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Beneath a Scarlet Sky, Page 37

Mark Sullivan

  Pino wandered aimlessly through the city, skirting the central train station, now heavily guarded by partisan forces. He got turned around in an unlit area, had no idea where he was at one point. But then dawn began to glow across rippling low clouds, and he could soon see well enough to realize he was northwest of Piazzale Loreto and Beltramini’s Fresh Fruits and Vegetables. He ran and got to the fruit stand in the first good light of day. He pounded on the door, called out toward the upstairs windows. “Carletto? Carletto, are you there? It’s Pino!”

  He got no answer. He kept pounding and calling, but his friend did not reply.

  Despondent, Pino walked south. It wasn’t until he’d walked past the telephone exchange that he understood where he was going and why. Five minutes later, he cut through the kitchen of the Hotel Diana and pushed on through the double doors into the ballroom. There were American GIs and Italian women passed out here and there—not as many as two mornings before, but empty bottles were everywhere, and broken glass on the floor crunched under his shoes. He looked into the hallway that led to the lobby.

  Major Frank Knebel was there, sitting at a table against the wall. He was drinking coffee and looking very hungover.

  “Major?” Pino said, walking toward him.

  Knebel looked up and laughed. “Pino Lella, the boogie-woogie kid! Where the hell have you been, buddy? All the girls have been asking for you.”

  “I . . .” Pino didn’t know where to begin. “Can I talk to you?”

  The major saw the seriousness in his eyes and said, “Sure, kid, pull up a chair.”

  But before Pino could, a boy about ten years old burst in the front door and yelled in broken English, “Il Duce, Major K! They bring the Mussolini to Piazzale Loreto!”

  “Now?” Major Knebel said, getting up fast. “Are you sure, Victor?”

  “My father, he hears this.”

  “Let’s go,” Knebel said to Pino. Pino hesitated, wanted to talk to the major, to tell him—

  “C’mon, Pino, you’ll be a witness to history,” the American said. “We’ll take the bikes I bought yesterday.”

  Pino felt a break in the fog of Anna’s death and nodded. He’d wondered what would become of Il Duce the last time he saw him in Cardinal Schuster’s office, when Mussolini was still praying for Hitler’s superweapon to be unleashed and still hoping for a bed in the führer’s secret Bavarian bunker.

  By the time they’d grabbed two bikes Knebel had stashed behind the registration desk and exited the hotel, other people were running toward Piazzale Loreto, crying, “They’ve got him! They’ve got Il Duce!”

  Pino and the American major jumped on the bikes, pedaled hard. Other bikes soon joined them, racing and waving red scarves and flags, all of them lusting to see the dictator now that he’d been deposed. They rode past Beltramini’s Fresh Fruits and Vegetables and into Piazzale Loreto, where a thin crowd was already gathering around the Esso station and the girders Pino had stood on to witness the execution of Tullio Galimberti.

  Pino and Major Knebel put the bikes aside, and went forward to see four men clambering up onto the girders. They carried ropes and chains. Pino followed the American as he fought his way to the front of the growing crowd.

  Sixteen bodies lay there by the petrol pumps. Benito Mussolini was in the middle, barefoot, his massive head resting on his mistress’s chest. The puppet dictator’s eyes were vacant and opaque, the madness Pino had seen in them at the villa on Lake Garda just a memory. Il Duce’s upper lip was pulled back, baring his teeth and making him look as if he were about to launch into one of his tirades.

  Claretta Petacci sprawled beneath Mussolini with her head turned away from her lover, as if being coy. Some of the partisans in the crowd were saying that Mussolini had been having sex with his mistress when the executioners arrived.

  Pino looked around. The crowd had quadrupled, and there were more coming, throngs from every direction, like a chorus gathering on a stage at the end of a tragic opera. Shouting, angry, they all seemed to want to wreak personal vengeance on the man who’d brought the Nazis to their doors.

  Someone put a toy scepter in Mussolini’s hand. Then a woman old enough to have been the crone in Dolly’s apartment building waddled out. She squatted over Il Duce’s mistress and pissed on her face.

  Pino was repulsed, but the crowd went feral, sinister, and depraved. People were laughing hysterically, cheering, and feeding on the anarchy. Others began shouting for more desecrations while ropes and chains were being rigged. A woman darted forward with a pistol and put five rounds in Mussolini’s skull, which provoked another round of jeers and catcalls to beat the bodies, to tear the flesh from their bones.

  Two partisans fired their guns into the air to get the mob back. Another tried to turn a fire hose on them. Pino and Major Knebel had retreated by then, but others kept pressing toward the bodies, eager to vent their rage.

  “Hang them!” a voice in the chorus cried. “Get them up where we can see them!”

  “Put the hooks into their hocks!” others sang. “String ’em up like pigs!”

  Mussolini went up feet first, head and arms dangling below the girder. Those in the ever-growing mob went insane. Cheering, they stamped their feet, threw their fists high, and brayed their approval. Il Duce had been beaten so badly by then, his skull was caved in. He looked beyond grotesque, a figment in a nightmare and nothing like the man Pino had spoken to repeatedly over the past year.

  They hoisted Claretta Petacci up next. Her skirt fell toward her breasts, revealing that she wore no panties. When a partisan chaplain climbed up beside her to tuck the skirt up between her legs, he was pelted with trash.

  Four more bodies were strung from the girders, all high-ranking Fascists. The desecrations went on in the building heat until the barbarity finally broke through Pino’s grief-dazed state and sickened him. He felt dizzy, nauseated, and thought he might faint.

  A man was brought forward. His name was Starace.

  They placed Starace beneath the hanging corpses of Mussolini and his mistress. Starace gave the straight-arm Fascist salute, and six partisans shot him dead.

  The bloodthirsty chorus in Piazzale Loreto sang deliriously and called for more. But seeing Starace shot caused Pino to reel off into the memory of Anna’s dying. He thought he might go mad and join the mob.

  “This is how tyrants fall,” Major Knebel said, disgusted. “That would be the lead if I were writing this story. ‘This is how tyrants fall.’”

  “I’m going to leave, Major,” Pino said. “I can’t take this anymore.”

  “I’m with you, buddy,” Knebel said.

  They pushed their way back through a crowd that had grown to twenty thousand or more. It wasn’t until they were across from the fruit stand that they could walk easily against the grain of more and more people coming to Piazzale Loreto to pay their disrespects.

  “Major?” Pino said. “I need to talk to you—”

  “You know, kid, I’ve been meaning to talk to you since you showed up this morning,” Knebel said as they crossed the street.

  The door to Beltramini’s Fresh Fruits and Vegetables was open now. Carletto stood in the doorway, looking green with a hangover. He smiled wanly at Pino and the American.

  “Another drag-the-knuckle night, Major,” Carletto said.

  “That’s knuckle-dragger,” Knebel said with a laugh. “But even better. I’ve got the both of you at once.”

  “I don’t understand,” Pino said.

  “Would you boys be willing to help America?” the major asked. “Do something for us? Something tough? Something dangerous?”

  “Like what?” Carletto asked.

  “I can’t tell you right now,” Knebel said. “But it’s vital, and if you pulled it off, you’d have a lot of friends in the United States. Ever thought of going stateside?”

  “All the time,” Pino said.

  “There you go,” the major said.

  “How dangerous?” Carletto asked.
  “I won’t B.S. it. You could get killed.”

  Carletto thought about that, then said, “Count me in.”

  Feeling his heart race with a strange mania, Pino said, “I’m in, too.”

  “Excellent,” Knebel said. “Can you get a car?”

  Pino said, “My uncle has one, but it’s up on blocks, and the tires won’t go far.”

  “Uncle Sam will take care of the tires,” he said. “Get me the keys and an address where the car is, and I’ll see it’s ready and waiting for you at the Hotel Diana, three a.m., day after tomorrow. May first. Okay?”

  Carletto said, “When will we know what we’re doing?”

  “Three a.m., day after—”

  Knebel stopped. They all heard the tanks then. The roar of diesels. The treads clanking. As they poured into Piazzale Loreto, Pino saw war elephants in his mind.

  “Here come the Shermans, buddies!” Major Knebel crowed, throwing his fist overhead. “That’s the US Fifth Army Cav. As far as this war goes, the fat lady’s singing.”



  Chapter Thirty-Three

  Tuesday, May 1, 1945

  As Pino and Carletto neared the Hotel Diana at 2:55 a.m., they were almost as drunk as they’d been before passing out just a few hours before. Only now their stomachs were queasy, and their headaches blazing. On the other hand, Adolf Hitler was dead. The Nazi führer had shot himself in his bunker in Berlin, committing suicide along with his mistress the day after Mussolini and Petacci swung in Piazzale Loreto.

  Pino and Carletto had heard the news the afternoon before, and found another bottle of Mr. Beltramini’s whiskey. Holed up in the fruit and vegetable stand, they celebrated Hitler’s death and told each other their war stories.

  “You really loved Anna enough to marry her?” Carletto asked at one point.

  “Yes,” Pino said, and tried to control the raw emotion that pulsed through him whenever he thought of her.

  “You’ll find another girl someday,” Carletto said.

  “Not like her,” Pino said, his eyes watering. “She was different, Carletto. She was . . . I don’t know, one of a kind.”

  “Like my mama and papa.”

  “Special people,” Pino said, nodding. “Good people. The best people.”

  They had more drinks, and retold Mr. Beltramini’s best jokes, and laughed. They talked about the night on the hill the first summer of the bombardment when their fathers had performed so flawlessly. They cried at too many things. By eleven, they’d finished the bottle and drunk themselves into forgetfulness, nonsense, and not enough sleep. It took an alarm to wake them three and a half hours later.

  Bleary-eyed, they turned the corner, and Pino saw Uncle Albert’s old Fiat parked out front of the Hotel Diana, running like a top, with brand-new tires that he kicked and admired before they went inside. The end-of-war party was winding down for the night. A few couples danced slowly to a scratched and popping record on a phonograph. Corporal Daloia climbed the staircase, clinging to Sophia, both of them giggling. Pino watched them until they disappeared.

  Major Knebel came out a door behind the registration desk, saw them, and grinned. “There you are. Knew I could count on old Pino and Carletto. Got a few presents to give you both before I explain what we’re going to have you do.”

  The major squatted down behind the registration deck and lifted up two brand-new Thompson submachine guns with rotary magazines.

  Knebel cocked his head. “You know how to run a tommy gun?”

  Pino felt fully awake for the first time since passing out, and regarded the machine gun with some awe. “No,” he said.

  “Never,” Carletto said.

  “It’s simple really,” Knebel said, setting one gun down and pressing a latch to release the rotary magazine. “You’ve got fifty .45 ACP rounds already loaded in here.” He set the magazine on the counter before clearing the breech and showing them a lever above and behind the rear pistol grip. “Your safety,” he said. “You want to fire, you push that lever all the way forward. You want safe, all the way back.”

  The major repositioned the Thompson, right hand on the rear grip and left hand on the front grip, the side of the weapon mashed tight to his torso. “Three points of contact if you want control over your fire. Otherwise, the recoil will have the muzzle bouncing all over the goddamned place, shots going high and wide, and who needs that?

  “So both hands on the grips, and the stock pressed into your hip—three points of contact. See how I’m turning my hips with the gun?”

  “What if we have to shoot from the car?” Carletto asked.

  Knebel threw the gun tight to his shoulder. “Three points: shoulder, my cheek to the stock, and both hands. Short bursts. That’s all you really need to know.”

  Pino picked up the other gun. He liked how heavy and compact the Thompson was. He grabbed the grips, held it tight to his body, and fantasized about mowing down Nazis.

  “Your backup magazines,” the major said, setting two drums on the counter. He reached into his pocket and came out with an envelope. “These are your papers. They’ll get you through all Allied-held checkpoints. Beyond that, you’ll be on your own.”

  “You ever going to tell us what we’re doing?” Carletto demanded.

  Knebel smiled. “You’ll be taking a friend of America to the top of the Brenner Pass.”

  “The Brenner?” Pino said, remembering something Uncle Albert had told him the day before. “The Brenner’s still at war. It’s anarchy up there. The German army’s in full retreat, and the partisans are ambushing them, trying to kill as many as they can before they get across the border into Austria.”

  Knebel showed no expression and said, “We need our friend at the border.”

  “It’s a suicide mission, then,” Carletto said.

  “It’s a challenge,” the major said. “But we’ve got you a map, and there’s a flashlight to read it. Shows all the major Allied checkpoints. You won’t leave Allied-held territory until north of the A4 heading toward Bolzano.”

  After a short silence, Carletto said, “I’m going to need two bottles of wine to do this.”

  “I’ll make it four,” Knebel said. “Make it a party. Just don’t crash.”

  Pino said nothing. Carletto looked at him. “I’m going with or without you.”

  Pino saw an intensity in his old friend that he’d never witnessed before. Carletto looked eager to go into battle and die. Suicide by war. That thought pleased Pino as well.

  “Okay, then, who are we taking up there?” Pino said, looking at Knebel.

  The major got up and disappeared through the door behind the counter. A few moments later, the door reopened and Knebel exited, followed by a man in a dark business suit, dark trench coat, and a brown fedora pulled down low over his eyes. He struggled to carry a large rectangular leather suitcase handcuffed to his left wrist.

  Major Knebel and the man came out from behind the counter.

  “I believe the two of you know each other,” Knebel said.

  The man raised his head and from under the fedora’s brim stared into Pino’s eyes.

  Pino’s shock was complete. He stepped back as rage plumed through his body.

  “Him?” he shouted at Knebel. “How is he any friend of America?”

  The major’s expression hardened. “General Leyers is a hero, Pino.”

  “A hero?” Pino said, wanting to spit at the ground. “He was Hitler’s slave master. He drove people to their deaths, Major. I saw it. I heard it. I witnessed it.”

  Knebel was rattled by that and glanced at the Nazi general before saying, “I can’t know if that’s true, Pino. But I’m under orders here, and that’s what I’ve been told, that he’s a hero who deserves our protection.”

  Leyers just stood there, not understanding a bit of the conversation but watching them with that detached amusement that Pino had so grown to despise. He started to say he wouldn’t
do it, but then another idea, a much more satisfying one, wormed its way into his mind. He thought of Anna and Dolly. He thought of all the slaves and knew it was the right thing to do. God had a plan for Pino Lella after all.

  Pino grinned with bonhomie then, and said, “Mon général, shall I take your bag?”

  Leyers shook his head crisply. “I will carry the bag, thank you.”

  “Good-bye, Major Knebel,” Pino said.

  “Look me up when you get back, bud,” Knebel said. “I’ve got other plans for you. Be right here, waiting to tell you all about them.”

  Pino nodded, certain he would never see the American or Milan again.

  He left the hotel with his machine gun cradled and Leyers following. He opened the rear door to the Fiat and stood aside. Leyers glanced at Pino and then struggled into the seat with the suitcase.

  Carletto got into the front passenger seat, the Thompson between his legs. Pino got behind the wheel, put his machine gun between Carletto and the stick shift.

  “Keep control of my gun, too,” Pino said with a glance in the mirror at Leyers, who’d set his hat aside and was using his fingers to comb back his iron-gray hair.

  “I think I can shoot this thing,” Carletto said, his finger wandering in admiration over the machine gun’s oiled surface. “I’ve seen how they do it in gangster movies.”

  “All you need to know,” Pino said, and put the car in gear.

  He drove on with Carletto reading the map by flashlight and navigating. The route led back through Piazzale Loreto, and then east toward the city limits, where they encountered the first US Army checkpoint.

  “America is the best,” Pino said to the skeptical GI who came to his window with a flashlight. Pino handed him the envelope with their papers.

  Taking them out of the envelope, the soldier shone his light on them, and his chin retreated. He quickly folded the papers, stuffed them in the envelope, and said nervously, “Jesus. You can go right on through, then.”

  Pino put the papers in his breast pocket, pulled through the gate, and headed east toward Treviglio and Caravaggio.

  “What do those papers say?” Carletto asked.

  “I’ll look later,” Pino said. “Unless you read English?”

  “Can’t read it. Speak it a little. What do you suppose is in his suitcase?”

  “I have no idea, but it looks heavy,” Pino said, glancing in the rearview when they passed beneath a streetlight. General Leyers had moved the suitcase off his lap. It sat beside him, to his right. Leyers’s eyes were closed, and he could have been dreaming of Dolly or his wife, or children, or the slaves, or nothing at all.

  In that single glance, something sharp and ice-cold forged in Pino’s heart. For the first time in his short, complicated life, he knew the feeling of ruthlessness, and the sweet anticipation of setting things right.

  “I say he’s got some of those gold bars you saw locked in that case,” Carletto said, breaking him from his thoughts.

  Pino said, “Or maybe he’s got files in that suitcase. Hundreds. Maybe more.”

  “What kind of files?”

  “The dangerous kind. The kind that give you a little power in powerless times.”

  “What the heck does that mean?”

  “Leverage. I’ll explain later. Where’s the next checkpoint?”

  Carletto turned on the light, studied the map, and said, “Where we pick up the main road this side of Brescia.”