Beneath a scarlet sky, p.32
Beneath a Scarlet Sky, p.32Mark Sullivan
supposed, and fell into a deep sleep.
Pino woke the next morning, Wednesday, April 25, 1945, to the sound of knuckles rapping against the Fiat’s passenger window. He was surprised the sun had risen. He’d slept soundly, dreamed of Anna, and—
The car door opened. An OT soldier said General Leyers needed him inside.
Pino got up, ran his fingers through his hair, looked at himself in the mirror. Grimy, but okay. He followed the soldier inside Leyers’s headquarters and down a series of halls to a room with a glass window that overlooked the pitch.
The general was dressed in civilian clothes and drinking coffee with a short man with jet-black hair and a narrow black mustache. He turned to look at Pino and nodded.
“You prefer English or Italian?” the man said in an American accent.
Pino, who towered over him, said, “English is fine.”
“Max Corvo,” he said, and stuck out his hand.
Pino hesitated, but then shook it. “Pino Lella. Where are you from?”
“America. Connecticut. Tell the general here that I’m with the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, and that I represent Allen Dulles.”
Pino hesitated, but then translated it into French for the general, who nodded.
Corvo said, “We want your assurance that your men will remain in their barracks, General Leyers, and offer zero resistance if they are asked to lay down their arms.”
Pino translated. Leyers nodded. “When there’s a deal in place, signed by Field Marshal Vietinghoff, my men will comply. And tell him I continue to work to save Milan from destruction.”
“The United States of America appreciates that, General Leyers,” Corvo said. “I think there’ll be something on paper and signed in less than a week, maybe even sooner.”
Leyers nodded. “Until then. Wish Mr. Dulles my best.”
Pino translated, and then added, “He has been burning documents across northern Italy for the past three days.”
Corvo cocked his head. “That true?”
“Yes,” Pino said. “They’re all burning documents. All of them.”
“Okay,” the OSS agent said. “Thanks for telling me.”
Corvo shook the general’s hand, and Pino’s, and then he was gone.
Pino stood there for several awkward moments before Leyers said, “What were you saying there just before he left?”
“I asked him what Connecticut was like, and he said it was nowhere as beautiful as Italy.”
The general studied him. “Let’s go. I have an appointment with Cardinal Schuster.”
When they drove back into the city at two that afternoon, Milan felt electric and rebellious. Factory whistles were blowing. Conductors and drivers were walking away from the remaining trolley cars and buses, creating havoc for the German convoys trying to forge through the city on their way north. When Pino was stopped at a crossing, he swore he heard the crackle of rifle fire in the distance.
That caused him to glance at General Leyers in the backseat and think about the satisfaction he’d take in arresting the Nazi and telling him he’d been a spy all along. Where should I do it? And how? In the car? Or on the road somewhere?
The closer they got to the Duomo, the more Nazis they saw. Most were Waffen-SS, the killers, the rapists, the plunderers, and the slave guards. They were in the streets all around Gestapo headquarters, taking refuge behind the Panzer tanks in and around the cathedral and the chancellery, where Pino parked outside the gates because there were too many cars in the courtyard already.
Pino followed Leyers toward the stairs. A priest intercepted them. “His Eminence is seeing you in his office today, General.”
When they entered Schuster’s ornate formal offices, the cardinal of Milan sat behind his desk like a judge wearing white robes, his red miter on the shelf behind him. Pino took in the crowded room. Giovanni Barbareschi, the seminarian, stood off the cardinal’s left shoulder. Nearest to them was Eugen Dollmann, Hitler’s Italian translator. Beside Dollmann stood SS General Wolff and several men in business suits Pino did not know.
Seated at the far left side of the cardinal’s desk, balancing on a cane, was an angry old man whom Pino would not have recognized had his mistress not been sitting next to him. Benito Mussolini looked twisted inside and out, like a spring that had been overwound and sprung. His skin pale and sweaty, the puppet dictator had lost weight and was hunched forward as if against stomach pain. Claretta Petacci stroked Il Duce’s hand idly and leaned against him for comfort.
Behind Mussolini and his mistress there were two men wearing red neckerchiefs. Partisan leaders, Pino thought.
“Everyone you asked to be here is here, Your Eminence,” Barbareschi said.
Schuster eyed them all. “Nothing said here leaves this room. Are we in accord?”
One by one they all nodded, including Pino, who wondered why he was even in the room with Dollmann there to translate.
“Our goal, then, is to save Milan further suffering and limit the amount of German blood spilled as they retreat. Yes?”
Mussolini nodded. After Dollmann translated, Wolff and Leyers did, too.
“Good,” the cardinal said. “General Wolff? What can you report?”
“I’ve been to Lugano twice in the past few days,” the SS general said. “Negotiations are moving slower than expected, but moving. We’re three, maybe four days away from having a document to sign.”
Mussolini came up out of a stupor. “What document? What negotiations?”
Wolff glanced at the cardinal, then at General Leyers, who said, “Duce, the war is lost. Hitler has gone mad in his bunker. We have all been working to end the conflict with as little death and destruction as possible.”
Sitting there hunched over his cane, Mussolini went from ashen to beet red. Little bubbles of spittle showed at the corners of Il Duce’s lips, which squirmed before he thrust out his chiseled jaw and began shouting and waving his cane at Wolff and Leyers.
“You Nazi bastards,” Mussolini roared. “Once more we can say that Germany has knifed Italy in the back! I’ll go on the radio! I’ll tell the world of your treachery!”
“You’ll do no such thing, Benito,” Cardinal Schuster said.
“Benito?” Mussolini cried with indignation. “Cardinal Schuster, you will address me as ‘Excellency’!”
The cardinal took a long breath, and then bowed his head. “Excellency, it is important to reach an agreement of surrender before the masses rise up and revolt. If not, we will have anarchy, which I intend to prevent. If you are not committed to that goal, Duce, I’ll have to ask you to leave.”
Mussolini looked around the room, shook his head in disgust, put his hand out to his mistress. “Like how they treat us, Clara? We’re on our own now.”
Petacci took the Fascist leader’s hand and said, “I’m ready, Duce.”
They labored to their feet and started toward the door.
“Excellency,” Cardinal Schuster called after him. “Wait.”
The prelate went to his shelves, pulled down a book, and handed it to Mussolini. “It’s a history of Saint Benedict. Repent your sins, and may you find comfort in this book in the sad days that are now on your horizon.”
Mussolini got a sour look about him, but took the book and handed it to his mistress. On the way out he said, “I should have them all shot.”
The door slammed shut behind them.
“Shall we proceed?” Cardinal Schuster said. “General Wolff? Has the German High Command agreed to my request?”
“Vietinghoff wrote me this morning. He has given orders for his men to stand down from offensive actions, to remain in barracks until they are contacted.”
“Not quite a surrender, but a start,” said Cardinal Schuster. “And there’s still a core group of SS here in the streets around the Duomo. They’re loyal to Colonel Rauff?”
“I would think so,” Wolff said.
“But Rauff answers to you,” Schuster said.
“Issue him an order, then. Forbid him and those monsters in uniform from perpetrating any more atrocities before they leave this country.”
“Atrocities?” Wolff said. “I don’t know what you’re—”
“Don’t insult me,” the cardinal of Milan snapped. “You will not be able to cover up the things done in Italy and to Italians. But you can prevent further massacres from happening. Are we in agreement?”
Wolff looked highly agitated but nodded. “I’ll write the orders now.”
Barbareschi said, “I’ll deliver them for you.”
Cardinal Schuster looked at the seminarian. “Are you sure?”
“I want to look the man who tortured me in the eye as he gets the news.”
Wolff scribbled the order on stationery, sealed it with Schuster’s wax, and put his ring into the wax before handing it to the seminarian. As Barbareschi was leaving, the priest who’d led them in returned and said, “Cardinal Schuster, the prisoners of San Vittore are rioting.”
They were at the chancellery until dusk. General Wolff left. General Leyers and Cardinal Schuster discussed ways for the Germans and the resistance to trade prisoners.
It was only outside with the setting of the sun that Pino remembered again that he was charged with taking Leyers prisoner before midnight. He wished the partisans had given him specific instructions beyond an address where he was to take the general. Then again, they’d given him responsibility, a task, just like they’d given Mimo the task of sabotaging tanks. The details were his to work out.
But as he reached the staff car, Pino was still trying to decide how best to arrest the general, given that he always sat directly behind him in the backseat.
Opening the rear door to the Fiat, Pino saw Leyers’s valise there and cursed to himself. It had been there the entire time they’d been inside. He could have excused himself and spent time looking at the files in that valise, probably the ones Leyers had saved from the fires.
General Leyers climbed in without glancing his way and said, “The Hotel Regina.”
Pino thought about pulling his Walther and putting Leyers under arrest right then and there, but, unsure of himself, he shut the door and got behind the wheel. Due to all the German vehicles jamming the narrow streets, he had to take a convoluted route to Gestapo headquarters.
Near Piazza San Babila, he saw a German lorry filled with armed soldiers stopped at the exit to a parking garage a half-block away. Someone was standing in the street aiming a machine pistol at the windshield of the Nazi lorry. Pino was stunned when the gunman turned.
“Mimo,” he gasped, slamming on the brakes.
“Vorarbeiter?” General Leyers said.
Pino ignored him and climbed out. He was no more than one hundred meters from his brother, who was waving his gun at the Germans and shouting, “All you Nazi swine lay down your weapons, drop them out of the lorry, and then all of you, facedown on the sidewalk there.”
The next second seemed like an eternity.
When no Germans moved, Mimo touched off a burst of fire. Lead bullets pinged off the side of the parking garage. In the ringing silence that followed, the Germans in the back of the lorry began to throw down their guns.
“Vorarbeiter!” Leyers said, and Pino was surprised to find he’d gotten out of the car as well and was watching the scene over his shoulder. “Forget the Hotel Regina. Take me to Dolly’s instead. I just realized I left some important papers there, and I want to—”
Emboldened by Mimo and without a thought, Pino drew his pistol, spun around, and stuck it into Leyers’s gut. He enjoyed the look of shock in the general’s eye.
“What is this, Vorarbeiter?” Leyers said.
“Your arrest, mon général,” Pino said.
“Vorarbeiter Lella,” he said firmly. “You will remove that weapon, and we will forget this happened. You will drive me to Dolly’s. I will get my papers and—”
“I won’t drive you anywhere, slave master!”
The general took that like a slap to the face. His expression twisted with rage.
“How dare you address me like this! I could have you shot for treason!”
“I’ll take treason against you and Hitler any day,” Pino said, equally angry. “Turn around, and hands behind your head, mon général, or I will shoot you in the knees.”
Leyers sputtered but saw Pino was serious and did as he was told. Pino reached around and took the pistol Leyers carried when he was in business clothes. He pocketed it, waved the Walther, and said, “Get in.”
Leyers moved toward the rear, but Pino shoved him instead into the driver’s seat.
With his gun aimed at General Leyers’s head, Pino climbed into the backseat and shut the door. He put his forearm on the valise, as Leyers often did, and smiled, liking this role reversal, feeling like he’d earned it, that now, at last, there would be justice done.
He looked past Leyers through the windshield. His brother had twenty Nazi soldiers on their bellies, hands behind their heads. Mimo was unloading and stacking their weapons on the opposite sidewalk.
“It doesn’t have to be like this, Vorarbeiter,” Leyers said. “I have money, lots of it.”
“German money?” Pino snorted. “It will be worthless, if it isn’t already. Turn the car around now, and as you have told me so often, don’t talk unless you’re spoken to.”
The general paused, but then started the car and did a three-point turn. When he did, Pino rolled down the back window, yelling, “I’ll see you at home, Mimo!”
His brother looked up in wonder, realized who was yelling at him, and threw his fist over his head.
“Uprising, Pino!” Mimo shouted. “Uprising!”
Pino felt chills go through him as Leyers drove them out of San Babila and toward the address Mimo had passed along from the partisan commanders. He had no idea why he was supposed to bring Leyers to that specific address, and he didn’t care. He was no longer in the shadows. He was no longer a spy. He was part of the rebellion now, and it made him feel righteous as he barked directions and turns at the general, who drove stoop shouldered.
Ten minutes into the ride, Leyers said, “I have more than German money.”
“I don’t care,” Pino said.
“I have gold. We can go and—”
Pino poked Leyers’s head with the pistol barrel. “I know you have gold. Gold you stole from Italy. Gold you murdered four of your slaves over, and I don’t want it.”
“Murdered?” Leyers said. “No, Vorarbeiter, that’s not—”
“I hope you face a firing squad for what you’ve done.”
General Leyers stiffened. “You can’t mean that.”
“Shut up. I don’t want to hear another word.”
Leyers seemed resigned to his fate then, and drove sullenly through the city as Pino entertained a voice in his head that said, Don’t miss your chance. Exact some punishment. Have him pull over. Shoot him in the leg, at least. Let him go to his fate wounded and in agony. Isn’t that the way you’re supposed to enter hell?
The general rolled down his window at one point and put his head out as if to smell his last moments of freedom. But when they rolled up to the gate at the address on Via Broni, Leyers stared straight ahead.
A gunman wearing a red scarf came out the gate. Pino told him he’d been ordered to arrest the general and was there to turn him over.
“We’ve been waiting,” the guard said, and called for the gate to be opened.
Leyers drove into a compound and parked. He opened the door and tried to get out. Another partisan grabbed him, spun him around, and handcuffed him. The first gunman took the valise.
Leyers looked back at Pino with disgust but said nothing before he was dragged off through a door. It slammed shut behind him, and Pino realized he’d never told the general he was a spy.
“What happens to him?” Pino asked.
“He’ll go on trial, probably be hang
Pino felt acid in his throat as he said, “I want to testify against him.”
“I’m sure you’ll get your chance. Car keys?”
Pino handed them over. “What do I do?”
“Go home. Here, take this letter. Show it to any partisan who might stop you.”
Pino took the letter, folded it, and put it in his pocket. “Can I get a ride?”
“Sorry,” he said. “You’ll have to walk. Don’t worry, in ten or twenty minutes, it won’t be hard to see at all.”
“Do you know my brother, Mimo Lella?” Pino asked.
The guard laughed. “We all know that terror, and we’re happy he’s on our side.”
Despite their praise for Mimo, Pino walked to the gate feeling let down and cheated somehow. Why hadn’t he told Leyers he was a spy? Why hadn’t he asked what he was burning in those files? What was it? Evidence of slavery? And what were those papers he wanted to retrieve from Dolly’s apartment?
Did the papers matter? The partisans had the valise and at least some of the files Leyers had saved from the bonfires. And Pino would testify against him, tell the world what he’d seen General Leyers do.
When he exited the gate, Pino was on the southeast side of Milan in one of the most heavily bombed neighborhoods. In the darkness, he kicked things and stumbled and worried about falling into some crater in the wasteland before he could find his way home.
A rifle shot rang out not far away. And then another, followed by a burst of automatic gunfire and a grenade explosion. Pino crouched, feeling like he’d walked into a trap. He was about to turn around, try to find another way home, when in the distance he heard the Duomo’s smaller bells start to peal. Then the cathedral’s big bells and carillon joined, donging and tolling in the darkness.
Pino felt summoned, pulled toward the basilica. He got up and started toward the bells and the Duomo, not caring about the rifle shots that crackled in the streets around him. Other church bells began to peal, and soon it all sounded like Easter morning.
Then, without warning, and for the first time in nearly two years, streetlamps all around Milan flickered on and brightened, banishing the night and the city’s long misery in the shadows of war. Pino blinked at how bright the lamps were, and how they made Milan’s ruins and scars stand out scorched and livid.
But the lights were on! And the bells were ringing! Pino felt an enormous sense of relief. Was this it? Was it over? All those German units agreed not to fight. Correct? But the soldiers Mimo arrested had not laid down their guns without threat.
Gunfire and explosions went off to the northeast, toward the central train station and the Piccolo Theater, Fascist headquarters. He realized partisans and Fascists must be fighting for control of Milan. It was a civil war. Or perhaps there were Germans there as well, and it was a three-way battle.
In any case, Pino went west, looping toward the Duomo, away from the fighting. On street after street, the people of Milan were tearing down blackout curtains in the buildings that survived and letting more light flood out into the city. Whole families hung out their windows, cheering and calling for the Nazis to be driven into the sea. Many others were out in the streets, looking up at the lights as if they were a fantasy come true.
The elation was short-lived. Machine gun fire erupted from ten different directions. Pino could hear its rattle-and-pause near and far. He recalled the battle that had raged around the cemetery where Gabriella Rocha lay. The war isn’t over, he realized. Neither is the insurrection. The pacts made in Cardinal Schuster’s office were falling apart. By the pace of the fighting, Pino soon believed he was absolutely hearing three-way combat: partisans versus Nazis, and partisans against the Fascists.
When a grenade exploded in one of the adjacent streets, people began to scatter and run back into their homes. Pino bolted into an erratic, zigzagging run. When he reached Piazza Duomo, six German Panzer tanks still squatted around the perimeter of the square, their cannon barrels aiming outward. The cathedral’s floodlights were still on, illuminating the entire church, and the bells were still tolling, but otherwise the piazza was deserted. Pino swallowed and moved fast and diagonally across the open ground, praying no snipers were waiting on the upper floors of the buildings that framed the square.
Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan / History & Fiction have rating 5.1 out of 5 / Based on82 votes