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Facilis descensus Averni:
noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis;
sed revocare gradium superasque evadere ad auras,
hoc opus, hic labor est.

It is easy to go down into Hell:
night and day, the gates of dark Death stand wide;
but to climb back again, to retrace one’s steps to the upper air,
there’s the rub, the task.

— Virgil

 

Prologue

Fregene, Italy, July 15, 2002

They navigate through thick traffic, from Rome, for an hour and a half, in stifling heat, among stalled cars and angry drivers. Finally, the Fregene exit leads them off the freeway, and onto Viale di Pineta through the ancient pinery, down to Lungomare di Levante, where they turn left at the seashore, and continue until they stop in front of iron gates, chained and padlocked. Visible through the bars, a dilapidated villa rises among pines and wild hibiscus whose magenta petals shimmer in the July heat. Yellow police tape girdles the entire area.

 

Once, this villa was the pride of its owners, nestled in a sprawling lot facing the Tyrrhenian Sea, surrounded by palms and oleanders on manicured lawns where children played and cats sunned themselves. Over time, the children grew and moved to the cities. When the owners died, the villa was sold to foreigners who came only in summer. In the winter months, small boys climbed over the fence and played in the tall grass no one tended. Sometimes, they built fires on the beach, and tried to pry open the green shutters. The villa was sold and resold, neglected and abandoned by owner after owner, none of whom lived there.

 

“This must be it,” the cameraman says, pointing to the number on a pillar whose plaster has broken away in chunks to reveal old bricks and mortar. He turns down the air conditioner.

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The show’s anchorwoman sits beside him, fanning herself with a small spiral notebook. On the side of the van, the familiar logo — a large c ending in a question mark, inside which are the words: Chi L’Ha Visto? Who Has Seen Him?

 

A policeman unlocks the gate, checks their ids, and lets them in. While the crew unloads the van, the anchorwoman walks around, surveying the area for appropriate footage.

 

The villa looms over her, casting a dark shadow to the east, eclipsing the tent erected over the excavation site — a makeshift lab where forensic specialists gather specimens. She shivers under the unrelenting sun, then searches for the demolition foreman, interviews him, and jots his answers in the notebook.

The new owners want to tear it down and build something new.

We were going to take out the trees first, and that’s when we found him.

We thought maybe during the war. But forensics said around mid-1950s.

Nobody knows.

When the crew is ready, she pins on her microphone and circles the excavation site.

“What you’ll see and hear about today,” she says, “is a crime committed long ago…”

Excerpt
Genni Gunn