by Marcos 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


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.…

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A fast-paced and intelligent read.”
–Memphis Commercial Appeal

“Scintillating, densely plotted.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A brooding and intelligent mystery…A pleasure from start to finish.”
–T. Jefferson Parker, Edgar Award winner

“Romilia Chacón is a fresh, unique, exotic, and spicy entrée to the potluck that is modern crime fiction.”
–C. J. Box, award-winning author

The Barnes & Noble Review
For Romilia Chacón, life has long been lived in shades of gray -- not because she embraces moral ambiguity but because she's haunted by death. Her family escaped the death squads of El Salvador. As a young woman, she lost her sister to a brutal killer. Now she's a cop -- a detective with the Nashville Homicide Unit -- and as shrewd as she is lovely. When the story opens, Romilia is recovering from a slashed jugular, received when she saved the life of Tekún Umán, a notorious drug dealer. Now Umán, has gone underground, and Romila is determined to track him down. Intertwined with her search -- first on the Internet and, later, by good old-fashioned legwork -- she finds disturbing hints that the Whisperer, the man who murdered her older sister, is still killing. But Romilia, like the agents at the FBI assigned to track the Whisperer, is stumped by one thing: While physical evidence found at the scenes connects the Whisperer cases, the victims and M.O. seem to have no common tie -- until Romilia notices a startling similarity between an illustration from Dante's Divine Comedy and police photographs from the crime scene. Marcos M. Villatoro's third novel offers readers a chilling view of the darker side of the human psyche -- and a neatly plotted mystery. Sue Stone
Publishers Weekly
At the start of Villatoro's scintillating, densely plotted sequel to 2001's Home Killing, bilingual Nashville cop Romilia Chacon has been searching for six years for "the Whisperer," the serial killer who murdered her older sister, Catalina. Romilia's hunt for the elusive Whisperer, now calling himself Minos (after the mythical monster in Dante's Inferno), is interrupted when she finds herself in the hospital with a horrible gash on her neck, a near-fatal wound from another killer she was pursuing. Her struggle to come to terms with the large, unsightly scar she will always bear quietly wins her the reader's sympathy. During her convalescence, she discovers the Internet and an entirely new way to investigate the Whisperer. An unexpected source, however, provides the most help: drug lord Rafael Murillo, a creepy yet alluring figure also known by the Mayan name Tekun Um n. Romilia inadvertently saved his life when she was wounded, and in return Tekun steals FBI files on the Whisperer and sends them to her. There's something appealing, in spite of his nature, in Tekun's devotion to Romilia. In addition, the contrast of a palpably present, ambiguous antagonist, Tekun, and the evil Whisperer creates a compelling, dramatic balance. The ending resolves beautifully, but that is really secondary considering how well the story works as a whole. (Sept. 15) Forecast: Blurbs from C.J. Box and T. Jefferson Parker and an author tour will boost the book's profile. As the host of "Shelf Life," a weekly interview program on Pacifica radio, Villator, a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop, is well positioned to cover his local market of Los Angeles. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
While cracking a serial murder case, Nashville homicide detective Romilia Chacon (Home Killings) serendipitously saves the life of a Guatamalan American drug dealer-and nearly dies from a slit throat. The grateful dealer sends her information concerning another serial murderer-the one who killed Romilia's sister some seven years ago. But Romilia must investigate the elusive dealer as well, a job she especially relishes after her three-year-old son nearly dies of an accidental drug overdose. Romilia's personal anxiety, the coldly planned serial torture/murders, and the drug dealer's ruthless machinations fuel a high-intensity plot that will leave readers begging for more. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A serial killer and a drug kingpin have Nashville cop Romilia Chacon in their sights. Barely recovered from her heroic tussle with the Jade Pyramid killer and incensed by her four-year-old's accidental ingestion of crystal meth, Salvadoran-born Romilia Chac-n looks once more to Guatemalan Tekún Umán, the seductive drug importer whose life she saved (Home Killings, 2001) just before he fled FBI jurisdiction. While tracking him, she reopens the case that has obsessed her for six years: the brutal murders of her sister Catalina and her married lover Jonathan, both impaled by a javelin during a romantic tryst. Although this trail has run cold, Tekún, wishing to thank her for sparing his life, taps into classified FBI files and connects her sister's murder to two others. The wacko killer is now leaving surgically dissected bodies and clues all over the country along with his nom de murder, Minos, cribbed from a character in The Inferno. Temporarily assigned to the FBI, Romilia and her new bosses corner Minos among the California redwoods. Or do they? Enter Tekún to the rescue, squaring himself with Romilia. Much imagination in the trimmings-who would have thought of using Garc'a Márquez as a love potion or Dore's woodcuts of Dante's second circle for motivation?-but less in the carpentry, since the Minos and Tekún Umán plotlines dovetail only perfunctorily. Author tour. Agent: DeAnna Heindel/Georges Borchardt

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
4.10(w) x 6.80(h) x 1.40(d)

Read an Excerpt

Alas—that sweet conceptions and passion so deep
Should bring them here
The Inferno, Canto V

AUGUST, 1994

Planning makes this easier. He's learned that the hard way. Do something, do it right. Makes sense. He so enjoys when the logic kicks in, when he has to make no more decisions regarding right or wrong. Take this woman before him, Catalina, who's been coming into the coffee shop for over a month now. He liked her immediately. On her first visit she asked his name. "Bobby," he said. She never forgot it. Sometimes he thought she was flirting with him, such as the time she ordered a mocha cappuccino with extra whipped cream, "Come on Bobby, pour in a little more cream, this waistline can take it!" She lifted her T-shirt, pinched skin the size and color of a roll of pennies, right there, right in the coffee shop. She has that way. Everyone follows her whim, gets seduced by her good humor, that smile. So does Bobby. He even thought about asking her out, but then shied away. Too complicated. Still, the idea piqued him, and he almost asked her out on a date. The thought became a pressure, right behind his ears, a headache without the pain. He's relieved when she comes in one afternoon, orders her coffee, then leans over the bar and tells him about her new boyfriend, a guy named Jonathan. "You know him, Bobby. Comes in here three, four times a week. Once came in with his wife?" She winces at that thinly disguised confession, sticks her tongue's tip between her teeth.

The logic clicks in, perfect cogs. When it does, the pressure eases off the back of his skull. It's all clear. He's clear. "That's not right," he says. At first she says nothing, obviously startled. He gets clearer, more specific, like talking to a child. "Catalina, you should know better. He's got a wife. It's adultery, pure and simple." The clarity slips from his mouth. He stands firm, on the edge of a ring, a pool of conviction. He doesn't budge, even when she says, "Maybe you should mind your own business," and walks out.

He wasn't born yesterday. The world has changed, it's stretched the rules. Give every girl a chance to mend her ways. Always room for reconciliation, here in the dark woods. But she mends nothing. She returns to the shop, lover in hand. She orders two coffees from the other barista, a cappuccino for her, not mentioning the extra cream, and a regular Colombian for Jonathan. Then she turns to Bobby. "Hey. Que tal?" she says, saying words she taught him earlier, when she came in almost every day, when, he thought, her flirting was just for him. Yet now he knows that's just the way she is with everybody.

"Bien," Bobby says, "I'm bien." That's the end of their little joke. She looks at the counter, then takes the coffee to the small round table, where Jonathan waits.

Bobby turns, looks around. Now the shimmer of nine circles takes the coffee shop, ripples over the folks walking down Peach Tree Boulevard, weaves around the corner of Ponce de Leon Avenue, covers the entire city. Somewhere between the second and fifth circles sits that guy, the one who ordered the Colombian.

The nine circles, one inside another, appear only when they have to. Only when there's a need. If Catalina had not returned, this planning would not be necessary. Bobby would have let it pass. But this is too much: the two of them sitting there, sipping their coffees and talking as if what they do is normal, and she, approaching Bobby with her Que tal? as a way of hoping for his recognition, his affirmation. It's just wrong. People marry, Catalina. That is order. Your walking in here with your lover, ordering coffee like you always do, then sitting in your favorite spot and forcing upon everyone the normalcy of your affair, that just won't do.

"Bobby. Hey Bobby. Wake up. I need a decaf latte, man." The manager pops him in the small of his back.

"Yes. Coming right up."

Jonathan smiles across the table at her. He has polished teeth. His ash blonde hair is cut short and perfectly groomed. A real looker, though all in the face. His body is thin, like a tennis player's. No real definition, just sleek. There are the books Jonathan teaches, stacked on the edge of the table. From this distance, standing behind the coffee bar, Bobby can make out one title: Henry Fielding's Tom Jones. Bobby read it two years ago. He knows the erotic plot, Tom's sexual exploits. So appropriate, that they would discuss that book, only to set it aside and pick up their coffees and read no more.

He takes off his apron, tosses it in a plastic barrel.

"Going home, Bobby?" Catalina asks. She dares to ask.

"Yes. My shift's over."

Jonathan looks up to see who she's talking with.

"So, see you tomorrow?" Catalina says, hoping for that recognition, a seal of approval.

"No. I've got stuff to do."

The last time was a mess because he had not thought everything out. Back then he was exhausted by the time the sun rose. Still, he had done it, and although it may have lacked art, it was full of meaning. He's saved the newspaper clippings. He ironed them into a spiral photo album, pressing them onto the thick black construction paper, as if to take out the wrinkles of the action itself, a final clean-up, guiding the iron over the clippings, creasing them, folding them away. Pure justice, those killings. The moment he had done it, when that woman, Eileen, lost her final yelp in a wheeze that blew from her opened lung and over the broken cola bottle, Bobby had spilled in his pants. That had been a surprise. He couldn't simply ignore the ecstasy in the act. It was more than just sexual; more like God. No, that was not enough to explain it: he had wanted her to believe he was God.

Now that he knows what happens, planning makes all the difference. After an hour and a half workout in the weight room at the YMCA on Ponce de Leon, he showers and dresses and says goodnight to Madeline at the front desk. He's tired, though tomorrow would be worse, as Tuesdays are his heavy aerobics day: running, swimming, and Stairmaster, half an hour each.

Today he makes the Home Depot run.

"Precut metal poles. Tell me what kind you need, son," says the worker in aisle seven, an older gentleman named Willie who was bored of retirement so now works part time at the Home Depot and obviously just loves it. He rubs his round chin, his thick fingers just a bit more ebony than his face. "What you need it for, piping? PVC pipe's better for that. Much lighter, they're like plastic."

"Oh no, I'm working in the back yard. I need to dig some tiny holes to put some trellises up. For my roses."

"Oh. You got some of those vine roses, the ones that take over the place, I bet."

"You got it."

"Yeah, they're like kudzu, only prettier. Trellises . . ." More chin-rubbing. "What you need is some stake poles. Just drive them in the ground, pull them up, you got your hole. One will do you. Maybe two, in case the first one breaks."

Willie means to take him to the Outdoor Garden section. On the way they pass through Garden Tools. There Bobby sees tall, black spears, piled vertically in a small stand.

"What about those, Willie?"

"What, leverage bars? You don't want them. They're for heavy jobs, like breaking up concrete."

But Bobby walks to them. Willie follows. Bobby stares at the black bars, as tall as he: six feet, or as it says on the rack's sign, "Seventy-two inches of pure iron." The shank itself is a good one-inch thick, a hexagon, the six sides easy to grasp, the iron not completely smooth, its rough edge making for a tight grip. At one end of the bar there is a flat chisel, used to break up cement, which does not interest Bobby. It's the other end, what the sign calls a "Pencil Point," that catches his eye. The sign shows all the varieties of leverage bars that Home Depot offers. One in particular is called a "Diamond Point." It looks even sharper than the pencil point.
"Do you have any of those?" he asks Willie.

"Diamond Points? Let's see here. No, don't think we do. Just the pencil points. But they're just as strong."

The sign says each pole weighs seventeen pounds, so he doesn't bother with both hands. He lifts one from the rack, pulls it out easily. "Damn, son. I figured you for a weight lifter. You handle that bar like a real pencil."

Bobby chuckles. He examines the pole. It's what he needs, though he wishes it were that sharper Diamond Point. But he'll make do. It's on sale for $18.95. "I'll take one of these."

"All right. Anything else today?"

It's a slow moment at Home Depot, which is rare. Willie likes this young man, the way he speaks, with a "yessir" from time to time, something Willie hasn't heard from a white boy in a long while. He looks white. Though that dark black hair on the boy makes Willie think Greek, or Italian. Bobby has a list with him. He calls off the items, "Let's see . . . duct tape, forty feet of nylon rope, and a small, one-hand crowbar."

He then flips the leverage bar around, touches the Pencil Point with his index fingertip. It's just not sharp enough. "One more thing, Willie. I should pick up a metal file."

"Hardware and tools will have all that."

Willie shows him the large spools of rope on aisle eleven. Bobby chooses a 5/16 inch in diameter of solid braid white nylon. It's soft, but does not give nor stretch. It can hold one hundred ninety-two pounds, an overkill of course. And it's a bit more expensive, at twenty cents per foot. But it's the softest of them all.

In tools he picks a four-in-one hand file, with both double cut and rasp cut. "That it?" says Willie. "Go on over to Ellen, she'll ring you up. Good luck with the roses."

Willie walks away. Bobby pays Ellen, then turns and sees Willie approach another customer. Bobby smiles, a satisfaction, seeing clearly how much order is in Willie's life. Willie has no need for the logic of circles.

Six days later, once they break down the door of Bobby's home, the police and the detectives will find, in the cool, humid basement, under a lone lightbulb, three king-sized mattresses stacked one atop the other. The bulb shows easily all those puncture marks in the top mattress. A woman from the Scientific Investigation Division probes the holes. In the shallower ones she finds three thin, iron filings, along with a pinch of iron dust. The filings, of course, will match the iron of the murder weapon. The puncture holes in the middle of the mattress are uneven, of various, superficial depths. The rest are much deeper. The detectives will create theories: the deeper holes were made later. Whoever did this was practicing.

He will be gone from this southern city. He collected his last check at the coffee shop two days before breaking into Catalina's apartment. Not that he needs it.

By the time they find the dead lovers locked together in a forced embrace, he has checked into a Best Western in Marietta, just northwest of Atlanta. When they match the iron filings and dust to the pole, he will be somewhere in the southernmost  hills of Appalachia, those rolling mountains that bleed into Alabama. He has rivers to cross, gates to open, towers to see.

Somewhere between the Georgia border and Birmingham, the proprietress of the small bed and breakfast is kind enough to fry the Spam that Bobby has brought in with him. Her name is Janie. She smiles when she serves it to him, cut up into small chunks, fried with onions and garlic before tossing in the beaten eggs. "My daddy ate a lot of Spam," she says, "when he was in the Navy. Can't stand it now. But my mother never fixed it like this. She just cut it into thick slabs and fried it. Is this the way you meant?"

"It's just right."

"I'm sorry I didn't have any pineapple chunks."

"No problem."

A television is on, the volume turned low. Janie turns it up when the morning news moves to an update on the killings in Atlanta. CNN is hungry for it, as it is in the city of their network headquarters. Still, they use the same tired, lethargic syntax to explain the event: disturbing, tortuous, horrendous act of double-murder. References to bondage, S/M gone awry, unspeakable acts of torture.

So prosaic, he thinks. He chews the Spam.

"That's just so god-awful," says Janie. She shakes her head, turns away from the television and to him. She smiles. "Boy, you finished that off quickly. You must like the way I fixed it. Let me cook up some more." She's flirting. He knows this. She has no wedding ring, though she's a bit older than he.

He hands her the plate. "Just like my aunt used to make."

She turns up the volume with the remote, then walks back to the kitchen with his plate. He sips coffee and watches. The camera focuses on a taped clip of two women, one of them older, an obvious mother who weeps as she walks from the precinct door and through the gaggle of newspeople. She speaks, but Bobby cannot understand her. No one can, for that older woman utters her cries in Spanish. The other is much younger. She is familiar, too familiar. Bobby pauses between sips, stares at the girl-woman. She does not cry. Her head is down slightly, but he can see her eyes. Yes, of course, she looks much like her sister. The cheekbones are the same, as are the lips, the thin jaw. Yet the ebullient nature, she just doesn't have it. Is it due to the theme of the newscast? He thinks not. They give her name, Romilia Chac—n, younger sister of the murdered Catalina Chac—n, and a senior at Emory. Romilia is darker than her sister. Not in skin color; of that they are the same: light coffee-colored, a soft brown cream. Like fairly new pennies. But she is darker in her eyes. Her look casts shadows like a black net. Still, she's young. Darkness over youth; it does not age her, but rather moves her into a world that is familiar to him. Is little Romilia being shaped, right now, as she leaves the police department? He thinks so. Will she speak with phantoms too someday, will long soliloquies embroider the quieter moments of her days? Of course. For now, she walks through a forest of chaos, as Bobby once did. But she has that look, casting a shadow over her gaze. So he will need to keep an eye on her.

Meet the Author

Marcos M. Villatoro is the author of several books of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. The Los Angeles Times Book Review named his nationally acclaimed Home Killings as one of the Best Books of 2001. It won the Silver Medal from Foreword Magazine and First Prize in the Latino Literary Hall of Fame. His other books include the Pushcart Prize nominee The Holy Spirit of My Uncle's Cojones (also an Independent Publishers Book Award finalist), They Say That I Am Two: Poems, the novel A Fire in the Earth, and the memoir Walking to La Milpa: Living in Guatemala with Armies, Demons, Abrazos, and Death.

After years of living in Central America, Marcos attended the Iowa Writers' Workshop. In 1998, he and his family moved to Los Angeles, where Marcos holds the Fletcher Jones Endowed Chair in Writing at Mount St. Mary's College. A regular commentator for National Public Radio's "Day to Day," Marcos also hosts a book show called "Shelf Life" for Pacifica Radio.

He lives with his wife and four children in Los Angeles, and is now hard at work on the third Romilia Chacón novel, A Venom Beneath the Skin. Visit Marcos on the web at www.marcosvillatoro.com.

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