"You’re awake," Sofia murmured. She was sitting in an armchair opposite Sara’s, her bejeweled hands poised over the cards on the small table before her. Wedged lengthwise like a hairy slug between her thigh and the chair’s arm, General, her stubby terrier, snored gently. Behind the women, the little door to the boudoir, cut flush into the wall, remained closed.
"Poor Sara,” Madam murmured, adjusting her shawl with a lift of her shoulders, “you've been waiting so long." In the amber light her chignoned white hair was blonde, the liver spots on her upper palms tan. "Pazienza.” The old dog's belly swelled and contracted in sleep. "You have no idea what this is about? It has been a long time since she needed you here so late.”
"She’ll tell me later.” It struck Sara that she and Madame and Generale were like mummies in an inner sanctum, waiting with their paraphernalia for the next life.
"Of course she will.” Sofia was a seventy-five-ish beauty with wise eyes and a heart anything but mummified. She looked up. The turquoise solitaire she always wore on her left hand stood out like a plover's egg. "Goodness, how pale you are, Sra. Take a glass of water.”
Sara went to the sideboard. "A refill for you, Madam?"
Sofia glanced at the half-full sherry glass perched at the edge of the table like a tiny stork napping on one leg. "Perhaps later.”
Sara sipped, admiring Madam's diamond drop earrings and the cashmere throw on her lap. Sofia was an anomaly, a self-made success in the world's oldest profession and a grande dame all’antica all at once. Normally, her love of the Baroque, extending from the decor of her house to her formal speech always amply salted with pronouncements, proverbs, clichés, and verities, was comforting; tonight, it grated.
"You are staring at me, Sara,” Madame said gently. Generale stretched his salt-and-pepper torso with a deep sigh, but slumbered on. "It's not like you to be restless. You usually have a book with you. Why not tonight?”
"I haven't been reading much lately." Sara returned to her chair. Escape wasn't what it used to be. She felt time running out, but couldn’t identify the timekeeper.
"Pity. Reading sooths you, as the cards do me. I take such pleasure in them. I would be sorry to lose that.”
Daunted by Madam's serene self-knowledge, Sara sat back, closed her eyes. She could hear the muffled shouts from the baccarat table in the grand salon below, and pictured the townhouse on Viale Beatrice D'Este as an open-sided dollhouse. On the floor below her, the gambling; two flights above her, in the attic, two men and a girl waiting, sitting around a bare wood table. And business as usual in the bedrooms, including Madam Sofia’s boudoir behind the little door. Different lives on different levels.
Sofia, a pragmatic sage, often claimed that she had chosen her risky, double life not because she was a patriot or politician, and certainly not because she was a heroine. Nor, she would insist, had courage or goodness played a role. She was simply an Italian woman acting in the interests of sanity and good business. Organization was the key; the secret life of her ‘house’ had to run as smoothly as the parallel, 'official' one—as smoothly as the Duce's trains. In fact, house standards were as timeless and spotless as the silver in the salon or the linens in the rooms. By five each day the girls, freshly coiffed and manicured, were down in the salon; Rosa, the cook and housekeeper, was supervising preparations for late suppers, and the bedrooms were ready for the night, down to clean bidet towels and refilled talcum and toothpowder jars. By eight each night, Madame Sofia, a bit like a proud Mother Superior, would proudly say that it was like the old days, and never mind the cut of man's uniform, the tongue in which he commanded his pleasure, or the bombs that dropped from the skies with horrific frequency.
"You're so quiet, Sara. Are you upset? I’m sure it’s racket downstairs. These Germans, such barbari. The longer the war, the louder they get.” Madam poked a stray hairpin at the nape of her neck back into place. "I'll be glad when they're gone from Italy and from my business. We women must always live in spite, and not because, of male authority, German or Italian. Love, I always say, is like a game of solitaire: it’s easier with matching suits. Spade to spade, club to club."
Sara smiled. "You mean, 'Moglie e buoi dai paesi tuoi'?"
"'Wives and oxen from one's own village.' I’d cast that thought a bit less crudely.” Head bent, Sofia paused to contemplate l'amore and solitario, her two best games. “Yet,” she resumed thoughtfully, “passion is more cultural than we like to think. Love doesn’t always conquer all—rarely conquers all, in my experience. It’s a no-win game. Still, the expected betrayals, the familiar cruelties, are easiest to forgive when like is with like--Italian with Italian, German with German. Like cards, love is as dicey as life itself. There are never any guarantees; too often luck decides." She set one card down upon another. "Are you still listening, Sara?"
"Yes.” Although the hackneyed philosophy could induce terminal crankiness. "No guarantees, you said."
"No guarantees. But there are precautions. Insurances." The thought brought a smile to Madam Sofia’s plump lips. "Take those two in the attic: my Italian aces in the attic." She chuckled at her own pun, and Generale raised his head. "There, there, Generale mio." She stroked the animal's back until it rippled with pleasure and he settled down again. Reaching for her glass, Madam finished her sherry. "Poor General,” she murmured, “he’s old. Not much of a protector anymore. Nights like tonight, with both sides under my roof, I am more watchdog than he. If I had a lira for every solitario I have played in this room while above and below me, in this very house ....”
The little door opened. Lena Servadio, black-haired and slim in a tweed skirt and beige pullover, came through between the armchairs. She stopped before the two women.
"Done,” she said. “Madam, your bedroom's your own again.” Her smile raised rosy dots on the porcelain cheekbones.
"Good." Sofia studied her with fond concern. "But look how flushed you are! Is it rouge?"
"No! Excitement. The transmission...." The turquoise egg on Madam Sofia’s hand rose in warning. "Scusami," Lena said. “I forgot: no details.” She tilted her head towards Sara and a lock of absolutely straight bobbed hair, smooth as an oil slick, slid across her forehead. "You're all right?" she asked.
Unsure whether Lena's jaunty mood was genuine or a show for Madam's benefit, Sara nodded. "Good,” Lena said. "Then I'll take a drop of sherry before we go up to the attic for the rest of the night’s business." She reached for Sofia's glass. "You, Madam?”
"How nice! Thank you, my dear." Madam watched Lena walk to the sideboard, and finally said, "Cara, you know, you glide like a professional mannequin. With you two," she continued, "I must smother the grudge that vanity bears youth. Especially with you, Lena. I begin to think professionally. You're rather tall, but such posture! Square shoulders, trim narrow hips...."
"A bit long-waisted," Lena said with a wink at Sara.
"Legs a little short,” Madam Sofia conceded. “But nicely shaped. Ankles too, even in those clumsy ankle socks and oxfords. The effect is one of background. Wealth and privilege."
"But no softness for love! Thank you, dear." Madam took the glass and sipped. "You see, girls,” she continued, “men prefer warm handfuls of flesh and a yielding spirit. And you, carissima Lena, may bend, but you will never break, never fully surrender. It’s a shame,” she teased, "because you could have been the thoroughbred in my stable." With a snort, Lena reared her head like a gorgeous mare. "That's it!” Sofia nodded eagerly. “An inner flame that scorches men. Made of straw anyway, most of them."
"Ah. Now, Sara...is very feminine."
"Sofia! So am I!"
"Of course, of course. But that flush comes to your skin only after you've worked the radio. You will never burn so bright for a man.”
"Men don't deserve fire. An occasional flare is good enough.”
"You see? Your passion is for this... work, as you call it. What happens when it's over?”
"When we've won, you mean.”
Madam's eyebrows arched. "You are arrogant, Lena. Have a care.”
Having none, Lena said, "When we've won, there'll be other passions.”
"For other ideas, you mean. Not for love." Madame’s tightly corseted bosom heaved with regret. "Life has robbed your generation of the thrill of earthly pleasure. In my day war it stirred the blood: gallant young men, yearning young women. Now Sara reads her books while you....”
"You're a romantic." Lena helped herself to more sherry. "By the way, before I forget, I gave Silvio some cognac and food this afternoon for...."
"No, no!” Sofia's lips pursed adamantly. "Never ever account to me. What we get from the Germans we share. Equally."
"But it's not equal. You hide me, shelter me, feed me. All gratis. I'm a parasite.”
"No, no, you earn your keep. Silvio, too. You've put him at my beck and call; he does for us. And you help me manage. The girls listen to you. Even my old Rosa listens. I am a business woman, I know what things are worth. However,” Sofia added slyly, "if you ever reconsider, with a little training you'd be one of my best." She looked up and of course Lena was smiling. "Come," Madam said affectionately, "Take the little chair and sit by me a bit.”
So we keep womanly company, Sara thought; sisterhood confirmed. And only the merest lie in it. Sofia was genuinely content, Sara's own irritability was mitigated by Lena's presence, and as Lena absently scratched Generale's ears, her worryingly high spirits seemed calmed. The tug of black eyebrows toward the bridge of her nose might have been only a pensive expression until she asked, too casually for Sara's comfort, "Flavio’s here?”
"Oh yes.” Sofia was shuffling cards. "Maria came in earlier to let us know. You know Lena, you could learn from little Maria. She absolutely flushes with love; how she dotes on her Peppe!"
"Our leader," Lena said bitterly. "You're enamored of that couple, Sofia."
"So I am. Peppe's gruff, but he loves his Maria, and she’s been in seventh heaven all day and most of the evening; she had him to herself until Flavio came."
Lena nipped at her sherry, her dark eyes focused on the rug's inscrutable pattern. No answers there, my friend, Sara thought; no answers anywhere. How and why had the group's good will deteriorated? Flavio had become intractable, Lena was impossibly preoccupied, and she—the calm one, the voice of reason—no longer had the concentration for reading.
"Curfew and all, Flavio will gallivant. Such risks he takes, " Sofia said, gathering up the cards but watching Lena, who was massaging her forehead. It was a gesture Sara remembered from their shared childhood. "Another headache?” Madam chided. “Well, I shouldn't wonder. Straining to hear those signals is bad for the nerves and the complexion; you'll get wrinkles, Lena."
"You know, Madam Sofia," Lena said, looking up; tears welled in her eyes, "sometimes I wish...."
"Dio mio!” the older woman exclaimed, her hand flying to the crucifix on her breast. "Tears!? Five minutes ago you were glowing. Now....Why, you haven't cried since—I don’t know when," she finished lamely, bypassing the day, nearly three years before, the news had come to them of Lena’s brother David's death.
"Sometimes I so wish I could confide in you..." Lena said.
"Stop it. Be strong.” Sofia was stern now. “In your position you may confide in no one, share no secrets. Nor are you accountable for your decisions. Act like a man.”
"But at times...."
"Rubbish. And stop weeping,” Madam commanded. “The world has no interest in a woman's tears—or doubts. Act swiftly, and alone. Mark my words, unless you put a good face on a bad game doubt will destroy you.” She sat back, weary. "My dear Lena, your choices are beyond me. Things could have been easier if you had only been sensible and...."
"You weren't sensible," Sara bid, in Lena’s defense.
"I," said Madam promptly and huffily, "am not Jewish and twenty-three years old and a banker's daughter. And you, Sara, weren't very sensible yourself, so be still.” She pulled at her shawl like a ruffled hen. "But that’s neither here nor there. Since you both chose as you did, you must finish it—whatever that means this time.” Her raised hand stopped response. "And don't either of you dare apologize or explain. Just go. Now,” she ordered. “Go: they’re waiting.”
"What a blessing David sent me to you," Lena said, rising, smiling now if faintly.
"O Dio,” Sofia remarked. "Povera Italia, look what we've come to. A fine young man sends his sister to hide in a bordello and she calls it a blessing."
"Well, not just any bordello." Lena bent to kiss Madam’s forehead.
"All tight,” Sofia conceded, eyes reddening, "only the best for David’s sister. But do be careful, figlioletta. Whatever you're up to."
* * * *
"What's going on?" Sara demanded. They were at the stairwell door.
"You'll hear when they do." Lena pointed upward to the ‘they’ in the attic above. On the second step the dagger of smoky light from the open trap door came to a point; in it Lena’s face was wan with headache and fatigue. The show put on for Madam was over. "At least tell me where Silvio…." There was a loud flapping noise, like the panicky scattering of ducks, and Lena veered in fright to the side wall. “Tre,” said a deep voice, filtering down the tunnel of the stairway. “Lena, it’s just Peppe,” Sara said. “Calm down, will you? It’s Peppe bidding.”
Every step of the climb brought different sounds from overhead: feet changing position on the wood planks; Maria clearing her throat; a glug-glug and a refilled glass meeting the table. And the constant, spiteful tap-and-thud: bam-BAM, bam-BAM. bam-BAM, bam-BAM of a hand thumping a stack of cards. That was Flavio, Sara decided. More of the obnoxious commotion he’d become so good at lately. When the war was hardest, friendship amongst them had been effortless. The skinny Florentine would grab the spotlight with imitations of the Duce, the King, Churchill, even Sofia and Generale. Or he'd do table tricks: ignite a pyramid of toothpicks perched on a wine bottle so the flimsy pyre flew like a mini-firebomb; shoot toothpicks from the rim of a glass with a pack of cigarettes. But the faster the war wound down, the faster Flavio's wit curdled into sarcasm.
Two steps from the trapdoor, beyond the opening in the floor, a naked bulb hanging from the attic’s rafter lit a jungle of legs, wooden and human, around the table. "Look at him,” Lena whispered, stopping. Flavio, sat sideways on the chair closest to the trap door, was a silhouette of spiky motion. The right leg, crossed over the left, jerked forward; the raised foot, shod in fine leather, twitched like a cobra's tongue inside the flare of the clean, pressed, gray-flannel trouser cuff. Gone were the days when Flavio the dandy could poke fun at his own nattiness—telling how, back in Florence when the Fascists had a price on his head, he'd burgled his own parents' mansion for his clothes. Lena pointed upward. "Now look at Maria's legs," she said.
Maria’s thin gams, hosed in putty-colored wool, were twined around Peppe's hefty, brown-corduroyed left leg. “Like vines around a tree trunk,” Sara said, thinking that Peppe was, in fact, a sturdy tree trunk of a man, a dependable Marchigiano down to the black boots he'd stolen off a dead German. She said, "Peppe’s so...."
"Thick, Sara. He’s thick. Thick-legged and thick-witted.”
Sara, who was fond of him, said, "I was going to say, he’s so salt of the earth."
"More like its fertilizer. You and Sofia drool over him because he loves Maria and he’s good to her. But he’s past it. He’s no leader anymore. Nothing moves him nowadays, he does nothing. That's not leadership, it's survival.” Or maybe good sense, Sara thought, and might have said so but Lena, announcing, "It's us!" was marching through the trapdoor.
The newcomers made their way through the smoke-filled attic towards the table. Peppe set his cards down, covered them with his huge hands, and watched with large, brooding eyes—saving face, Sara thought. Acting the role of macho leader, humoring the women who had demanded this meeting. Maria, gawky and servile, was getting the wine flask from a tray on the old trunk behind her. Flavio, ignoring Sara and Lena, beat his drum-roll with antsy movements that reminded Sara of a maddened praying mantis. Something was seriously wrong with him lately. He had never been the friendliest of men; these days his anger escaped him like steam from a boiling kettle.
Lena sat down next to Peppe, Sara sat on his other side, between Peppe and Flavio, and folded her hands in her lap. The Florentine kept banging the deck of cards, lost in some furious world of his own.
"Make him stop that,” Lena said.
Peppe’s eyebrows rose. Not only had he been summoned here by a woman—now she was ordering him about. But he lifted his hand, and Flavio stopped the banging. "Va bene?" Peppe asked. Lena nodded. "Good. Okay, let’s have it. Why have you called us here?”
"They've sent us an agent,” Lena said. “An American. He's already down.”
The blunt announcement explained Lena's earlier testiness and distress. But the shock of it hit the back of Sara’s throat with a bitter taste that she tried forcing down her gullet as she groped for self-control-- even as her cheeks burned hot with anger at Lena and the secret she had been keeping. They were in for it now, Sara knew. She watched the implications of Lena’s announcement sink in around the table. Flavio's stone-gray eyes were riveted on the glass before him, which he rotated with his long fingers; Maria’s eyes bounced around the table apprehensively. And Lena and Peppe glowered at one another like squabbling lovers. She should have told me, Sara thought; she had no business NOT telling me....
"An agent?" Flavio spoke very softly, and a creepy shiver traveled Sara’s spine. "Agent... How, exactly? Agent like, an assassin? A babysitter? A pimp? Or....? "You requested an agent from the Americans?" Peppe folded his arms over his chest and the black knuckle hairs of his hands matched the sweater's coarse wool. "Or the Americans offered us an agent ?"
"Puttana," Flavio muttered.
Lena's head spun in his direction, but Peppe ignored him. “Lena,” he said, “you requested an agent, or they offered us one?”
"BRRRAVA!" Flavio shouted. And he was on his feet, a madman, his back arched into a rigid flamenco question mark. Clicking his heels on the floor, he clapped his hands sharply. "BRRAVA!" He was a live castanet, and his upper body lunged across the table—toward Lena. Maria gasped, Sara moved to protect Lena, who hadn't moved a muscle—but it was Peppe Flavio was after.
"I told you, Peppino: Watch her, I said. Keep an eye on her. I warned you.” He turned to Lena. “Don't leer at me,” he growled. “You can’t stop us anyway, you know. You....” Something stopped him. Lena's stare? Peppe's hard eyes? “Okay, okay," he mumbled. He folded back into his chair and reached for cigarettes.
"Answer me, Lena,” Peppe said. “Did you request an agent?"
"No. But last week they wired me they were sending one. The day before yesterday, they let me know when and where he'd land, and the passwords.” Flavio's spidery fingers had coaxed a cigarette from the pack. He struck a match and the smell of sulfur rotten eggs wafted across the table. Then he purposely exhaled smoke into Lena’s face. Squinting, she continued. " I sent Silvio to get you here for this meeting to let you know."
"So good of you,” Flavio murmured sarcastically. “We do thank you.”
Lena said, "Then I sent Silvio to meet him—the agent. Confirmation’s just came in on the radio—from Switzerland —that the drop’s been made. We’ll know tomorrow if he’s landed safely.” She closed her eyes and pinched the skin above the bridge of her nose. Sara, knowing too well that headaches were a barometer of Lena’s psyche, knew that this must be a bad one, throbbing bloodless until relief at having spilled her secret sank in. But then what?
Peppe pointed to his glass. Maria hopped to refill it. "I thought we’d agreed,” he said. “We’re not negotiating for Italy -- not with the Germans, not with the Allies, not with the communists. We don’t want anyone’s agents, we never have wanted one. We were agreed on that.”
"Fuck her,” Flavio said. He was smoking with one hand and flexing a card in the other. “Don't you get it, Peppe?” He squeezed the card, bending it, opening and closing it. "The bitch is lying. The Americans didn't offer an agent—she requested one—all on her own. Didn't she, Carrot-top?” He turned to Sara for confirmation. “Well, little bookworm? Didn’t she?”
No sense contradicting Flavio. He and Peppe would never believe she hadn't known what Lena had done. They just would assume that she, Lena’s best friend, had known. Anyway, protecting Lena was all that mattered now. "An agent was inevitable sooner or later," she said.
"Nice one!" Flavio’s hand opened and closed on the card. "Inevitable? Is that what Lena told you? An agent was inevitable?” He shook his head ruefully, but his eyes never left the table. “Only death is inevitable, as you know, piccola.. But I bet if Lena said, 'Sara, eat shit,' you'd run for a fork. You're just our resident artist, along for the ride. You and your fairytales. The literary genius stuck in this messy war with only your rich friend Lena here to protect you.”
"Let’s be practical,” Sara said. She lacked Lena's taste for a fight. Besides, Flavio mustn't be provoked. "Refusing an American agent at this point would be cutting off our nose to spite our face. It's too close to the end."
"Ah.” Delicately, Flavio plucked a piece of loose tobacco from his lip. "It’s too close to the end, says Carrot-top the Bookworm. Too close…how do you mean that, exactly?" The card in his hand went Open, Close; Open, Close. "You mean, it’s time we sell out while we've still got the goods? Because we do have the goods, Peppe and me, we....”
Peppe's hand rose, silencing Flavio. "Maybe Sara’s right. Maybe it is time we have an agent.” Maria touched his arm, grateful for peace, and he patted her absently, the way Madam Sofia patted Generale. Easing his bulk back against the chair, he said to Lena, "But you should have consulted us first.”
"You wouldn't have agreed."
"I still haven't."
Flavio popped an unlit cigarette in his mouth, pushed his jaw out, and drawled, in flat, American English, "My fellow Americans, the only thing we have to fear is...America herself!” Then he snatched the deck of cards and resumed the bam-BAM.
"Stop,” Sara begged.
"I might, if Lena reveals the rest of her plan,” he said, tilting his head flirtatiously. “I mean...Peppe and I may be the last to know what plans you ladies have been cooking up, but we’re still the ones who do the killing around here. Not her,” he said, pointing at Lena. “Not yet, anyway."
The bam-BAM was deafening. "Put the cards down," Peppe ordered.
“When I get my answer,” Flavio said. “What’s the rest of the plan?”
"Silvio brings the American to Milan tomorrow," Lena said. "He stays at Sara's tomorrow night.”
Sara's jaw dropped, and Flavio laughed outright. "Hey, Carrot-top, an americano in your bed! Look at you! You knew about the agent, but you didn’t know just how much of him you’d be getting. More than you bargained for. But look at it this way: Lena’s doing you a favor. You've never gotten any on your own...."
"The agent goes to Sara,” Lena said, not once looking Sara’s way, “so that for the time being, we don't expose the radio or Madam Sofia unnecessarily."
"Or the radio operator," Flavio said, smiling amiably. "We wouldn’t want anyone putting a face on the radio operator, would we now? We’ve hidden this rich little Jewess this long, wouldn’t it be a shame if anyone, even a wonderful American, were to expose her, however accidentally?” He and Lena stared at one another, and Sara had to admire her friend’s nerve. “Actually, Lena,” Flavio said. “I’m touched by your concern. You want to be sure we can trust the American. Too clever by half you are. Isn't that what the Americans say?”
"The British,” Sara corrected automatically, and instantly regretted it.
"Tsk-tsk; I am rusty. Been too long since dear Miss Wade went back to England, don'cha know. Miss Wade was my English governess when I was just a lad," Flavio clarified in English for Maria, who looked woefully lost. She was a poor servant girl who spoke no English—barely spoke Italian, and that a dialect. When she spoke at all, that is. "But,” said Flavio, “maybe I can practice my English with the Yank. After all, five years from now we’ll all be speaking English, if Lena has anything to say about it.” He tapped the cards on the table. “Anyway,” he said, “the American can have a little chin wag with me and Peppe before we decide...."
Peppe stopped Flavio for the third time. "And the day after tomorrow, Lena?"
"Silvio will bring the American to you and the men at camp. Listen to me, Peppe," Lena pleaded urgently, "the American means supplies; money. This agent means we'll have a say in what happens when the war's over.”
"Nice trade," Flavio remarked, tapping the deck. "We get guns and money, the Americans get Italy. But what the fuck, look at it this way: If the American gets in the way of our plan...”—his eyes met Peppe's and he changed course—"... of our plan for our povera Italia, as Madam Sofia calls it, we can always kill him and still get the guns and money. I mean, who's to know? One American more or less…. You wouldn't tell on us if we killed him, would you, Lena? No, you're too loyal."
"Peppe," Lena said, “if we don’t work with the other partisans and the Allies at this stage, the Germans will destroy us. You know that.” She waved slightly in Flavio’s direction. “He doesn't listen, you must. Scorched earth, those are the Nazis retreat orders. They’ll kill every prisoner, blow every power station, rip out every rail tie. And it’s no bluff. Nazis keep their word when it comes to destruction. So we risk utter ruin, or we work with the Americans. Pick your poison."
"Utter ruin,” Flavio said, methodically pumping the card. And when Sara thought about it afterward, she knew it must have been not just the glib quip, the offhand sanction of destruction, but also something in Flavio’s limp face, a grotesque
parody of Renaissance manhood, that finally made Lena snap.
"You fool," Lena hissed at him. "Your glory, your wants, your... vanity. You're nothing but vanity, just like the Duce. Go set up your own little puppet Resistance to match Benito’s in Salò-- bleed us all until there's nothing left. Sofia's right, you bastard: Povera Italia, filled with men like you. Poor, poor Ita...."
One moment the card was rubbery in Flavio's hand; the next, he flicked it, it sliced the air, hit its target, and Lena's hand was on her face.
Sara reached for Lena. "Gesù, Gesù,” Maria keened, hands covering her mouth. “Povera Italia,” said Flavio daintily, his lips in a murderous grin, his empty hand still hovering balletically in the air. Sara gave Lena her handkerchief and Lena dabbed at the fine, diagonal streak of crimson on her cheek. Flavio lowered his hand and sat back. But the moment wouldn't stop. Lena sat staring at the stained handkerchief as if she couldn't quite make out what it was; Maria, cringing, held her breath, watching Peppe. And Peppe watched Flavio. Not humoring him. Just riding the tiger.
"Relax, everybody,” Flavio cajoled, “Just a little joke! Come on," he urged, spreading his arms expansively, "there’s something for everyone in our bell'Italia. Come one, come all!" he hawked. "Any century, all invaders welcome!" He raised his glass high. "Amici miei, here’s to l'americano. Hey—and to Easter! Easter’s just what, a week away? Something should be resurrected by then.” And head back, Adam's apple bouncing, he chugged down the full glass of wine.
* * * *
“What were you thinking?” Sara raked the hairbrush forward, looking out through the frizzy red curtain before her eyes at her friend, who was reaching inside the armoire for a hanger. "What came over you?”
Lena, unbuttoning her skirt, turned. "What you mean is how could I have acted without consulting them first."
"That too.” Sara slid her arm under her hair and flipped it back. "You sure can pick your moments,” she said. “Great timing. An agent now? In a few weeks the Germans will be gone. One American more or less won't mean a thing.”
"Maybe." Lena sidestepped out of her skirt. “But if you really want to know, I did it for my own self-respect."
Great, Sara thought, tempted to hurl the hairbrush at her. "Then you really are insane. Peppe and Flavio aren't playing, can’t you see that? This is dangerous stuff. Flavio’s so dangerous nowadays that he absolutely must not be provoked. Did you think you'd get away with foisting an American on them? They've changed...."
"Precisely. At this point we’re better off with the Americans we don’t know than the Italians we do know."
Sara smoothed her hand sideways against the bristles, cleaning the brush. "Okay. Now tell me the truth. It’s just me and you now, so tell me: Did you request an agent or did the Americans offer one?"
"You too?” Lena was concentrating on latching the loops inside the skirt on the hanger hooks. "What difference does it make if I requested the agent or the Americans offered him to us?”
“Uh—it made a difference to Peppe and Flavio. Or was I alone up there in the attic half an hour ago?”
Lena stared at her, implacable. "The one it really makes a difference to is me. Lena Servadio and her conscience."
"Please, spare me your perfect conscience. It matters to them and you know it. Something’s going on with those two, Lena. Peppe shut Flavio up three times. What was that all about? They're up to something behind our backs—just like you’ve been behind theirs. And now they're convinced you betrayed them—and they’re right. I don't even want to imagine what you you’ve gotten us into.”
"Don’t be so dramatic." Lena was facing the armoire.
"Did you request the agent?"
"No,” Lena hissed, “and keep your voice down, will you? It's the middle of the night. The Americans offered. But now I'm sorry I didn’t ask for the agent before the Americans offered him.”
Sara didn’t believe a word of it. Although as she stared at Lena’s slim back, the narrow hips covered in silk satin, the calf muscles bulging slightly, she began to feel more annoyed with herself than with Lena--because she could feel her own anger at her friend dissipating. What else could Lena have done but request an agent? Lena had to be a player, it was part of her modus. But the end of the war so close, the men had relegated her to the sidelines, and she couldn’t stand that, couldn’t play second-fiddle, couldn’t be out of the running. Live combat would have been preferable.
"The thing I really am sorry about,” Lena continued, facing Sara now, the cut invisible but the wounded cheek rosier than the other, "is that I didn't tell you before we went upstairs.”
“That too,” Sara said, knowing it was the only apology she'd get from Lena, but only partly mollified. "Lena, you volunteered my house to this... this spy tomorrow night. Didn’t you think you owed it to me as my friend to have told me what was going on?”
"Are you saying you won't do it?"
"Don't be silly. That's not the issue."
"I thought you’d be safer not knowing beforehand. I wanted it to come out at the meeting. Listen, Peppe and Flavio have to accept the American; it’s too late to refuse him, they're trapped now.” The corners of her mouth turned upward in a faint smile. "Caught between the American's drop from the sky and our walk up that stairwell."
"Clever. But trapped men are doubly dangerous."
"Then look at it this way: the American's in more danger from those two than we are.”
"And that’s also unconscionable of you. You’ve put an innocent man in serious jeopardy.”
"Come on, Sara, he’s an agent. Danger is his job. There’s a war on, or haven’t you heard?" Folded sweater in hand, Lena pulled at the heavy top drawer of the commode. "Besides, the way Peppe and Flavio are conniving, this American might have a lot more to do than baby-sit. He may be joining us just in time," she said, staring into the open drawer.
Staring, Sara knew, at the few items salvaged from the villa. From another life gone forever now: armoires crammed with suits, dresses, silk blouses, evening gowns, dressing gowns; chests of drawers stuffed with cashmeres, wools, silks; shoetrees growing slippers, high heels, boots, pumps; sacheted drawers of gloves, scarves, silk lingerie; shelves of hat boxes upon hat boxes; a dressing table whose vast marble surface was too small for the many crystal perfume bottles brought by Lena’s father to his only daughter from every trip he made to Paris. Nothing was left, every trapping of a super-wealthy, highly educated, beautiful young woman who deserved every gift— who tried to live true to her conscience—had been sold to raise money for the refugee network, for forged papers, for food, for black-market necessities. All as scattered now as Lena was.
Sara's theory was that Lena had kept the few empty crystal flacons and the one fur boa stashed in the bottom drawer as a sort of promise that one day, order would return to reshape the unbearable chaos and life would again be as it had once been. Until then, Lena Servadio, frail and half-naked, shivering before a half-empty drawer, was just another Jew in hiding, a refugee in her own country with half a life, a useless non-person trying to wrench meaning from a destiny growing more arbitrary by the minute. And Sara, her best friend, could only forgive her for not having shared this last secret. Which didn’t mean, however, that she and Lena were in any less danger from Peppe and Flavio. "You'll catch your death," Sara said. "Put on your nightgown."
Lena pushed the drawer shut and got her nightgown from the hook on the door. But once her head was inside the tent made by the gown that was resting on her shoulders, her teasing mood returned. "If only you were a man tonight, Sara."
Sara rolled her eyes. "Don’t start. You've been cooped up here too long."
"Come on: the truth. Aren't you sorry you've never done it? If we die tonight, you'll never know...."
Sara stood. "That does it. This may be another way to say you're sorry you didn't tell me about the agent before we went up to the attic, but it's been a really hectic night, and I can't take anymore. I'll change in the bathroom."
"No, no, stay here," Lena said, immediately contrite, and went to embrace her friend—wrapping both young women in the scent of an unbearably happier past, in the perfume of sun and scent in a freshly laundered nightgown. "Stay, Sara,” said Lena said, holding her at arms length, looking steadily into her eyes. “Sara-Sara, my friend of the mysterious, faraway island."
The phrase from their childhood made Sara's eyes smart.
Lena said, "What did Flavio say? Yes: 'You and your fairytales.' Moron.”
“Lena, be careful, there is something wrong with Flavio these days, he....”
“More than usual wrong? There was always something wrong with him.”
“Okay, he’s worse now. He picks fights with everyone, he....”
“I know. Maria told me that Peppe’s worried about him. But he was always out of control. Anyway, who isn’t a little bonkers nowadays with the end so close?
"Don’t look so worried,” Lena said. “What will be, will be. But I love you for your concern for me. You're all I have, you know."
We're all each other has, Sara reflected, undressing. The families had known one another for generations. Their fathers had been at University together in Milan many years ago, Lena’s father studying economics, Sara’s literature. Both men had been part of the small but elite Jewish community in Milan. As little girls, Lena and Sara saw one another once or twice a year; either when Sara came with her parents to Milan to visit Great Aunt and Uncle, or Lena came for part of the summer to Sara’s 'mysterious, faraway island.' Sometimes the two girls would go back to Milan together to spend July at Lena's country estate. And of course Lena had saved Sara’s life not too long ago. But Sara didn’t want to remember that just now.
When they were under the covers, lights out, Lena said huskily, "Now, if you were a man, Sara...."
"Stop it, stop teasing." Sara was wriggling her freezing toes under the hot water bottle.
Lena plumped her pillow. "God, aren't you at least curious? Don't you ever think about it? Love, sex….”
"Not really.” What she really thought was that when life was good and ready to shove you towards love, death, or any of the in-between, it would, and you couldn’t force it. Or wish for something that wasn't ready to happen.
"Well,” Lena said, "think about this: There'll be a man with you tomorrow night in your flat, Sara. That’s a first. Maybe," she intoned in throaty growl, "there's an americano in your destiny"
"Honestly.” Sara rolled over so her back was to her friend. "Haven't you made enough trouble for one night?”
* * * *
In the study of 23 Herrengasse, a large log on the fireplace rack gave a last splutter and crashed in sizzling bits to the hot tiles below.
"Wha...?" Allen Dulles, slumped in the chair, his aching left foot on the hassock, opened his eyes and blinked. Gero was seated in the opposite armchair, stern as the fireplace poker, glued to his book, the sharp widow's peak on his forehead in perfect alignment with the book's center binding.
Dulles closed his eyes and ran his tongue over his fuzzy-feeling teeth. Ah yes; he had dined with the stunning Wally earlier tonight. Enough to induce a hangover without even drinking—though tonight, he had drunk as well. Too much wine, too much brandy afterward, and no smooching. That was the worst part. No wonder his leg ached. But ever since the beautiful Wally had rearranged their friendship, all Dulles was permitted was the pleasure of sitting opposite her at table and listening to her charming accent: 'Allen, you are so dear a fren to me, I nevehr forget. You think you succeed? I see him soon?"
He twisted his torso in the chair and let his hand root the glutted end table for his glasses. He couldn’t tell her yet, but thanks to Allen Dulles Wally’s new love was safe and sound. Though he couldn’t imagine what she saw in the scrawny fellow. Well, not really. She saw...youth. Hot-blooded Italian passion. Neither of which Allen Dulles could offer her. Her new love was her hero now. But she might never know that Allen Dulles was a better fren to the lovely Wally Toscanini, Maestro Arturo’s daughter, than she could imagine.
Dammit, where were his glasses?
The brandies afterward, here in the living room with Gero, had been the coup de grace. Lucky he'd only nodded off; with boring Gero for company, he could've gone into irreversible coma.
He hacked a few sleeping bullfrogs from his throat. "What time's it, Gero? And where the hell are my glasses?”
"On your head.” The lenses gleamed in Dulles’s white hair like patches of ice in thick snow. "It's nearly three-thirty,” Gero said. “He must be down by now.”
Dulles, thinking of Wally—so cool in black silk with stark white collar and cuffs, white pearls, and bright red lipstick, her jutting jaw seductively belligerent; a feminine version of her father—was rotating his head on its axis like an ancient tortoise. "It's hot as hell in here," he mumbled.
"I said,” Gero repeated, “he must be down by now."
Down? Who? Down where?
"Right you are," Dulles said. The reflex response gave him time to go from Wally's crimson lips on a wineglass—and, in the old days, on locations of the anatomy that seemed hardier but required as much delicacy as fine crystal—to the 'he' whom Gero said must be down. Then he remembered.
"Fingers crossed," the Chief said, with what he hoped was appropriate earnestness for the hours they had spent waiting for news. "A man's life could be at stake here, couldn’t it?”
Gero sniffed. "Whose life, exactly? SS Obergruppenfuhrer Karl Wolff's?”
"Sarcasm's unbecoming, Gero.”
Gero neatly placed a bookmark. Whippersnapper Gero always made Dulles feel he had to keep his hand in. He said, "Simon's no fan of yours either, Gero. To him you're just another upper-crust German." He chuckled richly. "What would he say if he knew your mother is Jewish?"
The half-Jew altar boy folded his hands primly. "What’s most important, Allen, is that Simon trusts you.”
Pronouncing 'what' vhat. Wally had been more fun; women always were. Feeling naughty, Dulles said, "You think we should have told Simon the real story, Gero? That we’ve been carrying on in secret for weeks now with German SS General Karl Wolff, the man in charge of all of occupied Italy, so that we can make a separate peace with the Germans—against Roosevelt and Hitler’s express orders?"
“I am not so foolish to think that,” Gero said.
“’Course you’re not. This secret surrender of the Germans depends on complete secrecy. I know you know that.”
"Of course I know that. And if Simon were captured,” Gero said, “and he knew about the plans, he could talk. Under torture, I mean. And ruin everything.”
Dulles smoothed his moustache. Gero had that German piousness. "Deep dooty if Simon were caught—by the Germans—and he knew what we’re planning with Wolff and he spilled it."
"Sure. you bet. Wolff sneaks up here to meet with us and work out a deal, and if the Germans find this out, Obergruppenfuhrer Wolff is finished. And our deal with him also is finished.” Gero’s manicured hands were folded lightly over the closed book in his lap. His composure was sublime. “But of course, if the partisans Simon is with find out, this is also bad: for Simon and for us and for the Germans.”
“Precisely why we had to send Simon in on a false brief.” Dulles rubbed his eyes. “But you and I have been through this, Gero. Enough.”
“But...Allen, what about what Wolff told us? Do you believe that this man Flavio, this partisan, is really following Wolff?”
"’Course I do. I don’t doubt it for a second. Wolff knew Flavio Conti in Florence. Netted Conti in a roundup, and the maniac slipped through his fingers and came north. Wolff’s not the forgetting kind, and I betcha this Flavio character is pretty unforgettable. Maybe Wolff’s a little paranoid at this stage; we all are. But he needs our secret deal, it’ll make him the hero who saves Italy from scorched earth. Everyone will thank him.”
“And thank you, too” Gero added.
“Yes, thank me,too.” Dulles yawned. At this late hour SS General Karl Wolff's capacity for truth wasn’t a big concern. Wolff’s signature on a German secret surrender engineered by none other than Allen Dulles himself was all that was required. Maybe the renegade group Simon was going to work with already knew about the secret surrender negotiations Dulles and Wolff were carrying on— or maybe they didn’t. It didn’t much matter either way, as long as Simon was in place with the group. If Conti, the mad partisan, was indeed tailing Obergruppenfuhrer Karl Wolff, so much the better that Simon was there. And if Conti wasn’t following Wolff, it was still better to have Simon in there in case that group did find out about the negotiations at some point and try to sabotage them. Bottom line was that the group needed babysitting. “This group’s the only one who could really put the kibosh on our deal with Wolff, Gero,” Dulles said. “So we can’t lose if Simon is there in their midst. Okay, okay; so we sent him in on a false brief, but…"
"Yes, I think he believed the Mussolini business,” Gero said. “And I think you are right that if Simon comes to learn about our negotiations, he will protect the plan against anyone who tries to ruin it.” With that, Gero raised his hands lazily from the book and made a house of his fingers. As in, Here's the church, Dulles thought. "You know the expression, Allen,” Gero continued. "'God giffs you lemons, you make lemonade.' I think Simon always will land on his feet.”
Dulles chuckled; it wasn’t like Gero to make puns. Suddenly bored with it all, Dulles lifted his left leg, gave the mangy cur of a hassock a kick with his right foot, and grimaced at a stab of pain. “Well, I think you're right, Gero.” He frowned. “But you know, I am concerned about Simon. I do worry about my men out there in the field."
"Well, of course; someone must,” Gero said.
But the sarcasm was lost on his exhausted boss.