all about it.

  The Gothic Line along the Senio River was breached later that night. By the following evening, there were Allied forces from New Zealand and India nearly five kilometers beyond Leyers’s broken defenses, with the German army retreating and re-forming to the north. On April 14, after another stunning bombardment, the US Fifth Army broke through the western wall of the Gothic Line and rolled north toward Bologna.

  Every day brought news of more Allied advances. Pino listened to the BBC each night on Baka’s shortwave radio. He also spent almost every day driving Leyers from battlefront to battlefront, or along the escape routes, where they watched long German columns fleeing at a much slower pace than when they’d invaded Italy.

  The Nazi war machine looked crippled to Pino. He could see it in the shimmying tanks losing their treads and the shell-shocked infantrymen walking behind teams of mules pulling cannons. Scores of German wounded lay in open lorries, exposed to the blistering hot sun. Pino hoped they’d die then and there.

  Every two or three days, he and Leyers would return to the Brenner Pass. With the heat had come snowmelt, and a torrent of filthy ice water ran down the pass, undermining the culverts and the road. When they reached the end of the open route, slaves were ankle and shin deep in the frigid water, still working beside the steam shovels and the dump trucks. On April 17, the gray men were a mile from the Austrian border. One of them collapsed in the water. SS guards dragged him out and threw him to the side.

  General Leyers seemed not to notice.

  “Work them around the clock,” he told the captain in charge. “The entire Wehrmacht Tenth will be coming up this road inside a week.”

  Chapter Twenty-Seven

  Saturday, April 21, 1945

  General Leyers stood off to one side as Organization Todt officers doused five large piles of documents with petrol in the yard outside the OT’s office in Turin. Leyers nodded to one officer, who lit and flicked a stick match. There was a loud whoosh, and flames seemed to gather and plume everywhere at once.

  The general watched the papers burn with great interest. So did Pino.

  What in them was so important that Leyers would leave Dolly’s bed at 3:00 a.m. to see them destroyed? And then to stand here, waiting to make sure they were all burned? Was there evidence in those papers that incriminated Leyers somehow? There had to be.

  Before Pino could begin to think about that, General Leyers barked orders at the OT officers, and then turned to look at Pino.

  “Padua,” he said.

  Pino drove south and looped around Milan to Padua. On the way, he fought not to doze off with thoughts that the war was almost over. The Allies had broken through Leyers’s defenses in the Argenta gap. The Tenth Mountain Division of the US Army was closing on the Po River.

  Leyers seemed to sense Pino’s fatigue, dug in his pockets, and came up with a vial. He spilled a small white pill in his hand and passed it to Pino. “Take it. Amphetamine. Keep you awake. Go ahead. I use them myself.”

  Pino took the pill and soon felt wide-awake but irritable, and his head ached when they got to Padua, where the general oversaw another mass burning of OT documents. Afterward, they drove up the Brenner Pass yet again. Fewer than two hundred and fifty meters of snow now separated the Nazis from an open road into Austria, and Leyers was told they would break through within the next forty-eight hours.

  On Sunday morning, April 22, Pino watched Leyers destroy OT documents in Verona. In the afternoon, the Brescia files went up in flames. At every stop, before each burning, the general carried his valise inside the OT offices and spent time looking through files before overseeing the burns. Leyers would not let Pino touch the valise, which was getting heavier with each stop. In the early evening, he saw OT documents in Bergamo burn before they returned to Leyers’s offices behind the Como stadium.

  The following morning, Monday, April 23, General Leyers watched OT officers light a huge bonfire of files and documents on the stadium pitch. Leyers oversaw the feeding of that fire for several hours. Pino was allowed nowhere near the documents. He sat in the stands in the building heat, watching the Nazi records turn to smoke and floating ash.

  When they returned to Milan later that afternoon, two SS Panzer units had sealed off the neighborhoods around the Duomo, and even Leyers was scrutinized before being allowed inside. At the Hotel Regina, Gestapo headquarters, Pino found out why. Colonel Walter Rauff was drunk, in a rage, and trying to burn anything with his name on it. But when the Gestapo chief saw Leyers he brightened and invited him into his office.

  Leyers looked at Pino and said, “You’re done for the day, but I have a nine a.m. meeting. Pick me up at Dolly’s at eight forty-five.”

  “Oui, mon général,” Pino said. “The car?”

  “Take it with you.”

  General Leyers followed Rauff inside. Pino hated that so many documents were disappearing. The proof of what the Nazis had done to Italy was vanishing, and there seemed little he could do but report it to the Allies. He parked the Fiat two blocks from his apartment building, left his armband on the seat—swastika up—and got past the lobby sentries once more.

  Michele held a finger to his lips, and Aunt Greta shut the apartment door.

  “Papa?” Pino said.

  “We have a visitor,” his father said in a hushed tone. “My cousin’s son, Mario.”

  Pino squinted. “Mario? I thought he was a fighter pilot?”

  “I still am,” Mario said, stepping from the shadows. He was a short, square-shouldered man with a big smile. “I got shot down the other night, but parachuted out and made it here.”

  “Mario will hide here until the war’s over,” Michele said.

  “Your father and your aunt have been filling me in on your activities,” Mario said, clapping Pino on the back. “Takes a lot of guts.”

  “Oh, I don’t know,” Pino said. “I think Mimo’s had a tougher time of it.”

  “Nonsense,” Aunt Greta said before Pino put up his hands in surrender.

  “I haven’t had a shower in three days,” he said. “And then I need to move the general’s car. Glad you’re alive, Mario.”

  “You, too, Pino,” Mario said.

  Pino went down the hall to the bathroom near his bedroom. He stripped off his smoky clothes, then showered to get the smell off his body and out of his hair. He put on his best clothes and a little splash of his father’s aftershave on his cheeks. It had been four days since he’d seen Anna, and he wanted to impre

  In the dining room, he left a note for Baka describing the document burns; said his good-byes to his father, aunt, and cousin; and left.

  Dusk was falling, but heat still radiated from the buildings and the macadam, as penetrating as any sauna. It felt good as he walked. The heat and humidity loosened his joints after days of driving and standing and watching. Climbing into the Fiat, Pino reached to start it when someone moved in the backseat and put the cold muzzle of a pistol to the back of his head.

  “Don’t move,” said a man. “Hands on the wheel. Gun?”

  “No,” Pino said, hearing the waver in his voice. “What do you want?”

  “What do you think?”

  Pino recognized the voice now, and he was suddenly terrified his brains were about to be blown out.

  “Don’t, Mimo,” he said. “Mama and Papa—”

  Pino felt the steel of the muzzle come off his head.

  “Pino, I’m so goddamned sorry about the things I said to you,” Mimo began. “I know what you’ve been doing now, the spying, and I’m . . . I’m in awe of your courage. Your dedication to the cause.”

  Emotion swelled in Pino’s throat, but then he got angry. “Then why’d you put a gun to my head?”

  “I didn’t know if you were armed. I thought you might try to kill me.”

  “I’d never shoot my baby brother.”

  Mimo lurched over the seat and threw his arms around Pino. “Do you forgive me?”

  “Of course,” Pino said, letting go of the anger. “You couldn’t have known, and I wasn’t allowed to tell you because Uncle Albert said it would be safer that way.”

  Mimo nodded, wiped his eyes with his sleeve, and said, “I was sent by partisan commanders who told me what you’ve been doing. I’m to give you your orders.”

  “Orders? I take my orders from General Leyers.”

  “Not anymore,” Mimo said, handing him a piece of paper. “You are to arrest Leyers the night of the twenty-fifth and bring him to that address.”

  Arrest General Leyers? At first the idea unnerved Pino, but then he imagined himself aiming a pistol at Leyers’s head, and rather liked the idea.

  He would arrest the general, and when he did, he’d reveal himself as a spy. He’d drub that fact into the Nazi’s face. I’ve been right here under your nose the entire time. I’ve seen everything you’ve done, slave master.

  “I’ll do it,” Pino said at last. “It will be an honor.”

  “Then I’ll see you when the war’s over,” Mimo said.

  “Where are you going?”

  “Back to the fight.”

  “How? What will you do?”

  “Tank sabotage tonight. And we’re waiting for the Nazis to start retreating from Milan. Then we’re going to ambush them, teach them to never even think about coming back to Italy.”

  “And the Fascists?”

  “Them, too. We need a clean slate if we’re going to start over.”

  Pino shook his head. Mimo was barely sixteen and yet a battle-hardened veteran.

  “Don’t get killed before it’s over,” Pino said.

  “You, either,” Mimo said, slipping from the car and into the shadows.

  Pino twisted around in his seat, trying to spot his brother leaving, but he saw nothing. It was as if Mimo were a ghost.

  That made Pino smile, and he started General Leyers’s car, feeling good about things for the first time in days, at least since he’d last seen Anna.

  Pino’s heart soared as he parked in front of Dolly’s apartment around eight that evening. Giving the old crone in the lobby a wave, he climbed the stairs to the third floor and knocked eagerly on Dolly’s door.

  Anna answered, smiling. She pecked him on the cheek, whispered, “Dolly’s upset. The general hasn’t been here in almost four days.”

  “He’s coming back tonight,” Pino said. “I’m sure of it.”

  “Please tell her that,” Anna said, and shooed him down the hall.

  Dolly Stottlemeyer was on the couch in the living area, dressed in one of Leyers’s white tunics and little else. She had whiskey neat in a tumbler with ice, and she looked like it wasn’t her first or second, or even fifth of the day.

  Seeing Pino, Dolly set her jaw for a woman scorned and said, “Where is my Hansie?”

  “The general’s at Wehrmacht headquarters,” Pino said.

  “We were supposed to be in Innsbruck by now,” Dolly said, slurring.

  “The pass opens tomorrow,” Pino said. “And he told me just the other day that’s where he was moving you.”

  Tears welled up in Dolly’s eyes. “He did?”

  “I heard him.”

  “Thank you,” Dolly said, and her hand trembled as she raised her glass. “I didn’t know what was to become of me.” She sipped the whiskey, smiled, and got up. “You two go on now. I need to make myself pretty.”

  Dolly lurched by them and held on to the wall before disappearing down the hall.

  When they heard her bedroom door slam shut they went to the kitchen. Pino spun Anna around, picked her up, and kissed her. Anna threw her legs up around him and kissed him back with equal ardor. When at last their lips separated, she said, “I have food for you. The sausage and broccoli dish you like, and bread and butter.”

  Pino realized he was starved, put her down reluctantly, and said quietly, “God, I’ve missed you. You can’t know how good it is to be here with you right now.”

  Anna beamed at him. “I didn’t know it could be like this.”

  “I didn’t, either,” Pino said, and kissed her again and again.

  They ate hot sausages and broccoli sautéed in garlic and olive oil, along with bread and butter, and drank more of the general’s wine before slipping off to Anna’s room after hearing the knock at the front door and Dolly’s cry of not to worry, that she would get it. In the heat, in her small room in the dark, Anna’s scent was everywhere around him, and he was instantly drunk on it. He peered for her shape in the pitch black, heard her bed springs creak, and went to her. When he lay by her side and reached out to find her body, Anna was already naked and wanting him.

  There was a knock, and then another at the maid’s door.

  Pino startled awake the morning of April 24, 1945, and looked around in confusion as Anna roused on his chest and called, “Yes?”

  Dolly said, “It’s seven forty. The general needs his driver in twenty minutes, and we are to pack, Anna. The Brenner is clear.”

  “We leave today?” Anna said.

  “As soon as possible,” Dolly replied.

  They lay there waiting for Dolly’s heels to clip down the hall to the kitchen.

  Pino kissed Anna tenderly and said, “That was the most amazing night of my life.”

  “Mine, too,” she said, staring into his eyes as if they held dreams. “I’ll never ever forget how magical it was.”

  “Never. Ever.”

  They kissed again, their lips barely touching. She inhaled when he exhaled, and exhaled when he inhaled, and Pino felt once again how like a single creature they were when they were like this, together.

  “How will I find you?” Pino said. “In Innsbruck, I mean.”

  “I’ll call your parents’ apartment once we get there.”

  “Why don’t you just go to my parents’ apartment now? Or at least once you’ve got Dolly packed?”

  “Dolly needs me to get settled,” Anna said. “She knows I want to come straight back to Milan as soon as possible.”

  “Does she?”

  “Yes. I told her she was going to have to hire a new maid.”

  Pino kissed her, and they untangled and dressed. Before he went out the door, he took Anna in his arms and said, “I don’t know when I’ll see you again.”

  “You’ll hear from me, I promise. I’ll call for you as soon as I can.”

  Pino gazed into Anna’s eyes, stroked his powerful hands over her face, and murmured, “The war’s all but over. Will you marry me when you come bac

  “Marry?” she said, tears glistening in her eyes. “You’re sure?”

  “More than sure.”

  Anna kissed his palm and whispered, “Then, yes.”

  Pino felt joy surge through him as powerful as a crescendo. “Yes?”

  “Of course. With all my heart, Pino. With all my soul.”

  “I know it’s corny,” Pino said, “but you’ve just made me the happiest, luckiest guy in all of Italy.”

  “I think we’ve made each other happy and lucky,” she said, kissing him again.

  Hearing the general’s boots in the kitchen already, Pino held her as long as he dared and whispered, “Our love will be eternal.”

  “Forever and ever,” she said.

  They parted. Pino took one last look at Anna, winked, and left with her beauty, her scent, and her touch dominating his mind.

  General Leyers went first to Gestapo headquarters, emerging from the Hotel Regina an hour later. Then they drove to the telephone exchange, where Leyers disappeared inside for hours while another day of listless heat baked Milan.

  Pino took refuge in the shade and noticed that everyone who walked by seemed on edge, as if they’d sensed a violent storm coming. He thought of Anna. When would he see her again? He felt hollow at the thought it might be a week, or a month. But what was time after the war? Infinite. And Anna said yes to his sudden proposal! She would love him for ever and ever. And he would love her for ever and ever. No matter what might happen, something was certain about his future now, and it calmed him.

  Let not your heart be troubled, Pino thought, and basked in the sureness of being part of something bigger than himself, eternal. He was already envisioning a fantastic life for them, already falling in love with the miracles of what tomorrow might hold. He needed a ring, didn’t he? He could—

  Pino realized that he was just a few blocks from the Piazzale Loreto and Beltramini’s Fresh Fruits and Vegetables.

  Was Carletto there? How was his mother? He hadn’t seen his oldest friend in more than eight months, since he’d stumbled away from Carletto as he held his poor father’s dead body.

  Part of Pino wanted to walk there from the telephone exchange and explain himself, but the fear that Carletto might not believe him kept him put, sweating, hungry, and sick of waiting around on the general’s whim. He would have Mimo go tell Carletto when the time was—

  “Vorarbeiter!” General Leyers barked.

  Pino jumped up, saluting and running toward the general, who was already at the back door of the Fiat, holding his valise, an impatient, annoyed look on his face. Pino apologized, blaming it on the heat.

  Leyers looked up at the sky and the sun beating down on the city. “Does it always get like this in late April?”

  “Non, mon général,” Pino said, relieved as he opened the door. “It’s very rare. Everything about the weather this year is very rare. Where do we go?”

  “Como,” Leyers said. “We’ll be spending the night.”

  “Oui, mon général,” Pino said, glancing in the rearview, where Leyers was rifling around his valise. “And when will Dolly and Anna go to Innsbruck?”

  The general looked engrossed in something, didn’t look up. “They’re on their way by now, I should think. No more questions. I have work to do.”

  Pino drove to Como and the stadium. Three days before, he’d seen the bonfire on the pitch. The ash was gone, and there were several companies of Organization Todt soldiers and officers encamped on the field. They’d put up tarps over sections of the grandstands and lounged under them in the shade, as if they were on holiday.

  When Leyers went inside, Pino curled up in the front seat of the Fiat. But by the raucous noise echoing from the stadium, he figured the German soldiers were drinking. Leyers was probably in there with them. They lost, but the war was over, or would be any day now. That was cause enough for any man to get drunk, he