Lili Wright’s debut novel (she’s also the author of a memoir entitled Learning to Float) is set in Mexico, where she visited and freelanced as a journalist after completing her MFA at Columbia. The book begins with Christopher Maddox, a meth-addicted looter, discovering Montezuma’s funerary mask while working for a drug kingpin named Reyes. When he tries to steal the mask for himself, things turn violent. It’s the beginning of an ambitious thriller that’s a perfect companion for the beach. Below is an excerpt of the book’s prologue. – J. Travis Smith
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, like he noticed and dismissed the wet in the air, his cut knuckles, the way dust and sweat covered his skin like fur. A lesser man would have whimpered about his knees, his poor aching back. Little pussies. 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, he knew, 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 ago, his trowel 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, doppelganger, shadow in the moonlight — the hero of a story that began when a humble man from strip mall Colorado dug up a Mexican 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. Popocatepetl. 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. Grabbing his pick, he stabbed the ground, not caring what he broke. He’d pawn the pieces to the gypsies. He just wanted his due. Now. Now. Now. Ahora. Da-me-lo.
An angel sighed. The devil bit his lip. The relic fell loose, 500 years of Aztec history tumbled into his busted hands. The looter rolled back 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.
The looter burst into Mexico City, 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. Two snakes coiled across its forehead. Its mouth was a grimace of shell teeth, fully intact. One eye was missing, the other, made out of white shell, had no opening, which meant only one thing. The mask had been made for the dead.
The looter wanted to howl. He wanted to salsa into the snooty antiquity shops in the Zona Rosa, toe tap up the marble steps of the archeology museum and see the officials’ shocked expressions when they realized a dusty gringo with twenty bucks to his name 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 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 his offering.
Feo turned the mask 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 shot him a look. “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. Mazatlan penthouse. Juárez sewer. A man of a million disguises: grifter, hipster, attorney general. Rumor had it his real face looked like 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, buy every mask; shut down a jewelry store, 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 led the looter into an entryway with a circular staircase. “I’ll tell the Patrón his favorite caveman wants to see him right away. Make yourself comfortable. Have a drink.”
The looter waited in the gloom with Alfonso. A couple shitty couches faced the world’s largest TV. He locked his hands over the mask over his groin, studied the fractured bulletproof windows. One pane had been shot three times. The bullets had come from inside.
Alfonso smoked, rubbing his jaw. “You’re a real idiot, you know that?”
“Regalame 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 short, stocky. His thick chest panted. He was wearing sweatpants and a white 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.
“You wanted to see me?” Reyes’ voice was even 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 500 years old,” he went on. “It belongs in a museum. Cover of Time Magazine. 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. “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 the looter’s chest. He might do something stupid. His thigh shook in his jeans. A clock ticked, or maybe his heart.
At last, Reyes threw down a wad of pesos. The bundle laid there, a dead animal no one wanted to touch. Alfonso took the mask. The looter knelt before the money, knew better than to count.
Reyes growled, “Now bring me another.”
Editor’s Note: From Dancing with the Tiger by Lili Wright, published by Marian Wood Books/Putnam, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a pision of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Lili Wright.