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Authors: Carol Goodman

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BOOK: The Night Villa
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I go in through the back door and open the fridge, leaning gratefully into its cool white depths. M’Lou’s not only cleared it, but wiped the whole thing down with bleach. It smells like a swimming pool. Thankfully she’s left a couple of Shiner Bocks. I open one and roll it across my forehead before taking a long cold drink. When I put the bottle down on the kitchen table it makes a clunk that echoes through the empty house, and I decide to drink the rest of it out on my front porch. Maybe by the time I finish it the house will stop feeling so empty. I take an extra one in case one’s not enough.

I realize halfway through the first bottle that I’m not going to need it. Between the pain medication I’m on and the exercise, I’m quickly anesthetized. I let the glider gently sway and watch the gentle arc of the sprinkler make rainbows in the late afternoon sun. This will be just fine, I tell myself, a summer nursing the lawn back to life, swimming at Barton Springs, working on my book…. By the fall I should be able to walk back onto campus without looking over my shoulder for invisible gunmen.

I’ve rocked myself into such an agreeable stupor that when the yellow Porsche pulls up in front of my house for a minute I don’t realize who it is. But then there’s only one person I know in Austin, home of hybrids and rusty old pickup trucks, who drives such a flashy car: Elgin Lawrence.

He unfolds himself from the low-slung car and drapes a jacket over his shoulder in one fluid movement. I have time to wonder why he needs a jacket when it’s over ninety in the shade, and also to ponder the leather laptop case he’s carrying, while he crosses the short patch of burned grass and looks down to see that he’s ruined his delicate-looking loafers in the run-off from the sprinkler. I ought to be wondering what he’s doing here, but my beer-and-OxyContin-bathed brain doesn’t seem able to wrap itself around the question. Elgin makes a quick dart when he realizes that the sprinkler is heading his way and is up on my porch before I can think of an excuse to get rid of him.

“Sophie!” he exclaims, holding out his arms. “I came as soon as I heard you were discharged from the hospital. Look at you! You’re glowing! I knew you’d bounce back from this a hundred percent. You can’t keep a good woman down.”

I start to smile in spite of myself; Elgin’s charm is insidious. “If that were true,” I say, suppressing the smile, “Odette Renfrew would still be alive.”

Elgin bows his head and shakes it, clucking his tongue just once. “That’s exactly what I said at her funeral. I said her memory would stay with us forever. I said”—Elgin lifts his head and lays his right hand over his heart, striking a pose reminiscent of Cicero addressing the Roman Senate—“I will think of her every day of my life and try to make my life worthy of her saving it. I tell you, I’m a changed man.” Elgin lowers his head again, this time noticing the unopened beer on the floor. “Mind if I…?”

“Go ahead,” I say. “I probably shouldn’t be mixing alcohol with my painkillers anyway.”

Elgin swoops down on the beer and then seats himself on my porch railing. “That’s for sure. Last year after I twisted my ankle playing racquetball I made the mistake of going out drinking with my Tacitus seminar—” Elgin stops himself, no doubt realizing that a ribald drinking story is at odds with the elegiac note he’d struck a moment ago. “But that’s another story. I came here to see how you are.” He trains the full intensity of his blue eyes on me and—God help me—I feel a little woozy. It must be the drugs, I tell myself, I got over Elgin’s charms a long time ago.

“I’ll be fine,” I say, carefully picking my tense. “I just need some peace and quiet, which I’m sure to get plenty of during the summer in Austin.”

“You’re going to stay
here
? All summer?” Elgin points his beer bottle at me so suddenly that I flinch. For a second I’d seen Dale Henry lifting up his arm with the gun in it. “What you need,” he says, “is to get away. Someplace near the sea, but not some mindless beach resort. You need something to really take your mind off what happened. Something intellectually stimulating…”

“Elgin, you’re not talking about the Papyrus Project, are you? I mean, are you still even going ahead with it? You had a hard enough time getting funding in the first place. I’m surprised that Catholic organization—”

“PISA.”

“Whatever—I’m surprised they haven’t pulled out.”

Elgin jerks his head back as if I’d thrown something at him. “Why on earth wouldn’t we go ahead? What happened had nothing to do with the project. And not only hasn’t PISA pulled out, but we have a new benefactor: the Lyrik Foundation.”

“Really? I thought the Lyrik Foundation had turned you down, and considering that Barry was half the project—”

“Please. Biddle was a deadweight on the project—no disrespect to the dead intended. You were always my first choice. Admit it, you only turned me down because of our personal history.”

Elgin’s blue eyes are fixed on mine like a snake transfixing its prey; I find it impossible to look away. I don’t generally like to admit even to myself that I had an affair with Elgin Lawrence my second year of graduate school, and when I do think about it I tend to lump it together with that blurry period after I lost the baby and just before Ely left. Blurry because I was crying so much my eyes were perpetually swollen, and blurry because I was drinking a lot. I remember that Elgin’s attentions were flattering and that his cynical attitude toward New Age fads, health food, and yoga seemed bracing. He was the perfect antidote to Ely, I thought. Unfortunately, it was an antidote with side effects as toxic as the original poison.

“My decision not to join you on the Papyrus Project had absolutely nothing to do with our…personal history. I didn’t, and still don’t, want to commit to a project that’s dependent on technology no one knows will work for sure.”

I’ve delivered this little speech in as cold a voice as I can muster considering I can feel sweat dripping down my back, but Elgin greets it as if it were a declaration of undying love.

“Well, then, if
that’s
the only problem, I think you’ll be very pleased with what I’ve got in here.” Elgin zips open the soft leather case and spills out a sleek silver laptop. It powers up with a musical chord that sounds like wind chimes. Elgin slides onto the glider next to me and slips the laptop into my lap. Out of the pale gray screen—like an early-morning mist—shapes slowly emerge. It takes me a moment to realize that they’re letters. I haven’t done that much work with original inscriptions, but the scribe who penned these letters had a beautiful hand. I make out a few words right away.

“Having been tossed across sea and earth…”
I read aloud, translating the Latin.

“Here.” Elgin leans over me, his hand grazing my bare thigh. “There’s a higher resolution level available that picks up the metals in this particular ink…there, how’s that?”

All the letters are momentarily surrounded by a bright red halo, as if they were burning a hole in the screen, and then they sharpen and appear to rise off the page so abruptly that I blink at their brilliance.

“Wow,” I say, awed in spite of myself. Out of the corner of my eye I see Elgin smile. “Sounds like you have a bad imitation of Virgil here,” I say, scanning the next few lines. “
Having been tossed across sea and earth, a plaything of those on high
…Someone’s got a hero complex.”

“Keep reading,” Elgin tells me. “I think you’ll be interested in this.”

I continue translating the Latin lines and quickly see what he means.
“Having been tossed across sea and earth, a plaything of those on high, and having survived shipwreck, I believe my life has been spared for some divine purpose. Why else would I have been plucked from the sea and borne aloft upon the waves as if held up by the arms of sea nymphs, and brought to not just any shore, but this, the same shore that received the body of that lovestruck unhappy siren, Parthenope. And whereas she met with an unhappy fate, I was rescued by the slaves of a great man and brought, unharmed…even my baggage intact…”
I skip over an illegible section and pick up again a few lines later. “
…. therefore, it seems clear to me that my life has been spared so that I may finish my life project,
The History of Religion,
which I began with my little book,
Athenian Nights….” I lookup and see that Elgin is trying to hide his smile by taking a swig of his already finished beer.

“By Phineas Aulus,” I say, identifying the first-century Roman historian who wrote two works on mystery religions,
Athenian Nights
and
Alexandrian Nights.
A third book,
Italian Nights,
was lost when Phineas died at sea while sailing from Alexandria to Rome in AD 79. “But this sounds like it was written after the shipwreck…”

“Exactly! He didn’t die at sea. He escaped in a rowboat and came ashore at Herculaneum. Notice he says his baggage was intact…”

“So
Italian Nights…

“Saved. But not just
Italian Nights.
Do you remember what Pliny said about Phineas Aulus?”

“That he was a thief. He plundered his way through Greece, Egypt, and the Middle East stealing scrolls from temples and oracles. You think those scrolls were in his trunk…but if he was shipwrecked…”

“Read the next line.”

I scroll down. “
It is indeed another sign of the providence of the gods that I took the precaution of lining the inside of my trunks with wax against the moisture of a long sea journey. Not only have the first volumes of my third book,
Italian Nights,
been preserved, but also several other remarkable sources which I have borrowed to aid in my research…
Ha! I’ve heard that line from students who’ve plagiarized their term papers. Borrowed my ass!…
have also survived completely intact. It is seemly for a historian of religions to be alert to any signs and omens the gods might send and so I dedicate this final volume of
Italian Nights
to the spirits of this bay…to Apollo whose prophetess abides here at the Cave of the Sibyl, to Dionysus and Demeter who have so endowed this rich land that it is said they vie over its dominion, and finally to that unlucky nymph whose body was washed ashore here and who is said to haunt these shores. And so in her honor, I name this final volume of my work,
Siren Nights.”

I lean back and look at Elgin, who’s still grinning at me as if he knew something I didn’t—the same look he’d had on his face when he knew I’d gotten the assistant professorship at UT.

“Hey,” I say, spurred to generosity by recalling that Elgin probably had a lot to do with me getting my current job, “this is great for you, Elgin. I know Phineas is your specialty and another book of his would be a major discovery. But, as you may remember, I’m not wild about him myself. This isn’t my area.”

“Uh huh,” Elgin says, grinning even wider, “let me show you something else the multispectral imaging can do. You see that line you skipped over? The one you couldn’t read?” He drags the cursor to the illegible section and highlights it. Then he pulls down a menu that offers different resolution settings. “This part’s water damaged—frustrating, because it would be nice to know whose house Phineas arrived at. The house where this scroll was found is called the Villa della Notte now—”

“Because of the statue of the goddess Nyx in the courtyard, right?” I ask, remembering the austere face of the Roman personification of Night that I saw on my one trip to Naples.

“Right. But no one’s been able to say who originally owned it until”—Elgin clicks on a new setting—“now. Ecco! Mystery solved!”

I lean forward to look at the screen. The previously illegible words are now clear.
“…not just to any house, but to the house of a man not only renowned for his hospitality but also for his fine library, and his discriminating tastes as a collector of rare works, Gaius Petronius Stephanus.”

“It may not be the same one,” I say, trying hard to keep emotion out of my voice.

“Two Gaius Petronius Stephanuses in Herculaneum at the same time period?” Elgin asks, lifting an eyebrow. “That’s what I love about you, Sophie, you’re a skeptic. You don’t accept any data without proof. It makes you a rigorous scholar. Most people would be jumping up and down right now overjoyed that the subject of their thesis and the book they’re working on had just showed up in a lost document, but not you.”

“Even if this is the Gaius Petronius Stephanus who owned Petronia Iusta, what are the chances that she’ll show up in Phineas’s book? I’m sure Phineas Aulus had better things to do than notice a slave girl.”

“You underestimate your girl Iusta,” Elgin says, clicking on another file. “This portion comes a few pages later. We haven’t found the right resolution to make it perfectly legible yet, but a few words stand out…here”—he points the cursor to a word in the upper-right-hand corner—“and here”—and to one in the middle of the page—“and here.”

Iusta. Iusta. Iusta.

Her name repeated three times like a charm.

“My theory for why her name is clearer is that each time Phineas wrote it he pressed a little harder with his stylus. I bet he was quite taken with her.”

“She would have been seventeen…” I begin, batting Elgin’s hand away from the touchpad and trying to scroll down to the next page, but the cursor blinks stubbornly at the last occurrence of Iusta’s name.

“I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got so far. You have to go with me to Italy to read the rest. So what about it? You know you want to.”

As usual Elgin overplays his hand. It’s unfortunate that he’s using the same words he used five years ago to seduce me. I’m tempted to say no outright, but then Iusta’s name fades from the screen, replaced by a screensaver of turquoise water, and I find myself frantically tapping the touchpad to bring her back.

“I’ll think about it,” I tell Elgin.

A
fter Elgin has gone I go back to my study and take out my thesis and notes on Petronia Iusta. Of course Elgin had known how intrigued I’d be by the references to Iusta—after all, he’d been my thesis adviser.

I had first encountered her story in Elgin’s class on Roman slavery. I look for and find the paper I wrote on her—the one I turned in on the day I found Ely at the Tetraktys house and went into premature labor. On top of the first page Elgin had written: “You have a real feel for this material. Petronia Iusta comes alive in your handling of her story—come talk to me about expanding this into your thesis. A+” I remember that the paper had been waiting for me when I got home from the hospital and how absurdly grateful I’d been for those few simple words of praise. I’d thrown myself into the research then, finding out all I could about this girl who had lived and died almost two thousand years ago.

There wasn’t a lot to go on. What we knew about her came from eighteen wax tablets found in a small house buried in Herculaneum in AD 79. I remember that one of the first details that drew me to the story was the stroke of serendipity that had preserved those tablets—
wax
tablets! It was the nature of the pyroclastic flow that covered Herculaneum that while it instantly killed anyone who hadn’t already escaped and buried the city under sixty-five feet of volcanic matter, many fragile things were preserved: a crate of newly purchased wineglasses, eggs, bread, wooden beds and door frames, and delicate papyrus scrolls, charred on the outside but preserved inside, only awaiting a modern technology capable of reading the words within. But Iusta’s story hadn’t needed multispectral imaging; the bones of her story were in the eighteen law documents.

Her case had first been brought before a Herculean court by Iusta’s mother, Petronia Vitalis, a freed woman who had belonged to Gaius Petronius Stephanus and his wife, Calatoria Vimidis. Vitalis had bought her freedom sometime in the early sixties, but she and her daughter, Iusta, had continued living with the household, the girl being brought up “like a daughter” to Petronius and Calatoria. The living situation was apparently harmonious until Calatoria had her own children, at which time Calatoria and Vitalis began to argue. Vitalis decided to leave the household, taking her daughter with her. The Petronii, however, were not ready to relinquish Iusta and claimed that she belonged to them. Vitalis sued for Iusta’s freedom on the basis that Iusta had been born after she had bought her own freedom, and therefore was born free.

Vitalis won her case. She was required to pay back the Petronius household the expenses incurred in Iusta’s upbringing, which she was able to do because she had, since her own manumission, made a good living raising and selling oysters. This was my favorite part of the story. I always imagined Calatoria’s face when her former slave counted out the gold coins necessary to redeem her child’s liberty—and the happiness of mother and daughter leaving that house of slavery together.

The rest of the story wasn’t so uplifting. Sometime around AD 77 or 78 both Gaius Petronius and Petronia Vitalis died. Calatoria, newly widowed, decided to sue for the restitution of her property—Iusta, who she claimed was her slave because Iusta had been born
before
her mother’s manumission. If she won her suit the money that Vitalis had left to her daughter would become Calatoria’s property. According to the court records a slave of Calatoria’s, named Telesforus, testified that Iusta had been born
after
Vitalis’s manumission. The courts, however, remained undecided and postponed the decision. Most scholars assumed that the case was still undecided in AD 79, when Herculaneum was destroyed, but if Iusta really had been in the Petronius household at the time of the eruption, perhaps the case had gone against her.

I’m surprised at how much this saddens me. After all, if she died in the eruption, what difference does it make if she died a free woman or a slave? Yet it does. I’ve always wanted to believe that Iusta died a free woman—or better, that she won her case and then escaped Herculaneum before the eruption, leaving the grasping Calatoria behind, buried under sixty-five feet of volcanic stone.

“You’ve romanticized your subject,” Elgin had commented on the first draft of my thesis, in which I argued that Vitalis and Iusta represented early feminists. “And overidentified with them.”

The remark had stung more than it should have. I had told Elgin about my childhood, my strict German-Catholic grandparents, who probably thought they were doing their best by me but who treated me as if I were a time bomb that at any moment might destroy all our lives
just like your mother had.
That had been the refrain I grew up with—
just like your mother
—whenever I slept too late, ate too many sweets, or giggled in church. I had told Elgin how I had waited and waited for my mother to come back and reclaim me, living for her short visits, and how even after she died I’d dream it had been a lie made up by my grandparents to keep us apart. Someday she’d appear, reformed into a proper mother with a good job and a house, and prove to my grandmother that people
like us
could turn out okay.

“Admit it,” Elgin said to me at that thesis conference, “when you describe Vitalis paying off Calatoria you see your mother shoving it to your mean old grandmother, and the little girl—”

“Okay, I get it,” I had said to him, taking back the draft. “I’ll have a rewrite for you by next week.”

I’d been careful in my next draft to stick to the facts, which Elgin had approved.

But even though Elgin had criticized my romantic notions about Petronia Iusta, he wasn’t above using them to lure me to Italy. Or maybe he enjoyed seeing those romantic notions dashed by the fact that Iusta was still Calatoria’s slave. I find, though, that all that matters less to me than gaining another glimpse of her. For that I might travel as far as Italy—even if it means putting up with Elgin all summer.

Forgetting my fatigue from mowing the lawn and with a mind remarkably cleansed of the effects of OxyContin and Shiner Bock, I reread my thesis and all my notes on the case of Petronia Iusta. I’m so engrossed that I don’t hear M’Lou return from Whole Foods or notice her standing in the doorway until a sound like glass wind chimes makes me look up. She’s got the two empty Shiner Bocks hooked onto her fingers and she’s knocking them together like castanets.

“Please tell me an enterprising teenager came by and was willing to trade lawn work for a couple of beers,” she says, tilting her chin toward the mown stubble outside the study window. “Because I know you’re not stupid enough to mix alcohol and codeine and then operate heavy machinery.”

“I only had one—after mowing—and you know my lawnmower is a manual.”

M’Lou shakes her head and sits down on the edge of my desk. She picks up my hand and turns it over, pressing her thumb to the underside of my wrist.

“I’m not dead yet, M’Lou. I’ve still got a pulse…”

“Shush,” she orders. “Hm…a little fast. Something’s gotten you riled up. Who drank the second beer?”

There’s no point lying to M’Lou; she caught me every time I tried it from the time I hid my third-grade report card to the night I told her I was at my girlfriend’s house while I was really meeting my boyfriend at the Lonestar Motel. So I tell her about Elgin’s visit and the lost Phineas Aulus book, Iusta’s appearance in it, and Elgin’s invitation to join the Papyrus Project.

“Did you say yes?”

“No,” I tell her, “I said I’d think about it. And I am—” I add defiantly. I know she’s not crazy about Elgin, but she gives me a long level look and a curt nod.

“It might be the best thing—” Oddly it’s the same thing she said to me when she’d tracked me and Billy Rackem down at the Lonestar. “—if it’ll keep you from brooding.”

“I don’t brood.”

“I’ve had brood hens less broody than you,” she shoots back. “But you’ve got to promise you’ll take care of yourself. Eat right and sleep enough. Where would you be staying? Some fleabag pensione?”

“Nah—that’s the best part. The excavation of the Villa della Notte is being funded by John Lyros—”

“The software billionaire?”

“The same. Before he made his fortune in computer software he was a classics major here at UT. He’s such a fanatic that he’s had a replica of the Villa della Notte built on the Island of Capri, a half hour’s boatride from the original villa at Herculaneum. Elgin says he’s installed a state-of-the-art multispectral imaging lab and now he’s invited the whole staff of the Papyrus Project—in other words, Elgin, me, Agnes Hancock, and some tech guy from England—to stay on Capri. So I’d be living in luxury at a villa, soaking in a replica of a real Roman bath, and eating plenty of fresh tomatoes and mozzarella. What more could you want?”

“For Elgin Lawrence not to be there. That man draws trouble to himself like stink draws flies.”

I shrug. “That may be true, but how likely is it that someone’s going to try to shoot him twice in one year?” I say. “I mean, what are the odds?”

         

I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about the question I so flippantly posed to M’Lou. What were the odds? It was a question that Ely would have taken literally. I lie awake trying to figure out what the variables would be in such an equation. How many pretty young graduate students has Elgin Lawrence flirted with? How many of them had boyfriends who were mentally unbalanced? Of those mentally unbalanced boyfriends, how many had access to firearms? This being Texas the answer was: most of them. For each variable I imagine Ely writing a letter on a chalkboard: x, y, or z. I can see each letter glowing starkly white against the black and then each letter acquires a halo that flames red in the darkness. I startle fully awake, sniffing the air for smoke. Outside the moonlight has turned my lawn into a scorched landscape. My lungs feel like they’re on fire.

I get up to get a glass of cold water from the kitchen but instead find myself standing in my study staring at the faintly glowing symbols that Ely had painted on the walls. When I realize that I’m looking for an equation that would make some sense out of the shooting and predict the future, I go back to my room. It’s a long time, though, before I can fall back to sleep.

         

When I wake up the next morning I still feel unsure about whether I should go to Italy with Elgin. Even the fact that that’s how I’m thinking of it—
with Elgin
—sets off alarm bells in my head. I decide to do a little research on the Papyrus Project, to at least pretend that my decision will be based on its strengths and weaknesses. I start off by Googling John Lyros.

I’ve heard his name bandied about in the Classics Department because he’d been considered one of the most promising Ph.D. candidates before he dropped out in the early eighties, moved to Fremont, California, and invented an encryption program that had made him a millionaire. He’d used the money to found a software company, Lyrik, whose operating system, Lyrik 2.0, made him a billionaire before his thirtieth birthday. He’d gotten an early start. According to his bio he entered college, commuting from his Greek-American family’s home in Astoria, Queens, to City College in Manhattan, at sixteen. He’d graduated with a double major in Greek and math and, after taking a year off to go hiking in the Himalayas—“in order to find myself,” he mentions impishly in one interview—Lyros entered the Ph.D. program at UT at twenty-one. The picture of him hiking in the Himalayas shows a curly-headed brunet with wide-spaced eyes the same lilac color as the sky above the snowcapped peaks in the background. Instead of finishing the Ph.D., he’d dropped out and within three years was running a multimillion-dollar software company. Another clipping, ten years later, announced the sale of Lyrik for an amount undisclosed but rumored to be in the billions. A photo shows him with shorter hair, the lilac eyes hidden behind square dark-framed glasses. At that point his CV goes blank for about five years. Another trek in the Himalayas, I wonder? When he resurfaces, it’s to announce the establishment of the John Lyros Institute, a foundation intended to aid research in ancient history, philosophy, art, and archaeology. The picture on the Institute’s homepage shows a man who looks like he’s been whittled down by the elements. His curly locks are gone, shaved to reveal a smooth, elegant cranium. His nose looks as if it had been broken at some point and reset carelessly, leaving a bump that makes him look like a predatory hawk. His eyes are an even more intense violet, as if they had absorbed all the color of all the mountains he’d scaled and all the seas he’d crossed in his travels.

I scroll through the projects that the institute has funded in the last five years: archaeological digs in Greece—in Samos, Delphi, Eleusis, Cape Sounion—and also in the Southwest—the preservation of a Pueblo village in southwest Colorado, a dig in New Mexico—and, most recently, the excavation of the Villa della Notte in Herculaneum.

After an hour spent trolling the Internet for references to John Lyros, I begin to feel like a cyber-stalker and decide to go ahead and e-mail the man. I tell him that Elgin Lawrence has invited me to be part of the team and ask him to tell me a little bit more about the project. And then, because I’m not sure it’s a good idea to live in such close proximity to Elgin Lawrence all summer, I ask him for a recommendation for a hotel in Naples. So that I can work closer to the site, I write.

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