Beneath a scarlet sky, p.38
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       Beneath a Scarlet Sky, p.38

           Mark Sullivan
 

  Pino pressed down on the accelerator, and they hurtled on through the night, reaching the second checkpoint at four in the morning. After a quick review of their papers, they were waved through again and warned to avoid Bolzano, where a battle was raging. The problem was they had to get past Bolzano to reach the Brenner Pass road.

  “I’m telling you, he’s got gold in his suitcase,” Carletto said after they were under way again. He’d uncorked one of the wine bottles and was taking sips. “No way it’s just files. I mean, gold’s gold, right? Buy your way out of anything with gold.”

  “When it comes down to it, I don’t care what’s in his suitcase.”

  The highway ahead was pocked with bomb craters and diversions where the snowmelt from the previous winter had washed out culverts, so Pino couldn’t go as fast as he wanted. It was 4:45 a.m. before he took the turn toward Trento and Bolzano, heading north toward Austria. They drove along the east shore of Lake Garda, on the bank opposite Mussolini’s old villa, causing Pino to remember the anarchy in Piazzale Loreto. He glanced back at the general, who was dozing, and wondered how much Leyers knew, how much he cared, or whether he was just a man out for his skin.

  Favors, Pino thought. That’s what he trades in. He told me so himself. That suitcase is full of favors.

  He drove aggressively now. There were fewer vehicles on the road and less damage than there’d been on the main highway. Carletto’s eyes closed, and his chin slumped to his chest, the bottle and the machine gun between his legs.

  Just north of Trento, around five fifteen, Pino saw lights ahead and started to slow. A shot rang out and smacked the side of the Fiat. Carletto startled awake even as Pino hit the accelerator hard and started weaving down the road as shots came at them from both sides, some hitting, others whistling by.

  “Get your gun!” Pino shouted at Carletto. “Shoot back!”

  Carletto fumbled with the machine gun.

  “Who’s shooting at us?” General Leyers demanded. He was lying sideways across the suitcase.

  “Doesn’t matter,” Pino said, and gained speed toward those lights. There was a barrier there, sawhorses, and a group of ragtag armed men. There was no order about them, and that made Pino’s decision.

  “When I say so, shoot at them,” Pino said. “Safety off?”

  Carletto got up on one knee, head and shoulders stuck out the window, the machine gun stock rammed against his shoulder.

  Pino tapped the brakes when they were seventy meters out, as if he meant to stop. But at fifty meters, with the headlights blinding the men at the barrier, Pino hit the accelerator again and shouted, “Shoot!”

  Carletto yanked the trigger, and the Thompson began spitting bullets that went high, low, and everywhere in between.

  The gunmen scattered. Pino bore down on the barrier. Carletto had no control. He kept holding down on the trigger, and the machine gun kept firing wild. They smashed through the barrier. The Thompson was knocked from Carletto’s grip. It bounced off the road and vanished.

  “Shit!” Carletto yelled. “Go back!”

  “No,” Pino said, shutting off the lights and speeding on as guns cracked behind them.

  “That’s my machine gun! Go back!”

  “You shouldn’t have held the trigger so long,” Pino shouted. “Knebel said short bursts.”

  “It almost tore my shoulder off,” Carletto said angrily. “God damn it! Where’s my wine?”

  Pino handed him the bottle. Carletto pulled the cork with his teeth, took a drink, and cursed, and cursed again.

  “It’s okay,” Pino said. “We’ve got my gun and two extra magazines.”

  His friend looked at him. “You’d take the chance, Pino? Let me shoot again?”

  “Just hold on this time. And touch the trigger. On/off. No yanking.”

  Carletto grinned. “Can you believe that just happened?”

  From the backseat, Leyers said, “I have often thought you were an amazing driver, Vorarbeiter. That time last fall when the plane was strafing us? In the Daimler? Your driving that night was why I requested that you take me to the border. It’s why you’re here. If anyone can get me to the Brenner, it’s you.”

  Pino heard the words as if they were coming from a man he did not know and did not want to know. He loathed Leyers. He despised the fact that he’d convinced some fool in the US Army that he was a hero. Hans Leyers was not a hero. The man in the backseat was Pharaoh’s slave master, a war criminal, and he deserved to suffer for his actions.

  “Thank you, mon général,” Pino said, and left it at that.

  “Not at all, Vorarbeiter,” General Leyers said. “I have always believed in giving credit where credit is due.”

  The sky started to lighten as they pushed on toward Bolzano. Pino believed it would be his last dawn. It came in rose fingers that fanned across a blue sky framed by snowcapped mountains rising beyond the last forty kilometers of war. Pino didn’t give the danger that lay ahead more than a passing thought. He was thinking about General Leyers, feeling the anticipation again, feeling the adrenaline trickle.

  Pino reached over and tugged the wine bottle from between Carletto’s legs, which provoked a mild grumble of protest, for his friend had fallen asleep again.

  He took a gulp of the wine, and then another. It has to be somewhere high, he thought. It has to be done in the grandest of God’s cathedrals.

  Pino pulled over on the road’s shoulder.

  “What’re you doing?” Carletto said, eyes still shut.

  “Seeing if there’s a way around Bolzano,” Pino said. “Gimme the map.”

  Carletto groaned, found the map, and handed it over.

  Pino studied it, tried to commit to memory the major routes he might take to get north of Bolzano and onto the actual Brenner Pass road.

  Leyers, meanwhile, used a key to unlock the handcuff from the suitcase and climbed out to take a piss.

  “Let’s take off,” Carletto said. “We’ll split the gold.”

  “I’ve got other plans,” Pino said, staring at the map.

  The general returned, scooted forward in the backseat, and looked over Pino’s shoulder at the map.

  “The main route will be the best defended,” Leyers said. “You’ll want to go up that secondary road near Stazione, take it to the northwest of Bolzano, all the way to Andriano/Andrian on the Switzerland road. The Swiss border is shut to us, so the Wehrmacht doesn’t care about that route. You’ll get past the Americans, then across the Adige River on their far left flank. Across the river, you go back along the mountains there, right behind the Germans, until you reach the Brenner Pass road. Do you see it?”

  Pino hated to admit it, but his plan seemed their best chance. He nodded and looked in the rearview, seeing how animated Leyers was as he locked himself to his suitcase once more. The general was enjoying himself.

  It is just a game to him, Pino thought, and got angry all over again. It’s all a game of favors and shadows. Leyers wanted to have fun? He’d show him fun. He threw the Fiat in gear, popped the clutch, and drove on like a man possessed.

  It was full daylight when they rolled up to a US checkpoint blocking the road near the mountain town of Laghetti Laag. A US Army sergeant walked toward them. They could hear the echoes and thuds of combat somewhere not far ahead.

  “Road’s not open,” the sergeant said. “You can turn around here.”

  Pino handed him the envelope. The sergeant took it, opened it, read the letter, and whistled. “You can go. But are you sure you want to? We’ve got companies battling with Fascists and Nazis for Bolzano. And sometime in the next couple of hours, the Mustangs are going to strafe the German column, try to wipe out what they can.”

  “We’re going,” Pino said, took the envelope, left it in his lap.

  “Your lives, gentlemen,” the sergeant said, and waved at the gatekeeper.

  The barricade was pulled aside. Pino drove through.

  “My head hurts,” Carletto announced, and rubbed at
his temples before taking another swig of wine.

  “Knock the wine off for now,” Pino ordered. “There’s a battle right ahead of us, and we’re going to need your help to live through it.”

  Carletto stared at him, saw he was serious, and corked the bottle. “Get the gun?”

  Pino nodded. “Put it on your right side, parallel to the door, the butt up against the side of the seat. You’ll get to it quicker.”

  “How do you know that?”

  “Just makes sense.”

  “You think different than I do.”

  “I guess that’s true,” Pino said.

  Ten kilometers beyond the checkpoint, he took a secondary road heading northeast, as Leyers had recommended. The way was rough and ran through little alpine settlements, twisting toward Saint Michael and northern Bolzano.

  Clouds rolled in. Pino slowed enough to hear the artillery, the tanks and rifles engaged to their right and south, at least a mile, maybe more. They could see the outskirts of Bolzano and plumes of smoke rising as the Fascists tried to hold ground and the Germans tried to defend their rear to give their countrymen more time to make Austria.

  “Head north again,” General Leyers said.

  Pino did as he was told, taking a sixteen-kilometer detour that brought them to a bridge across the Adige that was unguarded, just as Leyers had predicted. They reached Bolzano’s northwestern outskirts around eight forty that morning.

  The fighting to the immediate southeast was intense now. Machine guns. Mortars. And so close they could hear tank turrets pivoting. But it looked like Leyers was right again. They’d managed to stay nearly four hundred meters behind the battle lines, slipping along a rear seam of the conflict.

  At some point, though, we’ll see Nazis. They’ll be on the Brenner Pass road for—

  “Tank!” Leyers cried. “American tank!”

  Pino ducked his head, looked fast to his right, trying to see past Carletto.

  “There it is!” Carletto cried, pointing across a large open lot on the outskirts of the city. “A Sherman!”

  Pino kept them moving, flanking to the tank’s left.

  “He’s turning his cannon on you,” General Leyers said.

  Pino glanced, saw the tank seventy meters away, the turret and the barrel pivoting toward them. He hit the accelerator.

  Carletto leaned out the window, waved both arms at the tank, and yelled in English, “American friends! American friends!”

  The tank fired a shell that went right behind them, right off their rear fender, and blew a smoking hole in a two-story factory building on the other side of the street.

  “Get us out of here!” Leyers bellowed.

  Pino downshifted and took evasive action. But before he could get out of the tank’s line of fire, machine guns opened up from the smoking building.

  “Duck!” Pino shouted, and crouched down, hearing bullets cracking overhead and pinging downrange off the tank’s armor and treads.

  They shot into an alley and out of sight.

  Leyers pounded Pino on the shoulders. “A genius behind the wheel, this one!”

  Pino smiled sourly, weaving them through side streets. US forces seemed bogged down behind the confluence of two streams that joined the Adige River. Leyers found a way around the pinch point, beyond the battle, and then away from the city itself, heading east toward the village of Cardano/Kardaun.

  Pino soon turned onto the Brenner Pass road, finding it nearly empty. He accelerated, heading north again. Ahead, the Alps vanished in a gathering storm. Mist began to fall, and chains of fog appeared. Pino remembered the slaves digging at the snow here only a month before, flailing in the slush, collapsing, and being dragged away.

  He drove on past Colma and Barbiano. It wasn’t until they were on a curve south of the village of Chiusa/Klausen that he was able to see far ahead up the road to the tail end of a long German column clogging both sides of the route, a crippled army creeping north toward Austria through the town of Bressanone/Brixen.

  “We can get around them,” General Leyers said, studying the map. “But this little road goes off to the east just ahead here. It climbs, goes way up to here, where you can take a road north and then this one back down to the Brenner Pass road. Do you see?”

  Pino saw it, and again took the route Leyers chose.

  They spun their way across a short, muddy flat before the road began to climb a steep, narrow draw, which broadened into a high alpine valley choked on the north flank by spruces and by sheep meadows facing south. They continued up the north flank through switchbacks that took them beyond the alpine settlement of Funes.

  The road ascended another thousand meters almost to the tree line, where the fog and clouds began to break. The road ahead was two-track and slick. It cut through a sea of yellow and pink wildflowers.

  The clouds lifted more, revealing the scree fields and the long wall of the Dolomites, the grandest of God’s cathedrals in Italy: limestone spire after limestone spire after limestone spire, eighteen of them soaring thousands of meters toward heaven and looking for all the world like an enormous crown of pale gray thorns.

  General Leyers said, “Pull over there. I need to piss again, and I want to take a look.”

  Pino felt it was all fated at that point because he’d been getting ready to use that excuse to stop himself. He pulled over by a narrow meadow in a large gap in the spruces that revealed the Dolomites in all their majesty.

  It’s a fitting place to make Leyers confess and pay for his sins, Pino thought. Out in the wide open. No favors to call in. No way to hide in the shadows. Alone in God’s church.

  Leyers unlocked the handcuff and got out Carletto’s side. He walked off into wet grass and alpine flowers. He stopped at the edge of the cliff there, gazing across the narrow valley and up at the Dolomites.

  “Give me the gun,” Pino muttered to Carletto.

  “Why?”

  “Why do you think?”

  Carletto got wide-eyed, but then smiled and handed him the Thompson. The machine gun felt oddly familiar in Pino’s hands. He’d never fired one, but he’d seen them in gangster movies, too. Just do what Major Knebel said. How hard can it be?

  “Do it, Pino,” Carletto said. “He’s a Nazi monster. He deserves to die.”

  Pino got out, held the Thompson one-handed and behind his legs. He need not have bothered hiding it. General Leyers had his back to Pino, his own legs spread as he pissed over the edge of the cliff and enjoyed the spectacular view.

  He thinks he’s a man in charge, Pino thought coldly. He thinks he’s a man in control of his fate. Except he’s not in control anymore. I am.

  Pino walked around the back of his uncle’s Fiat and took two steps into the meadow, slightly short of breath, feeling time slow as it had before he entered Castello Sforzesco. But he was fine now, as sure of what he was about to do as he’d been about the depths of Anna’s love. Pharaoh’s slave master was going to pay. Leyers was going to go down on his knees and beg for mercy, and Pino was going to show him none.

  General Leyers zipped and took another scan of the stunning scenery. He shook his head in wonder, adjusted his jacket, and turned around to find Pino ten meters away, the Thompson glued to the side of his hip. The Nazi came up short and stiff.

  “What is this, Vorarbeiter?” he said, fear seeping into his voice.

  “Vengeance,” Pino said calmly, feeling weirdly out of his body. “Italians believe in it, mon général. Italians believe bloodshed is good for the wounded soul.”

  Leyers’s eyes darted about. “You’re going to just shoot me down?”

  “After what you did? After what I saw? You deserve to be shot down by a hundred guns, a thousand if there was any justice.”

  The general held out both of his hands, palms to Pino. “Didn’t you hear your American major? I’m a hero.”

  “You’re no hero.”

  “And yet, they let me go. And yet, they sent me with you. The Americans.”

  “Why?
” Pino demanded. “What did you do for them? What favor did you call in? Who did you bribe with gold or information?”

  Leyers looked conflicted. “I am not at liberty to tell you what I’ve done, but I can tell you I was valuable to the Allies. I remain valuable to the Allies.”

  “You’re worthless!” Pino cried, the emotion bulging up the back of his throat again. “You care about no one but yourself, and you deserve to—”

  “That’s not true!” the general shouted. “I care about you, Vorarbeiter. I care about Dolly. I care about your Anna.”

  “Anna’s dead!” Pino screamed. “Dolly’s dead, too!”

  General Leyers looked stunned as he took a step back. “No. That’s not true. They went to Innsbruck. I’m supposed to meet Dolly . . . tonight.”

  “Dolly and Anna died in front of a firing squad three days ago. I saw it happen.”

  Leyers was rocked by the blow. “No. I gave orders they were to be . . .”

  “No car ever came for them,” Pino said. “They were still there waiting when a mob took them because Dolly was your whore.”

  Pino calmly moved the Thompson’s safety to fire.

  “But I gave the orders, Vorarbeiter,” Leyers said. “I swear to you I did!”

  “But you didn’t make sure the orders were followed!” Pino shouted, throwing the machine gun to his shoulder. “You could have gone to Dolly’s and made sure they’d been moved. But you didn’t. You left them to die. Now I’m going to leave you to die.”

  Leyers’s face screwed up in desperation, and he raised his hands as if to ward off the bullets. “Please, Pino, I wanted to go back to Dolly’s apartment. I wanted to check on them, don’t you remember?”

  “No.”

  “Yes, you do. I asked you to take me there to get some papers I’d left behind, but you arrested me instead. You turned me over to the resistance when I could have been making sure that Dolly and Anna had gotten out of Milan and reached Innsbruck.”

  The general looked at him without remorse and added, “If there’s anyone directly responsible for Dolly and Anna’s death, Pino, it’s you.”

  Chapter Thirty-Four

  Pino’s finger was on the trigger.

  He’d been planning to shoot General Leyers from the hip, to spray bullets across his abdomen so he’d go down but not die. Leyers would have suffered like that, gut-shot, maybe for a good long while. And Pino had wanted to stand there and watch his every twitch of pain, to relish each moan and pleading.

  “Shoot him, Pino!” Carletto yelled. “I don’t care what he’s saying to you. Shoot that Nazi pig!”

  He did ask me to take him to Dolly’s that night, Pino thought. But I arrested him instead. I arrested him instead of . . .

  Pino felt dizzy and sick to his stomach again. He heard the clown’s aria, and the rifles firing, and saw Anna falling once more.

  I did this. I could have helped Anna. But I did everything I could to kill her.

  Pino lost all strength then. He let go of the front grip of the machine gun. The Thompson hung at his side. He stared vacantly up at the vastness of God’s grand cathedral and altar of atonement, and wanted to go to bone and dust, to blow away on the wind.

  “Shoot him, Pino!” Carletto cried. “What the hell are you doing? Shoot him!”

  Pino couldn’t. He felt weaker than a dying old man.

  General Leyers nodded curtly to Pino, said icily, “Finish your job, Vorarbeiter. Take me to the Brenner, and we end our war together.”

  Pino blinked, unable to think, unable to act.

  Leyers gave him a contemptuous look and barked at him, “Now, Pino!”

  Pino dumbly followed the general back to the Fiat. He held the rear door
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