Chapter One: Buy Lace -- Save Malta
They had names for the wind, for the different gusts and breezes that blew across the island. There was a wind that brought rain in October, and that was good, relief from the heat and the dust and the merciless sun that beat down through the long, torrid summer. But there were other winds, less welcome. The worst was the xlokk, which began in the Sahara and blew across the sea, picking up moisture and bringing hot, humid weather that sucked the breath from your lungs and brought on lethargy, inertia, frayed nerves.
When Rocco was told he was being sent to Malta, he recognized the name, Malta, but had only the fuzziest notion where it was -- somewhere out there, far off, north or south, in a hazy distance, as dark and mysterious as the name itself, which he repeated over and over, hearing the strangeness, almost tasting it: Malta, Malta, Malta.
It was, they told him, in the middle of the Mediterranean, just below Sicily. It belonged to the British, and -- the thing he didn't want to hear -- it was being bombed day and night by the Germans and the Italians.
He knew nothing about the winds, the majjistral and the tramuntana, the grigal and the scirocco, blowing through the green clumps of cactus and the sun-scorched carob trees, nor did he know about the rows of houses and tenements made from blocks of limestone that were quarried on the island. The limestone was soft enough to cut with a saw, but in the open air, baked by the sun, it hardened, shading to a rich golden brown.
It was early April when they told him to gather his gear for Malta. There was an American team over there, a major and a few lieutenants, who needed a radioman. They were doing liaison work, talking with the British, who were having a hard time of it with the bombing, hanging on by their fingernails. They'd already moved their ships and submarines out of the harbor, to safer waters, off to Egypt and Gibraltar.
"Why me?" Rocco said to the sergeant who handed him his orders.
"Because you have such frantic brown eyes," the sergeant said, with no trace of a smile.
They put him aboard a Liberator and flew him to Gibraltar, where they gave him cheese and Spam in a sandwich, and a beer, then shipped him out on a British bomber, a Wellington, loaded with sacks of mail, and ammunition for the Bofors antiaircraft guns.
Rocco rode in the nose, with the front gunner, catching a view of the sea through the Plexiglas -- a thousand miles of water passing beneath them, from Gibraltar all the way to Malta. The crew was exhausted, making the long run daily, back and forth, sometimes twice in a day. The gunner slept the whole way, undisturbed by the roar of the big Pegasus engines. From ten thousand feet, Rocco watched the wakes of freighters and warships, white scars on the water.
The plane entered a long cloud, and when they emerged, back into clear sky, Malta lay far to the left, a dark pancake on the sea, the electric blue of the water turning to a clear vivid green where it rimmed the island. The Wellington seemed to hang, unmoving, as if the distance to the island was too great to overcome.
As the pilot banked, correcting for drift, they were hammered by turbulence, the wind toying with them, bouncing them around. Then, abruptly, they hit a downdraft and the plane plunged, dropping in a long, slanting dive toward the island, a chaotic downward slide, as on some desperate magic carpet hopelessly out of control. The gunner, asleep in his harness, never knew a thing, but Rocco, unbelted, was hoisted in the air and pinned to the top of the cabin, unable to move -- unable to think, even, it was that sudden -- staring straight ahead through the Plexiglas as the island rose to meet him: streets, roads, church domes, dense clusters of stone buildings, small green fields crossed by stone walls, and smoke, plenty of smoke.
Then, as suddenly as it had begun, it was over. The propellers bit air again, and as the plane pulled up out of its long fall, Rocco was thrown to the floor, grabbing for something to hold on to, but there was nothing.
They put down at Luqa aerodrome, the largest of the three airfields, and it was a rough landing, the plane bouncing and swerving on the runway. Only a half hour earlier, the field had been raided by a flight of Stukas. On the ground, planes and trucks were burning, coils of black smoke rising thickly from the wreckage.
Carrying his duffel bag over his shoulder, Rocco trudged along toward a stone hut, the smell of the fires catching in his throat. Before he was halfway there, a siren sounded, and when the crew from the Wellington broke into a run, Rocco ran too, but he stumbled and went down hard. When he pulled himself up, back on his feet, the crew was gone, and he was alone on the tarmac.
In the weeds at the edge of the field, a tall figure in slacks and a Florida sportshirt, lanky, with thick dark hair, was urging him on, waving with both arms. Rocco scrambled, and leaving the duffel where it was, ran like hell, the roar of an attacking Messerschmitt loud in his ears. As he neared the edge of the tarmac, again he went down, tripped this time by a pothole, and the Florida shirt bent over him and, half-dragging, half-lifting, pulled him into the safety of a slit trench.
Rocco was breathing hard. "Close," he said, feeling a weird mix of fright and exhilaration, a wild alertness brought on by the proximity of death. It was his first time in a war zone, under attack, and what he felt, besides the fear and the terror, was personal resentment and a flash of anger, because if somebody was trying to kill him, actively and deliberately trying to do him in, what else was it but personal?
The Messerschmitt turned, a quick loop and a roll, and when it came back across the field now, its guns ripped into the parked Wellington, and Rocco watched, amazed, as the plane split open and blew sky-high, the cargo of antiaircraft shells spewing light and color and a riot of noise in the gathering dusk. It wasn't just one Messerschmitt up there, but three, coming and going, strafing at will.
"I'm Fingerly, Jack Fingerly," the Florida shirt said. "You're Kallitsky, right?" The voice was American, a smooth baritone raised almost to a shout while the 109s swept back and forth across the field.
"No -- I'm Raven," Rocco answered, noticing the lieutenant's bar pinned to the collar of Fingerly's shirt.
"They were supposed to send Kallitsky. What happened?"
"I don't know a Kallitsky."
"You're reporting to Major Webb?"
"Right. But if you're expecting Kallitsky, I guess I'm the wrong man." He was thinking -- hoping -- they would put him on a plane and fly him right back to Fort Benning.
"No, no," Fingerly said, soft and easy, with the barest hint of a drawl, "if you're here, you're the right man. Welcome to I-3, you're replacing Ambrosio."
Fingerly arched an eyebrow. "Don't you know?"
Rocco had no idea.
"Intelligence," Fingerly said. "I-3 is Intelligence."
"I thought Intelligence was G-2."
"It is, but even Intelligence needs somebody to tell them which end is up. I-3 is the intelligence inside Intelligence. Didn't they tell you anything back there in Georgia?"
"They said Major Webb would fill me in."
"Major Webb is dead."
"When did that happen?"
"A bomb got him, yesterday. He was having a pink gin at his favorite bistro, in Floriana. I kept telling him, the gin in St. Julian's has more zing to it, more sass, but he wasn't a man to listen. He'd be alive today. Anyway, we've got a lot of work ahead of us, Kallitsky, I hope you're up to it."
"Raven," Rocco said, clinging to his name.
The 109s were gone now, and he glanced about, scanning the devastation -- the bomb craters, wrecked planes, the stone huts fractured and smashed, and the burning remnants of the Wellington, its big wings crumpled, in disarray, the ruptured fuselage hot with a bright orange glow, like an enormous bird that had, in its death throes, simply gone mad, twisting its wings wildly. There was a line in Nietzsche that he only half-remembered, something about an abyss, about looking into the darkness and horror of a murky abyss. That's what it was, all around him, a gloomy chaos, and the one thing he was sure of was that he had to get out of there, away from the airfield and out of Malta, off the island, by boat or by plane to Gibraltar, and from there, one way or another, back to the 9th Infantry and the people he knew.
"So this is it?" he said. "This is Malta? I belong here? You don't think this is all just a big mistake?"
When he looked at Fingerly, it wasn't Fingerly he saw but a cloud of smoke, shaping and reshaping itself in the fading light of the day. His eyes were smoke and his mouth was smoke, his tall, lean body dissolving, vaporous and gray. It was Malta, Malta was doing this -- everything shifting, turning, uncertain. When Rocco looked again, Fingerly's face was still full of shadows, but mostly, now, the smoke was just the smoke from his cigarette. "Those Messerschmitt 109s," he said, "you grow attached to them, you'll miss them when they take a day off." He passed a cigarette to Rocco, and Rocco lit up, and he too, for a while, was nothing but smoke, drifting and vague.
He was a corporal. When he enlisted, a few days after Pearl Harbor, what he knew about, more than anything else, was secondhand cars. He'd been working at a used-car lot on New Utrecht Avenue, in Brooklyn, under the el, where the BMT trains rattled by on their way to Manhattan, and he liked it so much he figured that's what he'd do for a living: work with cars. Tune the engines, polish the chrome, apply the Simoniz with a big floppy rag, and smell out the customers, sell to the ones in need, real need, of secondhand. He knew a little, too, not much, about Melville, Nietzsche, and Edgar Allan Poe, because he'd taken some night courses at Brooklyn College, thinking he might go on for a degree, but it was nothing he was sure about, just something he was considering. And now, anyway, there was the war.
"Cars," he said to the recruiting officer. "That's what I know."
But the 9th Infantry, Second Corps, to which he'd been assigned, was overloaded with men in the motor pool, so they put him instead into radios and gave him a crash course in wireless communication, teaching him, among other things, about wavelengths, kilocycles, grid circuits, magnetic storms, cosmic dust, and the aurora borealis. It didn't seem to matter that he had no real aptitude for any of this, as long as he knew which switches to throw and how to deploy his antenna.
Cars were good, he really liked them, and he liked Melville and Poe too. But Malta, the idea of Malta, was not appealing. He didn't like it that he'd been pulled out of his unit and shipped off to strangers, half around the world, and he liked it even less that he was a target for the 109s. They were supposed to send Kallitsky, but they'd sent him instead, and he wondered how they could do that to him. How could they make a monstrous, life-threatening mistake like that?
"Don't fret about it," Fingerly said, casual, with friendly indifference. "The entire planet is a mistake, didn't you know? You'll get used to that too."
Fingerly's car was an old Austin Seven, pale yellow, the fenders dented and the upholstery held together by strips of black tape. The sun was down, slipping away behind the long rows of stone tenements, and in the semidark they drove toward Valletta, first through Paola, then past Marsa and up through amrun and Floriana. The marks of the bombing were everywhere. In town after town, houses and buildings were down, massive heaps of rubble. Every few hundred yards, there were gangs of men clearing the mess and keeping the roads open. Women too were out there, bending and lifting.
"Nothing gets them down," Fingerly said. "They've had bombs falling on their heads almost two years now, and just look at them, they're cleaning up."
"Where are the trees?" Rocco said.
"The forest. They told me there was a dead volcano covered with trees."
"Who told you that?"
"The pilot, Brangle. On the Wellington."
"It's the war," Fingerly said jauntily. "Everybody lies. See how debased life has become? You can't trust anyone anymore."
Not only were there no mountains on Malta, but the highest point was only about eight hundred feet. Here and there a grove of olive trees, but no woods, no forest. A lot of prickly-pear cactus, and low stone walls surrounding small fields where vegetables grew in a shallow layer of soil. The nearest volcano was Mount Etna, in Sicily, a hundred miles away, not dead but very much alive, giving off wisps of smoke that could, on a clear day, be seen from Malta.
"Raven, Raven," Fingerly said. "What kind of a name is that -- Lithuanian?"
It was Italian. Rocco's grandfather had been Ravenelli, from Verona. A tailor. He thought it would be easier in the cutting rooms on Seventh Avenue if he went as Raven instead of Ravenelli.
"Was it? Easier?"
"He was mostly out of work."
"Chica boom," Fingerly said.
"A song, Raven, a song."
Rocco remembered, yes, "Chica Chica Boom Chic," fast and bouncy, a Carmen Miranda bauble.
"Life is a tease," Fingerly said, "you never know what next. Nevertheless, I think, Rocco Raven, we are going to get along very well together, you and I."
"You think so?" Rocco said, sounding not at all convinced. Already there was something about Fingerly that made him uneasy, the velvet manner, something glib in the tone, and he was beginning to wish it had been somebody else who had pulled him into the trench, back there at Luqa, when the Messerschmitt attacked.
"We're a team," Fingerly said, "that's all that matters here. You, Maroon, Nigg, and myself. I hope you know how to use that wireless."
Maroon was away, on the neighboring island of Gozo -- scouting the territory, Fingerly said vaguely. And Nigg was in the Green Room at Dominic's, gambling and smoking cigars. Rocco thought it would be good luck if, somehow, he could make his escape and find his way home to Brooklyn. His father, with whom he had a muddled relationship, had sold the house in Flatbush and moved on to another neighborhood. But still, back there, it was Brooklyn, with trees and backyards, and baseball at Ebbets Field, and all those other good things -- egg creams, peacocks in the zoo, beer in the bowling alleys, and cars whose motors he could tinker with, making them purr. In a park one night, in lush grass on the side of a hill, he made love to a girl he'd been dating, Theresa Flum, and he thought she was the one, his forever. But she had a different idea and went off with somebody else, leaving him in a state of despair from which he still wasn't fully recovered.
"Here," Fingerly said, taking a lieutenant's bar out of his pocket, "you better wear this. The Brits are very class-conscious -- unless you're an officer you can't walk into the better clubs. Remember, though, it's just make-believe, like the rest of your life. After Malta, you're a corporal again."
When they reached Valletta, Fingerly parked outside the city gate, and they walked the rest of the way, through streets lit by a half moon. Here there was so much rubble it would have been near impossible to drive. From Kingsway they crossed over on South and turned down Strait, a long narrow street, less damaged than some of the others, cobblestoned, barely ten feet wide, descending all the way down to the fortified area at the tip of the peninsula. Only a slender ribbon of the night sky showed above the three- and four-story stone buildings. In places, the cobbles gave way to slate stairs, and at the far end, down toward Fountain Street, the neighborhood was crowded with bars.
"In the days of the Knights," Fingerly said, "they fought duels on this street. Isn't it a great place for swordplay? So narrow, and all the stairs. And down the hill there, the bars and the bordellos. The sailors call it the Gut."
They were heading for Number 79.
"It's really a brothel?"
It was. Nigg was billeted there too, on the top floor, in the room next to Rocco's. Fingerly lived somewhere else, on Merchants Street. "If you're not happy," he said, "we can put you in the Capuchin monastery around the corner, but they make lousy coffee."
"Who pays the rent?"
"You do. With pounds and shillings. I'll cover it tonight, for the balance of the month, but after that it's your lookout."
"You're poor. Your GI salary is being banked for you at Fort Benning, you'll find it waiting if you live to claim it. Here on Malta we're free-floating and pay our own way, so you get, from me, a subsistence wage to keep you in business. I-3 keeps an account in the BANCA DI ROMA on Kingsway. If they get bombed, we'll all have to start working for a living."
"Banca di Roma?"
"You know them?"
"I thought Rome was the enemy."
"It is, but the Maltese think it's smart to keep them around, on the theory the Italians won't drop a bomb on one of their own. It's the safest bank in town."
dFrom his shirt pocket Fingerly took an envelope with banca di roma printed on it in embossed lettering and passed it over. "There's your first Malta pay, plus a bonus for getting here alive. The last replacement we had was killed by flak on the way in, he was an awful mess. I'll get you some ration cards too, you can't buy matches or soap on this island without a card. Not to mention bread."
The house belonged to Hannibal Serduq, who lived on the second floor with his wife and family. He also owned the bar across the street, the Oasis.
The entrance had three low steps and a door with ornamental grille-work. Inside, in the blue light of the foyer, sat the doorman, Nardu Camilleri, Hannibal's father-in-law, a shrunken old man in a dark suit, bald except for some white fuzz above his ears. On a small table beside him stood a glass bowl for tips, containing coins and crumpled bills from all around the Mediterranean.
As they passed the parlor, Rocco saw the women, three of them, waiting for their clients. The room was stuffed with furniture. Against one wall was a pianola, and above the mantel, a painting of the Madonna in a gold frame. One of the women, older than the others, was busy over a newspaper. She wore a red slip with black ruffles, and had a black eye. The other two were on the couch, playing cards. One had streaks of gold in her hair, and a wooden leg strapped to her thigh. The other, the youngest of the three, was plump and lovely, in a blue silk negligée windowed with lace. Her eyes locked onto Rocco's and she smiled.
"Later," Fingerly said, nudging Rocco along. As they started up the stairs, there was a clatter from above and two children came rushing down, a boy and a girl, on their way to the shelter, where they slept at night. The boy wore a Boy Scout uniform.
"Hey, hey," Fingerly called, blocking their way. "Going to run right through me?"
The boy stared.
"Joseph, Joseph, it's me, Fingerly. Aren't we friends?"
"You give me some chocolate? Ambrosio gives me chocolate."
"Ambrosio is gone," Fingerly said. "He's never coming back."
The boy lowered his head. "I know, he is gone. He was my friend."
"Well, this is Rocco, Rocco Raven. He's going to be in Ambrosio's room. His real name is Kallitsky, but we'll forgive him for that."
"Hello, Kallitsky," the boy said.
"Hello, Joseph," Rocco said.
"You give me chocolate?"
Rocco turned his pockets inside out. He was thinking of Brangle, the pilot on the Wellington, who'd had no sleep for twenty hours, keeping himself awake by munching on chocolate.
"Rocco is your new friend," Fingerly said.
"We don't like him," the boy said, turning to the girl. "Do we like him?"
The girl shook her head dubiously.
"Well, you'll get to like him," Fingerly said. "He's from Brooklyn and he knows all about cars. He specializes in secondhand Chevrolets."
"I'm Marie," the girl said, a few years younger than the boy. Around her neck, on a silver chain, was a medal bearing an image of the Blessed Mother. There were soldiers in Rocco's outfit who wore the same medal.
"Here," Fingerly said, taking a chocolate bar from his shirt pocket. "I paid two packs of cigarettes for this. You'll have to split it."
"You bought this for me?" the boy said.
"I bought it for both of you."
"I'll take it," the boy said, reaching.
"Not till I break it in half."
But before he could, the boy, in a swift, easy move, grabbed it from his hands and lunged past him, down the stairs and out the front door, into the dark. The girl hurried after, shouting, "It's mine, Joseph, half is mine, give it back!"
"Sweet kids," Fingerly said.
"They live here?"
"Hannibal's brood. There was a third, died a year ago. Undulant fever."
One flight up, Fingerly knocked at Hannibal's flat, and Hannibal came to the door, a burly, square-shouldered man, holding a chunk of bread. There was a long scar across his cheek.
"Rocco may be here for a while," Fingerly said, peeling some notes from a roll he took from his pocket. It was British currency. "This will cover him till the end of the month."
Hannibal looked at the money. "It's not enough," he said.
"It's what we agreed on when Ambrosio was here."
"I know, I know," Hannibal said, rolling his head, "but it's the war, everything is more expensive."
"How much do you need?"
"Three more, by the month."
"That's more than what I'm paying for my two rooms on Merchants Street."
"Yours will go up too. You will see. And I am giving him board as well."
"One," Fingerly suggested.
"Two and a half," Hannibal said.
"One and a half."
Hannibal nodded grudgingly, and Fingerly gave it to him in coins.
Rocco looked past Hannibal, into the apartment, and saw the wife, Beatrice, clearing dishes from the dining-room table. She was plain-looking, her hair in a net. She paused, eyeing Rocco, looking him over, then she turned, carrying off a stack of dishes.
Hannibal shook Rocco's hand. "We don't usually take house guests," he said. "But the war, it makes everything different. We change the sheets once a week and give you a fresh towel. If you use the women, that's extra."
His front teeth were ground down to little more than stumps. There was a wart on his upper lip and his jaw was crooked, as if it had been broken more than once. Rocco was impressed by the hands -- the grip seemed strong enough to bend iron.
Rocco's room was upstairs, on the top floor, in the rear. On a table by the bed was the radio Ambrosio had left behind, and a stack of French picture magazines. Ambrosio had gone AWOL to Majorca, dropping out of the war, slipping away on a fishing boat. He had relatives there, among the olive trees, and was not expected back.
"He used to pick up everywhere on this," Fingerly said, as Rocco inspected the radio components. "He pulled in Billie Holiday from the Lincoln Hotel."
Rocco threw switches and turned dials, fiddling with the frequencies.
"You can handle it? How's your touch on the key?"
"As in dot-dot-dash, good old Morse Code? I sometimes don't spell right."
"Well, try to get it straight," Fingerly said, taking a folded paper from his pocket.
Rocco read the message: The monkey is in the box. The Fat Lady has no head. "This is coded, right?"
"Can you do it, or do we need Kallitsky?"
Rocco stared hard at the glowing tubes in the transmitter. "I'm better than Kallitsky. You know it. Or they wouldn't have sent me." He made some adjustments, moving the dials, then rubbed his hands together and, putting his finger on the key, established contact and sent the message. A moment later it was acknowledged.
"You did it right?"
"If I didn't, we'll never know."
"Send it again."
"They got it," Rocco said, resisting. "It was received."
"Do it again."
"This is why you hauled me out here all the way from Benning? To send a message about a monkey in a box?"
"Don't push your luck, Raven."
Rocco hung back, giving Fingerly a long, stony look. Then, relenting, he sent the message a second time.
"Good," Fingerly said. "We'll eat at Dominic's, but first let's go talk to the whores, they get lonely down there."
On their way down they ran into Nigg, just in from Dominic's and looking petered out. When Fingerly introduced Rocco, Nigg stared long at his face. "You're not I-3," he said.
"It shows?" Rocco said resentfully.
"You have the wrong eyes for I-3. Wrong everything. Are you lucky?"
"I used to be, but now I'm not so sure."
"If you're not lucky," Nigg said, "I don't want to know you." He was shorter than Fingerly, with dark eyebrows, a bony forehead, and slack wide lips, an odd loneliness about the mouth and jaw. His shoulders were narrow, and his chest concave. Physically, he seemed fragile, yet there was a hardness in his voice, a darkness, that set Rocco's teeth on edge.
Without taking his eyes from Rocco, Nigg said to Fingerly: "You told him about the Major?"
"Well," Nigg said to Rocco, "too bad you never met him. He knew a lot about French wines and pagan religions. You know anything about pagan religions?"
"I read some Nietzsche," Rocco said. "He wasn't very big on God."
"Nietzsche had a cigar up his ass."
He started up the stairs, and Fingerly called after him. "You heading back to Dominic's, or are you through for the night?"
"Who knows," Nigg shrugged. "I'll be picking up Vivian, then we'll see."
"We'll catch up later," Fingerly said, certain that Nigg would return to Dominic's, because there was nothing he liked better than to gamble late into the night. And the food at Dominic's was the best on Malta.
He brought Rocco into the parlor and introduced him to the whores.
Copyright © 1999 by Nicholas Rinaldi