Taut, acidly witty, menacingly erotic, and often absolutely terrifying: this is a literary thriller of propulsive force that introduces a powerful storyteller.
*An Edgar Finalist for Best First Novel
*Semifinalist for the 2017 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award
It begins when a meth-addicted grave robber unearths the death mask of Montezuma, setting off a violent struggle for its possession. There is the drug lord who employs him, who would kill for that mask. There is the expat American collector, sinister and possibly mad. There is the greatly respected curator, who for a fee will provide provenances for his country’s looted artifacts, and his long-suffering housekeeper, a deeply religious lesbian in a culture of machismo, who despises her patron. And there is the looter himself, who has stolen the mask and is now running for his life.
Above all, there is Anna Ramsey, an American with a history of bad choices, who has hidden behind a mask all her adult life. A deeply wounded woman, Anna knows that masks protect and conceal. Anna is a heroine for our times, as she searches for the courage to remove her mask and show her true face.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.50(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2016 Lili Wright
The looter dug into the cave with the fervent touch of a lover. Cranked on meth, he shuddered as he dug, cursing a lilting lullaby to women and smack. His body smelled. He noticed, then dismissed it, the way he noticed and dismissed the wet in the air, his cut knuckles, the way dust and sweat covered his skin like fur. Lesser men would have whimpered about their knees, their aching backs. Little pussies. But when tweaked, he could work for hours without losing his cool or quitting from hunger or succumbing to the roar of Aztec ghosts. Everything that mattered in life was buried, covered up, lost, afraid to show its true face. Few people had the courage or imagination to dig.
Christopher Maddox was far from home, an American in Mexico, a college dropout kneeling in the dirt, a holy man. You could find religion anywhere. Two days before, his trowel had hit the leading edge of an urn or crown, a relic worth enough cash, he hoped, to float him all the way to Guatemala, where drugs were cheaper than mangoes, where women greeted you with warm tortillas and a goat. Gua-te-ma-la. All those soft syllables, adding up to nothing but a hammock and a song. The looter. That’s what he called himself. Alter ego, doppelgänger, shadow in the moonlight—the hero of a story that began when a humble man from Divide, Colorado, dug up a treasure that saved his life.
His headlamp slipped. He righted it. Sweat froze in electric beads, a crown circling his forehead. A lot could go wrong underground. Apocalypse. Asphyxiation. Popocatépetl. The cave that caves in. Any minute, pinches federales could pounce. He picked up his wasted toothbrush and scrubbed, watched stones reveal themselves like a stripper. Sex humped his brain. He dug past time and he dug past death. His skin itched from nerves, the tickle of bugs, the spook of the dark, the thrill of the find.
A shadow caught his eye. Against the cave wall, a figure, a vision: his mother’s weathered face flickered across the fissured rocks. Her spotted hand reached for him, trying to yank him back from the abyss. The looter’s chest cracked with this new agony. He grabbed his pick, stabbed the ground, not caring what he broke. He just wanted his due. Now. Ahora. Dá-me-lo.
An angel sighed. The devil bit his lip. The relic fell loose, five hundred years of Aztec history tumbled into his busted hands. The looter rolled on his heels, giddy, cooing, Sweet baby Jesus, because he was no longer in the cave alone. A face stared up at him, a turquoise mask with only one eye.
Into Mexico City he burst, dancing on the points of a star. As his cab roared down Reforma, he rocked the mask in his lap, coddling its splintered face, a mad galaxy of green and blue. Its mouth was a grimace of shell teeth, fully intact. Across its forehead coiled two snakes. One eye was missing. The other had no opening, which meant the mask had been made for the dead.
He wanted to howl. He wanted to salsa into the snooty antiquities shops in the Zona Rosa, toe-tap into the anthropology museum and see the officials’ shock when they realized a penniless dusty gringo had uncovered a national treasure. But more than admiration, more than money or love, he needed a fix.
The cab dropped him at the safe house. Scary fucking place. A compound for cholos and bangers, a vault for drug money, a graveyard for the damned, who were chopped into salad and dumped in mass graves, fetid in the wind. They called it a safe house, but no one there was safe. At the gate, the looter flashed his signature cell phone, his only possession of value. Reyes paid the bills. He needed to reach his people 24/7. At the front door, Feo, the human beer can, flexed his gym muscles. Alfonso peered over his shoulder, on tiptoes, in sneakers. Guy was so tatted he didn’t need clothes. The word scrawled over his lip formed an illegible mustache.
The looter held out the mask.
Feo turned it over, sneered, offered a grand.
The looter shook his head, disgusted. “I need ten times that.”
“You dig. We decide what it’s worth.”
Fury rose inside him. Stupid, greedy mensos. Like his work had no value. History had no value. Nothing had value but their next drug run to the border. He wanted to speak to someone with an IQ.
“Let me talk to Reyes.”
Feo grinned. “No one talks to Reyes. No one even sees Reyes.”
This was true. In three years, the looter had never met the man. The drug lord was constantly moving, every day a new location, a new face. Mazatlán penthouse. Juárez sewer. A man of a million disguises: grifter, hipster, attorney general. Rumor had it his real face resembled an old man’s testicle. Behind his back, people called him that—El Pelotas. Half his right ear was missing. Reyes was high up, a patrón who considered himself cultured, collected antiquities by the pound, adored gallery openings and pink champagne. He’d turn up in a rancho, toss gold rings to children. Like a magician, he could make men disappear, saw a woman in half.
“Tell Reyes I have something. Tell him this is worth his time.”
Feo smirked, eager to watch this debacle unfold. “Oh, well then, come in.” He swung open the door to an entryway with a circular staircase. “I’ll tell the patrón his favorite caveman needs to see him right away. Make yourself comfortable. Have a drink.”
The looter stood in the gloom with Alfonso. In the next room, a couple of shitty couches faced the world’s largest TV. The looter held the mask over his groin, noticed the fractured bulletproof windows. The bullets had come from inside.
Alfonso lit a cigarette, blew smoke. “You’re a real idiot.”
“Regálame un tabaco, compa.”
Alfonso threw him a pack and a lighter. “The dying man’s last request.”
Everyone here smiled and nobody meant it. Footsteps on the stairs. Two sets. The first figure stopped on the landing, left hand on the banister, right in his pocket, gripping a pistol. Reyes was a small man, bow-legged, froglike, his wide chest panting. He wore narrow black sweatpants and a golden poncho. A straw hat streaming with pink ribbons covered most of his face. Some indigenous concoction. The looter was curious about the ear, but lowered his eyes, bit his cheek.
“You wanted to see me?” Reyes’s voice was steady and cold.
The looter did some kind of bow, held out the mask. He was proud of his Spanish, knew how to lace it up nice. Humble and flowery. “Patrón, con todo respeto, I bring you a magnificent treasure today. It took me two days to remove from a cave.”
No response. No one talks to Reyes. No one even sees Reyes. The looter’s throat tightened. He realized his mistake. “This mask is five hundred years old,” he went on. “It belongs in a museum. CNN, National Geographic—totally viral. It was made to turn a powerful man into a God.”
Reyes stared at him like his face was on fire.
The looter tried again, more direct. He was losing his voice, his pants, his bowels. He needed the cash, the rock. He jerked his head, fought to gain control, lifted his chin. “It’s worth twenty grand easy, but I’ll take ten. Today.”
Reyes made no eye contact. At first, the looter thought he’d garbled his Spanish, then he understood a more humiliating truth: Reyes dismissed him as an idiot addict making shit up. A pit of anger caught in his chest. He might do something stupid. His thigh shook in his jeans. A clock ticked, or maybe his heart.
Reyes threw down a wad of pesos. The bundle lay there, a dead animal no one wanted to touch. Alfonso stepped forward, took the mask. The looter knelt before the money, knew better than to count.
Reyes growled, “Now bring me another.”
I’ve worn a mask most of my life. Most people do. As a little girl, I covered my face with my hands, figuring if I couldn’t see my father, he couldn’t see me. When this didn’t work, I hid behind Halloween masks: clowns and witches and Ronald McDonald. Years later, when I went to Mexico, I understood just how far a mask can take you. In the dusty streets, villagers turned themselves into jaguars, hyenas, the devil himself. For years, I thought wearing a mask was a way to start over, become someone new. Now I know better.
—Anna Ramsey, from her unfinished memoir, 2012
She wore black, the color of nuns and witches, the color of the loneliest corners of outer space, where gravity prevents all light from escaping, the name given to boxes tucked into airplanes, the ones that explain the disaster. She chose green earrings to match her eyes, a bra that accentuated her cleavage. The strappy sandals she fastened around her ankles gave her the three-inch rise she needed to look him in the eye.
She drove to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, found a garage, let a valet park her car. The air was so cold she could see her breath.
“I won’t be long,” Anna told the boy, slipping him a few bucks. “Put me near the exit.”
The reception was already under way. Beneath a cathedral ceiling, svelte guests murmured small talk and gossip. Gay men in tight pants and tangerine neckties. Pale nymphs in taffeta miniskirts or cowgirl braids or Clark Kent glasses, trying to prove they could be beautiful no matter how badly they dressed. Grandes dames, donors, scions of Rockefellers and Guggenheims, women with names like Tooty and Olive, their thinning hair shellacked into gladiator helmets, their spotted wrists weighed down with bangles. The Velvet Underground warbled, “I’ll be your mirror.”
Anna plucked champagne from a passing tray, ran her hand down her dress. Her engagement ring caught the light. Familiar faces drifted past. Artists. Celebrities. Critics. A man who had pressed her to sleep with him. She’d told him she didn’t do that anymore. She was with David. Monogamous, a virtue that sounded like a disease.
The champagne hit her hard. Anna hadn’t eaten since that morning’s sugar doughnut. She finished her flute, took another, set off to find David, strolling past Campbell’s soup cans, Marilyn, tawdry black-and-white films from the Factory. Everything cheap and loud and repeating itself.
She found him holding court in the Damien Hirst room, schmoozing next to a shark suspended in formaldehyde. Looking into his eyes, she felt nothing. Their three years together, a collapsible hat. Instead of slapping him or sobbing, she dug down deep and pulled up her love, let it radiate across her face. She revealed her whole self, perhaps for the first time. Only hours before, she would have done anything to make him happy.
David acknowledged her with a playful mouth. His circle opened to let her join.
Black, the color of mourning.
Black, the color you could never take back.
“Anna,” he said. “You look . . .”
She swept into his arms and pressed her lips over his. Not a cordial peck of recognition or reunion, but a full-body embrace, bare arms wrapped around his head, fingers playing his short hairs, breasts flattening his lapels, pelvis teasing his hips, yes, there. He stiffened, embarrassed, surprised, but then drew her close. Anna put everything she had into the kiss, three years of affection and trust, three years of plans for tomorrow, and the day after that, three years of fucking monogamy. Her warm tongue made the transfer from her mouth to his as her hand entered his breast pocket.
Black, the color of sex.
Black, the color that fire leaves behind.
She let him go. David’s forehead creased with confusion. His lips puckered as his long fingers reached into his mouth and withdrew the offending object. Curious guests leaned in; their gleaming faces filled with prurient delight to see the unflappable David Flackston, a curator of modern art at the Met, open his mouth and remove a diamond ring. Even more curious was his new pocket square—a beige pair of ladies’ panties.
2. The Gardener
When the papershop girl announced that her family was moving to Veracruz, Hugo felt his blood drain from his body. He asked When? and Lola said Two weeks and Hugo said How long have you known? Lola said They told me yesterday. Hugo paced the paper shop, slamming his fist on the counter because she was leaving him and because in Veracruz every man would see what he’d seen and smell what he’d smelled and what was now his alone might be stolen by any man looking for stationery.
Like a good fire, their love affair began with paper. Hugo was writing his cousin in Texas and needed the kind of skin-thin stationery that makes even the firmest intention seem like a dream. He’d stopped in a papelería and the girl behind the counter smiled. His stomach tightened. She wore a yellow dress with white bunting, all schoolgirl and fresh daisy. Her fingerless lace gloves fastened with a snap. The first customer paid for his pens, the second did his copying. The door jingled shut, leaving the two of them, Hugo and the girl, surrounded by pencils and compasses and pens with invisible ink.
“How can I help you?” she said.
Hugo unrolled his lust, crimson as a Persian rug. The girl twirled her hair, toying with him, promising good service if only he asked. In his mind’s eye, Hugo touched her as gently as his nature allowed, tracing his fingertips over her thigh. He was a gardener, a man used to cultivating difficult flowers. His adoration pleased her, he could tell. It pleased her to know he found her irresistible, a pastry in the bakeshop, too pretty to eat. He was a man. Perhaps this alone justified why he wanted the girl in the yellow dress, why he did not ask her age. If she was old enough to work in the papelería, she was old enough to handle money and men. Hugo said exactly what he was thinking: “I came here to buy stationery, but then I saw you.”
He thought of his wife. Her face came to him in a hard chip of light, an accusation so stark he turned away. Afterward, he did not think of his wife again. Not when he flattered the girl, not when he ran his finger along the underside of her arm. Not the next day, when he brought her yellow dahlias. Or the next, when he led her to the back room, slid his hand between her legs, and discovered the papershop girl went to work every day damp and hungry.
Each afternoon, Hugo returned. He swiped the girl’s earbuds, listened to the rhythm of Romeo Santos, then made an indecent proposal of his own. He kissed her ear, combed her hair with his fingers, tattooed her skin with chalk. When a customer called for help (“Is anyone here?”), he pressed a ruler against her throat. After the door slammed, the girl laughed, licked his palm. His desire burned like the end of a match. He wanted to take her youth. He wanted to build her a pyramid that reached the sun. He wanted to put her in a cage and feed her guava and plant his seed inside her every day. He wanted this child to make him a child who would outlive them both. When she took him in her mouth, she called him Papi. She was not really a child. She had breasts, hair. Her lace gloves matched her underwear. She was old enough that he couldn’t help her with homework. He shoved her math book across the counter, lifted her dress, slipped inside her, whispering, “Little schoolgirl. This is what I know.”
But now she was leaving him. His knuckles bled in the creases. He’d seen men punch walls and now understood the satisfaction. He wound up again.
“Basta,” the girl cried, pulling his arm. “I have something to give you.”
She dragged him to the back of the store. Hugo collapsed in a chair. The girl nuzzled into his lap, facing him, pushed a package toward him. He pulled the ribbon, determined to be gentle, to rouse his best self. A book of Aztec history. He saw she was proud of this adult gift, and he wondered whether she had given him the book because he spoke Nahuatl, the language of the Mexica, his ancestors, one of the original Aztec peoples, or whether she was sending him a message that she would go to university one day, become more than a shopgirl pregnant at twenty, delivering child upon child, living in a two-room house spiked with metal supports for a second story that would never be built. He flipped the pages—Acamapichtli, Aztec warriors and priests—feeling weak before these brave men. Lola stroked his head, coddling his grief. His hurt hand grasped the hem of her dress.
She read aloud. “The Aztec priests made human sacrifices to ensure the sun would rise each morning. To be sacrificed was the highest honor a mortal could hope for, a guarantee his soul would live forever as a god in Paradise. The priest led the chosen warrior up the Great Temple and removed his beating heart.”
Lola noosed her arms around his neck: “If you were sacrificed, how long would your heart beat for me? What sacrifice would you make for our love?”
She was flirting, happy.
“Forever, my yellow schoolgirl. I would offer you my heart on a gold plate, and when you ate me, I would live inside you forever.”
Satisfied, the girl seesawed in his lap, blew in his ear, kept reading: “The sacrifice was cooked and those who ate the flesh were fortified. The head was hung on the skull rack and the flayed skin was worn for religious ceremonies. Nothing was wasted. The constant killing kept the hungry gods appeased and ensured the balance of the universe. The next morning, the sky filled with pink light, a memory of the blood spilled in its honor.”
The girl dropped a flip-flop, wiggled her sparkling toes. “It’s like Jesus. The Son of God died for our sins. Now in Communion, we take his body and blood.”
“Like love.” Hugo peeked beneath her blouse. “I spill my blood for you.”
Something inside the girl snapped.
“What blood?” she sneered. “What sacrifice? You come here, spill yourself, and go home to your fat wife and chickens. If you love me, leave your ugly wife and marry me. Punish my father, who watches me through the door when I undress.”
Hugo grabbed her chin. “That is a lie. Your father is a lawyer.”
“My father is a lawyer who peeks through a crack in the door.”
“I will kill him and steal you away.”
“You would not dare.”
Hugo slapped her. She clutched her cheek, but did not cry. The coldness of her stare stopped his pulse. He buried his face in her breasts, breathed the air she warmed. She has watched too many telenovelas. She is playing a part.
“Your father never touched you,” he said.
“His desires keep him awake at night. He stalks the hallway like a lynx.”
Hugo felt himself slipping backward, losing purchase. He did not want to marry the girl or harm her father. He liked things as they were, the yellow afternoons lined up like books on a shelf. He even loved the paper shop: the smell of ink, the bright pens and notebooks under glass. The shop made him feel like a boy again, only with the bonus of sex, the missing delight every boy senses is his reward if he ever manages to grow up.
“Give me time,” he pleaded. “I will arrange things.”
But he did not arrange things. Every day, he went home and dug in his flowerbeds and ate food like a hollow man. When his wife asked what was wrong, he said nothing was wrong, and his wife made him tea from plants in the yard and sought advice from a witch doctor, who mixed a love potion that she sprayed in his socks.
3. The Looter
The looter locked himself in the safe-house john, unfolded the money Reyes had thrown him. Two thousand dollars. An insult. A pittance. Degrading to man and mask. To the living and the dead. The looter lifted the window shade, watched night descend. Across Mexico City, mothers fixed dinner. Fathers fell into their armchairs like kings. Children wrote down wrong answers in pencil. Every day ended in darkness.
He lit his last rock.
The rush punctured his psyche, sandblasted his heart, filled him with a glow he could never replicate or describe but, if forced to name, he would have called love. He fell to his knees, pressed his cheek on the cool toilet seat, dreaming a hundred ways to get even with Reyes: rattlesnakes, lead paint, toxic prostitutes. The looter snickered, wishing he had company in his head. A square dance of partners. But it was all high talk. You didn’t get even with a drug lord. You got dead.
Who the fuck wears a hat with pink ribbons?
There was one real hitch to his bliss. He was out of crank. Most days, he was one thing or its opposite: In a cave or out. Rich or broke. High or wishing he were more so. This conformed to the Maddox Principle of Opposing Equilibrium, a little theory he’d coined that went like this: His shady life in Mexico was exterior stuff, surface, cover of the book, not the book. What mattered long-term was a man’s inside, his core, his heart, mind, soul, being. If his insides stayed true, the outside could indulge in sybaritic delights: women, crack, looting. In fact, it would be irresponsible not to. Because there was time. Time for hedonism and excess. Time later to settle down. Reform. Rise from the ashes for a second act. A third. Wisdom was the rare province offered to those who’d tried everything once.
The faucet dripped. He listened.
He wanted the mask back, but by now Feo had photographed it, logged it in the books. The looter tried to forget the scraps he’d been thrown, but when he closed his eyes, the death mask grinned, ten million bits of turquoise glued onto the shattered face of a man. Its lone eye taunted: Who the fuck are you? A man or a dog?
He thought back to high school, how he and his buddies used to cliff jump at Eleven Mile Reservoir. They’d pound a six, staring down two stories of rock at the freezing water, gathering their nerve, until one of them chanted their call-to-arms. “Dogs, would you live forever?”
A strip of light shone under the bathroom door. Timeline. Tightrope. Arrow. The looter studied it until he made up his mind.
He snuck out of the safe house, riding an ice skate of adrenaline. Ten minutes later, he reached the orange juice stand. Pico was just a kid but reliable. He wore an Astros baseball cap and a gold cross. His face was round as a plate and just as empty. Pimples. Baby fat. Another güey who didn’t belong to anyone. Where was his mother? The looter paid cash for his goodies, but didn’t know the Spanish word for the last item on his Christmas list. He laid his cheek on paired hands, an angel pantomiming sleep.
Pico laughed. “You have a date tonight?”
The looter cupped his palms. “Big tits.”
“Give me a minute. Mind the shop.”
Pico popped into a miscelánea, returned beaming, brown bag in hand. “Hold on a minute.” He cut an orange, squeezed it. Pico always made his clients fresh juice, like he wanted to be sure all his junkies got their vitamin C. Or maybe with pulp under his nails, he appeared legit to the cops, to his abuela. He handed over the juice and the bag.
“Hey, some free advice,” Pico said. “Take a shower and you won’t have to drug her.”
The looter gave a wolfy grin. “Hey, more free advice. Ask the pharmacist for medicine to clean up your face.”
“Cabrón,” Pico swore, but he was smiling, pleased someone had bothered to notice his fucked-up complexion.
The looter bowed. Blood rushed to his face. He almost fell over, but righted himself. Harold Lloyd, hanging on a clock. Safety Last. He was Everyman. He was Nobody with a capital N.
“Vaya con Dios.” He meant this as a joke and he meant this sincerely.
“¿Dios?” Pico chucked the orange peels in the garbage. “We sold God to the Americans with Texas.”
“We sold him to the Chinese.”
Pico shrugged. Mexicans didn’t want to hear about American hardship.
The looter limped down the block, hips stiff from the cave. The limp was new but suited him, a pirate disguise. His hands left sweat stains on the bag. He’d take a bump in the first alley he found. Now always trumped later. The juice made him nervous. Maybe Reyes had poisoned the oranges.
He turned the corner, threw the fucking cup against a wall. The juice dripped down the stucco, a new sun exploding.
He crashed in the safe house. Not that he could sleep. Spirits circled the compound like ghosts, all those dead men—fuckups and cowards, assassins and cons. Who missed them? Who loved them? Who cared enough to sort the arms from the legs? Inside Pico’s goodie bag, ten white bullets. It was hard to have confidence in things so small. He stuffed them in his hip pocket. Crafty as Cortés, he set out to explore.
The safe house was a place to flop, store dope, hide stolen cars. From the outside, the place passed for normal: three stories, four-car garage, security wall, grass tough as matches. Inside, the mood was tense, men jacked on drugs and paranoia. The first-floor storage rooms were kept under constant surveillance. Normally, the guards huddled on the floor, texting, but tonight the merry threesome played poker: Feo, Alfonso, and some other fool. When the looter strolled up, the men lowered their cards. AK-47s hung from their chests like guitars. Each was working a six of Tecate. A drained liter of Cuervo lay tossed to the side.
“Señor arqueólogo,” Feo called out, his face puffy and red, “fetch us more tequila.” He lifted his gun halfheartedly.
The looter thought of five things to say, but instead asked, “¿Dónde?”
Feo gestured with his gun. “In the basement. Go, faggot. Earn your keep.”
The looter found the light switch, headed down the dim stairs, bracing for corpses, but saw just a bunch of yard stuff, barbed wire, dog food, bottles of bleach. A case of tequila sat next to the hot-water heater. He unscrewed a bottle, dropped in Pico’s pills, hula dancing them until they dissolved. He didn’t budge for a good minute, got stuck there, thinking how most hard things in life were easy, most easy things hard. Then, moving again, he cinched the cap, took the stairs up, two at a time.
“Caballeros. Let me break the seal for you.” He twisted the bottle open with a maître d’s flourish, took a pretend swig.
Feo glared. “He’s drinking before us. What kind of service is that?”
Alfonso curled his tatted lip. “Shoot him.”
Feo snuggled his gun into the looter’s rib cage. It rested there, a thing that could go off. Saliva clogged the looter’s dry throat. You couldn’t argue with stupidity. You had to wait it out.
The third guy grabbed the bottle, drank, wiped his mouth. “If you shoot him, I’m not cleaning it up. You can explain to Reyes what happened to his precious digger. If not, it’s your turn.”
Feo stared at the punk. He had a new enemy. He shifted his gun to face the third man. He wouldn’t pop him, but if the gun went off, the bullet wouldn’t be wasted.
“Play your cards,” Feo snarled. “Pass me the bottle.”
The looter evaporated, locked himself in the john to wait. He stared at the lonely faucet, the grout, the feminine curves of the pedestal sink, put a name to what he’d committed to: He was risking his life to screw over Reyes. That, or he was finally standing up for himself.
A half hour later, he tiptoed back to the hall. The guards lay splayed, heavy with sleep. He tapped Feo’s thick shoulder. Nothing. The looter entered the first storage room, switched on his headlamp. Bricks of marijuana were piled knee-high. Without warning, the third guard lifted his head. The looter flattened into a shadow, closed his eyes. He could die here or he could not die here. The precariousness of the moment brought fresh understanding. Fuck Guatemala. He needed to go home. Make amends. Pay his mother back the three grand he’d stolen. Buy her a new microwave. Rub her fallen arches.
He willed the guard to drop back asleep. As if by command, the man collapsed, curling into a comma, a messy hunk of punctuation, silent again.
The looter’s hands trembled as he opened the second door. The room was a wreck of duffel bags, helmets, and guns. His fingers played over shelving crammed with relics—pots, urns, magical flutes, pieces he’d sold to Reyes months ago lay stacked without order or care. A take-out fried chicken container rested on a hammered gold mask. A bully stick balanced on a Mayan urn. Reyes claimed he was an art collector, but he needed Gonzáles to tell his head from his ass.
On the bottom shelf, a familiar blue face glared up at him. Motherfucker, get me out of here.
The looter lifted the mask, already calculating his next move. He’d send Gonzáles a photo, have the asshole dealer find a buyer with deep pockets. No need to mention this hiccup with Reyes. Just tell Gonzáles that Reyes had passed on it.
Mask so nice he’d sell it twice.
Floating out of the vault room, he murmured a cradlesong to the junkies and hit men. Sleep, little babies. Sleep, beautiful boys. Even the worst men looked innocent when they slept. Their faces were the masks they’d wear when they died. Their own faces, at peace.
Gliding into the perfumed night of Mexico City, the looter whispered, “Col-or-a-do.” The death mask grinned in his satchel.
Anna drove fast. Windows open despite the cold. Bare trees, stone walls, classic rock on the radio. Every song reminded her of slow dancing in somebody’s basement. She was not loved. She was not lovable. Both were her fault.
The plan was to go home and see her father in Connecticut. Away from the city, she’d regroup, the polite euphemism for figuring out what the hell to do next. She’d have to tell her father she’d changed her mind and needed the money after all. Find out when it was coming, and how much. She’d leave David, move out. Cancel the wedding. Cancel the honeymoon. No moon. No honey. What an idiot she’d been to become so dependent, a fat tick on a dog.
She sipped Jose Cuervo from a dirty coffee cup. Its vomitlike aftertaste coated her nostrils. Exhaustion blanketed her cheekbones. She’d hardly slept. After her exquisite departure in her black-cat dress, she’d spent the night on her yoga friend Harmonica’s futon, working a bottle of chardonnay, weeping, checking her phone for messages, wondering if David was devastated or relieved. How had she missed the signs? There was that night, post-Chinese, when he’d said: I don’t feel close to you. She’d been sitting right next to him and joked: How much closer can I get? Apparently, his new assistant, Clarissa, got really close. Apparently, many women enjoyed getting close to David’s video camera. Who did he think he was—Andy Warhol?
She should have skipped the nap. She’d always hated naps, the way they sucked the life out of you, but she’d wanted to be fresh for David’s opening, ready to put on a brave face. If “schadenfreude” was the word for taking pleasure in another’s pain, what was the word for resenting a loved one’s success? Pettiness. No, treason. Of course, she hoped David’s show would light up the art world. She wanted that for him, but even more, she wanted that for herself—and her father.
The guest room had been spotless when Anna slipped into the sheets. Monogrammed. DOF. David Oliver Flackston. A present from his mother. The narrowness of the single bed comforted her, like she was a visitor in her own life. An hour later, she woke, stretched her legs, fished up something soft buried at the foot of the bed. Tan and lacy, a mouse of silk. This was not her underwear. These beige, nude, sand, camel, fawn, biscuit, buff, ecru bikini panties with peekaboo lace on either hip could have belonged to David’s skinny younger sister, only he didn’t have one. A guest, perhaps. What guest? It was the kind of skimpy underwear Anna wore when she slept with men she barely knew. Underwear she wore before David.
Into his closet she stalked, swatting hanging shirts, digging through drawers, looking for what? A business card? More lingerie? Who walks out of an apartment without underwear?
David’s laptop sat close-lipped on his desk. Anna opened the top drawer, where a dozen typed passwords had been taped for safekeeping. Google user name: DFlackston. Password: Plastic. She had never done this before.
His in-box was bland, a million urgent e-mails about the opening. The “Personal” file had notes from his mother. The “Taxes” file? Dry stuff. “Insurance?” Insurance! Why, lookie here. E-mails from Clarissa. With attachments. Two more clicks and Anna saw Clarissa. Young, fit, gymnastically inclined Clarissa, wearing no underwear at all. There were other files. Women. A regular art collection.
At the stoplight by Swifty’s, Anna sloshed herself more tequila. She ate a pickled egg she’d fished from a glass jar at the packy. Protein. Hydration. If she ate little enough and drank a whole lot more, she might slip through a keyhole into a new world. What was the etiquette for recalling 150 “Save the Date” cards? Or did bad news trickle down the street on its own, like sewer water after a downpour?
Strip-mall traffic. Hardees. Subway. Red light. Anna checked her face in the mirror. Time for an extreme makeover. Forget being the devoted fiancée, the risotto maker and Pilates babe, the recycler who separates trash. Bring on the old Anna. Drinker-smoker–lovable slut. If a misogynist was a man who hated women, what was a woman who hated men?
At the market, she bought groceries. All her father ate was cheese and peanuts left over from Christmas. She’d fix him lunch. Five food groups. Cloth napkin. Steering up his pea-pebble driveway, Anna felt her head was about to explode. The dilapidated house, another failure. Warped porch. Cracked paint. Sad bushes. How could someone devoted to art let his home deteriorate this way? A layer of snow lined the house and the yard, as if nature thought it best to cover the whole mess with a dropcloth. When he sold the collection, she’d insist on a paint job.
She popped a mint, slammed the car door, crossed the frozen yard. What would she tell him? Her father had introduced her to David. They’d met at a fund-raiser. David had hidden his disdain in masks. Her father had hidden his disdain in Warhol. Soon enough, they had Anna in common.
She reached the porch, grabbed the banister. A heavy emptiness filled her torso and shoulders, making it hard to stand straight. Posture. Her mother had been big on that. Her mother. Anna looked across the field. She could see the pine tree from here.
Anna knocked, pushed open the front door.
Her father sat in his usual plaid chair. Though Daniel Ramsey saw virtually no one, the collector still dressed with care, as if at any moment he might receive a museum official or give a university talk. Pleated pants. Collared shirt. His favorite goofy explorer’s vest, a multipocketed khaki affair that made Anna cringe.
He rose, his worn face brightening. He was always happy to see her, which made her feel bad. She should stop by more often. “What a nice surprise.”
Anna hugged him, smelled his breath. Force of habit. After her mother’s death, her father drank with the same gusto he applied to acquisitions. His collection of Mexican masks was reputably the largest in the country. His drinking had been equally epic. It took a fender bender to persuade him to go to treatment, which he grudgingly attended, though Anna still worried. She dropped the groceries in the kitchen, went to the living room couch. She had planned to tell him everything, but now the bad news stuck in her throat.
“How was the opening?” he asked, sitting back down. “I could have gone, you know.”
Anna was always steering her father away from the proverbial punch bowl. “Full of Warhol wannabes. You would have hated it.” She scanned the living room. The walls were riddled with tiny holes, as if from a shooting spree, the only clue that dozens of masks once hung there. Anna sat down, forced out the words. “You remember how I said I didn’t need my share of the money, that you should invest it? Well, I might need it after all.”
Her father rubbed his jaw, not meeting her eyes.
“Have they signed yet?” Anna asked. “You never give me updates.”
Her father stared out the window into the cold. “There’s been a little hitch.” He rallied a halfhearted smile. “Let me put it this way: There’s good news and bad news.”
Anna sat up, wary now. “What bad news?”
“I’ll let you read it for yourself.” He hobbled to his desk, handed her a letter from the Metropolitan. Anna skimmed the opening paragraph of pleasantries and then read: “Regretfully, the Museum must suspend negotiations regarding the purchase of the Ramsey mask collection due to worrisome inconsistencies and inaccuracies in its documentation. Any information about the provenance of the masks, particularly receipts of sales, would help our investigation. Specifically, we have concerns about the masks attributed to Emilio Luna and Ricardo Rodríguez. There appears to be adulteration, antiquing, and artificial rusting. We are also unsure about the veracity of your book Dancing with the Tiger, where the same worrisome misinformation is presented as fact.”
Anna’s mouth went dry. “What worrisome misinformation?”
“There’s a second sheet with an inventory.”
“After taking wood and paint samples, our curatorial team has confirmed the Centurion mask in the collection, reproduced on page 37 of the book, is not turn-of-the-century, as you claim. It appears to have been carved within the past decade. Contrary to claims made on page 122, Grasshopper masks were never danced in a town called Santa Catarina. There are nine Santa Catarinas in Mexico, but none holds a ‘Harvest Dance.’ These masks appear to be purely decorative, likely carved for commercial sale.”
Anna skimmed ahead. Not only was the Met backing out of the sale, it had trashed Dancing with the Tiger, the book Anna had helped write. For decades, her father had dreamt of publishing the first definitive guide to Mexican masks, but he never would have finished if Anna hadn’t quit her editorial job and stepped in to help. Since then, she had subsisted on fact-checking gigs—and David.
Anna flopped back in the couch. “I can’t believe it.”
“They will have a field day with this online when it breaks.”
“When it breaks?” It hadn’t occurred to Anna the disgrace would be public. Who would hire a fact-checker who couldn’t get her own book right?
Her father grimaced. “It’s a juicy little story for the bloggers. Some will accuse us of fraud. Others will be nice and say we’re incompetent.”
Anna’s shame twisted into anger. “You know more about Mexican masks than anyone in the country.”
“Anyone can be fooled.”
“You were drinking.”
“You would blame global warming on my drinking. That’s over. I’m as dry as that plant.”
The plant, an ivy, was near death. Anna checked the letter’s date. January 5, 2012. “This was sent a month ago. Did you ever respond? They’re asking for documentation. Don’t you have something?”
“My journals, but nothing official enough to please them.” He set down his glass with a frown. “Why should I make their case? Let them send a nice art history docent into the jungle to verify things. Do they think I buy these masks at gift shops?” He hiked his voice into a falsetto. “Excuse me, Mr. Carver. Do you gift wrap? Oh, and I’d like an itemized receipt with that.”
“It’s my fault. I should have gone down there. You expect forgeries in fine art or antiquities, but folk art?”
“The art of forgery is as old as art itself. It’s not your fault. The book was my responsibility.”
He shifted the crank so the footrest of his recliner rose, then crossed his hands over his belly and closed his eyes, as if something had been decided.
“I need that money,” Anna said. “You need that money. That’s your retirement.” His calm infuriated her. “You don’t seem that upset.”
“I was irate, but not anymore.”
“They could be wrong. You know the carvers, they don’t.”
“I suspect what they say is true. But you’re forgetting the good news.”
“What good news?” Anna nearly spat. She had lost her fiancé and a family fortune in less than twenty-four hours.
“Yesterday I got the most remarkable e-mail from Mexico.”
He lowered his footrest, passed her his laptop. On the screen was a turquoise mosaic mask with blockish white teeth. One eye was missing. She noted these basics without enthusiasm.
“Nice mask.” She couldn’t have cared less.
“Magnificent mask. Sixteenth-century. Aztec. Just dug up in Mexico City. It’s for sale. Lorenzo Gonzáles is brokering the deal—”
“Who found it?”
Her father twisted in his chair. “A twigger.”
“A twigger. A tweaked digger. A meth addict. An American.”
“But how would an American twigger even get to Mexico?”
“He took a bus, I imagine.”
Anna rolled her eyes. Other daughters weren’t doing this.
Her father nibbled the end of his glasses. “He’s a rather famous twigger in some circles.”
“Famous for what?”
“A soft touch. A keen eye. He’s not an archaeologist, but he’s made significant finds. He’s lucky. Got a sixth sense.” Her father swelled with avuncular pride, whether for himself or this digger Anna couldn’t tell. “The drugs help, of course. He’s driven. Always needs more money, more dope. Terribly sad, but what can you do?”
“Send him to rehab.”
“I am not his mother.”
“These twiggers work like camels, go days without eating.” Her father leaned into his story, voice warming. “Hoover sites, don’t leave a scrap. And this one is the best. Here. I am forwarding you Gonzáles’s e-mail.”
He finished his drink, whatever it was. Everything he drank looked like water. “This is a pre-Columbian funerary mask. Five hundred years old. A collector’s dream, and I have first crack at it. I’m flying to Oaxaca tomorrow to meet Gonzáles. He’ll oversee the sale. He gave me his word—”
“How much does that cost?”
“Two-grand commission, and worth every penny. Gonzáles directed the anthropology museum in Oaxaca. Now he’s a premier dealer in pre-Columbian art. Top of the line. Whatever he says about a piece—”
“I know. I spoke with him on the phone multiple times. That’s the good news? Another mask?”
He ignored her tone. “I wired Gonzáles a deposit. We have an exclusive until Wednesday. I pay the looter directly when I see him. Cash in hand.” He pointed to his bedroom, where presumably the money was waiting. “Of course, it would be easier to fly directly to Mexico City, but Gonzáles insists in meeting first in Oaxaca. What can you do?”
Outside, sodden snow had sunk into gray banks. The average dream lasts five to twenty minutes, a fact Anna had read somewhere, remembered. She had a knack for that: getting little things right and big things wrong. Their book sat on the coffee table. Anna gave it a shove. “Let’s face it, the Met isn’t buying, and no mask is going to change that. There’s not going to be a big ‘Daniel Ramsey’ in gold letters over the door.”
Her father straightened in his chair, indignant. Anna knew what was coming.
Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Guide for Dancing with the Tiger
1. Each chapter of Dancing with the Tiger enters the consciousness of a different character. Why is the story told this way? How did this affect your reading of the book? Who was your favorite character? Why?
2. In the opening paragraph, the looter, high on meth, thinks: “Everything that mattered in life was buried, covered up, lost, afraid to show its true face. Few people had the courage or imagination to dig.” Do you agree with his observation? How does the idea of burial—real and metaphorical—weave its way through the novel?
3. Anna steals, lies, and uses her sexuality to pursue her goals. Is she a moral character? What about Soledad, who also keeps many secrets? Have you ever behaved badly to achieve what you considered a worthy goal? Do you regret having—or not having—done so?
4. At the beginning of the novel, the papershop girl asks Hugo what sacrifices he has made for their love. What sacrifices does he make and what are the results? Is a willingness to sacrifice a good measure of someone’s love? How does the theme of sacrifice play out in the rest of the novel?
5. After realizing the depths of Thomas Malone’s depravity, Salvador remarks, “You Americans all come to Mexico to lose your minds.” How would you describe the relationships between the Mexican and American characters in the novel? Do you become a different person when you travel or live abroad? If so, how, and if not, why not?
6. Daniel Ramsey is an avid art collector, yet he ultimately decides not to keep the funerary mask. Why? In your experience, what are the joys of collecting? At what point does collecting tip into excess or even addiction?
7. The Malones’ marriage is a difficult one. Why does Constance stay with Thomas? Why does he not leave her? What do you imagine happens to them after the fire?
8. Several characters struggle with their spiritual faith. In a desperate moment, Hugo prays to a rock. Constance tells Anna that Mexicans shoot fireworks because they are trying to reach God, but that He never answers. Anna laments that God talks to everyone but her. Can the novel be seen as a religious quest? If so, who finds or loses faith?
9. Reyes is a drug trafficker, an assassin, and all-around bad guy. But when he makes his videotaped confession, do you feel sympathy for him? Why or why not?
10. In the Santa Muerte chapter, did you find the Angel of Death to be a cruel or benevolent figure? What does it say about life in Mexico that some people pray to Santa Muerte? Do we have anything analogous in the United States?
11. At one point, the Looter marvels at how women keep saving him. Yet he is murdered at the end of the novel. Has he been saved? How does he change during the course of the story? How do other characters change?
12. Most children—and many adults—enjoy dressing up at Halloween. What are the pleasures of wearing a mask? Do you ever feel as though you are wearing a mask in everyday life? If so, how does this make you feel? Are masks necessary? Do you agree with Reyes that everyone has something to hide?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
An addicted character named “Looter” finds an Aztec funeral mask and knows it’s very valuable. He, however, has no interest in its cultural or artistic value but instead sees it as a cash cow for his insatiable addiction. That mask is believed to be the funeral mask of Moctezuma II or Montezuma as he is more popularly known. Anna, a fact checker, is highly qualified as an art collector, having begun to learn this field at the knees of her father, a failed art collector. Both are humiliated at having their facts proved to be false in a book written by Anna, a humiliation that publicly spread and destroyed any credibility the father-son had in the art world’s tough, competitive field. A drug lord and a gardener turned hitman also vie for possession of this mask and will do whatever is necessary to obtain it. Anna is the only character whose complex nature is gradually delineated in this novel that reads more like surrealistic segments. She also seems to be the only one interested in the life behind this mask. As the mask moves from the characters who steal it from each other, we learn that it possesses a mystical power that transforms the personality of those who attempt to wear it. It’s mystery is the question it poses when worn: Does it bring out the true personality of the wearer or is it the supernatural power behind the original owner’s death mask, Montezuma? The other aspect of this long, drawn-out plot involves the beautiful descriptions of Mexican culture, setting, and artistic history that is juxtaposed with the poverty, greed, and despairing lifestyle of contemporary Mexicans. Anna seems to be the only character truly in touch with the more noble aspects of Mexican history and art. One can empathize with her intelligence and frustration at how she could have missed the errors throughout her book and her desire to set it aright with a new book about this phenomenal new find of a funerary mask from ancient Mexico. Who is the Tiger? Readers will discover the symbolic and pragmatic nature of the title throughout the complex plot that is worthwhile to persevere in following despite the meandering back and forth accounts interspersed throughout the story. Interesting read with elements of mystery, adventure, paranormal, history, crime, romance, and art – something for everyone!