Book Extracts
  • A Dark Song of Blood by Ben Pastor
  • A Dark Song of Blood |  Ben Pastor
A Dark Song of Blood by Ben Pastor



Again, the airplane. And again, the animal. Same dream in all details, an obsessive sameness. Russia, last summer. I walk toward the fallen plane making my way through the black stumps of the sunflowers, fearing what I will find there. My brother’s voice is everywhere, but I do not understand one word of what he is saying. I only know it’s the voice of the dead. A blood trail preceding and following me. Then, the rest of the dream, as always. 

I woke up in a cold sweat (this is also becoming frequent), and tried for a long time to stay awake. I only knew I was dreaming again when the sound of the animal behind me filled me with dread. It’s a quick, scraping sound, as of a large hound racing up stone steps. I climb and climb and the stairs wind around corners in a wide spiral; a blinding light comes from deep windows to the right. By inches the animal gains on me, and all I know is that it is female, and I will find no mercy with it. Its claws are like metal on polished stone, marble perhaps. I can’t climb fast enough to avoid it. Looking back into this diary, I can see the first time I dreamt this was the night before the ambush in September. 

Martin Bora’s nightmares had been set aside by the time he walked into the Hotel Flora from the wide street, early in the morning. A tiger sky drifted white behind the city blocks, wrinkling here and there with striped, ribbon-like clouds. Via Veneto was filling with light like a slow river at the bend, on a Saturday which promised to be a cold and clear day. His soul was secure inside, well kept, guarded. Anxiety had no room in his waking hours and, surprisingly, things that had been amusing were amusing still. 

Half an hour later Inspector Sandro Guidi of the Italian police stood before the massive elegance of the same hotel, shielding his eyes. At the entrance he presented his papers to a stolid-faced young soldier. While he waited in the luxurious lobby to be let upstairs, he gave himself credit for not getting lost on his way here, but still wondered why the unexpected summons to the German command. 

In the third-floor office, another wait. Beautiful wallpaper, hangings around luminous windows. Behind the desk, a detailed map of the city, a crowded bulletin board, three moist-looking watercolors of old Roman streets. Paperwork lay on the desk, neatly stacked but obviously being processed. Several maps were folded in transparent sheaths under a notebook. Guidi had seen German aides once or twice. The crimson stripes on their breeches came to mind, and the silver braid draping right shoulder and breast in the ceremonial dazzle of army hierarchy. What could General Westphal’s aide-de-camp possibly want from him? It was likely a formality, or even a mistake. But he could not mistake the voice coming from the door, because its Italian had no accent whatever. 

“Good morning, Guidi. Welcome to Rome.” 

Guidi wheeled around. “Major Bora! I didn’t expect to find you here.” 

“Why not?” 

“Well, not after what happened at Lago last month.” 

Bora smirked, and Guidi was at once familiar again with the good looks, the polite levity and reserve. “yes,” Bora said,  

“SS Captain Lasser has his friends.”

“But here in Rome!” 

“I have my friends, too.” 

Guidi was invited to sit facing the desk, where the framed photo of a woman was the only personal object. Bora did not take a chair. He sat on the desk’s corner, loosely clasping his left wrist where it met the gloved artificial hand. “So, how were you transferred here?” he asked. “I happened to drive past St Mary Major yesterday, and would have recognized you anywhere – sandy-haired, lanky and ever so proper, coming out of church. you put the rest of us to shame.” 

Guidi shrugged. This invitation was now flattering and he wasn’t sure he wanted that. Ostensibly Bora had no reason to have him here other than friendliness. “I was simply reassigned, but never expected to get the capital. Frankly, big cities daunt me.” 

He mentally compared his crumpled civilian looks to the smartness of the man facing him, off-putting were it not for the amicable cast on his youthful face. “I understand. Don’t worry, Guidi, I know Rome well. I’ll show you the sights. So, do you have a case yet?” 

“I don’t know if I can discuss it here.” 

“you must mean the Reiner matter, then. It’s on everybody’s lips, whether or not she was just a German embassy secretary who fell from a fourth-story window. Good, I’m glad it’s you they brought here for it. Where do you stay?” 

“At a house on Via Merulana.” 

“you ought to have taken a place closer in. Is your mother with you?” 


“She’s well, I hope?” 

“yes, thank you.” Guidi felt Bora’s attention on him. Their association in northern Italy had been circumstantial, due to criminal cases where Germans had figured in one way or another. This was different, and he was not used to relating to Bora without an immediate motive. 

“There’s much about the city to like, you’ll see.” Bora stood, which rightly Guidi took as a sign that time was up. “Let’s meet  

tomorrow, at 0900 hours sharp.” 

“I’m not sure I can.” 

“Surely you can.” By his brisk stepping to the door, Guidi noticed that – four months after the grenade attack – Bora’s limp was less pronounced. He looked remarkably well, in fact. 

“My driver will take you home.” 

“It’s not necessary, Major.” 

“It is, it is. you walked here. your ears are red with cold.” Bora’s impatience came through, and this Guidi remembered about him also. “I’ll see you in the morning.” 

After the meeting, Guidi was angry with himself for letting Bora do the talking, and subtly taking over. It’d happened in Lago often enough to annoy him, but Bora’s concise forcefulness was as irresistible as it was disturbing. Devoid of leniency, an odd contrary image of himself, because Guidi was not willing to take risks as Bora did. 

City life in the fourth year of war was gray, as the German staff car traveled streets where the few passers-by seemed also spare and gray. Guidi was struck by the naked great size of Rome. Far from the northern province – where “Germans” meant Bora and his detachment – here, after the loss of the south, had flowed Wehrmacht and SS, paratroopers and airmen, their commands ensconced in the best hotels, and the most elegant avenues made off limits to civilians. Rome was under siege from within, strangely. Strange, too, seeing Bora wear his medals. Guidi had never before seen them on the severe field tunic, and yet they told at once all there was to know militarily about him. When the German orderly dismounted to open his car door, Guidi felt the eyes of the neighborhood upon him, curious and hostile. 

As for Bora, he did not waste time wondering whether Guidi had been imposed upon by his invitation. Within minutes General Westphal walked in with a slip of paper written in Italian. 

“What does this say?” 

Bora scanned the words. “It says, ‘The women do not love us any more / Because it is a black shirt that we wear / They say we should be carried off in chains / They say we should be carried off to jail.’ It’s a song the Fascists sing up north.” 

“Well, it’s defeatist. Write a note to Foa and the head of PAI and let them know it’s all right for Salò but we don’t want it sung in Rome. If Foa complains, chew his ass.” 

“Sir, General Foa is no Fascist, and he’s a war hero. Harshness may not be advisable.” 

“He’s also half-Jewish. Ream him, and don’t worry about being unpopular. Aides are never left behind for the dogs to tear.” 

As things went, Foa was an untoward old man who wanted no interference from the Germans, and Bora ended up making an enemy over the stupid ditty. After the phone call he prepared a memo for Westphal’s meeting with Field Marshal Kesselring, which he might have to deliver himself, two hours away in the arid massif of Mount Soratte. Allied fighter planes circled the sky in endless vulture rounds all the way there, where the distant mountain cut against the eastern sky a bizarre stone likeness of Mussolini. Westphal was called in by General Maelzer, commander of the city garrison, and Bora was en route to the field marshal’s lair before noon. 

He made it back to the city long after curfew. On his desk, a message from the Vatican was waiting with a note scribbled by Westphal on the margin. Inform the Vatican Secretary of State you’ll visit first thing in the morning to discuss matters in person. If it’s the Italian cardinal, say no; if it’s the German, say that we’ll look into it. In either case give my regards, et cetera. Don’t fall for Hohmann’s philosophical talk. Report to me on Monday on this and the trip.

  • A Dark Song of BloodBen Pastor