Home Killings

Home Killings

by Marcos McPeek Villatoro

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The award-winning Home Killings, Marcos M. Villatoro’s first Romilia Chacón novel, won dazzling acclaim for its fusion of character, suspense, and a gripping police procedural swirling around a fiery Latina detective. Now, in a new novel filled with the same remarkable precision and power, Romilia Chacón turns back to the reason she became a

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The award-winning Home Killings, Marcos M. Villatoro’s first Romilia Chacón novel, won dazzling acclaim for its fusion of character, suspense, and a gripping police procedural swirling around a fiery Latina detective. Now, in a new novel filled with the same remarkable precision and power, Romilia Chacón turns back to the reason she became a cop in the first place: to hunt for the sadist who took her sister’s life–and has kept on killing ever since.

He is known as the Whisperer for the cryptic messages he leaves at his horrific crime scenes. But Detective Romilia Chacón can hear him loud and clear. Still haunted by the death of her beloved sister, Romilia begins to dig into the case on her own time and soon finds help she doesn’t want. A seductive international drug lord is obsessed with her and seems to know more about the case than anyone inside law enforcement. But neither an outlaw’s unbridled power nor a cop’s persistence can untangle the web of illusion surrounding the man they seek. For this killer is living at the center of his own brilliant hell–and he’s already decided who will join him next.…

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"In Detective Romilia Chac??n, Marcos M. Villatoro offers a fresh, unique, exotic, and spicy entrée to the potluck that is modern crime fiction. Villatoro is an author to watch."
—C.J. Box, Anthony, Macavity, and Barry Award-winner

"Twisty and clever in the extreme...will surprise even the most experienced detective-story reader."
Hispanic Magazine

"An excellently written procedural....A winner!"
Library Journal

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Home Killings, a slick, elegantly crafted mystery from creative writing professor Marcos McPeek Villatoro (The Holy Spirit of My Uncle's Cojones), mixes practical-minded Latina feminism and Latin American myth with the international drug trade. When rookie detective Romilia Chacon connects her first investigation to a serial killer already in jail, Nashville's police department isn't happy. The wry, likable heroine's astute and dogged detection seems to make some public figures uncomfortable. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Rookie homicide detective Romilia Chacon, new to Nashville, receives her first murder case when called to the scene of an apparent suicide. Romilia quickly discerns that the young Latino reporter was murdered possibly because of an upcoming article connecting a media-touted Latino philanthropist, lately arrived from Atlanta, with drugs and kids. The rookie cop proves her worth, balancing a mother and young son with a demanding, detailed job and the vicissitudes of diversity in the South. An excellently written procedural, with attention to careful observation, character development, and cultural attitude. This is a winner from the author of The Holy Spirit of My Uncle's Cojones. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Assigned to her first case, the death of reporter Diego Saenz, rookie homicide cop Romilia Chacón, hired by the Nashville Police Department more for her bilingual skills than her investigative experience, decides it was not suicide but murder, possibly the work of the serial killer who had recently dispatched a physician and a nurse. The problem is, the partner assigned to her, department hero Det. Jerry Wilson, has already collared Benny Bitan, now languishing in jail, as the murderer. Trying to find a link between the victims by pecking away at Saenz's computer files, Wilson and Romilia discover one labeled "Kaibil," a word all too familiar to Romilia's Latina mom, who explains that it means "Guatemalan Death Squad." Did Wilson nab the wrong perp? Will he admit it? And why is he making so many trips to the bathroom? More bodies pile up while Romilia, nudged by Wilson, reassesses past political atrocities, considers the possibility of Central American assassins flooding the Tennessee countryside, then goes on her own to focus on drug-runners, including the lethally charming Rafael Murillo, a.k.a. Tekun Uman. A stakeout turns gory, but ultimately leads to a commendation for Romilia-as well as a disturbing farewell love letter. Grisly, well crafted, and unique in its choice of red herrings. Villatoro, who expertly mined Guatemalan atrocities for material in his powerful nonfictional study Walking to la Milpa (1996), adroitly combines the best and worst of Latino culture in his first mystery. And Romilia, her mother, and her son would be welcome again.

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Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
4.50(w) x 7.00(h) x 0.50(d)

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My first thought that night: I hate gunshot wounds to the head.

I leaned forward, placing my right foot ahead of the other and bending my right knee so as to hover over the dead man's face. This was uncomfortable. Still, I didn't use my gloved hands to balance myself against the red Honda sedan that stood two feet from the body. An old rule from academy days marched through the rear of my memory: "Always keep your hands behind your back when first approaching the crime scene."

I didn't need to hear that. I knew it well enough. Still, the rule played along, reminding me that this was my first case in this new city that I barely called home. Better to hear recordings out of the rule book. Rules helped me distance myself from the killing, but not for very long. This exit wound, right through the top of the skull, an inside-out, crumbly, bloody cradle cap topped with disintegrated brain tissue, shortened the distance between the victim and me real quick. But the killing didn't let the pistol in the man's hand escape my sight, the first thing that was wrong with this picture.

"Carajo," I muttered, "what a mess."

"What's that you say?" the voice came from one side. It was a southern voice, one of the common twangs I heard throughout Nashville. I looked up at an older man. He crouched next to me. He was the medical examiner. His name escaped me. I hadn't worked any big case since arriving here from Atlanta four weeks earlier, and up to now had had no need to meet the examiner. The dead man's doughnut head promised to bring that old guy and me together for a while.

"Oh. Nothing. Just a Spanish word," I chuckled, tossing my hair over my shoulder as if catching it on a hook. I sounded embarrassed. It wouldn't do to translate carajo to a stranger. Bad manners, my mama would remind me with her scolding voice.

He didn't respond. For the moment he seemed too preoccupied for introductions. He had sliced a small opening into the victim's abdomen and was now shoving a digital thermometer into the slit. Then he crouched there, holding the thermometer still. "Gonna be hard to get an accurate reading," he muttered. "Too much blood gone from that head wound. The bullet must have sliced through the edge of the carotid. The blood pulls away the heat more quickly." He wrote a note in his pad regarding the incision.

Bulbs burst about us from the two uniform cops who took pictures of the area. They lit up the early-morning darkness with their silent flashes. While the doctor pushed the thermometer deeper into the man's gut, I walked away to look at the car. It was a small Honda, sporty red. The driver's door was open. The body itself lay in front of the car to the right side. The car straddled two parking places, covering one of the lines with its midsection. It appeared that the victim—if he had been the person driving—had pulled in quickly, paying little attention to the lines of an empty parking lot.

The short, buzzing sounds of an unhooked telephone chirped in the grass. I was surprised no one had noticed that. Perhaps the scene-of-crime technicians had decided to leave the cellular phone there, waiting for Prints to come by and dust it. I shined my handlight into the grass. The thin, new cellular was the type that fits easily in a breast pocket.

Behind me, the M.E. pulled the tiny, thin rod away from the man's abdomen. He had to stand to hold the thermometer up to a streetlight and read it. He turned away from me momentarily. The man was much taller than I, and skinny.

I wasn't sure if he wanted to know me or not. He seemed busy, too busy to take time with me. Yet I walked as if I had no place here. I was one of two or three women in the area. Perhaps that was what made me hesitate to take my position—which was the main position—at the crime scene.

Then there was the kill itself. I couldn't keep my eyes on the wound too long. I had to stand again and take a couple of steps back. Beyond the Honda, in the background of my vision, a large riverboat floated in the Cumberland, its ornate bridge protruding above the flood wall. On the other side of the river stood the black outline of old buildings, a small, antique skyline that had been overshadowed by the new skyscrapers standing on this side of the water.

Two police officers wrapped the area with yellow tape. I kept my hands in the small of my back and walked toward them. They muttered to each other about how strange it was to find a suicide in this part of town. "Right downtown, on River Park, in the middle of the night. Can you figure that?"

I introduced myself as the primary detective. Actually, I was the only detective, but I wasn't about to tell the uniforms this. One of the cops turned and looked down at me. I could feel his eyes float quickly down my body, which made no sense, considering I wore a long black trench coat that covered me from my neck to my ankles. These cold November days demanded such protection. The cop seemed familiar. Then I realized it was his eyes. They had floated over me before, in the hallways of the Main Police Squad downtown. One day the previous week I had walked by. He had looked me up and down, then had whispered to his partner, "Check out the lady in red."

My mother would not have liked that statement. Yet she would not have scolded the officer for his soft, lewd comment, but would have berated me instead for wearing my favorite color. "Demasiado sexy, hija," she would have said. "You are giving messages that do not befit a lady."

As always, she was right. And yet I never had the desire to send ladylike messages. I was a homicide detective, not a damned debutante who waited on her fifteenth birthday at the church doors for the perfect man to come by and sweep her away. I'm Latina, but damned if I'll be that Latina.

"I'm Detective Romilia Chacon, officer. And you're . . ." I looked down at his nameplate and almost chuckled, "Officer Beaver. First name?"


"Mind if I call you that?"

He didn't answer.

"One of the other blues tells me you've got the notes on this. What can you give me?"

The beaver walked away from me and the tree branch where he had been tying the yellow tape. He approached the car.

"Pretty cut and dry. Suicide."

"Why do you say that?"

"Because of the gun in the man's hand, Detective." Beaver looked at me with that Some-things-are-just-too-obvious-look. I wanted to give him my Go-screw-yourself-up-the-ass-with-your-own-nightstick look, but decided to turn my attention to the body. He continued, "It's a forty-five caliber. Once we lift it, we'll check the numbers to see if he owned it. I got his wallet from him, got his name and address. That's why they called you, Detective." His voice was deadpan.

"What's his name?" I asked, knowing that it was a Spanish name, and ready to see how this gringo cop was going to butcher its pronunciation.

He had to flip through his notebook to read it phonetically. "Diego . . . uh . . . Diego Sinus, something like that."

"Saenz," I corrected, looking over his shoulder at the spelling. "Diego Saenz." My clipped Salvadoran accent made his very voice sound stupid.

"Yeah. Whatever. Not like we need to practice our Spanish here in Nashville." He closed his notebook. "Anyway, Prints will dust the weapon and lift it in a minute."

"His name sounds familiar. What about legal time of death?"

"It's 3:11 a.m. I arrived here at that time and called it in. I had driven through here an hour earlier, but hadn't seen the car, so he killed himself sometime after I moved on. I came back around, and here he was."

"You got an estimated time?"

"You'll have to ask Doc about that."

"Right. By the way, what's Doc's name?"

"Jacob Callahan."

Before dismissing him, I asked Beaver for any other information on the victim. He gave me the rundown: Name: Diego Saenz. Age: twenty-four. Weight: one hundred sixty-five pounds. Race: Hispanic. Height: five feet, nine inches. Eyes: brown. All of this was from his driver's license, of course. It told me very little.

"I also found two credit cards on him. VISA Gold and MasterCard Platinum. Oh yeah, also a press card."

So Saenz was a reporter. "May I see the card?" I asked Beaver.

He handed it to me. It seemed legit: Saenz worked for The Cumberland Journal, the second-largest paper in Nashville and the surrounding areas. This wasn't going to be a commonplace killing among a few drunk migrant workers. I bet my boss McCabe didn't expect my first case to be a victim who carried around ten grand in plastic money.

I gave the press card back to Beaver. He took a step away, blatantly ignoring any chance of my dismissal, not even remaining by my side for a "Thank you, Officer Beaver." Maybe he would appreciate "Up yours, Officer Beaver" more.

He angered me. But he also emptied a hole in me. I had a sudden urge to call home, wake my mother, and ask her how my son, Sergio, was. She would tell me, of course, that he was asleep, he was fine. Yet she would understand the lack of logic in my phone call, and would assure me that my hijo, my querido, was safe. It would be enough to fill the edges of this hole.

Beaver walked back to his tree branch. He said nothing, though I could hear the other uniform walk up to Beaver and whisper something through a barely controlled, manly giggle. Something about ladies wearing red, perhaps? I had spiked platform shoes back home that could slice their quick erections right down the middle.

I walked back to the body. Dr. Jacob Callahan leaned over Saenz. He moved his gloved hand over the head, then pulled back, as though he had merely waved the dark air between him and the victim's wound to clear out an opening where he could see. He wrote notes onto his pad.

I offered a rubber-gloved hand and a fairly large smile to the squatting man. "Excuse my bad manners. Here we are working together, and I haven't introduced myself yet."

Callahan stood up. With his full height it looked, from my point of view, like the lone streetlight was just beside his left ear. He gave me his gloved hand. "Jacob Callahan," he said. "Most call me Doc, even though it's not a very creative nickname. And you should excuse me," he said, chuckling. "I got right to work without saying hello. Just wanted to get the temperature. Not good to wait around for that."

Though it was dark out, I could see parts of his figure. His graying hair was once honey brown. He kept it short.

Wrinkles tried to cut into what was once a perfectly smooth, tanned face. Callahan looked very good for his age, even handsome. His jaw was a strong one, and though the years had caused a slight sag in the muscle and skin, the jawline still looked like well-sculptured marble. Doc smiled. It seemed sincere enough. "You're new in the unit, aren't you, Detective?"

"Just a few weeks old. A babe to the Nashville scene."

He liked that, grinning a little more. "Welcome," he said, motioning his hand like an emcee, back toward Diego Saenz.
We approached the small car together. "Did you get an ETD?" I asked.

"Yes," Doc said, his Nashville accent turning to a get-down-to-business quickness that I appreciated, sensing that the elder southerner was ready and willing to work with me. "The loss of blood concerned me. But there was still enough heat in his abdomen to get a reading. Then I compared notes with Officer Beaver. Saenz's body had dropped two degrees. With this cold night and the blood loss, I'd say the estimated time of death to be 2:15, 2:30, more or less."

"That's pretty accurate."

"I'll shoot for the best I can."

"By the way, what day is today?"

Doc held his watch up to the light. "Let's see . . . November second."

"Ah. El dia de los muertos," I said, mumbling it.

"What's that, Detective?"

"The Day of the Dead. Yesterday was All Saints' Day. Today's All Souls' Day, or The Day of the Dead."

"Oh. I see. So you're a religious person."

I laughed. "Oh, yeah. I never miss a Christmas or Easter mass."

The air felt colder. I wrapped my coat tighter around me and leaned over again, staring into the man's still-intact face. Another uniform cop approached Doc Callahan and gave the examiner a flashlight. "Thanks, son," Doc said, then flicked the light on and shined it down over my right shoulder. A spark reflected off the victim's left ear. Saenz sported a diamond earring. Then the light fell upon the full of the wound. It was too much for me to say anything in either of my languages. I tipped, and almost placed my left fingers on one of the blood spots next to Saenz. After several seconds of composure—still not enough, as I could feel my voice quiver—I asked, "What do you make of this?"

"Well, lots of suicides stick the barrel in their mouth. That's usually pretty efficient. They either shoot upwards, at an angle, and blow out their brains like this young fellow appears to have done. Or they shoot straight back, missing much of the brain but destroying their esophagus and the whole upper region of their respiratory track, drowning or bleeding to death. This fellow's way of doing it worked pretty well. He apparently put the gun underneath his chin, tucking it right up against his Adam's apple, aiming upward. I'd say the bullet destroyed his sinuses, then cut through the brain, probably slicing up the medulla oblongata before ripping through the cerebral hemisphere and exiting here, between the frontal and parietal bones, right through the coronal suture."

"So he literally blew his brains out."


One doubt dangled over me. "You think it's a suicide, then?"

He grinned slightly. "Notice I've said the word 'apparent' about a dozen times. Though I'm willing to bet it was."

"Strange area of town to do yourself in."

"Maybe he liked fishing," said Doc, motioning to the river, "and they weren't biting."

"Then what about the gun in his hand?"

Doc knew exactly what I was referring to. "It's a sure bet that his was an instantaneous death. His hand muscles were in work at the moment of death. He could have had a cadaveric spasm, which is like a pinch of early, quick rigor mortis. When that happens, the victim's hands clutch whatever they were holding, permanently."

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Meet the Author

Marcos M. Villatoro is the author of several novels, 2 collections of poetry, and a memoir set in Guatemala. He holds the Fletcher Jones Endowed Chair in Writing at Mount St. Mary's College, Los Angeles. He is a regular contributor to NPR and also hosts the L.A. program on Pacifica Radio called "Shelf Life," where he interviews other poets and novelists from around the world. He lives in Los Angeles, where he is at work on the third novel featuring Romilia Chacon.

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