Beneath a scarlet sky, p.34
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       Beneath a Scarlet Sky, p.34

           Mark Sullivan
 

  Someone rushed up a glass of the liquor. Pino downed it and nodded to Carletto, who cracked his sticks. And they were off again, pumping the boogie-woogie with Pino messing around with every example he’d ever heard or practiced.

  “1280 Stomp.” “Boogie Woogie Stomp.” “Big Bad Boogie Woogie.”

  The crowd loved all of it. He’d never had this much fun in his life and suddenly understood why his parents adored having musicians at their parties.

  When they took a break around eleven that night, Major Knebel reeled up to him and said, “Outstanding, soldier. Just outstanding!”

  “You had fun?” Pino said, grinning.

  “Best damned party ever, and it’s just getting started. One of your girls lives close by, and she swears her daddy’s got all sorts of booze in his basement.”

  Pino noticed a few couples leaving the ballroom holding hands and heading upstairs. He smiled and went for some water and wine.

  Carletto came over, threw his arm around Pino, and said, “Thank you for knocking me on my ass this afternoon.”

  “What are friends for?”

  “Friends always?”

  “To the day we die.”

  The first woman Pino invited to the party walked up and said, “You’re Pino?”

  “That’s right. What’s your name?”

  “Sophia.”

  Pino held out his hand. “Nice to meet you, Sophia. Having a good time?”

  “So much fun, but I can’t speak English.”

  “A few of the soldiers, like Corporal Daloia over there, speak Italian. The others? Just dance, and smile, and let your body speak the language of love.”

  Sophia laughed. “You make it sound easy.”

  “I’ll be watching,” Pino said before heading back to the stage.

  He had another shot of grappa, and they went at it again, boogie-woogie, holding it, and then messing around, and then boogie-woogie again; and the crowd stomping and dancing. At midnight, he glanced at the dance floor and saw Sophia doing back bends and spins with Corporal Daloia, who was grinning ear to ear.

  Things could not have gotten better.

  Pino had another grappa and then another, and played on and on, smelling the sweat of the dancers and the perfume of the women, all melding into a musk that made him drunk in yet another way. Around two it all became a blur and then black.

  Six hours later, on the morning of Friday, April 27, 1945, Pino woke up on the hotel kitchen floor with a splitting headache and a foul stomach. He made it to the bathroom and vomited, which made his stomach better, and his headache worse.

  Pino looked out into the ballroom, seeing people sprawled everywhere: in chairs, on tables, on the floor. Carletto was on his back, arm over his face, on the stage behind his drums. Major Knebel was curled up on a couch. Corporal Daloia was on another couch, spooning with Sophia, which made Pino smile through a yawn.

  He thought of his own bed and how good it would be to sleep the hangover off there rather than here on a hard floor. He guzzled some water and left the Hotel Diana, heading more or less due south toward Porta Venezia and the public gardens. It was a spectacular day, clear blue and as warm as June.

  Within a block of leaving the hotel Pino saw the first body, facedown in the gutter, gunshot to the back of the head. In the next block, he saw three dead. Eight blocks later, he saw five. Two of them were Black Shirt Fascists, by their uniform. Three were in nightclothes.

  Despite all the death he saw that morning, Pino knew something had changed in Milan overnight, some critical point had been reached and passed while he’d been partying and sleeping, because the streets near Porta Venezia were crowded and boisterous. Violins played. Accordions, too. People danced and hugged and laughed and cried. Pino felt as if the spirit of the party at the Hotel Diana had moved outside and seduced everyone celebrating the end of a long and terrible ordeal.

  He entered the public gardens, taking a shortcut home. People were lying on the lawns, basking in the sun, having a good time. Pino looked ahead on the crowded path he was taking through the park and saw a familiar face coming his way. Wearing the uniform of the Free Italian Air Force, his cousin Mario was beaming, looking like he was having the time of his life.

  “Eh, Pino!” he cried, and hugged him. “I am free! No more sitting in the apartment!”

  “That’s so great,” Pino said. “Where are you going?”

  “Anywhere, everywhere,” Mario said, glancing at his aviator’s watch, which gleamed in the sunlight. “I just want to walk and soak it all up, the joy in the city now that the Nazis and the Fascists are kaput. You know this feeling?”

  Pino did know. So, it seemed, did almost everyone else in Milan that day.

  “I’m going home to get some sleep,” Pino said. “Too much grappa last night.”

  Mario laughed. “I should have been with you.”

  “You would have had fun.”

  “I’ll see you later.”

  “You, too,” Pino said, and walked on.

  He had gone no more than six meters when an argument broke out behind him.

  “Fascista!” a man shouted. “Fascista!”

  Pino turned and saw a small, stocky man standing in the path, aiming a revolver at Mario.

  “No!” Mario cried. “I am a pilot for free—”

  The pistol fired. The bullet blew out the back of Mario’s head. Pino’s cousin collapsed like a rag doll.

  “He’s a Fascist! Death to all Fascists!” the man yelled, and shook his gun.

  People began to scream and run.

  Pino was so traumatized he didn’t know what to do or say, just stared at Mario’s body and the blood draining from his head. He started to dry-heave. But then the killer crouched over Mario and started working at his aviator’s wristwatch.

  Anger boiled up inside Pino. He was about to attack, when his cousin’s murderer saw him standing there. “What are you looking at? Hey, he was talking to you. You a Fascist, too?”

  Seeing him trying to aim, Pino spun and took off in a series of cuts and feints. The pistol barked behind him, hit one of the few trees left in the garden. Pino didn’t slow until he was far from the park, almost to San Babila. Only then did he allow himself to suffer what he’d just witnessed. All the water he’d guzzled came up, and he retched until his sides ached.

  He walked on in a daze, taking a roundabout route toward home.

  Mario was alive one second and gone the next. The randomness of his cousin’s death had him shaking and shivering as he walked through the hot streets. Was no one safe?

  In the fashion district, people were outside celebrating, sitting on their front stoops, laughing and smoking, eating and drinking. He walked past the opera house and saw a crowd. He went to it, trying not to see Mario dying in his mind. Partisans had cordoned off the Hotel Regina, Gestapo headquarters.

  “What’s going on?” Pino asked.

  “They’re searching the place,” someone said.

  Pino knew they weren’t going to find much of value in there. He’d seen it all burn. He’d seen General Leyers and Colonel Rauff burn so much paper it still baffled him. His mind sought refuge from the horror of his cousin’s death in questions about the things the Nazis had burned. What could have been in those documents? And what papers had they kept, and why?

  He thought about Leyers two nights before. The general had asked to go back to Dolly’s before Pino arrested him, didn’t he? Something about getting papers he’d left there, and something else. He’d mentioned those papers at least twice.

  Thinking that Leyers might have left something incriminating at Dolly’s apartment, he felt more alert, less devastated by Mario’s death.

  Dolly’s was only a few blocks away on Via Dante. He’d go there before going home to tell his father about Mario. He’d find the papers and give them to Major Knebel. With what he could tell the American about Leyers, there had to be a story there. Pino and Knebel would tell the world about the general and his “forced labor
ers,” how he’d driven them to their deaths, Pharaoh’s slave master at work.

  Twenty minutes later, Pino ran up the steps of Dolly’s apartment, into the lobby and past the crone, who blinked at him through her thick glasses. “Who’s there?”

  “An old friend, Signora Plastino,” Pino said, and kept climbing.

  When he reached Dolly’s door, it was busted in and hanging off its hinges. Suitcases and boxes had been slit open. Their contents were strewn about in the front hall.

  Pino began to panic. “Anna? Dolly?”

  He went to the kitchen, found the dishes smashed and cabinets emptied. He was shaking and thought he was going to be sick again when he reached Anna’s room and pushed the door open. The mattress had been pushed off the bed. Her drawers and closet were open and empty.

  Then he noticed something sticking out from beneath the mattress. A leather strap. He crouched, lifted the mattress, and pulled. The tooled leather bag his uncle had given Anna on Christmas Eve came out. In his mind, he heard her say, I’ve never had so wonderful a present in my whole life. I’ll never let it go.

  Where was she? Pino’s head began to pound. She left two, three days ago? What had happened? She never would have left the bag behind.

  Then he realized who would know. Running back downstairs, Pino went to the crone, gasping. “What happened to Dolly’s apartment? Where is she? Where’s Anna, her maid?”

  Through the thick lenses, the old woman’s blinking eyes looked twice their size when a cold, satisfied smile twisted her lips.

  “They took the German whores last night,” she cackled. “You should have seen the things people took out of that den of perversion afterward. Unspeakable things.”

  Pino felt disbelief turn to terror. “Where were they taken? Who took them?”

  Signora Plastino squinted and then leaned forward, studying him.

  Pino grabbed her roughly by the arm. “Where?”

  The crone hissed, “I know you. You’re one of them!”

  Pino let her go and stepped back.

  “A Nazi!” she screamed. “He’s a Nazi! A Nazi, right here!”

  Pino bolted out the front door as the old woman’s shrill voice carried behind him. “Stop him! He’s a traitor! A Nazi! A friend of the German whores!”

  He ran as fast and as hard as he could go, trying to get out of earshot of the crone’s squawking alarm. When at last he stopped, he leaned against a wall, feeling disoriented, numb, and frightened. Anna and Dolly were taken, he thought, feeling dread that threatened to freeze him. But where? And who would have taken them? Partisans? He was sure of that.

  Pino could run and find a partisan, but would they listen to him? They would with that letter they’d given him after he delivered Leyers, right? He dug in his pockets. It wasn’t there. He searched again. Nothing. Well, he’d just go find a partisan commander in the area anyway. Or since he was without the letter, would they think he was a collaborator because he knew Dolly and Anna, and thereby endanger himself? He needed help. He needed his uncle Albert. He’d go find him and have him use his contacts to—

  Pino heard distant shouting, voices he could not make out. But the shouting was getting louder, more voices, and wilder, and he felt even more disoriented. For reasons he couldn’t explain, he started not toward home but toward the shouting, as if the voices were calling to him. He wove through the streets fast, tracking the raucous din until he realized it was coming from Parco Sempione, from inside Castello Sforzesco, where he and Anna had walked that snowy day when they’d seen the ravens circling.

  Whether it was the hangover, or the fatigue, or the paralyzing fear of knowing Anna had been taken, or all three reasons combined, he felt suddenly unbalanced, as if he might swoon and fall. Time seemed to slow. Every moment took on the surreal quality of the cemetery where he’d gone to retrieve the corpse of Gabriella Rocha.

  Only now Pino’s senses seemed to shut off one by one, until, like a deaf man who had lost taste and touch, he only saw as he wove on dizzily past a dry fountain toward the lowered drawbridge that crossed the empty moat to the arched main entrance of the medieval fortress.

  A mob of other people was ahead of Pino, pushing onto the drawbridge and squeezing to get through the gate. More people crowded in and around behind him, jostling against him, their faces flushed with excitement. He knew they were all shouting and joking, but he understood not a word as he moved forward with the throng. He was looking up. In a brilliant blue sky, ravens were circling the bombed towers again.

  Pino was fixated on the birds until he was almost at the entrance. And then someone pushed him through and into a huge, sunbaked, and bomb-cratered courtyard that stretched out one hundred meters to a second fortress wall—not as tall, three stories high—and slotted with windows made for medieval archers to shoot down on their enemies. In the open space between the two fortress walls, the crush around Pino relaxed, and people hurried past him to join hundreds of others pressing against a line of armed partisan fighters standing three-quarters of the way across the courtyard, their backs to the wall of Castello Sforzesco itself.

  As Pino walked toward the crowd his senses returned, one by one.

  His nose came back first, and he smelled the sick-sweet rankness of all those humans packing together in the heat. Touch returned to his fingers and the skin at the nape of his neck, which registered the sun beating down on him without pity. And then he could hear the mob and its jeering hoots and catcalls for vengeance.

  “Kill them!” they were shouting—men, women, and children alike. “Bring them out! Make them pay!”

  People toward the front of the mob saw something and began to roar their approval. They tried to surge closer, but the partisan soldiers held them back. Pino, however, was not to be denied. He used his strength, height, and weight to bully his way forward until no more than three men stood between him and the front line of spectators.

  Eight men wearing white shirts, red scarves, and black pants and hoods marched out into the open ground beyond the fighters. They held carbine rifles on their shoulders and tried for discipline as they moved into position some forty meters directly in front of Pino.

  “What’s happening?” Pino asked one old man.

  “Fascists,” he replied with a toothless smile, and made a cutting gesture across his neck.

  The hooded men stopped in a line three meters apart, set their guns and bodies at ease facing the wall of the inner fortress. The crowd calmed on its own, and grew quiet when a door in the far left corner of that wall opened.

  Ten seconds passed. Then twenty. Then a minute.

  “C’mon!” someone shouted. “It’s hot. Bring them out!”

  A ninth hooded man appeared in the doorway. He held a pistol in one hand and gripped the end of a stout rope with the other. He stepped out. Nearly two meters of rope played behind him before the first man appeared: tubby, chicken-legged, in his fifties, and dressed only in his underwear, socks, and shoes.

  People began to laugh and clap their approval. The poor man looked like he might collapse at any moment. Behind him came another man in trousers and a cutoff T-shirt. He was keeping his chin up, trying to act brave, but Pino could see he was shaking. A Black Shirt came out next, still in uniform, and the crowd howled its disapproval.

  Then a sobbing, middle-aged woman in bra, panties, and sandals stepped from the doorway, and the mob went wild. Her head had been shaved. Something had been written on her skull and face with lipstick.

  The rope went on another meter before a second bald woman stepped out, and then a third. When Pino saw the fourth woman emerge, blinking in the hot sun, he started to tremble in his gut and quake in his marrow.

  It was Dolly Stottlemeyer. She was in her ivory dressing gown and green slippers. When Leyers’s mistress saw the executioners she began to pull against the rope like a horse against its rein, trying to dig in her heels, twisting, fighting, and screaming in Italian, “No! You can’t do this! It’s not right!”

 
; A partisan stepped up and hit Dolly between the shoulder blades with the butt of his rifle, stunning her into a forward stumble, which yanked Anna out the door.

  Anna had been stripped to her slip and bra, and her hair had been horribly shorn. Tufts of it stuck out from her bare scalp. Her lips were smeared with so much red lipstick she was like some grotesque creature in a cartoon. Her terror elevated now that she’d seen the firing squad and heard the crowd heaping its scorn, calling for her death.

  “No!” Pino said, and then screamed it. “No!”

  But his voice was drowned out by a song of savageness and bloodlust that built and swept through the courtyard of Castello Sforzesco, echoing around and off the condemned beings lined up against the wall. The crowd squeezed forward again and pinned Pino from all sides. Helpless, sick, and disbelieving, he watched Anna pushed into position beside Dolly.

  “No,” he said, his throat constricting and tears welling in his eyes. “No.”

  Anna had gone hysterical, her cries wracking through her body. Pino didn’t know what to do. He wanted to go crazy, fight, scream at the partisans to let Anna go. But he kept freezing at the image of the crone, and how she’d recognized him and called him a Nazi and a traitor. And he had no letter. They could just as well throw Pino up there against the wall, too.

  The partisan leader drew his pistol and fired it into the air to quiet the crowd. Anna wrenched up with fear and fell back against the wall, shaking and sobbing.

  The partisan leader yelled, “The charges against these eight are treason, collaboration, whoring, and profiting from the Nazi and Salò occupation of Milan. Their just punishment is death. Long live the new Republic of Italy!”

  The crowd cheered lustily. Pino couldn’t take it. His eyes burned with tears, and he began to lash out in frustration, throwing his elbows and kicking with his knees until he’d fought to the very front of the mob.

  A partisan saw him coming and stuck his rifle barrel against his chest.

  “I had a letter, but I can’t find it,” Pino said, patting at his pockets. “I am with the resistance. There’s been a mistake.”

  The partisan barely looked at him. “I don’t know you. Where’s the letter?”

  “It was in my pocket last night, but I . . . There was a party and . . . ,” Pino said. “Please, just let me talk to your commander.”

  “Not without something that says he should be talking to you.”

  “We needed to eat!” cried a woman’s voice. Pino looked over the partisan’s shoulder and saw the first woman on the rope line pleading, “We needed to eat and to live. Is that too much?”

  Down the line, seeming resigned to her fate, Dolly shook back her hair and tried to lift her chin but did not succeed.

  “Ready?” the commander said.

  Anna started screaming, “No! I’m not a whore! I’m not a collaborator! I’m a maid. That’s all I am. Someone, please believe me. I’m just a maid. Dolly, tell them. Dolly? Tell them!”

  Dolly didn’t seem to hear her. She was staring at the guns rising to the shoulders of the execution squad.

  “My God!” Anna wailed. “Someone tell them I’m just a maid!”

  “Aim.”

  Pino’s mouth opened. He looked at the fighter, who was studying him, suspicious now. Pino willed his diaphragm to tense and yell out that it was true, that she was innocent, that this was all a mistake and—

  “Fire!”

  The rifle shots rang out like cymbals and kettledrums.

  Anna-Marta took a bullet to her heart.

  She bucked up at the impact, looking surprised before seeming to gaze toward Pino, as if her spirit had sensed him there and called out for him in that last moment before she crumpled back against the wall, and died in the dust.

  Chapter Thirty

  Watching Anna’s body twitch while a bloom of blood unfolded across her bosom, Pino felt his heart breach and flush out all love, all joy, all music.

  The crowd around him bellowed and jeered its approval while he just stood there, hunch shouldered, whimpering at the agony that possessed him, so powerful it almost made him think it couldn’t be real, that his beloved was not lying there in a pool of blood, that he’d not watched her take the bullet, that he’d not watched life flee her in a blink, that he’d not heard her begging him to save her.

  The crowd around him started pushing the other way, leaving now that the show was over. Pino stayed where he was, gazing over at Anna’s corpse sprawled against the bottom of the wall and seeing her dull stare like an accusation of betrayal.

 
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