The Secret Of Altamura
Chapter 1 - A Hotel Room in Venice, May 2, 1943
Alessia stood before the mirror and carefully applied makeup to her cheeks, lips, and eyes. She was a master at it; not professionally trained, just naturally talented. Tonight this talent was especially important although her hands shook as she moved the brush across her face.
As she completed her task, a tiny tear escaped from the corner of her left eye and crept slowly down her face. Soon, her eyes started to swell as more tears came, but she fought the urge to surrender and turned her attention back to the work of making her face one that turned heads in Venice.
Once finished, she faced the bed and pulled the wrinkled sheets up one by one. Her hands trembled a bit as she tied the ends of the sheets together. So Alessia worked slowly, carefully, checking to make sure the knots were strong enough to hold her weight.
Tears fell on her hands and the bedding, tears blackened by her mascara, an unnecessary flourish for a woman blessed with youth and natural beauty. Her thoughts were focused on her affair with a German officer, Anselm. He was powerful and persuasive, and she might have fallen for him anyway, but she had surrendered to him out of fear. Anselm was generous with treasures he’d taken from Venetian homes and churches. But his jewelry and other gifts only made her feel like a whore.
“He betrays me, sleeps with other women, and pillages my country. I should get my revenge,” she thought, conjuring up images of gothic mutilations. But her thirst for vengeance was not strong enough.
Tugging one more time on each of the knots, Alessia then tied one end of the sheets to the leg of the bed. Fearing that her weight would drag the furniture across the floor and swing her side to side below the ledge, she moved the bed up against the wall under the window, nudging its feet against the massive shoe molding of the ancient hotel.
She opened the window, pushed the shutters aside, and looked down into the canal below. The moon shined bright in a cloudless sky, and the brisk night air was refreshing, although its touch chilled Alessia’s skin. Bells rang softly in the distance, some from churches, some from small boats passing in the night. A gentle mist hugged the water and spread over the channel below.
Alessia studied her city’s panorama and peered beyond this canal into the labyrinth of those beyond. It was a scene familiar to her since childhood, but tonight she smiled only irreverently.
“Well, if the knots don’t hold, I’ll go for a swim instead.”
Alessia sat on the windowsill and swung her legs over the edge. The mist tickled her bare feet and raised bumps on her arms. Once more, she tested the strength of the knot, then tied the sheet around her neck. Resting her palms on the stone ridge and giving a determined push, she sailed past the ledge and into the air. The sheets quickly drew taut, and by the time her body hit the hotel wall, her neck was already broken.
Alessia did not go for a swim that night.
Chapter 2 – Piazza San Marco, Venice, May 3, 1943
Colonel Anselm Bernhard stood in the piazza in front of the gaping doors of the basilica. His hands rolled into fists rested lightly on the leather belt of his uniform. His short-cropped blond hair, clean shaven face, and icy blue eyes topped a muscular and athletic body.
Bernhard’s stance and posture reflected the imperialism that his government wanted to impose on the world. He wore his uniform with pride; the razor sharp creases in his pants and the stiff material of the jacket signaled his exceptionality. That image was important for him to display to the soldiers in his command but also to the people of the cities and towns he laid siege to.
Facing the stone edifice of the Basilica di San Marco, Bernhard was clearly enjoying his latest conquest. The mist from the night before had cleared, leaving cool, crisp air on a pleasantly limpid morning. The colonel nodded his head at the basilica, as if he were engaging the great church in a silent conversation, when a young German officer walked up behind him.
“Sir, excuse me, but I have news you will want to hear… before others hear it, no doubt.”
“Did you know, Hilgendorf,” said Bernhard, “that Napoleon conquered this city?” Ignoring the young officer, he remained fixated on the glittering façade of the Basilica di San Marco. “He stole vast art collections from the weak Italians groveling at his feet, even these,” as he pointed up to the magnificent bronze horses at the apex of the church’s entrance.
“He stole the horses of St. Mark’s and sent them to his native Paris with the rest of the booty he had captured from conquered lands - - just as the soldiers of the Third Reich will do today, to glorify the German Empire.”
Hilgendorf knew about Napoleon’s theft of the horses. He also knew that Italy had recovered them from France and that Napoleon was not a native Parisian but was born and raised in Corsica.
The lieutenant, who knew his commander’s moods, saw that Bernhard was reveling in fantasies of his own glorification, so correcting his historical musings would be unwise. Hilgendorf was well trained and knew that, in the German army, commanders like Bernhard were rewarded for being ruthless and uncompromising, so contradicting the decorated war veteran’s grasp of history would be risky.
Hilgendorf, though an underling, had achieved a high level of education before entering service to the Third Reich in 1939 and he had mastered several foreign languages in the process. The superior officer standing before him had several times dismissed this accomplishment.
“Only German will be necessary in the future,” Bernhard was quick to remind him.
The young lieutenant was taller and leaner than his muscular colonel and kept his light brown hair long enough to comb across the tops of his ears. He had romantic dreams of someday winning a beautiful bride, and in his youth had followed current fashions. Although now he maintained the clean shaven look German commanders encouraged, he still could have passed for a university student.
After a few more moments studying the bronze horses, Bernhard turned his head slowly and caught the young officer’s eye. The colonel was not accustomed to being approached with an announcement that sounded like a warning.
“Well?” he asked.
“Alessia was found this morning hanging by her neck outside the hotel. She was dangling from the window, tied to a series of knotted sheets.” Hilgendorf paused to give his superior time to digest the news but, seeing no reaction, he continued.
“She was hoisted back into the room, her face was blue, and it was obvious that her neck was broken.”
Still no reaction. Hilgendorf wondered whether Bernhard’s slow response reflected some concern.
“What would you like me to do, sir?”
“Do?” Bernhard uttered matter-of-factly. “What should we do when some stupid girl hangs herself? What business is it of mine?”
The young officer turned to leave, but then halted at the sound of his name.
“Hilgendorf,” Bernhard called out. “Go to her room and retrieve the gold necklace with the sapphires.”
After the young officer departed, the older man took an elegant black leather notebook from his uniform pocket, opened it to a marked page and made some notes. Then he slipped the notebook back into his pocket and returned to gaze on the magnificent basilica, a symbol of the city he had just occupied for the Third Reich.
Chapter 3 – Doge’s Palace, Venice, May 5, 1943
Two days after Alessia’s suicide, Anselm Bernhard was in his office, leaning over an ornate 16th century desk that once belonged to a Venetian Doge, the chief magistrate of Venice. He held the glass shaft of a pen lightly in his right hand, absent-mindedly pointing it at the official documents arranged carefully on the surface of the desk. With a clear conscience, Bernhard embraced the theory of Arian supremacy because it suited his own personal desires. The Nazi regime’s plans to conquer Europe included a loose alliance with Italy, and these same plans allowed him to use his position of influence to plunder the riches of the land.
The leaders of the two countries, Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini, maintained a fragile relationship; but for the Führer it was only a charade. The privileges allowed the Italian Prime Minister were closely controlled by the Third Reich; the Italian people were not as easily smitten by the German dynastic plans.
But the coalition agreement carved out between Hitler and Mussolini created openings for German opportunists like Bernhard to take advantage of the relationship. With the presumed idea of supremacy, they could take what they wanted and justify it as “saving the disorderly Italians from themselves,” a comment that Bernhard would make frequently in front of his troops.
The Nazi officer paused in his study of the war communiqués before him. He stood up, peered out the window, and straightened his shoulders in an unconscious throwback to the lessons pounded into the unconscious memories of the German officer corps. His posture was erect; his expression steely; and his uniform was starched, snug, and adorned with an array of ribbons carefully positioned above both pockets of the jacket. His appearance underscored his conviction that Hitler was lucky to have him.
Bernhard never doubted his own superiority, and he offered little loyalty to the general cause of the Third Reich. He considered Hitler violent, mean-spirited and dangerously unpredictable with an inferiority complex that fed his erratic behavior. Bernhard had heard that the Führer could pin a medal on a soldier’s chest one day and order him shot the next, if he even vaguely suspected disloyalty.
“Killing Jews?” Bernhard thought. “Simple stuff for a madman.” As for Hitler’s “final solution” to exterminate the Jews, Bernhard had no opinion. The colonel frankly didn’t care if people died, even the innocent ones as long as he wasn’t expected to do the killing.
Art, money, and women were far more important to him. He could steal the art and money, and was willing to use his power to force the women into his bedroom. Given his personal agenda, his current position within the German power structure was perfect. He was assigned to confiscate artworks and other precious collectibles in Italy’s private homes, churches, and museums, and ship them back to Berlin where they would be safely kept from “the disorderly Italians.”
At first, the assignment was simple enough. With the execution or forced exile of anyone opposed to the Third Reich, the only complication Bernhard encountered was his own greed. Giving all the art to the German regime seemed like such a waste. So, he unofficially modified his orders, judiciously setting aside a portion of the plunder for his own “safekeeping.”
The best of the art would adorn his private villa at the end of the war; some would be traded for the favors of the beautiful young Italian women who were brought to his quarters. And the remainder would be sent to Berlin – enough to convince his superiors to keep him in charge of this mission to search and seize Italy’s wealth.
Bernhard’s attention returned to the matters on the desk, his reveries interrupted by the sight of the black leather journal that sat among the papers. He had confiscated it from a shop in Venice, a city famous for such things. He lifted it in his left hand, turned the pages to an unused page, and inscribed some notes in penmanship that was a tribute to his fine education. The swirls, slants, and ascending strokes would have made a medieval scribe jealous.
Bernhard had taken a moment to pause and read back his latest entry when he noticed Hilgendorf standing in the doorway.
“Why didn’t you say something?” said Bernhard, as usual treating his deputy with more tolerance than he did the other twelve men in his detachment.
“My apologies, Colonel. I didn’t want to interrupt you.”
“Oh, it’s nothing,” Bernhard replied, tossing the glass pen on the desk but carefully closing the journal and slipping it into his pocket.
Hilgendorf was not allowed to read the journal, but he was perceptive enough to know what it contained. He knew that Bernhard spent more time writing in it when he had acquired a new work of art or plundered another church, so he surmised the colonel must be keeping an inventory of the booty and how he came to possess it. The only other activity that Bernhard appeared to document was his liaisons with the women he either seduced or coerced. The lieutenant knew that Bernhard liked to keep notes on his women since he sometimes consulted the journal when boasting of what he considered a lady’s finer attributes.
When Bernhard once described a woman as “a work of art,” the phrase convinced the younger officer that the colonel’s other notes in the journal were reserved for the masterpieces he had stolen.
Bernhard was seldom interested in anything that Hilgendorf had to say. The young man, in turn, usually reported to his superior officer only when there was some official business to discuss. The colonel was growing less interested in the movement of troops, the success of the Nazi invasion of European countries, and the progress of Hitler’s final solution. So before Hilgendorf could explain the reason for his visit, Bernhard decided to set the direction for the conversation.
“Did you know that during medieval times, the leaders of this fair city stole the bones of saints? Venice, spectacular though it is, centered its efforts on collecting relics from dead Christians – bones, hair, and the like, to attract God-fearing pilgrims.”
Hilgendorf knew some of this, but remained silent, knowing that Bernhard would prefer to deliver the lecture himself.
Standing up and stepping around the desk, Bernhard continued.
“I don’t know who was more dim-witted,” he smirked, “the collectors of these shards of anatomy, or the dullards who thought possessing them could bring everlasting life.