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  • A Venom Beneath the Skin
  • Written by Marcos Villatoro
  • Format: Paperback | ISBN: 9780440242222
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A Venom Beneath the Skin

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Latina detective Romilia Chacón is a marvelous heroine, one who clings to her heritage, her son, and a determination to do her new job in Los Angeles better than anyone else. She has to–because inside the FBI, Romilia is the only link to a legendary criminal who may have just taken down one of their own....

FBI agent Chip Pierce was found poisoned, a single word–cabrón–carved into his stomach. The only suspect is the infamous Tekún Umán, a seductive and brilliant Guatemalan drug dealer who once got under Romilia’s skin–and never quite left. Now, skirting official regulations to begin a personal hunt for Tekún, Romilia will stumble into a world where terror, fanaticism, and murder collide. What awaits her is a shocking new evil–and the ultimate threat to everything she holds dear.


Special Agent Romilia Chacon drives her old Taurus out of the neighborhood of canals of Venice, California, and toward the freeway. Venice Boulevard has little traffic just past midnight. It's a straight shot of green lights all the way to the 405. She does not speed. There is no need for that.

I can see her easily, even without the streetlights, from the roof of this old apartment building. The Steiner Nighthunters with their twelve by fifty-six range can peer into near total darkness. The binoculars, manufactured by a private company for the U.S. Army and used by the high military command in the Iraq war, and bought at Internet prices (eight hundred forty dollars, a steal), make Romilia's face large and sharp. She does not cry. This does not surprise me; she's not in love.

She has a lover. The man who lives on the banks of these canals, in one of the smaller homes but one that he can barely afford. Special Agent Samuel "Chip" Pierce. Living off a Fed's salary, bringing in a little extra income due to his wounds, Chip can manage the payments, along with the help of an inheritance; and he means to enjoy it. The loss of body parts has that effect on some men: Either you drink yourself away or you slam down the pain pills or the heroin or all three; or maybe you get existential, you decide hey, they took my leg, my eye, they took a chunk of my hand, fuck it; I'm living. I'm going to live, and if I can, I'll live in one of the nicer areas in Los Angeles. Sure, it's not the real Venice, no gondolas plying the waterways; it's just L.A. with canals running by the houses, but it's expensive and that's what Chip wanted and I can't disagree.

I understand Pierce's perspective. I know how much it costs to ease pain. But I have become an existentialist, too; I've learned that pain means life and that death is the absence of pain and sometimes I'm not sure which one to choose so I've chosen this.

I lean against the concrete banister of the roof, adjust the Nighthunters so as to look up the street, through the space between two jacaranda trees and into the window of the small canal home. Chip Pierce places a drink on a glass table. Now he looks out the window, no doubt at the road that Romilia Chacon has just taken home. I can't adjust the binoculars anymore, can't see the look that may be regret pass over Chip Pierce's face. But the stance is there, a cock of the head downward, a decision not to drink from the glass for that moment. A pause. Who is more solid: Chip Pierce, or me?

Or Romilia Chacon? She's done well for herself here in Los Angeles these past years. No doubt she is the most solid of all, even with that knife-scar over the left side of her neck, even with that sister long in the grave. I know her, I've had to get to know her.

But she's not my target. Nor is Chip Pierce. Though later, police and witnesses will be hard put to believe that. I'm painting a picture that they won't forget.

I watch, carefully, as Chip cracks ice for another drink. My ice, the tray I made for him.

He sits in a large chair and drinks scotch, then starts to shake his head. Another sip, as if to toss off the sudden whirl. He stands to walk it off, means to set the scotch on the table but doesn't quite place it correctly; the glass tumbler totters on the table's lip. It falls, but does not break. And poor, half-drugged Chip is on his way to sleep.

I leave the roof and make my way across Venice Boulevard. After popping the lock on the front door and entering the six-digit code that will disarm his alarm system, I will find Special Agent Pierce on his back, just below the window, the empty tumbler next to his head.

Get to work. Wrap Pierce's limp fingers around objects. Open drawers and leave the objects behind. Prick and shoot. Pierce has only a slipper on his right foot. This makes it easy.

Now, wait for his body to go through the motions, the rush. The first venom streams through him, like it streams through the blood of so many others across this country.

A great country.

Enough. Pierce's body has relaxed. Now, dip and stab. Snap the dart, leave a splinter of wood behind. Help Chip Pierce die.

Then I draw the blade across Pierce's stomach. At first it's simple, like cutting on a mannequin. But then it gets harder, even though he's dead.

Still, there is rage, though it is not sure which way to go. Rage against the poison that you've just shot into him. Rage against those who buy and sell it. Chip has been like me, hurt in the line of duty. Too many parallels. That's why there is regret. Still, I do the only thing I can think of doing: I take off Chip Pierce's left leg. I fight with the silicon sheath, peeling it down over the stub. Finally it comes off. Over and again, I drop it down hard on his face. It works. It looks close enough to my own rage that it seems all very real. This will bring everybody out of the bushes, make them all run across open fields, crisscrossing one another's paths, making it that much easier for me to hunt.

This is good. Really good. Now that I'm not a coach, this is just fantastic.

Sergio kicked the ball right between two opponents' legs, and all of us parents on the sidelines whooped it up. He was playing defense, as always; Sergio hadn't had his chance at scoring a goal yet, but at this point, it didn't matter to him. His teammates nicknamed him Firewall Chacon. He was not about to let that ball get by him or into the goal.

"Keep it up, Firewall, stop every ball that comes your way!" said Matt, a good-looking fellow with a thick mustache. Matt kept the game positive by emphasizing the fun of it all; still, he wanted the team to win as much as the rest of us did. He was better at maintaining a balance between the two--much better than I was.

Last year had been a disaster. I learned quickly, after only two months, that being a coach of the Sherman Oaks Soccer Association was a bad idea. Not just because I was sometimes away on a case, which meant leaving The Mighty Slayers without a leader; but because when I was there, my reputation overshadowed Sergio's. More than once I heard it whispered among some of the moms: that Latina hothead. Here, in good old liberal Los Angeles, and those wondrous stereotypes just keep pumping along.

But I suppose I didn't do much to help snuff the stereotype out. One Saturday morning the coach of the other team (The Red Terminators) had decided that the ref's call was bad: His goalie had stopped the ball even though the goalie had fallen back with the ball in hand, right into the goal net. The ref had given us the point, rightly so. The opposing coach launched into the ref. I made my way onto the field to calm the situation only to have him start breathing down my throat. And even with my mother on the sidelines saying, "Hija, just let it go, come on, we're winning," I stayed out there and said my piece. And am I to blame for him calling me bitch?

Though I am to blame for flipping him over my calf and slamming him on the full of his back, which had a very interesting way of silencing both sides of the field.

I lost my coach position that same weekend. He didn't. I wanted to fight that, but my mother talked me out of it. And it had gotten busy at the Bureau, what with all the buildup around antiterrorism, so I decided, one less battle.

Which, my mother could tell anyone, was quite a change in my life. "You're getting wiser in your old age, hija," she said to me. I had turned thirty that year. I didn't need her to remind me.

Still, I had recognized it as well. I can still lose it, but after a short time, I regain . . . whatever it is we're supposed to regain. Patience? Acquiescence? I'm calmer now, that's what Mama tells me. Everyone agrees that it's good. I suppose they're right.

But this year was much better. Sergio turned eight in August, and he seemed less stressed out once his mother was no longer his coach. And, I had to admit, I enjoyed the game more. Matt was a great coach. The kids loved him; Sergio was always one of the first to run up and give Coach Matt a high five. Matt was married, though. Too bad. His wife was always there: a good-looking woman, blond, nice figure, maybe four, five years older than me. A little shorter, though her legs were thinner than mine and I didn't doubt those breasts were silicone. Or, maybe they weren't. She was nice, in a soccer-mom way. "Come on, Slayers, move your behinds up that field!" She would belt her demands across the grass, but in a way that felt more, I don't know, positive.

I hadn't warmed up much to the other mothers on the team. There were differences between us, like shards of glass strewn over the sidelines. They gathered under sun umbrellas, talked to one another in familiar, though elevated ways. If they had been Latinas, they'd have been using to between one another. But they weren't; somehow, in a game dominated by Latin Americans, and in a city where Latinos have become the majority, my kid had landed on an almost all-white team.

But that wasn't the main difference between us. It was the differences in our lives. "Gosh, I hope Jessica's careful today," said one woman. "If she gets hurt or anything, well, that'll just ruin her filming tomorrow."

"What's she on?"

"It's another Kellogg commercial."

"Really? Animated?"

"Oh, yes. She's gotten very good at pretending to talk with Tony the Tiger. She practices all the time in front of her mirror. But I've got to get her home right after the game. We've got a party tonight. You know Steve, the director from Sony? He and his wife are coming over. Marta's cooking salmon with foie gras. I hope that'll do."

"You're just multitasking today, aren't you?"

Not my style of conversation. And they knew it, after the one time they were kind enough to invite me under the umbrellas. I had been at a scene in Culver City the day before. One of those late nights when LAPD and we from the Bureau were trying to figure out if a new case was local or federal. I don't know, something I said to the soccer ladies about the lacerations around the girl's neck, it didn't look like it had been done with a wire, but rather a hemp cord, which wasn't our boy's M.O., and besides, she was fifteen, not twelve, which was another red flag, so we handed it to the blues. The other moms never asked me under the umbrella again.

My mother would say I had meant to do that. My own way of marking territory. She's right, some things never change. I hate wasting time. Any time.

The soccer was not wasting time at all. It was part of our days together: Sergio, his grandmother, and me. And I liked the game. The kids had developed over the year; last season they looked like a flock of seagulls fighting for the same piece of bread. This year they actually understood positions. The game got my mind off work, off the drug traffic killings that I had an impossible time keeping up with. The soccer let me forget, for an hour or so, the other Los Angeles that I had learned about in the past three years: a silent city that seeped into this real, bustling city, kept hidden but still right here. I knew. I didn't doubt that, while standing here, my mother to my right on her fold-up easy chair with her sunglasses and her diet soda, there was, within the radius of the three soccer fields we stood in, no doubt a good, I don't know, twelve thousand dollars' worth of coke, grass, meth, ice, heroin, all tucked in purses, pocketbooks, in folded plastic liners under baseball caps.

Mama used to tell me that I worried too much about this. Even back in Nashville I worried about it. But she doesn't say that anymore, once she learned, through me, how many doctors and teachers both bought and sold in Music City. And the day that she saw her grandson overdose, all because he mistook a babysitter's meth for rock candy, changed her mind entirely.

Sergio was doing well. He was in second grade in a good school on Kester Avenue here in the Valley, where they taught drug-awareness regularly. They even had me come in a couple of times to speak to the older kids about the dangers of narcotics. I used the traditional scare tactics: pictures of overdosed women and men on the street. I even snuck in a couple shots of street assassinations, which the teacher didn't care for, though that had made the point clear, that too many people die because of their bad drug habits. Then I got stopped by this one fifth grader, an Asian American girl, who said, "But, Miss Chacon, if drugs are so bad, then why do people do it so much?"

I had never been asked that before. I promised myself to be honest with them: "That's a great question, honey. It's because the drugs feel so very, very good."

That bothered the teacher, too. So I followed up quickly with more lessons, about the addiction, and the sicknesses. But I told them just what their future drug dealer was going to tell them: It feels so very good.

"Hija. Mira vos."

My mother stood from her chair, which woke me a bit; I was tired, had been up way too late last night. She saw it before I did: Sergio had not only blocked the ball, he was moving forward with it. And though he usually was very good at staying in Defense position, he couldn't avoid the temptation of the clear pathway to the goal. He ran it, moved the ball through the space left by both teams, and was alone with the opposing goalie on the other end of the field. Our voices followed him in a crescendo, the umbrella women yelping his number, one of them asking, "What's his name? What's his name?" So I screamed it, "Corre mi hijo, Sergio!" And he did. He ran, faster than I've seen him run before. Then the pop: his foot sideways, his leg forming that perfect arch. The poor goalie reaching but not touching. The net, pulled back with the force of the ball.
Marcos Villatoro

About Marcos Villatoro

Marcos Villatoro - A Venom Beneath the Skin
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.

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