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.
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During her many trips to Mexico, Lili Wright has studied Spanish, lived with Mexican families, worked as a journalist, watched dancing tigers parade down streets, visited ghost towns, and started her own mask collection. She received an Edgar Award nomination for her debut novel, Dancing with the Tiger and earned her MFA in nonfiction writing at Columbia University. Author of the travel memoir Learning to Float, she lives with her husband and two children in Greencastle, Indiana, and teaches English at DePauw University.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
***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, “Li...
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Book Description Marian Wood Books/Putnam, 2016. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # mon0000172353
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Book Description Marian Wood Books/Putnam 7/12/2016, 2016. Hardback or Cased Book. Book Condition: New. Dancing with the Tiger. Book. Bookseller Inventory # BBS-9780399175176
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Book Description Marian Wood Books/Putnam, 2016. Hardback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. 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. Bookseller Inventory # AAC9780399175176
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