The contrast was inescapable.
Haile Selassie had sat on this same chair, on the same beaten earth, in front of the same Royal cave less than a week ago, but nothing else was the same.
A week ago, the mountainside below him had been teeming with soldiers, their families, their animals, laughing, caring for each other, preparing for a battle they fully expected to win. The mountainside had thrummed with life and pride and hope.
No more. Oh, the setting was identical, and the mountainside was populated with warriors, their women and children and their livestock. But there were many fewer of them, and many wounded, and there was no laughing, no braggadocio, only an absence of hope.
And he was one of them, no more no less.
He’d been a fool last night. A fool to lobby for an immediate attack. Militarily, it was a good idea—it might have caught the Italians by surprise. But these brave warriors of his needed time, and inspiration—if he could find it within himself to provide it.
Somehow, he had to do just that, because anything else was unthinkable. If he could not rouse them—and himself—everything was over for him, for his family, for the nation. That was simply unacceptable. If nothing else, it would make a mockery of the sacrifices of those who died in his service, as well as the suffering of the wretched survivors.
He sat outside for awhile longer, self-pity in command, wallowing in the silence of the shocked and the defeated, wincing at the pitiful moans of the wounded, the cries of the mourners, the sad muted he-haws of the wounded mules, who understood none of this, who were innocent victims of the senseless conflict between those of a reputedly higher order.
Finally, he walked back into the torchlit cave, where a dozen priests and monks were chanting, burning incense, invoking the blessings of God, as if he had any to spare for the nation of Abyssinia. A servant approached him. “Find me Ras Kassa,” he said. “Tell him I want to have a council of war, here in the cave, as soon as he can assemble everyone.”
It took the better part of an hour to assemble everyone—Ras Kassa, Ras Getachu, Ras Seyum, Dejaz Aberra, Imperial Fitaurari Wolde Gabriel, Ras Desta, Ras Imru, Ras Kebbebe, Col. Theodore Konovaloff, the head of the Swedish Red Cross mission to Ethiopia, and many lesser noblemen, lords and governors. It was a restless bunch, agitated and grumbling. And there were some conspicuous absences, dead, wounded or fleeing for home.
Ras Kassa shouted for order and he had to repeat himself, which was rare. When he had everyone’s attention, he yielded to the tiny, determined, somber man who was their Emperor
“My Lords,” he began, speaking with his customary softness, “We all know what happened at Maichew. We fought with unequalled courage and with exceptional ferocity. We killed or wounded thousands of the enemy, perhaps tens of thousands. History will record that we acquitted ourselves with great honor …”
“What about our losses?” asked someone in the back of the group.
“Our losses were heart-breaking. Unbearable. It was the single saddest event in our history. I know you have all lost loved ones. So have I. People I have known and loved for decades, people who were an essential part of me. I am lessened by their death.”
He paused and looked the group, at the faces of his friends and colleagues, his loyal supporters, the people he had brought to this terrible place whose lives were his personal responsibility. The burden was almost unbearable.
“There are those among us who believe that we were vanquished at Maichew.” There were murmurs of dissent, although not as loud as he would have wished. “There are those among us who feel that all the Italians need do now is march into Addis Ababa and declare our country annexed to theirs.” More murmurs. “But I am not among them.”
Now there were shouts of approval.
The Emperor drew a deep breath and continued. “I believe we have not won—yet. I believe victory is ahead of us. I believe that if we work together and fight together, despite our losses, we will send these vicious Italian dogs back to their homeland, with their tails between their legs.”
More approving murmurs, but fewer than he had hoped.
“I am asking for one last attack, nothing held back, one last attack with all of our people, all of our resources, all of our strength, all of our guile, one last ferocious attack to crack through the Italian lines and prove once again that no European army can defeat us, even when the rest of the world is unwilling to lift a finger on our behalf.”
Mixed reception—murmurs, some shouts of approval, more silence.
“One last time, that’s all I ask. I know it’s a lot, but our enemies are at the breaking point. And they think we are finished. One last strike will astonish them and destroy their will. We will shock them and overwhelm them. Let us re-form our divisions and our battalions and be ready by late afternoon.”
This time there were no shouts of approval. The Rases and Dejazs looked at each other and said nothing. The Emperor turned to Ras Kassa, the huge man who, after himself, was the greatest and most respected prince in the land. “One last attack,” he repeated.
Kassa took a very deep breath, then exhaled slowly. “I am not sure, Janhoy,” he said. “I don’t know if we have it in us.”
“I am not ready to give up,” the Emperor replied.
Ras Getachew rose, nervous and a bit befuddled, minus his usual prinz nez. “Janhoy, my heart is with you. But I do not think we can mount another attack now. Perhaps we could regroup further south…”
The Emperor turned his gaze toward the handsome, self-confident Ras Seyum, who stood. “I concur,” he said. “If we can find some respite from the bombing and the poison gas, perhaps we could march again. But as it is…”
One of the Emperor’s servants, a young man, quite light-skinned, ran into the cave, shouting. “They’re stealing!” He yelled. “They’re stealing from the Royal storehouse!”
The war council broke up in disorder as everyone, the Emperor included, rushed out of the cave to see what was going on. The commotion was centered on the next cave, one that contained all of the Royal goods that had been brought north from Addis Ababa.
This included a vast pantry of expensive foodstuffs, the Royal furniture—most of it imported from Great Britain, enough oriental carpets and silken draperies to assure a Royal ambiance no matter how remote the Emperor’s headquarters, a wardrobe suited to Royal dinners, diplomatic ceremonies or military operations, and every other form of luxury good that could be transported by mule wagon.
The storage cave was situated a few dozen feet below the cavern occupied by the Emperor’s personal quarters, and its opening was close by one of the camp’s widest paths, a path that was now swarming with soldiers, wives and camp followers heading across the mountain and down to the main trail south.
As they passed the Emperor’s storage cave, a number of battle refugees detoured inside and snatched anything portable—canned food, liquor, expensive fabrics, clothing, tableware, even chairs.
The Rases and Dejazes, outraged and horrified, recklessly plowed into the crowd, though they were vastly outnumbered, wresting goods from the hands of the thieves, yelling at those beyond their reach and threatening to shoot anyone else intent on looting the Royal stores.
The Emperor reacted very differently. He called off the Rases and the Dejazes, made them put their weapons down, and gathered them to him. “Let us give the people want they want and need. Their loses have been far greater than mine.”
And Haile Selassie himself began handing out goods to the passing multitudes, waving off their gratitude, taking pleasure in the tiny sparks of life his gifts inspired, trying, in his own way, to provide for his people. After their initial reluctance, the other nobles joined him, and copied his example, dropping their hostility and, with a zeal that sometimes bordered on hysteria, gave away supplies to anyone who would take them. But cooler heads eventually prevailed. The cave mouth was closed off and the better part of the Royal supplies preserved for their rightful owner.
Ras Kassa approached the Emperor. “Shall I reconvene the war council?”
Selassie gazed at the irregular column coming down off the mountain. It looked like the emigration of an entire people, not the retreat of an army..
“No. I have heard from the nobles. And my warriors are making their own decisions, with their feet. I am out of options. Order a general withdrawal. Tell the commanders that we will attempt to re-form at, Dessie.” He spoke haltingly, and even more softly than usual.
Kassa regarded Selassie with great tenderness. “Janhoy,” he said. “I know how difficult this decision has been. What about you? We need to assure your personal safety.”
“Have my servants pack my possessions and personal effects in the Royal mule wagons. I will join the retreat. Also tell the Rases and Dejazs that they are free to return home by whatever route they deem safe.”
“Many will want to accompany and protect you, Janhoy,” Kassa told him.
The Emperor nodded. “I will welcome them.”
They heard a buzzing sound in the distance, growing louder. The source became visible—a quartet of white-winged Caproni bombers, flying low. They came over the mountain strafing the Ethiopian solders on the ground, creating uncontrolled panic among those who thought sprayed gas would be coming next.
The bombers attacked the rear of the Abyssinian horde, like a dog owner swatting his pet on the butt to get it moving. And those in the rear tried to move faster. They tried to escape the strafing and the poison gas they expected, but the trail was already crowded with people on the move.
The Italian pilots, understanding the problem, flew on and started strafing the leading edge of the great throng of defeated solders, evidently intent on speeding up their progress as well. And the tactic worked. The throng had been moving slowly, trudging along the trail. Now, they were fleeing in terror.
Capitano Bernado Falcone emerged from his tent, tall, blond and supremely self-confident. He checked his tailored uniform one last time, admiring the way it emphasized his athletic body. This, he thought, is what a soldier should look like. He glanced around at the encampment, at the neat rows of tents and cook fires. The men were returning—must be a lull in the fighting, or maybe the battle was over. Certainly, the sounds of war had faded away.
Well, if that was the case, it had been inevitable. The Abyssinians never had a chance against a modern, mechanized force, such as the one the Italians had brought to this Godforsaken continent. Sooner or later, civilization always prevail over savagery, in this case, apparently, sooner.
He was a bit disappointed not to have participated in the slaughter. He would have enjoyed testing his skills against human beings instead of targets, but he knew that Marshal Badoglio was right--he was simply too valuable to risk in ordinary combat. His mission was much too important. So, he wondered, when would it begin? It wasn’t just that he was impatient to get to work. He wanted to finish the job and get back to Rome. He missed the club life and the women, and he had no doubt that he was missed as well..
It wasn’t until mid-morning that a pale, harried young adjutant summoned Falcone to come to Marshal Badoglio’s field headquarters, a group of large tan tents halfway up the mountain. The adjutant led the way through the rows of tents, stopping occasionally to deliver messages to other officers, every stop annoying Falcone, who felt this junior officer was not paying him sufficient deference..
Falcone walked carefully, not wanting to get his custom-made boots muddy, determine to present Badoglio with a picture of perfection. As he made his way, he confirmed the impression of the camp he’d formed yesterday, when he arrived. The brown faces of the Eritrean auxiliaries, the dubats and askaris, far outnumbered the white faces of the Fascist Milizia Volontaria per la Securezza Nazionale, the Regio Esercito and the Regio Corpo Truppe Coloniali.
Despite his disdain for the Eritrean fighters, Falcone had realized this disparity had its advantages. Marshal Badoglio had put the dubats and the askaris, who occupied the grey zone between slave and hirling, in the front lines, letting them take the brunt of the ferocious Ethiopian attacks. Once the initial carnage was over, Italian regulars could take possession of the battlefield. And Mussolini could brag about how cheaply the victory had been won.
Mussolini…that was how all of this started, an audience with Il Duce himself, one of the more memorable events in his young life. It had started with a hand-written note, delivered a month ago by one of the dictator’s servants, summoning him, without even the hint of an explanation, to a 10 a.m. meeting the next morning at Mussolini’s private office on the first floor of the Palazzo Venezia in central Rome.
Of course, Falcone had been astounded by this. What in the world could the great and powerful dictator want of him? They hardly traveled in the same social circles, He had met the man once, in passing, when Mussolini had greeted the Italian Olympics team returning from Los Angeles in 1932, but he couldn’t imagine how that encounter might lead to this summons
So why, out of 32 million Italians, had Mussolini picked him out? And for what? It was unlikely to be for some malign purpose, something that might negatively affect him, but that only deepened the mystery. For a man governed by impatience and curiosity, the 24 hour wait for an answer would be pure torture.
The next day, he’d risen at 6 a.m., as usual, then pondered his choice of wardrobe. What did one wear when summoned—without explanation—to see a Head of State? There was the houndstooth suit from Bond Street and the fine leather hunting jacket from Germany, and the newest addition to his wardrobe, the finely tailored captain’s uniform—the very outfit he was now wearing. This, he’d decided, would present him at his best, which was very good indeed.
He’d appeared at the Palazzo Venezia at 9:45, excited and nervous, struggling to suppress his curiosity. Precisely on time—Mussolini insisted that everything be punctual, not just the trains—he’d been ushered through massive double doors into what had once been a giant map room, a chamber about 50 feet square, with a 30 foot ceiling–as large a space as has ever been devoted to any one man, with the possible exception of the Pharaoh Cheops.
For a moment, Falcone’s eyes had involuntarily darted around the room. Its ceiling was covered in muted frescoes, its floor with mosaic tile. Twenty pale green marble columns lined the walls. Vast as it was, the compartment had seemed even larger, because it was totally devoid of furnishings except for Mussolini’s huge rosewood desk. That occupied the corner farthest from the door, adjacent to a fireplace so enormous that a marching band could have entered it without stooping.
His gaze had then turned to the Dictator himself. Mussolini had been sitting behind his desk, his black, worsted wool uniform draped with a white silk cloth. Hovering over the Dictator’s compact, muscular body had been a tall, cadaverous man with arms and face so densely covered with black hair that he seemed almost simian. In the man’s right hand was an ivory-handled shaving brush, with which he was deftly lathering the Duce’s naked cranium. The Italian leader had adopted the shaven head look three years before, when his hair—what there was of it–had started turning gray.
Mussolini had glanced up and given a perfunctory wave and Falcone began the long diagonal trek to the dictator’s desk, the click of his heels echoing through the chamber. While the barber stropped his gleaming straight razor on a wide leather belt, Il Duce, his head covered by a fluffy white helmet of shaving lather, signaled to an orderly standing at the door. “Chair,” he said. The young orderly scurried past Falcone, lugging a straight back wooden chair. He placed it exactly two feet in front of Mussolini’s desk, then retreated to the back of the room.
“Have a seat, Bernardo,” Il Duce had said graciously.
“Thank you,” Falcone had said. So far so good. The rumor was, most of Mussolini’s visitors found themselves forced not only to make the long, lonely walk to ll Duce’s desk, but also to stand once they arrived, like 4th graders summoned to explain themselves to their principal. But this had seemed much more promising.
Falcone had sat down obediently and looked at the great man expectantly.
“I have been following your career,” Mussolini had said. “Very impressive for such a young man.”
“Thank you, Duce.”
“I understand you were first in your class, in all four years at the Accademia Militare in Modena, and that you hold many riding and sharp shooting records.”
“It was my good fortune…”
“I’m sure luck played no role in your success,” Mussolini had said.
The barber had interrupted. “Excuse me, Duce.” He’d toweled the few remaining bits of lather from Mussolini’s shaven scalp, anointed his client with a generous helping of witch hazel, then held up a large, ebony-handled mirror. The dictator had examined himself as carefully as a matinee idol on opening night. He’d pointed out a stray hair that had escaped the blade, and the barber had dispatched it with a razor swipe so graceful it had reminded Falcone of Douglas Fairbanks.
“Very good, Gustave,” Mussolini had said. “Thank you.”
Gustave had untied the white silk cloth from around Mussolini’s neck, carefully folding it so that none of Il Duce’s shaven whiskers fell on his uniform or even on the mosaic floor. Then he’d departed.
“And your Olympic success,” Mussolini had continued. “That was a glorious achievement. Every Italian was proud of you.”
“You are too kind,” Falcone had said. Would the man ever get to the point?
“Do you intend to compete again at the Berlin Olympics this summer?”
“Of course. I’ve been training very hard.”
“Do you think you’re as sharp as you were in ’32?”
“I believe my scores will be higher, if that’s what you mean.” Was this about the Olympics somehow? Falcone had wondered.
Mussolini had smiled. “That’s what I was hoping to hear. By the way, I understand that your father was a great military hero.”
“He was killed in October, 1918, at Vittorio Veneto.”
“The greatest Italian victory of the war,” Mussolini had said. “Please accept my condolences.”
“And your mother?”
“A featured performer at La Scala.”
“Hmm. Perhaps I have seen her. I’m sure she’s very proud of you.”
Falcone, feeling like the fool rushing in where angels feared to go, had decided to take a chance. “With all due respect, Duce, why have you sent for me? Do you have a task in mind for me?”
The dictator had laughed. “You are very bold. That’s another quality in your favor. Your teachers have told me about your leadership qualities and your determination. Now, meeting you, I am sure you are the man for the job.”
“Falcone, how would you feel about killing a man?”
“An enemy? I would not hesitate.”
“An unarmed enemy?”
“If I am called on to do so. Are you perhaps looking for an assassin?”
Mussolini had smiled.
“Whom do you wish me to kill?
“The Emperor of Abyssinia, Haile Selassie.”
“I see,” Falcone had said. Somehow, he’d suppressed his surprise.
“I want you to hand-pick a team, go to Abyssinia, track him down and silence him forever. I will provide you with every resource you might need.”
Falcone had sat back in his chair and contemplated what was happening here and what it could mean to him. Certainly, it would make him famous in military ranks, if not in public. If he accomplished nothing else in life—which was unlikely—this alone would earn him a place in history.
He sat forward and took a deep breath. “I will need four men, the finest sniper rifles, mountaineering attire and equipment and the best Olympic eventing horses in Italy.”
Mussolini had smiled. “You will have the authority to requisition any animal in the kingdom. Anything else?”
“Plenty of money,” Falcone had said, earning another grin from Mussolini.
“I have a question, Bernardo,” the dictator had said. “You’ve accepted the assignment, but you haven’t asked me why I wanted this done.”
Falcone had known the right thing to say. “I need no explanation, other than knowing you wish me to do it.”
Il Duce had shaken his head in admiration, melodramatic tears filling his eyes. He’d gotten up from his throne-like chair, walked around to the other side of his desk, coming up behind the young soldier, and he’d put his hands on Falcone’s shoulders. “I feel as though you are the reincarnation of a Roman soldier, Bernardo. It is your spirit that I hope to reawaken in our nation.”
“Thank you, Duce. I am humbled in your presence.”
Mussolini had stood on the mosaic floor, in his customary tripod stance, chin lifted, eyes focused on something distant. “Bernardo, I am but a man, just like yourself. However, it is my destiny to restore our country to its former glory. With your help.”
Falcone had fought the urge to smile.
“I want to share my reasoning with you, Bernardo. It’s simple enough. Haile Selassie must not be allowed to survive the war. If he does he could rally opposition to our civilizing mission and make our task harder.”
“I understand, Duce.”
“Furthermore, we don’t want him running around Europe, accusing us of imaginary atrocities and looking for allies.”
“So, Bernardo, the mission with which I am entrusting you is critical to our national security—and our national renaissance.”
Falcone, as usual, had known exactly what to say. “I will not fail you, Duce.”
Mussolini’s eyes had locked on Falcone’s and for a moment, the young soldier felt the dictator’s famous animal magnetism. “I know you will not.” He scribbled a note and handed it to Falcone. “Give this to my assistant. He will see to it you get everything you need.”
Then, rather abruptly, the dictator had extended his right arm in a fascist salute. Falcone had returned it with equal conviction.
“Fare attenzione della merda,” said Badoglio’s adjutant.
Falcone looked down. Another two steps and he would have walked directly into a field latrine. “Grazie.”
Enough of this daydreaming. His moment was upon him. As soon as Badoglio gave him the go-ahead, he had to summon his men and get the horses ready. Then, the chase.
It had not been an easy trip to Africa—a long voyage from Rome to the primitive and crowded Eritrean port of Massawa, where thousands of tons of Italian military equipment was being offloaded and sent south toward Ethiopia. Except for the horses, Falcone and his men might have come by aeroplane.
His men. Even before he’d left Mussolini’s office, Falcone knew who he’d ask to join him. It would be, of course, his nightclub entourage, the inseparable three musketeers—the loyal Salvatore Brusca, Luigi Finola, silent and unyielding, Guido Fusco, young, impetuous, handsome and full of potential, and their impossible-to-get-rid-of companion and hanger-on, Guido Mangano, stupid but study, ready to take any risk for his friends. They were his Athos, Porthos and Aramis, just as he was their D’Artagnan.
Mussolini probably wouldn’t have approved—an assassination team made up of drinking companions—but Falcone felt he couldn’t have improved on them. They were all with the horses now, preparing for the great adventure, waiting for him to summon them, which is exactly what he would do, as soon as he got the go-ahead from Badoglio.
It took Falcone about 20 minutes to reach Badoglio’s field headquarters, passing through a huge bee hive of activity-- battalions of troops being fed, re-armed and resupplied in advance of the next battle, if one was coming, trucks and tanks being repaired and refueled, carts of ammunition being delivered to artillery emplacements, wounded being tended to.
The adjutant parked Falcone on a camp chair just outside of the field headquarters tent and told him Badoglio would be with him momentarily. It was the perfect spot for eavesdropping on the Marshal’s subordinates, as they delivered oral reports... the chief surgeon, reporting on casualties—many more than expected, but mainly askaris and dubats, and not enough of them to affect tactics or stragegy; then another senior officer, reporting on the condition of the enemy—very heavy casualties, disorganized and defeated, probably no longer capable of offering organized resistance.
Then, it was the air force chief telling Badoglio they were almost out of ‘special canisters,’ but were expecting a new delivery within the hour; the colonello who handled radio communication saying they’d intercepted nothing from the Ethiopians in the last two hours; and finally, the quartermaster talking about supplies, which were arriving in good order.
By the time the Marshal’s subordinates left the tent, Falcone felt he knew almost as much about the war situation as Badoglio did. It was obvious that the main fighting was over. The vicious battles of the last two days had all but crushed the Ethiopians. All the Italians needed to do now was follow up their victory, seize the battlefield and head south. But Badoglio was in no hurry. He was a methodical man, a cautious man.
“Ah, Capitano Falcone,” Badoglio said, as Falcone was ushered into his tent. They exchanged salutes. “I am happy to meet you. I wish we could have talked earlier, but as you know, I have been occupied with other matters. Please sit.”
“Good to meet you too, sir.”
A moment of silence followed, while they took stock of each other. Badoglio was trim, dark-haired, well-mustached and nicely uniformed. He had that air of authority that radiates from men accustomed to command. Falcone rather liked him.
“I think the time has come for your mission to begin,” he said. “We’ve fought our last major battle with Haile Selassie’s forces. According to our observation aeroplanes, the Ethiopian army is melting away, no longer capable of serious resistance.”
“And the Emperor?”
“Our observer puts him and his chiefs at his cave on Maichew as recently as an hour ago.”
“Excellent.” Falcone said. With a little luck, he thought, he might be able to complete his job before the day is over. Then, home.
“Yes,” Badoglio agreed, “and I have arranged for some help to make your job easier.”
“Bring in the professor,” Badoglio told his adjutant, who left the tent momentarily and returned with a grinning, moon-faced, black man in his mid-fifties wearing a business suit. “Professor,” Badoglio said, “I want you to meet Capitano Bernardo Falcone, one of the finest officers in the Italian army. You’ll be attached to his unit.”
He turned to Falcone. “Capitano, this is Professor Ibriham Nawd, dean of the school of languages at the University of Eritrea. He’s fluent in English, Italian, Amharic and Ge-ez. He’s agreed to serve as your interpreter along the road.”
Falcone was flabbergasted, but all he could think to say was “What’s Ge-ez?”
“It’s the ritual religious language of Ethiopia,” said Professor Nawd, extending a hand.
Falcone ignored the hand. “I didn’t ask for an interpreter,” he told Badoglio. “And I don’t want one, especially this one. This is a mission for combat soldiers. Italians.”
“And what will you do if you have to question the natives?” Badoglio asked. “Sign language has its limitations.”
“We don’t have a horse for him.”
“I’ll provide a horse.”
Falcone tried to think of another objection, but none occurred to him. “Can we at least get him into a military uniform?”
“Of course,” said Badoglio. He signaled to his adjutant, who led the professor out of the tent, still grinning, for a change of attire.
“By the way,” Badoglio went on, “I’ve concluded that your unit is too small and unfamiliar with the terrain. I’ve arranged for three of our most experienced askaris to accompany you.”
Falcone was incredulous. “Askaris? Eritrean native soldiers?”
“Yes,” Badoglio told him. “There are some fine men among them. They will be of great help to you. And they have their own horses.”
“I want to offer you my sincerest thanks for your concern with my mission,” Falcone said, “but my unit is experienced with every terrain. I know them and trust them completely.”
Badoglio contemplated the problem. Realizing what was bothering Falcone, he found a way around the capitano’s objection. “Okay, no askaris. But I have to insist that you take three Italian soldiers with you, good strong men.”
“I would be willing to do that,” Falcone said, having no choice.
And so Falcone and Badoglio paid a visit to the headquarters of the the 5th Alpine Division, where Falcone would be allowed—required—to accept three members from the elite mountain unit.
The truth was, they weren’t so elite. They were mostly sheep herders, farmers, good country boys, the majority barely literate. But they did know what it took to operate in the mountains.
The division commander reluctantly trotted out a company of mounted regulars for Falcone’s inspection and selection. Falcone walked down the line, having no idea whom to choose. One fellow in the front line stood out—blonde, movie star looks, the easy confidence of a man who knew women were attracted to him.
Falcone motioned to the man who came over to him smiling incandescently. “What is your name.”
“I am Beppe Ubertini, Capitano.”
“Beppe,” Falcone said. “Do you know the rest of these men well?”
“Yes, Capitano. Quite well.”
“Who’s the best rider—outside of yourself, of course.”
“Let me see—outside of myself—I’d say Aldo Baltori.”
He pointed and Falcone looked. “Front and center, Aldo.”
Aldo, raw and big-boned, stepped forward shyly.
“Aldo,” said Falcone. “I assume you are well acquainted with these men.”
“I know them like my brothers, if I had any brothers. I only have sisters.”
“Very interesting. Now tell me, which of them is the best shot, not counting yourself?”
Aldo’s brow furrowed. “There are several…”
Falcone interrupted. “Okay, choose a friend who’s also a very good shot.”
“Aldo—pick me!” someone whispered from the ranks.
Aldo shrugged and pointed at a small, swarthy man with comically large ears, a large nose and a single dense eyebrow that ran from temple to temple. “Rodrigo,” he said, “Rodrigo dell Rocca.”
The swarthy Rodrigo joined Falcone and his other two choices, Aldo and Beppe. “I hope I will not be unduly depleting your ranks if I take these men,” Falcone said to the division commander.
The commander smiled slightly. “We will do our best to make up for the loss.”
Falcone wondered what he’d done to himself.
Less than an hour later, the team had been briefed and was ready to go, Falcone and his well-mounted drinking buddies, their burnished sniper rifles slung over their shoulders, as well as the three farm boys and il professore. Mortars, entrenching tools and ammunition cases hung from their saddles.
Marshal Badoglio stopped by to wish them good hunting. “You are about to undertake a glorious mission, a mission of enormous importance to our country, a sacred calling. If I were younger…well, no need to dwell on that. I am sure Il Duce has chosen well.”
“Remember that we will be out of contact, but if you should need help, send back one of your number and I’ll return him with reinforcements. And if you succeed—when you succeed—inform me as soon as possible so that I might share the wonderful news with Il Duce.”
Falcone saluted sharply, and Badoglio returned the gesture, with respect.
Then the assassins rode out of camp, in search of their prey.