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Authors: Lili Wright

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“My gun isn't loaded.”

“You carry a gun without bullets?”

“It worked pretty well. We're both still here.” He rubbed his arm, confirming this fact.

“You could have
bought
bullets. We're in fucking Tepito.” Cursing made Anna feel powerful, like her mouth was a gun.

The looter relaxed his face, innocence surfacing. “I guess I've never wanted to shoot anyone.”

Anna's anger now had a focal point, and she let it rip. “No one
wants
to shoot anyone. You buy bullets to
protect
yourself, protect
me
. He took the mask and my money.” She talked about shooting people like she knew something about it. She'd never even broken a bone.

The looter raised his voice. “He took
my
mask and
my
money.”

“You have any clue what that mask was?”

“Of course. I dug it up.”

“It belonged to
Montezuma
.”

“Montezuma who?”

Anna glared. She wanted to rip his head off.

The looter caught on, got defensive. “Fuck that. Montezuma. Who says so?”

“Gonzáles.”

“Bullshit.” Pause. “What's it worth?”

“Priceless. No price. No one can even guess the price. Enough money for a lifetime . . . if it wasn't wasted.”

The looter shot Anna a look that made her heart freeze. She saw how stupid she was being: arguing with an addict, a twigger with termites under his skin, a looter with a bulletless gun. This man had smoked his soul and eaten his heart and forgotten what his dick could do. They had a common enemy, but he wasn't going to help her recoup her losses or find the gunman or recover the mask that would keep her father sober. A drug addict, like a collector, thought only of himself.

“Who do you
think
it was?” Her voice was gentle.

The looter didn't look at her. “He thinks he's tricky wearing a mask, but I know that tattoo. He did a pick-up a few months back.” The looter's head jerked. Explanation. Apology. Twitch. “He works for a pervert named Thomas Malone.”

—

Out the bus window,
endless desert. Moonlike. Abandoned. Anna draped her sweatshirt over her cold legs. Her nerves were fried. Even innocuous gestures seemed laced with foreboding: her plump seatmate crocheting, a nun engrossed in a thriller, a teenager in black jeans watching a B movie about zombies invading Manhattan. Starving, she opened a pack of orange cookies, ate them, one, two, three, four. She didn't dare drink water, for fear she'd have to pee. There were many reasons to hate herself, but Anna boiled it down to one: Thomas Malone had stolen the death mask out from under her, exactly as her father had predicted.

The bus slowed to a stop. Flat tire or bandits, Anna couldn't rally the energy to care. A wizened
vaquero
in a cowboy hat teetered on, carrying a cage with a collapsed chicken inside. Where did these people come from, and where did they go? No bus stop, not even a country road, just a man and a cage, waiting on the highway's edge. The cowboy sat sideways, boots and cage in the aisle. The chicken just lay there, red head like a wound. Feathers impossibly white. A gamy funk asserted itself. The chicken wasn't sleeping. It was dead.

Anna was close to tears. Over what? A dead chicken? The rancher carrying a dead chicken? She was leaky, a hapless colander. She'd lost her resilience, and now every little thing was getting inside, seeping into the places that hurt.

Her phone bleeped a text.

Did you get it left me know yiy are okay lovedad

Anna held the phone like a prayer book. Her father's first text. It didn't occur to him to punctuate or abbreviate. She should have written back but she didn't. She wouldn't lie and she couldn't tell the truth.

—

That night,
Anna paced her room, holding court with Duty Free. She'd promised to call her father, but worried the bad news might send him searching for ice. Instead, she texted:
Delivery delayed but all good. Give me couple days. More soon!

Every liar needed exclamation points.

She pulled
Dancing with the Tiger
from her suitcase, looking for comfort, but the thrill of seeing her name in print had long been eclipsed. All she saw were mistakes. Lies her father had been told and together they had published. She balled up a pillow, slept, dreamt the blue mask was calling her.
Don't just lie there. Come find me.

She woke up sweaty and exhausted. The sun came in the window. The book lay open to the fake Grasshopper masks. A thumb of tequila rested in her glass. She had a simple choice to make: Go home or chase the death mask. Two thousand miles away, her father was waking up in Connecticut, hobbling to the kitchen for coffee. His bird feeder must be empty by now. His masks were boxed in the basement. Old men and devils and hermits. The Ramsey Collection. One mask away from redemption. What did she have to go back for? No David. No job. No apartment.

There was no decision to make. Not really. Thomas Malone had stolen the mask from the Ramseys. Now Anna must steal it back.

fifteen
THE GARDENER

They left Tepito, driving south through the outer wasteland of Mexico City, through a landscape so bleak someone should set it on fire. Hugo held the turquoise mask in his lap, thought about how each stone was like a day in your life, each nugget forming a part of the person you grew to be.

He held up the mask, peered through the missing eye. “Boo.”

Pedro looked annoyed, or skittish. “
No chingues.
You'll break it.” He slid his orange soda back in the drink holder.

“You're scared?” Hugo laughed. “I saw you praying to that skeleton. Your lips were moving faster than a nun's.”

“I pray to everybody. If you had any sense, you would, too. You want to walk through Tepito without any protection? It's like a whore not carrying a condom. I prayed to Santa Muerte for safe passage. What do you believe in?”

“Money, women, chili,
cerveza
. Things you can hold and enjoy.”

“My Tiger can't hold on to women.”

“Actually, I hold on to two.” Hugo lifted the mask's mouth to his ear. “The death mask is saying,
I don't want to live with the narcos
.”

“Smart mask.”

“Malone would shit over this. Who's going to win? Reyes or Malone?”

Pedro chortled. The answer was obvious. “
Narco
only
thinks
he's winning, but he never wins. Gringo consumes more. Gringo blames more. Gringo pays in dollars.
Narcos
kill other
narcos
, but gringo kills
narco
in the end. I'm not talking masks. I'm talking big picture.”

“Who kills gringos?”

“Cancer.”

They were roaring down the
cuota
, the toll highway most chumps couldn't afford. Hugo said, “You didn't tell me what happened inside.”

“Loser gave back the mask. Pathetic. Almost felt sorry for him. Reyes told me to pop him, but I don't need that on my conscience. Guy was too busy killing himself. He'll be dead in a month with a needle in his hand. If Reyes asks, say I shot him.”

Hugo couldn't decide which was worse: promising to murder a man, or promising to murder a man and then not doing it.

“I don't like it.”

“Listen”—Pedro jutted his chin—“if I am going to off someone, I'm going after someone important.” He let that vow stand for a minute. “You hungry? I know a place in Puebla.”

“We can't leave the mask in the car.” Hugo didn't want to fuck things up.

“Stick it in the bag. We'll take it with us.”

“This mask is worth a fortune.”

“My stomach is worth a fortune.” Pedro ran his finger under his nose. “I'll carry it. Trust me.”

They ate cactus tacos in an open-air market. Hunched over his red stool, Hugo eyed the cook, who had nice breasts. Pedro had the mask in a bag slung over one shoulder. It was good to eat hot food, and Hugo relaxed in a way he hadn't all day. He'd be home soon, with money in his pocket, and he'd give the yellow girl the necklace he'd bought her, the kind with a locket you put a tiny photograph in. He'd find a picture where he didn't look too old.

Three tacos later, Pedro stood. “I need to take a piss.”

“Leave the bag here.”

“I'm not letting it out of my sight. I gave Reyes my word.”

Hugo pointed to his right eye and warned:
“Ojos.”

Pedro gave a thumbs-up.

Hugo waited ten minutes. Paid the bill. Waited another ten, then got a bad feeling. Pedro didn't answer his phone. Hugo checked the toilets, circled back to the taco stand, asked the woman if she'd seen the guy he'd come in with. She hadn't. He looped around the market—all those vegetables nobody wanted—then fanned out to the side streets. His mind spun, furious and pleading.
Pedro, hombre, what happened to you? Did you screw me over, or did someone hurt you? Don't make me face Reyes without that pinche mask.

He went back to the stand. Nothing. He went back to the john. Nothing. The curse of Tepito. Godforsaken place. People blowing smoke over somebody's mother. Desperate people will pray to anything. Desperate people will pray to a rock.

He found the car still parked on Providencia, door unlocked, wheel boot unlocked, keys under the mat. A friend's parting courtesy. Pedro's phone, the phone Reyes paid for, sat on the seat. Dead center.

Hugo waited an hour more, just in case. He had to admire little Pedro's
cojones
, even as he wanted to slice his throat. The thought of telling Reyes the news made his bowels run. He picked up a rock—gray, nothing special, but maybe that was the point. The gardener had not prayed since he was a boy, thin and sickly, when he'd prayed for a bicycle (he never got one), prayed his grandfather would not die (he did), prayed that dirty Lupe next door would show her privates (she didn't). In the intervening decades, God had been easy to leave behind.

Blessed God rock,
Pedro fucked me over and now I have a drug lord up my ass. Help me, please. I don't know what to do.
He wanted to say,
I deserve better than this,
but he wasn't sure that was true. Instead, he signed off with
Next time, I will do better
.

In Bible stories, after a prayer, the Lord sends a sign. Shooting star or parting waters. But all Hugo saw was graffiti and PRI signs and the dumb rock in his hand.

Reyes was going to kill him. Or maybe just cut off his hand.

He climbed into the car, gripped the steering wheel, and howled.

sixteen
ANNA

The clerk was wearing Carnival beads and a cut petunia behind his right ear. His eyebrows looked thicker than Anna remembered, and his fingers were clotted with rings.
He's working his way to Frida Kahlo,
Anna thought.
Pretty soon, he'll buy a monkey.

She told him she needed to find an American couple living in Oaxaca and asked his advice. The clerk, whose name was Rafi, suggested she ask at the English library, six blocks west. “All the Americans go there,” he said. “They have free coffee.”

The English library had none of the grandeur of the expat library in San Miguel de Allende that Anna remembered from childhood, but it was still lively. Behind the green gate, a half-dozen visitors clustered around plastic tables and chairs. An
intercambio
was going
on. A frumpy man who looked to be in his fifties recited Spanish verbs to a young Mexican woman, whose patience was as large as her chest. The librarian was British, officious, with a lavender scarf and purple reading glasses attached to a cord. Anna explained that she was trying to contact an American art collector, Thomas Malone.

“We're not allowed to give out the private information of our members.”

“Is there some kind of expatriate directory?” Anna asked.

The woman pressed the spine of her novel. “Just word of mouth. You might come to our next board meeting in two weeks. I could introduce you round.”

“It's for my father. He's not well. He and Thomas Malone are old friends. . . .”

The woman softened. She pointed across the room to a bulletin board. “They had a job advert posted for some time. I think it had their address, or maybe just a number. You might have a look.”

The board was crammed with notices. Yoga. Tutoring. Deep-tissue massage. Apartments to rent. Mountain-biking excursions. Lost dogs. Pilates. Herbal cancer treatments. Tarot cards. Housecleaning—not one of its rip-off tags remained. Then, next to a notice for a bilingual barbershop quartet, was a handwritten file card.

Writer sought for art gallery guide. Excellent writing and editing skills a must for this collaboration. Six-week commitment. $15 an hour.

Thomas Malone, 14 Amapolas, 513 6767

Anna smiled to herself, an idea forming. She walked back to the circulation desk. “Do you think the job has been taken if it's still posted?”

The librarian looked warily over her readers. “No one ever bothers to remove things. You're looking for a position?”

Anna Ramsey didn't need a job, but Anna . . . Anna
Bookman
was broke. Yes, laid off from her editorial job. Divorced. Starting over in Mexico.

“Yes,” Anna said. “Something part-time.”

“Call. You might get lucky. They've put that same ad up before.”

“What do you mean?”

The woman's mouth tightened into a beak. “Oaxaca has a commitment problem. No one wants to bloody grow up. Not even the retirees. Try keeping a library staffed.
So sorry, I'm going on a pilgrimage to Chichén Itzá to watch the solstice. So sorry, I'm going scuba diving in Belize
. Rubbish.” She straightened the tape dispenser on her desk. “The girl who first had that post owes the library five hundred pesos. She'd had enough of Mexico and went home. Got a better offer, I suppose, or was tired of working for . . . tired of working. Everyone thinks,
Oh, Mexico. I'll just butter myself up in the sunshine. Loll about.
But you have to
live
somewhere. Pay rent. Have a proper flat. Not just flit about.”

“How long ago was that? That girl who left?”

“I don't know. Before the Christmas holiday. But you should still ring, because even if they've hired someone, he's probably quit by now to pick coffee in Chiapas. Or start yoga school. That's the dream of all young people. Teach yoga.” She pecked her gathered fingers toward the corkboard. “Live in your tights.”

“Salutation to the sun,” Anna said, egging her on.

The librarian lowered her eyes into her novel. “Down dog. Please.”

—

“You'll have to find a housekeeper,”
Constance Malone said, as she squeezed lime juice into a blue-rimmed pitcher. “Someone you can trust, like Soledad.”

Gazing at the sloping Sierra Madre, Anna tried to keep her envy in check. Perched in the foothills, the Malones' pink villa had a towering view of the city below. Behind the ten-foot security wall, no calendar, no tick of a clock, interrupted the pampered routine. The interior was tastefully appointed with exposed beams, hand-painted tiles, and folk art, although, oddly, no masks. No Thomas, either. He was late.

“Soledad seems wonderful,” Anna agreed. The housekeeper, a dour soul in an apron, had greeted her at the door. “Maybe someday I'll be able to afford help, but I'm still in a hotel for now, until I find work.”

“They clean, do laundry,
iron your T-shirts
.”

The frozen vodka poured sluggish and clear. Anna hadn't expected her job interview to begin with cocktails, not that she was complaining.

“I have this liberal friend Lettie who refuses to hire help on principle,” Constance rattled on. “She wants to clean up her own shit.”

She tapped the screen door with her sandal. Anna felt a fresh pang of envy. The house was large, but the grounds were immense. The stone patio was surrounded by gardens, a lush mix of regal palms and fragrant bushes whose blossoms hung like swollen sexual organs. Beyond that, a long yard that ended with a swimming pool, a perfect turquoise rectangle. Outbuildings were visible in both directions. A pair of peacocks stood erect in a cage. Her father had spent many long afternoons on this patio, buying masks, trading stories, drinking. Anna's biggest
fear was that she would run into the thug from Tepito, but she saw no one.

“This screen door is my private victory,” Constance said. “Thomas likes everything cold and insists on roaring the air-conditioning every night. A bomb could go off on the front lawn and we wouldn't know. When he leaves in the morning, I open everything up. Let in the heat, the fresh air, the flies.”

Constance sat in a pigskin chair, motioning to a hammocklike contraption. Anna dropped into it, sloshed her drink. Licking her hand, she appraised her hostess with a critical eye. Constance was in her late forties. Her graying hair was tied back in a ponytail. Her chin was set and her nose firm, an actress determined to age with grace. She draped her trim figure in a shapeless embroidered dress that reached her ankles, the kind that Indian women sold to tourists to hide the bumps of middle age.
When you start to wear muumuus, it's time to go home.

Anna's phone beeped. David.
Show got amazing reviews. Come home + celebrate.

Anna scowled. She was sweating. She hated him. Now more than ever.

“The way I see it, we have money,” Constance rambled. “Mexicans need money. It's cruel not to give some away. So we have Hugo.” She pointed to a gardener crossing the yard. Anna squinted, bracing herself, but it was not the thug from Tepito. This guy was leaner, with nice arms.

“We have Pedro, the pool cleaner. Soledad, who you met. A Spanish tutor. A masseuse. Thomas and I are single-handedly keeping this city afloat. Yesterday, I paid Hugo a hundred pesos extra to clean the dog mess off the driveway. Every mutt in town sneaks through our woods
to make a donation. Maybe Lettie would like to clean up that shit, too. Poor Hugo is so eager for money. Either he's got debts or a girlfriend, but at least we treat the Mexicans like human beings. The previous
señora
made Soledad bring her own toilet paper.”

Anna reminded herself she was no longer Anna Ramsey, the fact-checker, but Anna Bookman, the unemployed expatriate desperate for work. Anna Bookman would listen to any sort of drivel if it landed her a job.

A dog whimpered. Anna scanned the patio. “You have pets?”

“Morocco and Honduras.” Constance pointed to the bench against the house. Anna bent to look. Two Yorkshire terriers were panting in the shade. “I refuse to go either place, so we named the dogs after them. I told Thomas,
Snuggle up, that's as close as we're getting
.” Constance took a long sip, frowned. Her cocktail was boring her. “Do you know anyone in the city?”

“No one, though I met an artist on the
zócalo.
Salvador something.”

“Flores,” Constance mused. “A painter. Unkempt. Unsuccessful. Pretty girl on the arm.”

Anna grinned, committing this description to memory. “What a coincidence—”

“Hardly. Oaxaca is a city, but it operates like a small town. All the artists paint the same hideous things. Surrealist blobs. Squids, aliens, fetuses. That or skeletons, paying homage to Posada. Death. Death everywhere. Who wants to think about it?”

Constance shooed a fly, recrossed her long legs. Anna checked her watch. Thomas Malone was now fifteen minutes late. She pointed to a distant cottage shaded by trees. “What's that?”

“We rent that little place to Hugo and Soledad. They came with the
house. Soledad knows everything, thinks the place is hers, but she's wonderfully useful when things go wrong.”

“They're married? She seems older—”

“Yes, married.”

“What's that other building?”

“That's the chapel where Thomas stores his masks.”

“In a chapel?” Anna sat up. “I'd like to see that.”

“Good luck. He doesn't let anyone in, and believe me, it's just as well. The place is a wreck. Falling plaster. Mice.”

“I don't mind. I'd—”

“It's locked and even I don't have a key. Thomas calls it his
sanctuary
.” Constance imbued the word with both sarcasm and status. “My husband is reasserting his faith. The Grand Restoration. For all I know, he's out there every night baptizing squirrels.”

“What religion is he?”

“He
was
Presbyterian. Now he's tinkering.”

“How did he get into collecting masks? Is he an anthropologist?”

“A drug rep.” Her laugh was short and sharp. “Peddling Xanax in Philadelphia when we met at a society junket. I like to tell people I fell in love with my pusher. Would you like another?” Constance shook her empty glass.

“Another would put me over.”

“Oh, go over.” Constance reached for the pitcher.

Anna held out her glass. “Do you collect masks, too?” This seemed a stretch.

“I used to go with Thomas on buying trips, until last year. We went to Pátzcuaro for Day of the Dead, and it was horrifying. Dragged on all night. Everyone drunk and wearing hideous masks. No one spoke
English. Anything could have happened and the police wouldn't have lifted a finger. I told Thomas,
That's it.
No more traveling. I'd rather stay home.
We have the pool, if we get hot. If we get hungry, Soledad will fix something. If we want art, we can look in books.”

As if on cue, Soledad appeared with guacamole and chips. The housekeeper could have been thirty-five or fifty. Worry etched her forehead with three wavy lines.

“Soledad, this is Anna. She has come about the job.” Though Constance spoke Spanish, her accent drained all beauty from the language, like chopping a rose into cubes.

Anna stood to shake Soledad's hand, but Constance signaled not to bother. Soledad gave a half smile, flashing the gold in her teeth.

“¿Señora, qué se le antoja para cenar?”

“Decisions.” Constance sounded annoyed. “They won't slice bread without your permission.” She turned to Soledad.
“Hablamos más tarde. Después.”

Anna tried to catch Soledad's eye, to convey,
Later, you and I will laugh about the señora,
but Soledad shrieked,
“La leche,”
and ran into the kitchen.

“It's boiled over again.” Constance checked her watch. “Every day she scalds her hot chocolate. It's bad luck to let milk boil over. If that's true, we're all damned.” She fanned herself with a newspaper. “Thomas has no idea what goes on. I manage the budget, the staff, the plumber, the dogs. Wait. There's Thomas. He's back.”

In all the times Anna had imagined Thomas Malone, she'd pictured a younger variation of her father—pasty, paunchy, professorial—but the man who crossed the clipped grass was lean and groomed, a good fifteen years younger than Daniel Ramsey. He wore charcoal-gray trousers and a pressed long-sleeve white shirt, and he carried a wooden
cross in his hand like a polo club. His crisp expression, compounded by his height, gave him an air of confidence and remote disdain. While Constance moved slowly, her husband's angular body glided over the lawn, leaving no trace.

“Thomas, come meet Anna Bookman. She's here about the job.”

He shook Anna's hand, inspecting her, as if deciding whether to rent or buy. Though he could not have known she was Daniel Ramsey's daughter, the intensity of his gaze unnerved her.

The three of them sat. “Constance wants me to hire an assistant, but I'm not convinced I need one,” Thomas began. “So what brings you to Oaxaca?”

Anna told the story she'd prepared. “I worked for magazines for five years. Fact-checking, primarily. But I got laid off, so I decided to come to Oaxaca to practice my Spanish. Make a fresh start. Find a job.” She tried to sound as carefree as this biography implied.

Thomas scraped mud off his shoe with a penknife.

“Darling”—Constance pointed—“where did you get that cross?”

“On the road to Etla. There's a sharp curve where drunk Mexicans kill themselves. This little cross caught my eye.”

He stuck it in the ground like a croquet peg.

Anna winced. “You pulled the cross from a shrine?” She turned to Constance for backup, but her hostess was measuring an inch of air to show Hugo how short to cut the grass. “Isn't that grave robbing?”

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