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Authors: Carol Goodman

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BOOK: The Night Villa
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“Very well. This is what we will do. Can you show me the Chamber of the God and the Chamber of the Maiden tonight? I will have to know how to get from one to another in order for our plan to work.”

She nodded. Although her face was solemn, I detected a faint smile. I had gained her confidence. “Come with me,” she said.

I followed Iusta down the stairs to the lower courtyard. The moon had set now and I could barely see her as she crossed the courtyard. She seemed to melt into a painted wall, but when I got closer I saw that she had only slipped inside a narrow gap in the wall. I could see nothing but blackness beyond, but I could feel a dank draft rising from the gap and smell the brackish odor of the sea rising from far below. I could also smell Iusta: the perfumed oil she wore on her hair and musk of her skin as she knelt by my feet. When she rose, she was holding a lamp that cast a weak yellow light on her face and arms.

“The passage is narrow,” she told me. “You’ll have to follow behind me and you must stay close to me or you won’t be able to see where I turn. There are many false turns that drop off steeply. If you fall into one I won’t be able to get you out.”

With that warning, she started down the stairs. The passage was indeed narrow—so narrow that my shoulders brushed against the stone walls and I had to crouch to keep from hitting my head against the ceiling. Iusta kept the lamp close to her body—to keep the flame from blowing out, I supposed. I only caught glimpses of the paintings on the walls as we descended: a flutter of wings, the curled tail of a serpent. Only when we reached level ground did the passage widen enough for me to stand beside her, and then I could clearly see the paintings on the walls.

I almost wished I couldn’t.

I’m not a prudish man by any means, but I admit that the scenes that decorated the underground passage shocked me. All the creatures of the sea and land were here and all were breeding with one another. Some of the scenes I recognized from myths: above us a great swan beat his wings between Leda’s legs, Pasiphae crouched inside her cow-disguise as she was mounted by the great bull of Crete, Oreithyia was ravished aloft by Boreas, the North Wind. But others came from no myth I recognized. Sea-nymphs writhed with dolphins and serpents sodomized satyrs…unspeakable couplings that I am too ashamed to record here. Up to all of this, the girl Iusta held her unwavering lamp. No wonder she was frightened by the coming rites.

I motioned for her to move on. Instead, she crouched on the ground and, passing me the lamp, lifted up a stone lid covering something that looked like a well. She unwrapped a rope from around her waist and secured it to a bolt in the wall.

“I’ll go down first,” she said, “and then you pass me the lamp and I’ll light the way for you.”

I did as she said, crouching at the edge of the pit, holding the lamp for her, but the light barely penetrated the darkness. I could feel, too, the darkness at my back—and all those leering figures ready to pounce on me. Then I saw Iusta’s upturned face and her hand reaching out for the lamp. What if I dropped it and plunged us into blackness? My hand shook as I passed the lamp to her. Her hand was steady.

“Now you,” she said. I did as she said. When I was once again on solid ground, I was amazed to find myself in a perfectly circular room, the walls and floor painted red, with many strange figures on the wall, but these I could not make out so well.

“A chamber fit for the God of the Underworld!” I said, turning around in a circle. “But I don’t see any way out except for the grate in the ceiling and that, I presume, will be locked.”

“That’s what you are meant to think so that when I appear it will be as if I had materialized out of thin air, but see here—” She removed from her robe a long flat piece of iron—a tool from the kitchen used to lift hot pots from the fire, I believe—and slid it into a crack in the wall. “I will leave this here for you so that you can open the door,” she said as the door swung open onto darkness. She held up her lamp and motioned for me to step through, into another tunnel that branched into three directions.

“Three! Like the faces of Hecate!” I exclaimed.

Ignoring my comment Iusta showed me which sign to follow to find her in the Chamber of the Maiden—

“He doesn’t tell us what the sign is?” Maria asks.

“No,” I answer, “the word he uses is
signum.

As I followed her I saw the path we took went downward. “Deeper yet!” I remarked. “How far underground does the villa go? We’ll be in Hades soon!”

I meant to lighten the mood with a joke, but when she looked over her shoulder at me she wasn’t smiling. “If Calatoria catches me showing you this, that’s where I will be. You must promise not to tell anyone what I’ve shown you tonight.”

“Of course,” I assured her.

“You must not even write it down.”

I assured her again, although I already knew I wouldn’t be able to resist recording the experience, as I am doing right now. I have never been able to resist recording the wonders I have witnessed, even the secrets I was sworn never to reveal.

We descended through the tunnel to the chamber where she would be kept. As we crept along Iusta pointed out the false turnings I must avoid. She warned me that if I fell into them headfirst I would be trapped, my body wedged in between the stones. “Calatoria has had these caverns so shaped that a man would hang upside down in them for a long time before he died. It’s how she punishes slaves if they steal or disobey her.”

“How dreadful—to be buried alive!”

“Yes. She believes that she avoids the pollution of murder by letting them starve to death beneath the ground.”

“Don’t they suffocate first?”

“No, the rock is porous enough to let in air and even a few drops of fresh water from an underground spring so that the captive is kept alive for days, weeks even.”

I shuddered. “An ingenious punishment. I’ll be careful. When I’ve found your chamber, are you sure you’ll be able to find our way to the Sirens’ Grotto?”

“I’ve explored these caverns since I was a child. My mother showed them to me.”

We had come to the Chamber of the Maiden, as Iusta called it, a narrow cell hewn out of the rock, less lavish than the Chamber of the God. Then Iusta made me lead the way back to be sure I had memorized the path. I did so easily—I’ve always had an excellent memory—and then we climbed back though the grate and into the passageway. We ascended up to the lower courtyard without speaking, Iusta following me so quietly that for a moment on the stairs I grew afraid that I had lost her. When I turned to her she said, “If you were Orpheus and I were Euridice you would have sealed my fate right then.”

I started to laugh, but then I felt a tremor beneath my feet. It was only a small tremor, common to these parts, but enough to make me wary of joking about the gods. She, too, looked suddenly serious. “You must promise me that tomorrow night you will do exactly as I have told you to do and that you won’t breathe a word of this to anyone. My life is in your hands.”

I promised. Then I came back here to my chamber where I wrote down what had transpired.

“S
o the very first thing he did upon leaving her was to break his word,” Maria states after I’ve closed George’s laptop.

“Maybe he didn’t think anyone would ever read this,” Agnes says. Then, looking flustered, she adds, “I mean, this journal is so…intimate. I’ve never read anything from this period that feels so confessional.”

George shakes his head. “That’s true, but still, Phineas always wrote for publication. He says himself that if he doesn’t retrieve his stolen scroll he’ll be penniless. He dealt in secrets. He was planning to sell this mysteries scroll to Gaius Petronius—and
would
have sold it to Calatoria if she hadn’t stolen it first. Why should he worry about keeping the secrets of a slave girl?”

“Or of the hostess who had stolen his property?” I add, giving Agnes a sympathetic smile. I, too, am oddly reluctant to admit Phineas’s perfidy. I’m not sure why. I’ve never thought well of his character—and nothing in his journal so far has shown him in any better light—but I realize that I’m growing unaccountably fond of the man. Maybe it has something to do with what Agnes has pointed out: I, too, have never read anything of this period that is so candid. Phineas’s voice, rising out of this long-buried, charred scroll, sounds so
alive.
A phoenix rising from the ashes of Vesuvius.

“You realize,” Elgin says now, “that we don’t know for a fact that Calatoria stole the scroll. I, for one, am not convinced by Phineas’s reasoning. It could have been one of the slaves.”

Lyros nods. “Yes, but the only slave who sounds like she had enough education to recognize its value was Iusta.”

“But what would Iusta want with it?” I ask. “She’d already made some kind of deal with Phineas to get her diary back. I have to confess that’s what I’d like to find: Iusta’s diary. Imagine a correspondence between a first-century slave and her master, who may actually have been her father. We have nothing like it; what an exciting find!”

“Really?” Maria asks, arching one carefully plucked eyebrow. “It sounds rather banal to me. But this scroll on the mysteries,
that
sounds intriguing. I wonder what it could be.”

“It could be about any of the mystery rites—” Agnes begins, but I interrupt her.

“Actually,” I say, looking at Lyros, “
On the Mysteries
was another name for Pythagoras’s
Golden Verses.

“I thought Pythagoras didn’t write anything,” George says.

“There was debate about that in the ancient world,” Elgin responds, “and false manuscripts circulating that people called
The Golden Verses
or
On the Mysteries.
This could be one of the false manuscripts.”

“Or it could be the real thing,” John says. Glancing at me, he adds, “There’s something I should tell the rest of you. Sophie and I already discussed this at dinner—” He takes out of his pocket the postcard printed with the red tetraktys and tells the rest of the group about its odd appearances at the project sites.

I explain the sign’s significance to the cult of the same name. I notice that Agnes pales and I wonder if she’s remembering Dale’s connection with the group and beginning to suspect what role the cult might have played in the shooting.

“Do you think this group—the Tetrads or whatever you call them—is targeting the project because they think their sacred master’s book is buried under the Villa della Notte?” George asks. “How would they even know? Only the people in this room have read these Phineas transcripts.”

There’s a moment of silence during which I become aware of the splash of the fountain in the peristylium and the hiss of the waves hitting the rocky shore far below the terrace, and I sense that everyone is doing what I’m doing: looking around the circle of six assembled people and wondering who might leak information to a fanatic cult.

“This is ridiculous,” Maria says. “So what if some crazy American cult is interested in this scroll. We’re not even sure it’s still there.”

“That’s true,” I say, “we don’t even know if they went through with the rites. On the morning after this last journal entry Mount Vesuvius erupted. Wouldn’t they have fled?”

“Possibly,” Lyros says. “But where to? The prevailing wind on August 24 was toward the southwest. Pompeii received most of the ash and volcanic stone debris—some pumice fell on Herculaneum but it probably didn’t look life-threatening right away. The pyroclastic flow that destroyed Herculaneum didn’t happen until midnight of the next day. Calatoria’s household might have thought they were safer staying where they were than trying to travel.”

While John talks I look out at the calm, moonlit bay, trying to imagine the chaos and confusion that struck on that day, the horror of not knowing whether safety lay in fleeing or hiding. What I remember, suddenly, is the moment Dale Henry opened fire, how I’d found myself under the table and not wanted ever to come out from under it again. “Or they would have gone underground to the grotto,” I say aloud. “They might have thought that going ahead with the rites would appease the gods of the underworld and protect the household.”

“But then they all would have been underground when the blast hit at midnight. They would have been buried under there!” Agnes cries, her voice trembling. “How awful!”

Maria makes a clucking sound with her tongue. “It would have been quick. And if that is what happened it would be a lucky thing for us.”

“Lucky!” Agnes echoes, staring at Maria.

“Why yes,” Maria says, ignoring Agnes’s outraged tone. “It would mean the scroll is still there. Now all we have to do is follow those tunnels to the sirens’ grotto and we’ll have it.”

         

I leave while the rest of the group make plans to explore the underground passages tomorrow. I suddenly feel too tired to keep my eyes open a minute longer. When I get to my room, though, something on my bed wakes me up: three cardboard tiles like the ones I’d found in the cafe and in the envelope addressed to me, laid out on my pillow like after-dinner mints.

The first one is a picture I haven’t seen before: three soldiers in peaked caps carrying bayonets forked like lightning bolts. They look like they might have marched with Napoleon. The next two tiles are familiar: a hand lifting a frying pan and a man wearing a mask. I take the other six tiles out of my pocket and arrange them on the pillow in the order in which I found them: the sweeping man, the frying pan, the sun, the moon, the falling man, the masked man, the three soldiers, the frying pan, and the masked man. Three sets of three. Ely had been obsessed by threes. I feel sure that if Ely is really the one sending these, then I’ve got a “set,” the message is complete. But what is the message? I can imagine that some of the symbols—the moon, the sun, the masked man—would mean something to Ely, but soldiers? And a frying pan?

Then I remember what Gianni had told me about each picture corresponding to a number. I take out the game I bought in the
farmacia
and unwrap it. Inside I find a playing board divided up into ninety boxes, each one containing a picture and a number. The pictures are a little different from the tiles I have, but they’re close enough. I take out my notebook and, turning to a blank page, write down a description of each card and then, below it, the number that corresponds to the card. When I’m done I have a chart that looks like this:

I stare at the numbers for a long time, willing myself to see some pattern in them, trying to remember patterns that meant something to Ely. I remember he liked the Fibonacci Sequence, prime numbers, the digits of pi, and palindromic numbers, but none of those seem to fit these numbers, and if it’s a more complicated pattern I’m not going to recognize it. Nor would Ely have any reason for thinking I
would
recognize it. When the numbers start to blur together I realize I have to go to sleep. Maybe when I wake up, the numbers will make more sense. Ely said that sometimes if he went to sleep with a problem in his head he would dream about the numbers, then wake up with the problem solved.

I don’t dream about the numbers, though. I dream about the figures from the Smorfia board. First I am standing outside my house in Austin. I can feel the sun hot on my back and when I turn I see an enormous sun rising above the house roofs and treetops across the street. I turn back to my house and see that there’s a man on my porch sweeping up broken pecan shells. As I walk past him he lifts his head and looks at me with yellow eyes; it’s Charles from the Archetypes Bookstore. He’s grinning at me as if he’d just told me a joke. Of course! Opening the screen door I realize that’s what the symbols on the cards are:
archetypes.

I walk through the house, aware that with each step I take the sun is tracking my progress, moving so fast through the sky that by the time I reach the kitchen the windows there are dark. Odette Renfrew stands at the stove cooking something in a cast-iron frying pan. An overpowering smell of burned sugar and nuts fills the air. When I look inside the pan, I see it holds a pecan pie.

“Honey,” Odette says, “this isn’t the right pan and it’s not the right day. Go back out and try again.”

So I go out the back door just in time to see the moon slip behind the house next door. Ely is at the edge of the yard, his back to me. I start down the back porch stairs to reach him, but the three steps that are usually there stretch out below me into a long stone stairway. I hurry, afraid that I’ll miss him, but the steps are wet and slippery, coated with a film of white down. I slip, falling down into the stairwell, and as I reach for Ely he turns and I see he’s wearing a mask shaped like the leering face of a satyr.

I turn back to my house, but it’s gone. All that’s left is rubble, as if leveled by a hurricane or a neutron bomb. Or, I realize as I pick through the debris, a volcanic eruption. A thick coating of ash lies over everything. I suddenly know that Ely and our baby are buried somewhere beneath the debris and ash. I dig, frantically scooping handfuls of dust until my eyes sting and my throat and lungs are coated with the stuff. There is broken glass in the debris as well, shards of glass covered with scraps of white paper with blue letters. Hebrew letters. I try to fit the pieces together to see what they say, even though I can’t read Hebrew, and I cut my hand on the glass. Still I keep digging until I feel arms pulling me back and something sharp prodding my back. The soldiers have come. They’re dragging me away just as I find, at the bottom of the rubble, the cast-iron frying pan, scorched and rusted and glowing red. I reach for it but the soldiers pull me away. I turn on them, ready to fight their bayonets with nails and teeth if I have to, but find myself facing the masked man. The eyes behind the mask are Ely’s. I reach to pull the mask off. My fingers graze the hard plastic surface, warm to the touch. It’s only when I hear Ely’s screams that I realize my mistake. The heat of the eruption has melted the plastic mask and fused it to Ely’s face. Peeling away the mask, I peel away his flesh as well.

         

I awake, still hearing the echoes of his screams, my skin on fire and the taste of ash in my mouth. I reach for the glass of water on my bedside table and gulp down what’s left in it, then stumble to the dresser where a ceramic pitcher holds more. I pour some into my hands and splash my face, letting the water drip down my neck. My T-shirt is soaking. I wonder if I’m sick again, if I’ve had a relapse of the pneumonia. I haven’t had such frightening dreams since my last night in the Hotel Convento. Am I delirious? But when I look down at my notebook, which lies on the dresser open to the chart of symbols and numbers I’d made, my head feels perfectly clear. I know exactly what the numbers mean. They’re dates. 11/22/01, 6/17/02, 12/22/02. Anniversaries. The Thanksgiving Day when I brought Ely back to my house for pecan pie and we slept together for the first time. The day Cory was born. The last one is the day Ely found out that I was sleeping with Elgin and left me to go live with the Tetraktys.

The sweat is drying on my skin and my breathing has slowed, but still I feel like I’m suffocating. I slip a terry-cloth robe over my T-shirt and grab my sandals. Outside, the peristylium is still dark, the air still. The only sound is the restless surge of the ocean far below the cliffs. I feel like I have to be closer to the water, to immerse myself in it. It’s the only thing that can stop me from burning up while I think about that day.

BOOK: The Night Villa
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