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Authors: Carol Goodman

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BOOK: The Night Villa
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“You realize he doesn’t have a say in your plans, Agnes. He’s not even your boyfriend anymore.”

“I know, I know, it’s just that he gets so jealous and he’s gotten this idea about Dr. Lawrence—”

Agnes stops and I see her looking at the phone, which is flashing again. I don’t have to count; the three flashes feel like the beat of my heart.

“Well, Dr. Lawrence
does
have quite a reputation, you know,” I tell her, hoping to get in a little warning about Agnes’s future romantic plans as well as her past ones. I’m afraid it doesn’t seem like she has the best track record, but then, with my romantic history, I’m not really in a position to judge.

“Oh,” Agnes says, “I know. All the prizes he’s won and he was on CSPAN last year! I can’t believe I might get a chance to work with someone so famous!”

I don’t point out that it wasn’t Elgin Lawrence’s academic reputation I was referring to. The phone has started to flash again, but Agnes is too busy listing her professor’s curriculum vitae to notice. At least she’s not crying anymore. When the light fades after the fourth ring I hand her a mirror to fix her lipstick and mascara and grab my briefcase. “Dr. Lawrence would be lucky to get such a bright and competent assistant to work on the project,” I say, checking my own lipstick in my reflection in the window—and surveying the quad at the same time. “Come on. Let’s go.”

Agnes smiles shyly at my praise, her newly glossed lips pink and innocent. I smile back, glad I’ve managed to reassure her without having to admit that it’s not her crazy ex on the phone. It’s mine.

I
t’s the number sequence that’s clued me in: 3-4-5, the simplest representation of the Pythagorean theorem. Ely was obsessed with it. He heard it in the cawing of the grackles outside our Hyde Park bungalow and claimed the traffic lights on Guadalupe were timed to it. He counted his steps in sequences of 3-4-5 as he walked around the campus, and changed his route if the number of steps from one building to another weren’t divisible by twelve. Instead of walking straight from Parlin to Main, as Agnes and I do now, he’d swing around the statue of Robert E. Lee and approach the Main Mall from the east side.

I pause now under the shade of a live oak opposite the statue and scan the mall. It’s been five years since I saw Ely, but I’m sure I’d recognize his tall, rangy figure anywhere—and there’s no place to hide on the mall. The expanse of pavement below the University Tower glitters in the morning sun, a burning desert compared to the shady nook we’re in now. There are benches on the edges of the mall but no one’s sitting on them—it’s already too hot to sit in the sun.

Then I glance up at the tower. I can’t help but feel I’ll be exposed once I step out of the shade and into full view of the tower, but that’s as much because of the tower’s history as my own. I wasn’t born yet when Charles Whitman barricaded himself on the twenty-eighth-floor observation deck and picked off fourteen people with his arsenal of weapons, but I’m enough of an Austinite to think of that August day every time I walk beneath the tower. My aunt M’Lou was working in the emergency room at Brackenridge Hospital then, and she told me that in addition to the gunshot wounds, they treated patients for third-degree burns. That was because when Whitman started shooting, pedestrians on the mall dove for safety under these benches and were pinned there for the next ninety-six minutes. Somehow that detail has always haunted me the most, the thought of feeling your own skin sizzling against the pavement but knowing that a worse fate awaited you if you stood up. It was the kind of choice Dante would have dreamed up for his Inferno.

“Um, don’t you think we should go?” Agnes asks me. I turn to her and realize I’ve made her even more nervous by my hesitation. She’s sweating under her seersucker suit, her eyes skittering around the mall like pinballs.

“Sure,” I say, squeezing her elbow and leading her quickly across the hot pavement toward Main, “into the lion’s den.”

A quick blast of heat and light and then we’re in the lobby and walking past the security guards, two ex-students whom I’ve seen around the Drag for as long as I’ve lived in Austin. The town is full of these underemployed malingerers who fall for the Austin lifestyle during college but who also don’t find, or want, anything very challenging in the way of work after graduation. Right now they seem more interested in admiring Agnes’s legs than in checking IDs. Besides, the real security in the building is to get up in the elevator to the observation deck, and all we have to do is walk up one flight to the conference suite.

Elgin had said that he’d scheduled the internship interviews here because there wasn’t a large enough room available in the Classics Department, but I suspect he just likes the formality of the big boardroom and that the plush swivel chairs and gleaming mahogany table, set behind a wall of polished glass so that the whole room feels like a stage set, make him feel more imposing. I can see Agnes shriveling into herself as we enter the room, so I give her arm another comforting squeeze, steering her toward a chair on the far side of the table, near the head where Elgin is sure to sit, and then go to get us two coffees from the cart that Odette Renfrew, the dean’s secretary, has just wheeled in.

“Pretty dress,” I say, sidling next to Odette as she sets out cream and sugar. “The color suits you.” The orange in her dress and matching head cloth more than suits her, it casts a warm glow on her dark skin that’s like a flame burnishing her cheekbones and toned biceps. Odette’s a large woman, but she keeps fit by swimming daily at the university pool, where I often share a lane with her and then, afterward, trade school gossip in the sauna. Which is why she looks surprised to see me.

“I thought you’d excused yourself from this particular party,” she whispers to me as I pour the coffees.

“I have,” I say, “I’m just here to watch the interviews…and to lend moral support to Agnes Hancock.”

Odette glances over her shoulder at Agnes, who’s looking out to the hall where Elgin Lawrence and several students have just appeared at the top of the stairs. I see Agnes’s eyes widen and her shoulders relax at the sight of her professor. I can’t say I totally blame her, finding my own gaze stuck on Elgin as he stops to talk to someone in the hall. He’s in his Indiana Jones mode, as I’ve come to think of it: rumpled but nicely fitting khakis; soft blue shirt that brings out his blue eyes; sleeves rolled up to reveal muscular forearms that I happen to know he keeps toned by rowing on Town Lake but which always make him look as if he’s just gotten back from an archaeological dig in Cairo. Agnes is staring through the glass at him as if mesmerized—and so are the cluster of students around him, male and female.

“Shit,” I whisper under my breath.

“Yeah,” Odette says, shaking her head. “I’m not sure going to Italy with Professor Romeo is the best thing for that girl.”

I laugh at Odette’s private name for Elgin Lawrence and pour milk in the coffees. “I agree, but what can you do? Kids, right?” Odette smiles and pats me on the shoulder. She’s got four sons, all in various stages of advanced education here at UT, thanks to their mother’s tuition benefits. Although I imagine their infractions are minor—it’s hard to imagine anyone crossing Odette—she’s always shaking her head over some new exploit by one or the other of them. “I’ve got pastries from Cisco’s,” she tells me before going back to her office. “I’m gonna heat ’em up and bring ’em in if this meeting goes on too long—the dean wants the room cleared by ten-thirty.”

I take the coffees back to Agnes, but Barry Biddle has taken the seat next to her so I sit across from them, my back to the glass wall. I hear Elgin come in with his entourage of students but refrain from turning to greet him until I notice he’s hovering over me. When I look up I see he’s grinning down at me—or possibly my bare legs.

“Dr. Chase, so kind of you to take time out of your busy finals schedule for my little ole Papyrus Project,” he says in a southern drawl that sounds like he grew up on a plantation and not the pig farm I know he did. “I hope it’s not too
flashy
for you.”

Flashy
is what I called it when I told Elgin I didn’t want in. The truth was I wouldn’t have minded being a part of the project if Elgin had a shred of evidence that the multispectral imaging was going to work on the papyrus scrolls from the Villa della Notte, or if he’d framed the project as an experiment, but instead he’d gone around spreading outrageous claims for the technology and promising lost manuscripts to gullible students like Agnes. The project had been turned down by three institutes before Elgin had finally gotten funding from the Pontificia Instituto Sacra Archeologia—PISA—on the grounds that one of the charred scrolls found in the villa might contain an early Christian document. It was one more reason I didn’t want anything to do with the project; I’d had my fill of nuns in parochial school.

“I’m here because I’m interested in Agnes’s presentation on women’s roles in mystery rites,” I say primly. Elgin nods, keeping his eyes on me a beat too long for my comfort, and then turns to Agnes.

“Ah, Miss Hancock, punctual as always. A good sign. We’ll be getting started early on site this summer to get our work done before the damned
riposo.

I try to catch Agnes’s eye to say
See, what did I tell you? We had plenty of time!
but she’s blushing and stammering something about being an early riser. The other intern candidates are avidly eyeing the coffee urns, wondering if they still have time to get themselves coffees. Elgin settles that by announcing in a booming voice, “Let’s get down to it then!” and sitting down at the head of the table. Barry’s gotten him coffee and so he’s oblivious to the caffeine deprivation of the rest of his little flock.

“Well, as you all know,” Elgin begins, “we’re here to see which one of you lucky youngsters gets to go to Italy this summer to work on the Papyrus Project. If it were up to me I’d take you all—” There’s a murmur of approval at this sentiment, which reminds me how popular Elgin is with his students. “But I’m afraid there’s only money enough for us to take one, so that’s why we’re holding this interview—kinda like cheerleading trials all over again, eh?”

The girls in the group titter—most of them look as if they were cheerleaders not too long ago—and even the boys smile, no doubt reliving their own fond memories of the cheerleaders of their youth.
These Texas boys never get over seeing their first flaming baton toss,
my aunt M’Lou always says. I bet Elgin would like nothing better than to have the girls do flips and straddles to see who gets to go with him to Italy

“Only here the winner gets to dig up ancient charred papyrus scrolls in the hot sun and then stare at them in an un-air-conditioned lab. Y’all still interested?”

The group voice their undaunted enthusiasm for the project—all except Agnes, who is, I notice, still staring blankly over my shoulder out the glass wall behind me. She hardly seems to be paying attention. As the students begin their reports my mind wanders back to the phone calls. Maybe it wasn’t Ely. After all, the rings could have been a random occurrence of the 3-4-5 sequence, an argument I was always making to Ely. If you look for the numbers, I told him, of course you’re going to find them. He would respond by citing the odds of those specific numbers occurring. He always knew the math. When I met him in my first year of graduate school he was still an undergraduate but already something of a legend on campus as a math genius. He was sitting in on the graduate seminar in Greek philosophy because of his interest in Pythagoras. Although he had no background in ancient languages (except a smattering of Hebrew from his bar mitzvah training), he’d spent the summer teaching himself Greek and could sight-read Heraclitus faster than the Greek majors. So when he asked me to tutor him I suspected he wasn’t just interested in my classical background.

We would meet in my house because he was living in an airless triple that smelled of gym socks and greasy wrappers from Dirty’s Hamburgers down on the Drag. My little Hyde Park bungalow, which I shared with an introverted psychology major, was a paradise of space in comparison. For most of that warm Austin autumn we could work outside on the front porch, sitting side by side on an ancient metal glider that Ely kept in constant motion while we translated Heraclitus and Plato. Since it was hot, and he always turned down my offers of beer, we drank a lot of iced tea, glass after glass through torpid September and into still balmy October, when my front yard started filling up with pecans from the trees that lined my street. The pecans would find their way onto the front porch and under the runners of the glider. Ely made a game of seeing how many we could crack during a passage, dividing the number of split shells by lines of Greek.

I collected so many shelled pecans during those tutoring sessions that I started making pies, but Halloween came and went and the cold fronts of November rolled in and broke the back of summer’s heat and still he hadn’t kissed me. On Thanksgiving Day I was heading out to my aunt’s ranch in Pflugerville when I saw his bicycle (a peeling red Huffy with an old orange crate for a basket) parked in front of Luby’s Cafeteria. I found him inside nursing a piece of corn bread for the free iced-tea refills, so I brought him back to my house and we ate a whole pecan pie that I had made for M’Lou before he worked up the courage to kiss me. I never made it to Pflugerville that weekend. I can still taste the caramelized sweetness of his mouth and recall the smell of butter and flour on our skin. The smell of butter and pecans has been known to make me weak at the knees, which is exactly what’s happening right now. The door behind me has opened and let in a gust of honeyed air, like some enchanted elixir wafting off fabled isles. I swivel in my chair to see Odette with a tray of pecan sticky buns. She winks at me as she sets them on the coffee cart. This is her way of getting Elgin, who has a notorious sweet tooth, to hurry up the meeting. I check my watch and am surprised to see it’s nearly ten o’clock. I’ve lost nearly a whole hour thinking of Ely.

“Hm, perhaps we should take a break—” Elgin says, sniffing the air. “There’s only Miss Hancock left to present,” Barry points out. Poor Barry, who’s on a perpetual diet, is eyeing the sticky buns as if they were bombs about to explode. I glance at Agnes, who has laid out her neatly printed 3x5 note cards on the table in front of her like a tarot reading, and think it would be cruel to let her suffer any longer.

“Yes,” I say, “and I’m sure the dean would like his conference room back.”

Odette rewards me by refilling my coffee while pointedly ignoring Elgin’s attempts to attract her attention to his empty cup. Agnes clears her throat and launches full speed into her case for secrets of the ancient mystery rites lying in one of the villa’s charred papyrus scrolls. Although her delivery is rushed, her passion for the material shines through. Elgin runs her through the requisite drill of questions but the look he exchanges with Barry Biddle clearly indicates his intention to choose Agnes for the internship. The other candidates slump dejectedly during her cross-examination and one even gets up and helps himself to a sticky bun. When Agnes, breathless and damp, answers her last question, Elgin rises and leans over Barry to pat her on the shoulder.

BOOK: The Night Villa
12.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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