Today's Reading

(The copy in this email is used by permission, from an uncorrected advanced proof. In quoting from this book for reviews or any other purpose, it is essential that the final printed book be referred to, since the author may make changes on these proofs before the book goes to press. This book will be available in bookstores February 2021.)


On a breezy autumn afternoon, Maria Luz Concepcion returned to Guatemala to kill a man. As the airplane banked, its descent through thick clouds brought the first view of her country in almost twenty years. Corrugated mountains, a trackless sea of green and brown. The plane drifted lower. Misty rectangles on hillsides resolved into a patchwork of fields and houses. A serpentine line became a road. A silver flash, a lake.

Once at the gate, Luz joined the rolling wave of deplaning passengers. They all shuffled up the jetway and along an interminable corridor to Luz's first hurdle—Immigration. The tide carried her toward black swinging doors at the far end that swallowed each arrival in turn. Then the doors flapped for her, and she emerged—not in the dark maw of some carnivorous beast but in a bright, echoing room.

As she waited her turn, Luz studied the gatekeepers who stood between her and Martin Benavides: The bald guy with thick Coke-bottle glasses who barely looked at the supplicants but spent tedious minutes flipping each page of every passport. The bulldog-faced woman with the pen stuck in her hair and the crisp khaki uniform. The younger man who asked so many questions.

They held the key to her future, these civil servants in their cages of glass and metal, destined to spend their days in noise and harsh light, vigilant against the undotted 'i', the uncrossed 't'. Against criminals, the indigent. Against young women planning murder.

The talkative younger man beckoned. Luz's stomach rose to her throat. She pasted on a smile when she approached his kiosk. He stuck out a hand for her passport, a first-rate fake that gave her name as Luz Aranda. Once she relinquished it, Luz smoothed her shirt over her hips with damp palms and stood before him, fingers intertwined, mimicking as best she could the decorum of a Catholic schoolgirl at early-morning Mass.

The agent flipped to the photo page. He squinted at her.

Luz no longer believed in God, but the habit of prayer lingered. Bargaining, really. Dios, por favor. If you' ll get me through Immigration, I'll... What in heaven's name could she promise? Let me go home, so I can kill Martin Benavides.' No, keep it simple. 'Let me in, and I won't ever bother you again.

Luz released her hands and wiggled her bloodless fingers, willing her expression into nonchalance as the man compared her face to the photo. Too late—and unnecessary—he'd already looked down and was riffling through the pages to stamp her entry. Ink-stained hands with fingernails bitten to the quick, a bald spot at the top of his head, photo of a chubby woman holding a snaggle-toothed child tucked in the corner of the glass partition. Not a dragon guarding the gates after all. Luz beamed when he handed back the passport. She'd taken one more small step toward Martin Benavides' death when the man said, in soft Spanish that reminded Luz of her father, "Señorita, you have been away for a long time."

A long time, yes. Luz pressed her palm against her open mouth as her mother's hand had silenced her screams of terror that last night in Guatemala while they fled blindly in the dark. Pinpoints of lights threaded through the trees and distant gunfire came closer. They ran on.

But that was a long time ago, and this this pencil-pusher was not going to block her path. She summoned the spirit of her mother to her side, not the pale and wasted woman in the drab New Hampshire apartment who'd lost all hope, but the beautiful fighter from her childhood. Luz had promised her mother to return.

So she straightened and found her voice, although she hesitated over the fluid cadences of her native language, which she'd seldom used in the months since her mother's death. "I—I had a good job working as a nanny in Florida," Luz lied, "but I missed being home." The second part, at least, was true.

"Ah, that is a good reason for your beautiful smile. Bienvenida, señorita. Welcome home."

Luz claimed the bulging suitcase containing all she had left in the world. Customs inspectors waved through the throngs of tourists with their dollars or euros to spend on hotels and nice restaurants, on embroidered skirts and handbags, carved masks, tour guides to Mayan ruins, boat rides around Lake Atitlan. But for those with Guatemalan passports, the line dragged as inspectors upended suitcases and poked through the contents to exact the proper duty for every single item purchased abroad.

Luz had receipts for new shoes and a small radio, and she had double-and triple-checked her paperwork for the all-important black jar lying, swaddled in layers of clothes, in the center of her suitcase. Unlike Immigration, however, even the worst stickler at Customs could only gouge her for a few extra quetzales. In any event, it was an efficient woman who totaled the receipts on a handheld calculator and presented Luz with a modest bill.

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