A matter of life and … what’s worse than death – Episode 17

For a story that was conceived during those long boring hours flying in a steel cocoon, striving to keep away the thoughts that the plane and everyone in it could just simply disappear as planes have in the past, it has come a long way.

Whilst I have always had a fascination in what happened during the second world war, not the battles or fighting, but in the more obscure events that took place, I decided to pen my own little sidebar to what was a long and bitter war.

And, so, it continues…

 

Jack was the first to realise that Marina was coming back, hearing her outside long before I did.  He stood up and looked in the direction of where he expected to see her.

A minute later she appeared, looking and sounding out of breath, as if she had been in a hurry? 

Chased, or had some urgent news?

“Is everything OK?” I asked, waiting till she came in and shut the door behind her.

The building we were in used to be a factory or a repair shop.  The strange smell I’d picked up a few hours ago was that of machine oil.

“We need to have a chat with the two who picked you up.”

“Where are they now?”

“I’ve organised to meet them at another facility we have.  Not everyone comes here.  It’s why we are still here.  Francesco nor any of the resistance he took with him were aware of this location.

I considered myself lucky to be among the few.

“Is there a reason why I need to be there?”

“Yes.  But it’ll wait until we get there.  Let’s go.”

She had barely got in the door, nor caught her breath.  It was just enough time to collect a spare clip of ammunition for a gun she had on her, but I couldn’t see.

I followed her out into the darkness, not realising it was night, for the first time since I’d arrived, and once outside, realised that it was an underground bunker rather than a building on an allotment, so it couldn’t be easily seen from any direction.  It was surrounded by trees and bushes, looking as though they had not been tended properly for some time.

It was as much as I could see, close by because it was a moonless night.

We went up some stairs and came out in a clump of bushes, and walked several yards where there was a disguised walkway zig-zagging through the bushes.  It, too, would be hard to see from a distance.  When we came out the other side, I could just barely see a car parked under a tree, looking rather worse for wear, and I thought it had been abandoned there. 

When Marina told me to get in, I realised it was, like everything else, well disguised.

The surrounding area was that of forest and farms.  It was hard to imagine that this part of the world was in the grip of a world war, and not too far away, there was the castle, and further north, the Germans and what was left of the Italian military forces dug in for a last-ditch effort.  The tide was turning, but ever so slowly.

It was hard to imagine just how dangerous it was for those defectors to try and get through without being shot.

And, just for good measure, Marina said, there were quite a few soldiers, disguised as ordinary workers who had infiltrated the villages, and surrounding farms, and reporting back what they saw and heard.

We were, in going about in the vehicle, attracting unwanted attention, but it was why we were doing this at night, she said, perhaps gleaning from my expression the fact I was worried about getting caught.

“The people at the castle tend not to go out at night for fear of being picked off.  I’m surprised you didn’t learn this when you were there.”

“I suspect the suspended any activities from the moment I arrived.  One of the prisoners told me that all movements of people had stopped, and they were waiting to be shipped out.  Obviously, they thought I might discover what was going on.  They definitely stopped me from going below the main floor.”

“I was told you have some knowledge of the castle layout?”

“Some.  We have old plans back in London, but I suspect those would be out of date now and since the German occupation.  The only time I got to look downstairs was when I tried to escape and found an old below ground exit, then when they locked me in a cell, and then when I was set free.  It matched much of what I remember seeing on the plans.  But, I suspect there’s more because I didn’t get to see the holding cells with the other prisoners.”

“Perhaps Carlo can help you with that.”

“We spoke about it.  I think he’s going to pay them a visit and exact revenge.”

“I told him we have to wait for some reinforcements.”

“No word from London?”

“Not yet.”

We stopped and parked the car between a church and what was left of what might have been a rectory, set aside from some other buildings that looked like part of a village.  It was not that dark that I couldn’t see that several of the buildings had been bombed, minus roofs, and one had the front section reduced to rubble.  No attempt had been made to clean it up.

“German tanks,” Marina said.  “An early landing party of your army parachuted in about a kilometre behind the church.  The local commander mobilised his forces and chased them into those buildings, which, at the time, housed four families.  They were given the option to surrender.  They didn’t, so the commander gave the order to raze the buildings to the ground, with them in there.  Along with the four innocent families.  No one survived.”

“The church?”

“The commander thought it would be bad luck to destroy the house of God.  The soldiers should have hidden in there.  They shot the priest anyway.”

It seemed odd to me that any sort of group would parachute into this part of Italy for any reason, castle withstanding.  There was, as far as I knew, nothing of interest or importance here.  Perhaps I’d ask when I made it back to London.  If I made it back.

I followed her through the rubble and in through a side entrance to the church.  Inside it was dark, and Marina was using her torchlight sparingly in case someone was watching.  From what I could see, the inside of the church was untouched, but everything was covered in dust from disuse.

“No one thought to send another priest?” I asked.

“No.  When they heard what happened to the last one, they decided to wait until the war was over.  Besides, with everything that’s happened, the people around here believe God has abandoned them.”

Perhaps he had.  I know that I wasn’t all that religious to begin with, but a lot of people I knew had lost their faith in a God that allowed such tragedies to happen.

We passed through a door at the back of the church, behind the nave, and into what looked like the vestment room.  To one side was another door, and then steps down.  The church had a cellar.

At the bottom of the stairs, there was a large storage area lit by a portable lantern.

Carlo was standing to one side, his weapon ready to use.

Opposite him were a man and a woman, the woman I’d seen before, she was the one who shot me with the tranquilizer.  The man, I’d not seen him before.

 

© Charles Heath 2019

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