Authors: Lili Wright
A MARIAN WOOD BOOK
Published by G. P. Putnam's Sons
Publishers Since 1838
An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC
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New York, New York 10014
Copyright Â© 2016 by Lili Wright
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eBook ISBN 9780698197015
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
For John Bahoric, who brought me to Mexico, and for Laila, Sara, and Mercedes, who made me want to
Even in the slums of Mexico City, pieces of the fallen Aztec Empire keep showing up.
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 dust and sweat that covered his skin like fur. Lesser men would have whimpered about their knees, their aching backs. Little pussies. But 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.
. All those soft syllables, adding up to nothing but a hammock and a song. The looter. That's what he called himself. Alter ego, doppelgÃ¤nger, shadow in the moonlightâthe 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. PopocatÃ©petl. The cave that caves in.
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.
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. A mask 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 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
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
. 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
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. MazatlÃ¡n penthouse. JuÃ¡rez 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 thatâEl Pelotas. Half his right ear was missing. Reyes was high up, a
who considered himself cultured, collected antiquities by the pound, adored gallery openings and pink champagne. He'd turn up in a
, 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,
, come in.” He swung open the door to an entryway with a circular staircase. “I'll tell the
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, studied the fractured bulletproof windows. The bullets had come from inside.
Alfonso lit a cigarette, blew smoke. “You're a real idiot.”
“RegÃ¡lame 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. “
con todo respeto
I bring you a magnificent treasure today. It took me two days to remove from a cave.”
No one talks to Reyes. No one even
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,
âtotally 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