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Chapter no 20

Beneath a Scarlet Sky

When the plane was a distant hum, and he could breath, Pino whispered in the darkness, “Mon général?”

There was no reply. “Mon général?”

No answer. Was he dead? Pino thought he’d be happy to think that, but instead he saw the downside. No more Leyers, no more spying. No more information for the—

He heard movement and then a groan.

“Mon général?”

“Yes,” Leyers said weakly. “Here.” He was behind Pino, struggling to sit up. “I must have blacked out. Last thing I remember was diving into the ditch and . . . what happened?”

Pino told the general as he helped him up the bank. The Daimler was backfiring, hesitating, and shuddering, but somehow still running. Pino shut it off, and the engine mercifully died. He got the flashlight and tool kit from the trunk. He flicked the light on and passed its beam over the vehicle with General Leyers gaping along with him. Bullets had ripped the Daimler from front to back, penetrating the hood, which was throwing steam. The machine gun had also blown out the windshield, perforated the front and back seats, and punched more holes through the trunk. The front-right tire was flat. So was the opposite side’s outer-rear tire.

“Can you hold this, mon général?” Pino asked, holding out the torch. Leyers looked at it blankly a moment, and then took it.

Raising the hood, Pino saw that the engine block had been hit five times, but the light .303 rounds had not had enough energy left after piercing the hood to do any real damage. A spark plug cable was severed. Another looked ready to go. And there was a hole high in the radiator. But

otherwise the power plant, as Alberto Ascari liked to describe it, looked serviceable.

Pino used a knife to strip and twist together the two pieces of the severed spark plug cable and used first-aid tape to bind it and the weaker cable. He got out the tire kit, found patches and rubber glue that he used to seal both sides of the radiator hole. Then he removed the flat front-left tire, and moved the outer right tire forward to replace it. He took off the flat outer back-left tire and dumped it. When he started the Daimler, it still ran rough, but it was no longer bucking and coughing like an old smoker.

“I think it will get us back to Milan, mon général, but beyond that, who knows?”

“Beyond Milan doesn’t matter,” Leyers said, sounding clearer-headed as he climbed into the backseat. “The Daimler is too visible a target. We will change cars.”

“Oui, mon général,” Pino said, and tried to put the staff car in gear.

It bucked and died. He tried again, gave it more petrol, and got it rolling. But running on four wheels instead of six, the Daimler was no longer balanced, and they went shambling and shivering down the road. Second gear was gone. He had to rev the engine as high as he dared to get to third gear, but once they reached a decent speed, the vibrations calmed a bit.

When they were eight kilometers on, General Leyers asked for his flashlight, fumbled around in his valise, and came up with a bottle. He opened the top, took a gulp, and handed it over the seat. “Here,” he said. “Scotch whiskey. You deserve it. You saved my life.”

Pino hadn’t looked at it that way, and said, “I did what anyone would have done.”

“No,” Leyers said in a scoff. “Most men would have frozen and driven on into the machine guns, and died. But you—you were not afraid. You kept your wits about you. You are what I used to call ‘a young man of action.’”

“I like to think so, mon général,” Pino said, basking once more in Leyers’s praise as he took the bottle and had a swig. The liquid spread hot through his belly.

Leyers took the bottle back. “That’s enough for you until Milan.”

The general chuckled. Over the vibrations in the Daimler, Pino heard Leyers take several more belts of the scotch straight off the bottle.

Leyers laughed sadly. “In some ways, Vorarbeiter Lella, you remind me of someone. Two people, actually.”

“Oui, mon général?” Pino said. “Who are they?”

The Nazi was quiet, took a sip, and then said, “My son and my nephew.”

Pino hadn’t expected that.

“I did not know you had a son, mon général,” Pino replied, and glanced in the mirror, seeing nothing but the suggestion of the man in the shadows of the backseat.

“Hans-Jürgen. He’s almost seventeen. Smart. Resourceful, like you.”

Pino didn’t know exactly how to react, so he said, “And your nephew?”

There was a moment of silence before Leyers sighed and then said, “Wilhelm. Willy, we called him. My sister’s son. He served under Field Marshal Rommel. Died at El Alamein.” He paused. “For some reason, his mother blames me for the loss of her only child.”

Pino could hear the pain in Leyers’s voice and said, “I’m sorry to learn that, mon général. But your nephew served with Rommel, the Desert Fox.”

“Willy was a young man of action,” the general agreed in a hoarse voice before taking a drink. “He was a leader who sought harm’s way. And it cost him his life at twenty-eight, in the middle of a flea-infested Egyptian desert.”

“Did Willy drive a tank?”

Leyers cleared his throat and said, “With the Seventh Panzers.” “The Ghost Division.”

General Leyers cocked his head. “How do you know of these things?”

The BBC, Pino thought, but figured that would not go over well. So he said, “I read all the papers. And there was a newsreel at the cinema.”

“Reading newspapers,” Leyers said. “A rare thing for someone so young. But both Hans-Jürgen and Willy read all the time, especially the sports sections. We used to go watch sports together. Willy and I saw Jesse Owens run at the Berlin Olympic Games. Fantastic. How angry the führer was that day when a black man bested our best. But Jesse Owens? Vorarbeiter, that Negro was a physical genius. Willy kept saying that, and he was right.”

He fell off into silence, pondering, remembering, mourning. “Do you have other children?” Pino asked at last.

“A young daughter, Ingrid,” he said with renewed brightness. “Where are they? Hans-Jürgen and Ingrid?”

“In Berlin. With my wife, Hannelise.”

Pino nodded and focused on driving while General Leyers continued to drink the scotch at a slow but steady pace.

“Dolly’s a dear friend,” Major General Leyers announced sometime later. “I’ve known her a long time, Vorarbeiter. I like her a great deal. I owe her a great deal. I look out for her, and I always will. But a man like me doesn’t leave his wife to marry a woman like Dolly. It would be like an old goat trying to cage a tigress in her prime.”

He laughed with admiration and some bitterness before drinking again.

Pino was shocked that Leyers was opening up to him this way after eight weeks of maintaining a cold reserve, and with the difference in rank and age. But he wanted the general to keep talking. Who knew what he might let slip next?

Leyers fell into silence, sipping the booze once more.

“Mon général?” Pino said finally. “May I ask you a question?” Leyers’s tongue sounded thick when he said, “What is it?”

Pino slowed at an intersection, winced at the Daimler backfiring, and then glanced in the rearview before saying, “Do you really work for Adolf Hitler?”

For what seemed like an eternity, Leyers said nothing. Then he replied in a slight slur, “Many, many times, Vorarbeiter, I have sat at the left hand of the führer. People say there is a bond between us because both our fathers worked as customs inspectors. There is that. But I am a man who gets things done, a man to depend on. And Hitler respects that. He does, but

. . .”

Pino glanced in the rearview and saw the general taking another draw on the scotch.

“But?” Pino said.

“But it is a good thing I am in Italy. If you stay too close to someone like Hitler, you are going to burn someday. So I keep my distance. I do my work. I earn his respect, and nothing more. Do you see?”

“Oui, mon général.

Four or five minutes passed before General Leyers took another swig and said, “I am an engineer by training, Vorarbeiter. I have my doctorate.

From the beginning, as a younger man, I worked for the government in armaments, awarding contracts. Millions upon millions of kronen. I learned how to negotiate with great men, industrialists like Flick and Krupp. And because of that, men like Flick and Krupp owe me favors.”

Leyers paused, and then said, “I will give you some advice, Vorarbeiter. Advice that could change your life.”

“Oui, mon général?”

“Doing favors,” Leyers said. “They help wondrously over the course of a lifetime. When you have done men favors, when you look out for others so they can prosper, they owe you. With each favor, you become stronger, more supported. It is a law of nature.”

“Yes?” Pino said.

“Yes,” Leyers said. “You can never go wrong in this way, because there will be times when you will need a favor, and it will be right there waiting to come to the rescue. This practice has saved me more than once.”

“I will keep that in mind.”

“You are a smart boy, just like Hans-Jürgen,” the general said, and laughed. “Such a simple, simple thing, the doing of favors, but because of them, I lived well before Hitler, I’ve lived well under Hitler, and I know I’ll live well long after Hitler is gone.”

Pino glanced at the mirror and saw Leyers’s dark silhouette as he drained the scotch bottle. “One last piece of advice from a man older than his years?”

“Oui, mon général?”

“You never want to be the absolute leader in the game of life, the man out front, the one everyone sees and looks to,” Leyers said. “That’s where my poor Willy made his mistake. He got out front, right there in the light. You see, Vorarbeiter, in the game of life, it is always preferable to be a man of the shadows, and even the darkness, if necessary. In this way, you run things, but you are never, ever seen. You are like a . . . phantom of the opera. You are like . . .”

The scotch bottle fell to the floor. The general cursed softly. A moment later, with his arms wrapped around his valise, using it like a pillow, he began to snorfle, choke, snore, and fart.

 

 

When they reached Dolly’s apartment building, it was almost midnight. Pino left the comatose general in the Daimler, and left the staff car running for fear it might never start again. He ran through the lobby, past the crone’s empty stool, and up the stairs to Dolly’s. Anna did not answer until the third series of knocks.

Dressed for bed in her nightgown and robe, Anna looked weary and lovely.

“I need Dolly,” he said.

“What’s happened?” Dolly said, coming down the hall in a black-and- gold dressing gown.

“The general,” Pino said. “He’s had too—”

“Too much to drink?” General Leyers said, coming in through the open door, valise in hand. “Nonsense, Vorarbeiter. I’m having another drink, and so are you. Will you join us, Dolly?”

Pino stared at Leyers as if he were Lazarus arisen. As the general passed Pino, his breath was foul with alcohol, and his eyes looked like they were bleeding, but he wasn’t slurring his words or weaving on his feet at all.

“What are we celebrating, Hans?” Dolly said, brightening. Anna had said she was always up for a party.

“The blue moon,” the general said, setting down the valise. He kissed her lustily before throwing his arm around her shoulder and looking back at Pino. “And we are celebrating the fact that Vorarbeiter Lella saved my life, and that deserves a drink!”

He spun Dolly around the corner into the living area.

Anna looked at Pino with a puzzled smile on her face. “Did you?”

“I saved myself,” Pino whispered. “He kind of came along for the ride.”

“Vorarbeiter!” Leyers yelled from the other room. “A drink! And fair Anna, too!”

When they entered the living room, the general was beaming and holding out generous tumblers of whiskey. Dolly was already gulping hers. Pino didn’t know how Leyers was still standing, but the general took a draw of the liquor and launched into a blow-by-blow description of what he called “the Once-in-a-Blue-Moon Duel between the Sneaky Pilot in the Spitfire and the Daring Vorarbeiter in the Daimler.”

Dolly and Anna were on the edge of their seats as Leyers recounted the Spitfire’s final return and Pino’s locking up the brakes and shouting at him to run. And the machine guns and the Daimler’s near destruction.

General Leyers raised his glass at the end of his story and said, “To Vorarbeiter Lella, who I owe a favor or two.”

Dolly and Anna clapped. Pino’s face felt flushed from the attention, but he smiled and raised his glass in return. “Thank you, General.”

A loud rapping came at the door to the apartment. Anna set her glass down and went to the hallway. Pino went with her.

When the maid opened the door, the old crone, the building concierge, was there in her ragged nightclothes, holding a candle lantern.

“Your neighbors can’t sleep for all the hell-raising,” she scolded, blinking behind her glasses. “There’s a lorry or something backfiring out on the street, and you’re carrying on drunk in the middle of the night!”

“I forgot,” Pino said. “I’ll go right down and turn the car off.” Dolly and Leyers appeared at the head of the hallway.

“What is happening?” Dolly asked.

Anna explained, and Dolly said, “We’re all going to bed now, Signora Plastino. Sorry to have kept you up.”

The crone made a harrumphing noise and, still indignant, turned away, holding the candle lantern high, dragging the filthy hem of her nightgown behind her, and groping her way down the staircase. Pino followed her at a safe distance.

After he turned off the staff car’s engine, and after a very drunk General Leyers and Dolly had retired to their bedroom, he was at last alone again with Anna in the kitchen.

She warmed up a sausage, broccoli, and garlic dish and poured him a glass of wine and one for herself. Then she sat opposite him, chin in her hand, and asked him questions about the fighter plane and what it felt like to be shot at, to have someone trying to kill him.

“It felt scary,” he said after thinking about it for a moment between bites of the delicious meal. “But I was more scared afterward, when I’d had a chance to think about it. Everything was happening so fast, you know?”

“No, and I don’t want to know, not really. I don’t like guns.” “Why?”

“They kill people, and I’m a people.”

“Lots of things kill people. Are you frightened of mountain climbing?”

“Yes,” she said. “Aren’t you?”

“No,” Pino said, drinking his wine. “I love mountain climbing, and skiing.”

“And dueling with airplanes?”

“When it’s called for,” he said, and grinned. “This is fantastic, by the way. You really are a great cook.”

“Old family recipe, and thank you,” Anna said, rolling her shoulders forward and studying his face. “You’re full of surprises, you know.”

“Am I?” Pino asked, pushing the plate back. “I think people underestimate you.” “Good.”

“I’m serious. I underestimated you.” “Did you?”

“Yes. I’m proud of you, that’s all.” That made him flush. “Thanks.”

Anna continued to gaze at him for several long moments, and he felt himself falling into her eyes, as if they created a world unto themselves.

“I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone quite like you,” she said at last. “I should hope not. I mean, that’s a good thing, yes?”

Anna sat back. “Good and frightening all at the same time, if I’m being honest.”

“I scare you?” he said, frowning. “Well, yes. In a way.”

“What way?”

She looked off, shrugged. “You make me wish I were different, better.

Younger, anyway.”

“I like you just the way you are.”

Anna gazed at him doubtfully. Pino reached out to her. Anna looked at his hand a long moment, and then smiled and took it in hers.

“You’re special,” Pino said. “For a fantasy, I mean.”

Anna’s smile widened, and she got up and came over to sit in his lap. “Show me I’m special for real,” she said, and kissed him.

When they broke apart, they touched foreheads and entwined their hands. Pino said, “You know secrets that could get me killed, but I know so little about you.”

After several moments, Anna seemed to come to some kind of decision and touched her uniform above her heart. “I’ll tell you about one of my scars. An old one.”

Anna said her early childhood was magical. Her father, a commercial fisherman and native of Trieste, owned his own boat. Her mother was from Sicily, superstitious about everything, but a good mother, a loving mother. They had a nice home near the marina and good food on the table. Due to a series of miscarriages, Anna was an only child and doted on by her parents. She loved being in the kitchen with her mother. She loved being on the boat with her father, especially on her birthday.

“Papa and I would go out on the Adriatic before dawn,” Anna said. “We’d go west in the darkness several kilometers. Then he’d turn the boat around east and let me take the wheel. I’d drive the boat straight into the sunrise. I loved that.”

“How old were you?”

“Oh, maybe five the first time.”

On her ninth birthday, Anna and her father got up early. It was raining and windy, so there would be no voyage into the sunrise, but she wanted to go anyway.

“So we did,” she said, fell quiet, and then cleared her throat. “The storm got worse. A lot worse. My father put a life preserver on me. We were getting hit by waves, and we got turned broadside to them. A big one hit us hard enough to capsize the boat and throw us into the sea. I was rescued later in the day by other fishermen from Trieste. My father was never found.”

“Oh God,” Pino said. “That’s horrible.”

Anna nodded, tears slipping from her eyes and dripping on his chest. “My mother was worse, but she’s a scar for another time. I have to sleep. And you have to go.”

“Again?”

“Yes,” she said, smiled, and kissed him once more.

Though he desperately wanted to stay, Pino felt happy upon leaving Dolly’s apartment around 2:00 a.m. He hated seeing Anna’s face disappear as she closed the door, but he loved that she looked forward to seeing him again.

Downstairs, the lobby and the old crone’s stool were empty. He went outside and looked at the bullet holes in the Daimler, and wondered how

they’d survived. He would go home and sleep, and in the morning he would find his uncle. He had much to tell.

 

 

The next morning, while Aunt Greta cut and toasted bread she’d stood hours in a ration line to buy, Uncle Albert took notes as Pino recounted all that had happened to him since they’d last spoken. He finished with the story of General Leyers getting drunk.

Uncle Albert sat there several moments, and then asked, “How many lorries and armored cars did you say are coming off the Fiat lines every day?”

“Seventy,” Pino said. “If it weren’t for the sabotage, they’d be making more.”

“That’s good to know,” he said, scribbling.

Aunt Greta put toast, butter, and a small jar of jam on the table. “Butter and jam!” Uncle Albert said. “Wherever did you get that?” “Everyone has their secrets,” she said, and smiled.

“Even General Leyers, it seems,” Uncle Albert said.

“Especially General Leyers,” Pino said. “Did you know he reports directly to Hitler? That he’s sat at the führer’s left hand in meetings?”

His uncle shook his head. “Leyers is far more powerful than we thought, which is why I’d love to see what he’s got in that valise.”

“But he’s always got it with him, or where it would be noticed missing.”

“He leaves clues, though. He spent the better part of a week dealing with strikes and sabotages, which says to me strikes and sabotage are working. Which says we need more sabotage in the factories. We’ll break the Nazis gear tooth by gear tooth.”

“The Germans are also having trouble paying,” Pino said. “Fiat is working on Hitler’s guarantee of payment, not cash.”

Uncle Albert studied Pino, thought about that. “Scarcity,” he said at

last.

“What?” Aunt Greta said.

“The food lines are getting worse, aren’t they?”

She nodded. “Longer every day. For nearly everything.”

“It’s going to get much worse,” her husband said. “If the Nazis have no money to pay, their economy is starting to break down. They will start seizing more and more of our stores soon, and that will lead to more scarcity and more misery for everyone in Milan.”

“You think so?” Aunt Greta said, worrying her apron.

“It’s not necessarily a bad thing, scarcity, in the long run I mean. More misery, more pain, will mean more of us willing to fight until the last German is dead or driven from Italy.”

 

 

By the middle of October 1944, events were starting to prove Uncle Albert right.

Pino drove General Leyers’s new staff car, a Fiat four-door sedan, southeast from Milan one beautiful autumn morning. It was harvest time on the Po River valley floor. Men were taking scythes to grain and picking gardens, groves, and orchards. Leyers sat in the back of the Fiat, as was his custom, the valise open, reports in his lap.

Since they’d survived the strafing, Leyers had been more cordial to Pino, but he showed little of the empathy and openness he had that night. Then again, Pino hadn’t seen him take a drink since. He followed the general’s directions, and within an hour they arrived at a large meadow in the countryside. Fifty German lorries were parked there along with Panzer tanks, armored cars, and seven or eight hundred soldiers, a full battalion of them. Most were Organization Todt men, but they had a full company of SS soldiers behind them.

General Leyers exited the car, his face hard. At the sight of the general, the entire battalion came to attention. Leyers was met by a lieutenant colonel who led him to a stack of weapons crates. Leyers climbed up on the crates and began to speak rapidly and forcefully in German.

Pino was only catching the odd phrase or word, something about the Fatherland and the needs of brother Germans, but whatever he was saying certainly revved up the troops. They were upright, shoulders back, mesmerized by the general as he exhorted them.

General Leyers finished his speech, shouting something about Hitler, and then threw his arm up and out in the Nazi salute. “Sieg heil!” he roared.

“Sieg heil!” they thundered back at him.

Pino stood there, confused by the fear he felt growing inside him.

What had Leyers said to them? What was happening?

The general disappeared with several officers into a tent. The eight hundred soldiers climbed into half the lorries and left the others empty. Their diesel engines rattled to life. The vehicles began to snake their way out of the meadow, one lorry full of men followed by an empty one. Some pairs went north on the rural road, and the rest headed south, lumbering into the distance like so many war elephants on parade.

Leyers emerged from the tent. His face betrayed nothing as he climbed into the backseat of the Fiat and told Pino to drive south through the Po River valley, as fertile a place as there was on earth. Three kilometers into the drive, Pino saw a girl sitting in the driveway of a small farm with a grain tower. She was sobbing. Her mother sat on the front stoop, her face in her hands.

Not far down the road, Pino saw the body of a man facedown in the ditch with his white T-shirt bruised purple from drying blood. Pino glanced in the rearview. If Leyers had seen any of it, he wasn’t showing a reaction. His head was down. He was reading.

The road ran down through a creek bottom and came up onto a large flat with harvested fields on both sides. Less than a kilometer ahead, a small settlement of houses was clustered next to a large grain bin made of stone.

German lorries were parked on the road and in the farmyards. Platoons of Waffen-SS soldiers marched people out into their front yards, maybe twenty-five of them, and forced them to their knees with fingers laced behind their heads.

“Mon général?” Pino said.

In the backseat, Leyers looked up, cursed, and told him to stop. The general climbed out and shouted at the SS men. The first Todt soldier appeared with large grain sacks on his shoulders. Others came behind, twenty, maybe more, laden with grain sacks.

The SS reacted to something Leyers said, and the families were urged to their feet and then allowed to sit as a group while they watched their grain, their livelihood, their survival, stolen and thrown into the back of a Nazi transport.

One of the farmers would not sit, and started shouting at Leyers. “You can at least leave us enough to eat. It’s the decent thing to do.”

Before the general could reply, one of the SS soldiers hit the farmer in the head with the butt of his rifle and dropped him in his tracks.

“What did he say to me?” Leyers asked Pino.

Pino told him. The general listened, thought, and then called to one of his Todt officers, “Nehmen sie alles!”

Then he headed toward the car. Pino followed, upset because he knew enough German to understand Leyers’s command. Nehmen sie alles. Take everything.

Pino wanted to kill the general. But he couldn’t. He had to swallow his anger and marshal himself. But did Leyers have to take everything?

As he slid into the Fiat, Pino silently repeated a vow he’d made to remember what he’d seen, from the slaving to the pillaging. When the war was over, he would tell the Allies everything.

They drove on into the early afternoon, seeing more and more farms with Germans under Leyers’s command stealing grain bound for mills, vegetables bound for market, and livestock bound for slaughter. Cows were shot in the head, gutted, and thrown into the lorries whole, their carcasses throwing steam into the cool air.

Every once in a while, the general would tell Pino to stop, and he’d climb out to have a conversation with a Todt officer or two. Then he’d order Pino to drive on and return to his reports. Pino kept glancing at the mirror, thinking how Leyers seemed to shift and change with every moment. How can he possibly be unmoved by what we’ve seen? How can he—?

“You think I’m a wicked man, Vorarbeiter?” Leyers said from the backseat.

Pino looked in the mirror, saw the general looking back at him.

“Non, mon général,” Pino said, trying to put on his happy face.

“Yes, you do,” Leyers said. “It would be surprising if you didn’t hate me for what I’ve had to do today. A part of me hates myself. But I have orders. Winter is coming. My country is under siege. Without this food, my people will starve. So here in Italy, and in your eyes, I’m a criminal. Back home, I’ll be an unsung hero. Good. Evil. It’s all a question of perspective, is it not?”

Pino gazed at the general in the mirror, thinking that Leyers seemed infinite and ruthless, the kind of man who could justify almost any action in pursuit of a goal.

“Oui, mon général,” Pino said, and couldn’t restrain himself. “But now, my people will starve.”

“Some might,” Leyers said. “But I answer to a greater authority. Any lack of enthusiasm for this mission on my part could be grounds for . . . Well, that’s not going to happen if I can help it. Take me back to Milan, the central train station.”‌

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