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“No one punctures the skin of reality to reveal the lurking, sinister magic beneath better than Silvia Moreno-Garcia.”–Kiersten White, #1 bestselling author of Hide
ONE OF THE MOST ANTICIPATED BOOKS OF THE SUMMER: The New York Times, NPR, Chicago Tribune, Paste, Lit Hub, CrimeReads
Montserrat has always been overlooked. She’s a talented sound editor, but she’s left out of the boys’ club running the film industry in ’90s Mexico City. And she’s all but invisible to her best friend, Tristán, a charming if faded soap opera star, though she’s been in love with him since childhood.
Then Tristán discovers his new neighbor is the cult horror director Abel Urueta, and the legendary auteur claims he can change their lives–even if his tale of a Nazi occultist imbuing magic into highly volatile silver nitrate stock sounds like sheer fantasy. The magic film was never finished, which is why, Urueta swears, his career vanished overnight. He is cursed.
Now the director wants Montserrat and Tristán to help him shoot the missing scene and lift the curse . . . but Montserrat soon notices a dark presence following her, and Tristán begins seeing the ghost of his ex-girlfriend.
As they work together to unravel the mystery of the film and the obscure occultist who once roamed their city, Montserrat and Tristán may find that sorcerers and magic are not only the stuff of movies.
The paper was narrowly examined. As Harrington had said, the characters on it were more like runes than anything else, but not decipherable by either man, and both hesitated to copy them, for fear, as they confessed, of perpetuating whatever evil purpose they might conceal.
—m. r. james, "Casting the Runes"
An engorged, yellow moon painted the sky a sickly amber hue, illuminating a solitary figure. A woman, standing between two sycamore trees.
It had rained, and the earth was slippery as, breathing with difficulty, she ventured toward the cabin. The woods felt awake and dangerous, with the sounds of crickets and rolling thunder in the distance. There was a thin humming. Was that a bird? It was too high-pitched, that noise.
The woman pressed a hand against her lips and stared at the cabin, with its welcoming lights. But that oasis of warmth was distant. A twig snapped, and the woman looked behind her in terror. She began to run.
The noises of the night were now mixed with the patter of her feet. She flew forward, and her hands desperately pulled at the front door—there was a thump, so loud it sounded like a cannon—until she finally managed to burst into the cabin. She immediately shut the door, bolted it, and stepped back, waiting. Her eyes were wide.
The crash of an axe against the wood made the woman jump. Splinters flew. The woman screamed, pressing back farther into the room as a man hacked his way through the door. The scream was an annoying squeal that made the levels jump into the red. The man lingered at the threshold, clutching the axe. He began advancing; his breath was heavy, punctuated with an annoying pop.
"Demon possession again?" Montserrat asked. Her eyes were on the VU meter; on her knee she balanced a notepad.
"Ghosts," Paco said.
She scribbled in the notepad. "I thought you were into ninjas."
"We're still doing the ninjas. Just not now."
"A ninja moratorium."
The woman screamed again. Montserrat pressed a button. The image froze on the screen. She spun her chair around.
The padded room smelled faintly of the pine-scented air freshener that the other sound editors liked to spray around to cover up the fact that they were smoking inside. The whole place was a bit of a mess. The editors regularly left pizza boxes and empty bottles of Pepsi around the mixing room, along with the scent of cigarettes. "No food or smoking in the editing room" said a sign half hidden behind the random stickers the editors had pasted on it over the years. In theory, this admonition made sense, especially when you were dealing with film. You didn't want to smear a workprint with grease. In practice, though, all editors were supposed to eat in front of the monitors. You were constantly working your ass off in post-production, trying to make up for missed deadlines. Montserrat had never been in a facility that was perfectly neat and organized. Editing rooms all looked like war zones unless a client was poking their head around.
Still, she might have tidied up if Paco hadn't ambushed her. Unfortunately for him, this particular mixing room was small and, unlike the bigger rooms, didn't have a client area with a couch. Paco was sitting uncomfortably on a chair, by the door, next to a pile of tapes and vinyl records, and from the look of his position he was probably getting a cramp.
"So, what do you think?" Paco asked.
"I think this is the kind of shit you shouldn't have to be fixing in post-production. Did you shoot these scenes inside a washing machine? The sound is terrible. Those levels are way too hot."
"I know, I know. But what can you expect with these budgets?"
"It's going to take me a couple of weeks."
"I need it to be done in five days."
Montserrat shot him a skeptical look. "Not likely. Mario will tell you as much."
"Come on, I'm not asking Mario, I'm asking you."
"I don't want to be stuck here from the crack of dawn until midnight because you forgot to hire a person who can hold a boom mike in the right position."
"Don't do this to me. I've got hundreds of units due at Videocentro and can't run the duplicates if the master is a mess. Don't you get overtime for this stuff? Must be a hefty check."
"I wish," she said.
Though there was the yearly discretionary bonus. The full-timers got the aguinaldo mandated by the law, but freelancers like Montserrat couldn't count on that. They had to rely on the gratitude of their employers. At Antares, Mario gave his editors a turkey, a bottle of cheap whiskey, and a Christmas bonus. It was never a generous bonus—it shrank or expanded at whim—this despite the fact she was by far the best sound editor at Antares. She was also the only woman on the Antares team, aside from the receptionist, which was probably why she never became a full-timer, never had the right to an aguinaldo, and instead had to rely on Mario's mercurial temper: the editing business was a boys' club. There were a few women working at studios writing the scripts that were used for subtitling and dubbing. There were also female translators, though those were often freelancers who were contracted for single projects. But full-time female sound editors? Those were as rare as unicorns.
"Look, I have to meet someone for lunch," Montserrat said, grabbing her leather jacket from the hook by the door and slipping it on. "Why don't you talk to Mario and we'll see what he says? I'd love to help, but he was raging about an unpaid dubbing—"
"Come on, guys, I always pay even if I'm a few days late. As soon as I offload those videos I'll be golden, I swear."
Montserrat didn't know how true that was. Paco had scored a modest hit with an Exorcist rip-off a few years before. Mexican horror movies were scarce these days. Paco had reaped the benefits of a nascent home video market a few years back. But he wasn't doing well anymore. Four years before, René Cardona III had tried the same concept: shooting a low-budget horror copy of a hot American film with Vacaciones de Terror. Although Vacaciones was a blatant attempt at mixing Child's Play with Amityville, the film had one semi-famous star in the form of Pedro Fernández, whose singing career had assured at least a few butts in seats. Vacaciones de Terror and its obligatory sequel had performed decently, but the market for local horror productions wasn't substantial enough to support two filmmakers intent on churning out scary flicks, and Paco didn't have a singer to put on the marquee.
Not that there was a market to produce anything with a semi-decent budget at this point. The best that most people could hope for were exploitation flicks like Lola La Trailera. Paco was, if anything, a little better off than most Mexican filmmakers, since he'd managed to rope a few Spanish financiers into his moviemaking schemes and so the bulk of his output was meant for the European market. He'd dump a bunch of copies at Videocentro, then sell the rest to Italy, Germany, or whoever had any dough to spare. Paco's work was slightly more nutritious fare than what most of the other exploitation hounds offered, but nothing to get excited about.
"Montserrat, come on, darling, you know I'm solid. How about we do this: I pay you the overtime. I'll throw in…oh, how much would you want?" he asked, reaching into his pocket and producing a wallet.
"God, Paco, you don't have to bribe me."
"Then you'll do it?"
Montserrat had been working at Antares for the past seven years. She'd never made it into the two big film studios, but you had to be the son of someone to edit at a place like that. Positions were passed down through the STPC and STIC like knighthoods. Now that Estudios América was being dismantled, the movie business was even more of a mess than before, and competition for positions was cutthroat. Antares had been, when you added all the pluses and minuses, not that bad.
Not that bad, that is, until the previous year, when the company had hired a new sound editor. Everyone loved young people and despised old ones. Help wanted ads always specified "35 and under," sometimes even "30 and under." Samuel, the newest member of the team, was definitely under thirty. Mario had funneled a bunch of assignments to Samuel, in part because his youth meant he was one of their lowest paid employees. Antares saved money with Samuel. And, as a result, Montserrat had been pulled from several projects. She'd gone from working five, sometimes six days a week, to three, and she was sure Mario was going to cut her down to two by December. Maybe they'd end up assigning this job to Samuel.
Crap, she needed to make more money. Her sister didn't ask her for anything, but Montserrat knew she was hurting a little. She had been working only part-time for half a year now; the cancer treatments were too exhausting for her to manage her usual workload at the accounting firm. Montserrat tried to chip in when she could.
"Follow me," she muttered, looking at her watch. She'd be late if she didn't step out now.
Paco and Montserrat walked down a long hallway decorated with wall-to-ceiling mirrors and back toward the reception area. The mirrors were supposed to be "wall art" and lend an air of class to the joint, but the results were more tacky than elegant. The reception area was the only part of the studio that looked semi-decent. Instead of shabby, patched-up furniture, the room boasted two black leather couches. Behind a big desk a big sign with silver letters said "ANTARES" all in caps.
Candy was behind the desk. She had bright yellow neon nails that week—she changed them often—and smiled at Montserrat happily. Candida, who liked to go by Candy, handled reception and all manner of assorted tasks. She was the person who kept track of who was using which editing bay at any given hour of the day. She wasn't supposed to schedule anything until Mario said so, but Montserrat sometimes skipped the queue.
"Candy, is Mario back from that business lunch yet?" she asked, hoping the answer was yes but the receptionist shook her head.
"Crap," Montserrat said. "Okay, this is what we'll do: Candy, can you slot me in for some night work tomorrow? Put me for the whole week, beginning at seven in my usual room. I need to work on Paco's latest picture."
"Oh, what's it called?" Candy asked, looking at Paco with interest.
"Murder Weekend," Paco said proudly.
"Sounds cool. But, Montserrat, I need to know the pricing, the green form—"
"Put it down before someone grabs the time slot," she said. "I'll show it to Mario later and fill in the green form."
Before Candy could ask another question, Montserrat waved them a curt goodbye and stepped outside.
She shook her head, thinking about the long nights that awaited her. Too many people thought they could skimp on the audio portion of a shoot. Then they ended up with ambient noise, cutoff tracks, or low sound quality. They often expected miracles, too, from their sound editors, and Montserrat had to deliver those miracles for a measly amount of cash. She wasn't even on staff, for God's sake. Mario didn't believe in hiring people full-time because it was cheaper and easier to keep them coming in by the hour. That way, when he didn't need someone, as he had with Montserrat lately, he could cut them off without sweating it.
The problem was that Montserrat liked editing at Antares. A full-time job for a TV show would be steady money, but it also meant she'd have to work with a lot more people. Two audio editors in the same room, and then maybe the lead editor and the director giving notes while they worked. She knew someone who had made the switch to working as a sound recordist because it at least meant less insane schedules, but she despised sets, with all their technicians and actors. Small productions, low-budget flicks, these appealed to her because she often worked alone, no need for a gigantic team of ADR experts, foley artists, and music supervisors to suffocate her. People. She didn't wish to deal with people, although sometimes she feared she'd end up with a vitamin deficiency from spending all daylight hours inside, and she'd start talking back to the characters on screen, like an editor she knew did.
Montserrat wondered if she shouldn't poke her head around the set of Enigma. Cornelia could introduce her to her contacts, or there might even be an opening with Cornelia's TV show. She hated the idea of a desk job, but maybe there was freelancing she could do on the side to augment her paycheck. Research. Administrative work. Something other than audio editing, because audio was uncertain: canceled gigs, clients changing their minds, or the composer scoring a film being late, which meant hurry, hurry, hurry.
No one cared about the audio, anyway. People noticed only when you fucked it up, not when you got it right. It was a thankless job that had her sometimes catching three hours of sleep on one of the couches around Antares so she could keep working through the night.
Montserrat made it into the restaurant on time and took a booth, ordered a coffee and a slice of pie. Tristán arrived twenty-five minutes later. His coat was a lush plum color with big buttons and a wide belt.
His hair looked a little ruffled, and he was wearing his sunglasses, which he took off with practiced theatrical panache as he sat down at the table. "Well! They were out of Benson and Hedges at my usual newspaper stand, so I had to walk around."
"I thought you were a snob who only bought imported cigarettes."
"I'm trying to save money this month. Dunhills are out of the question for a few weeks," he said, taking out his lighter and a cigarette. "You've been waiting long?"
"Yes," she said. "You shouldn't smoke."
"Keeps me thin, and I have to have at least one vice."
"Maybe, but we're sitting in the non-smoking section," she said, pointing to the sign behind him.
Tristán looked around and sighed. "Now why'd you seat us here?"
"Because it's full in the smoking area and they said there's no way we're getting in there."
"Maybe I can ask for us to be moved," he said and raised his hand, trying to attract the attention of a waitress.
"Please don't," she said, poking at the slice of pie she had almost finished eating. She'd assumed he'd be late and had been wise enough to order quickly.
"Miss?" he said.
A waitress turned around. He threw her his careless, sixty-watt smile that was all teeth. The smile had a success rate of 70 percent. The waitress approached him, notepad in hand.
"Are you ready to order?"
"I'd like a Diet Coke. Could you move us to the smoking section?"
"If there was a table that opened up, could we move there? What's your name? Mari. That's nice. Mari, would you be able to keep an eye out for a table for us?" he asked. "As a special favor for me, please."
He spoke with that deep, velvet-smooth voice he always used when he wanted to get something. The voice had a success rate of 90 percent. The waitress smiled at him. Montserrat could tell by her expression that she was wondering if she didn't know Tristán from somewhere. She had that curious look people got around him. Maybe she'd remember him later.
"Well, all right," the waitress said, blushing.
"Thank you, Mari," he said.
Tristán Abascal, born Tristán Said Abaid, was Montserrat's age. Thirty-eight. They'd grown up in the same building, and they both loved movies. But their similarities ended there. Tristán was tall and handsome. Even the years of drug use and the car accident hadn't completely marred his looks. He wasn't the same crazy-beautiful boy he'd been, but he still cut a striking figure. And although it had been about ten years since he'd acted in a soap opera, some people still recognized him.
Montserrat, on the other hand, was small and plain. When they were kids, the others mocked her limp. After three surgeries, her foot had improved quite a bit, though it pained her when it got cold. Now that there were bits of silver in her hair, her plain face was only growing plainer.
"So, the good news is I found a place. It's in Polanco and it's the right size," he said spinning his sunglasses with one hand and smirking. The doctors had done a good job with his left eye; there was but a faint scar under it, and the eye was still smaller than the right one, a little lopsided, that pupil permanently dilated just a tad more than the other. It gave his face a faintly mismatched air where once before it had possessed an elegant, near-perfect symmetry. Nothing terrible, but he was self-conscious about it, even after many years. He wore the sunglasses all year long, everywhere he went. In the first few months after the accident, he even wore them indoors.
"How much is it?"
He gave her a figure, and when she raised her eyebrow at him the smirk grew into a big smile. "It's a bit pricey, I know. That's why I'm laying off the Dunhills. I'll need all the voice work I can get. Work has slowed to a trickle."
"You too? We should buy a lottery ticket."
"Cash flow problems?"
"Not dire, yet. But I'd like to help Araceli with her expenses."
"How's she doing?"
"Good. I mean, as good as she can get. We're hoping it'll go into remission, but despite all the treatments and the limpias, nothing's changed."
"I should stop by and say hi to her sometime."
"She'd love that."
The waitress came back with his Diet Coke and a glass filled with ice. Tristán smiled at her as she poured the soda. He ordered a Monte Cristo sandwich and fries. She knew he'd poke at his food and eat little.
"I need to be out by the thirtieth, and I have the movers booked and everything, but I'll have the keys sooner than that. I was thinking we could look at it before the move. How about Friday?"
"I'm probably going to be stuck doing a rush job all week."
"In that case could I borrow your car? I wanted to take a few small things on my own."
Montserrat had three loves. One was horror movies. The other was her car. The third was Tristán.
She'd always loved him, first when he'd been simply "El Norteñito," that slightly confused boy from Matamoros with the funny accent. She grew up in Tristán's kitchen and had even learned to cook meatballs the way his Lebanese mother did. Montserrat's parents were divorced, her mother was seldom home, and her sister Araceli was a terrible cook, so she much preferred eating with him.
Theirs was the bountiful affection of children who sat close to the TV set, mouth open, and watched monsters carrying maidens away. After his braces were removed, Tristán morphed into a cute teenager, the one all the girls had a crush on; she too had a crush on him. Around that time, Tristán started taking acting and singing lessons. He was no good with the singing, but he did get work modeling for fotonovelas and as an extra in several forgettable flicks before landing a steady gig at Televisa.
By 1977, when the twenty-two-year-old made his debut in a soap opera, he had the chiseled good looks of a star, and Montserrat's love became a roaring passion that was eventually dampened by his utter indifference. She loved him still, but it was not with the desperate romantic yearning of her younger years. She'd eventually admitted that Tristán was a bit of a shit at times and more than a little fucked up. He could be a horrible, selfish prick, and his numerous personal problems took their toll on their friendship.
Yet she loved him.
However, despite this deep affection, she would not give him her car. She immediately tensed and put her cup down.
"Is that all you wanted? To borrow my car?"
"Come on, no. It's been a while since I last saw you. I wanted to say hello."
"And conveniently borrow my car."
"It would only be a tiny trip."
"No. You're not going to lug around your mattress on top of my car to save yourself money with the movers."
He laughed. "I'm not tying the mattress to the roof of your car. Come on, Momo."
"No. That's it, no. Take a cab. Or have Yolanda drive you there."
Tristán's lips were pressed tight together, and he was staring at her. But she wasn't going to let him have the car. She'd wanted a car the Saint drove on the TV when they were kids, a Volvo P1800. Since she couldn't get one, she'd settled on a Volkswagen that ran like a dream. It was white, immaculate, and kept safe and sound in a reliable garage spot she rented a block from her home. It was not the car of a TV hero, but it was her precious four wheels, and she didn't need Tristán stinking it up with his cigarettes, imported or not.
The waitress came by and told them she could move them to the smoking section. Montserrat took her cup of coffee, and he grabbed his soft drink. When they sat down again Tristán again toyed with his box of cigarettes. Montserrat extended a hand and placed it over his. "I'd like it if you stopped smoking."
"I've told you, it keeps me thin."
"If not for your health, think about your teeth."
"That's why I have veneers."
"We switched sections so I could smoke."
"We switched because you're a stubborn fucker," she said, almost hissing at him.
"Mmm," he replied as he lit his cigarette and took a drag. "Yolanda and I broke up, so she's not driving me anywhere."
This startled her. Usually, Tristán called Montserrat at the end of his relationships. He used her as a confessional booth.
"Two weeks ago."
"You didn't say anything over the phone."
"I was trying to figure out if I could patch it over. I mean, seriously patch it over, not just flowers and a box of chocolates. Therapy, maybe. Couples counseling."
"That's a bit—"
"Mature of me?" he asked.
"Unusual," Montserrat said. "I thought you two were going to work on that movie."
"We're not on speaking terms. It's impossible to get funding, anyway. You have to beg for grants and kneel in front of Conaculta," he said.
"What did you do?"
"Why do you always assume I did something?"
"You didn't cheat on her, did you? She was nice."
"You didn't even like Yolanda," he muttered, irritated.
"Well, she was nice for you," Montserrat said. "She was a bit of a snob, but you enjoy that."
"Are you still seeing that vet with the bad hair?" Tristán asked. He sounded a little spiteful, but she didn't take the bait.
"That was a year and a half ago. And 'seeing' is a big word. If you go out with someone twice you are not seeing them," she said calmly. "Anyway, we're talking about you and Yolanda, not me."
"I didn't cheat on her," Tristán said, tapping his cigarette against the small, amber-colored ashtray. "If you must know, she wanted to get married and have a baby."
"Kiss of death, that," Montserrat muttered.
"Maybe I should get serious about someone, do the whole wedding and baby thing."
"Do you want to have a baby?"
"No! But I would like to be happy, and sometimes I think I'm too fucked up to make it work with anyone. I'm going to die alone, wrinkled and ugly, devoured by my cat."
"Don't be stupid. You don't even have a cat. Besides, you're lovely."
"My God, I like it when you lie to me like that," he said, grinning with unmitigated pleasure. He really was too vain.
"I guess now I understand why you said you needed a new apartment. And I thought it was because your old apartment had a roach problem."
"Roaches and silverfish. I'm hoping the good thing about this new place is I'll at least avoid an insect infestation."
"Silverfish love eating starches, you know?" Montserrat said. "They'll eat books and photos. They're ravenous little monsters."
- On Sale
- Jul 18, 2023
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Hachette Book Group