Read an Excerpt
Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go
By Pelecanos, George
Back Bay Books Copyright © 2011 Pelecanos, George
All right reserved.
LIKE MOST OF the trouble that’s happened in my life or that I’ve caused to happen, the trouble that happened that night started with a drink. Nobody forced my hand; I poured it myself, two fingers of bourbon into a heavy, beveled shot glass. There were many more after that, more bourbons and more bottles of beer, too many more to count. But it was that first one that led me down to the river that night, where they killed a boy named Calvin Jeter.
This one started at the Spot, on 8th and G in Southeast, where I tended bar three or four shifts a week. It had been a hot day, hazy and soup-hot, like most midsummer days in D.C. The compressor on our ancient air conditioner had gone down after the lunch rush, and though most of our regulars had tried to drink their way through it, the heat had won out. So by ten o’clock it was just me behind the stick, lording over a row of empty bar stools, with Ramon in the cellar and Darnell in the kitchen, cleaning up. I phoned Phil Saylor, the owner of the establishment, and with his okay shut the place down.
Ramon came up the wooden stairs carrying three cases of beer, his head just clearing the top carton. He was smiling stupidly—he had just smoked a joint in the cellar—but the smile was stretched tight, and it looked as if he were about to bust a nut. Ramon in his cowboy boots stood five two and weighed in at 129, so seventy-two beers was pushing it. He dropped the cases at my feet and stood before me, wiping the sweat off his forehead with a red bandanna. I thanked him and tipped him out.
For the next fifteen minutes, I rotated the beer into the cooler, making sure to leave some cold ones on the top, while I listened to Ramon and Darnell cut on each other back in the kitchen. Through the reach-through, I could see Ramon gut-punching the tall and razorish Darnell, Darnell taking it and loving it and laughing the whole time. Then there were loud air kisses from Ramon, and Darnell saying, “Later, amigo,” and Ramon motoring out of the kitchen, through the bar area, toward the door.
I finished with the beer and wiped down the bar and rinsed out the green netting and put the ashtrays in the soak sink, leaving one out, and then I washed up and changed into shorts and a T-shirt and high-top sneakers. Darnell shut off the light in the kitchen and came out as I tightened the laces on my Chucks.
“ ’Bout done.”
“Any business today?”
“Yeah. The catfish went pretty good.”
“Used a little Old Bay. Think anybody noticed?”
Darnell pushed his leather kufi back off his sweat-beaded forehead. “You headin’ uptown? Thought maybe I’d catch a ride.”
“Not yet. I’m gonna call Lyla, see what she’s doing.”
“All right, then. Let me get on out of here.”
On the nights we closed together, this was our routine. Darnell knew I would stick around, usually alone, and have a drink; he’d always try and get me out of there before I did. A stretch in Lorton had straightened him all the way out, though no one mistook his clean lifestyle for the lifestyle of a pushover, least of all me; I had seen what he could do with a knife. Darnell went out the door. I locked it behind him.
Back in the main room, I counterclockwised the rheostat. The lamps dimmed, leaving the room washed in blue neon light from the Schlitz logo centered over the bar. I found WDCU on the house stereo and notched up the volume on the hard bop. I lit a cigarette, hit it, and fitted it in the V of the last remaining ashtray. Then I pulled a nearly full bottle of Old Grand-Dad off the call shelf, poured a shot, and had a taste. I opened a cold bottle of Bud, drank off an inch or two of that, and placed the bottle next to the shot. My shoulders unstiffened, and everything began to soften and flow down.
I looked around the room: a long, railed mahogany bar, mottled and pocked; several conical lamps spaced above, my own smoke swirling in the low-watt light; a rack behind the lamps, where pilsner and rocks and up glasses hung suspended, dripping water on the bar; some bar stools, a few high-backed, the rest not; a couple of vinyl-cushioned booths; a pair of well-used speakers mounted on either side of the wall, minus the grills; and some “artwork,” a Redskins poster furnished by the local beer distributor (1989’s schedule—we had never bothered to take it down) and a framed print of the Declaration of Independence, the signatures of our forefathers joined in various places by the drunken signatures of several of our regulars. My own signature was scrawled somewhere on there, too.
I finished my bourbon and poured another as I dialed Lyla’s number. Next to the phone was a photograph, taped to the yellowed wall, of a uniformed Phil Saylor, circa his brief stint as a cop on the Metropolitan Police force. I looked at his round face while listening to Lyla’s answering machine. I hung the receiver in its cradle without leaving a message.
The next round went down smoothly and more quickly than the first. During that one, I tried phoning my old buddy Johnny McGinnes, who had gone from electronics sales to mattresses and now to major appliances, but the chipper guy who answered the call—“Goode’s White Goods. My name is Donny. How may I help you?”—told me that McGinnes had left for the evening. I told him to tell McGinnes that his friend Nick had called, and he said, “Sure will,” adding, “and if you’re ever in need of a major appliance, the name is Donny.” I hung up before he could pry his name in again, then dialed Lyla’s number. Still no answer.
So I had another round, slopping bourbon off the side of the glass as I poured. Cracking a beer I had buried earlier in the ice bin, I went to the stereo and cranked up the volume: a honking session from some quintet, really wild shit, the Dexedrined drummer all over the map. By the time the set was over, I had finished my shot. Then I decided to leave; the Spot had grown hellishly hot, and I had sweat right into my clothes. Besides, my buzz was too good now, way too good to waste alone. I killed the lights and set the alarm, locked the front door, and stepped out onto 8th with a beer in my hand.
I walked by an athletic-shoe store, closed and protected by a riot gate. I passed an alley fringely lit at the head by a nearby streetlamp. I heard voices in its depths, where an ember flared, then faded. Just past the alley sat Athena’s, the last women’s club in my part of town. Behind its windowless brick walls came the steady throb of bass. I pushed open the door and stepped inside.
I heard my name called out over a Donna Summer tune and the general noise of the place. I edged myself around a couple of women on the dance floor and stepped up to the bar. Stella, the stocky, black-haired tender, had poured me a shot when she saw me come through the front door. I thanked her and put my hand around the glass and knocked it back all at once. Someone kissed me on the back of my neck and laughed.
I found Mattie, my transplanted Brooklyn friend, by the pool table in a smoky corner of the room. We shot our usual game of eight ball, and I lost a five. Then I bought us a round of beers and played another game, with the same result. Mattie had the whole table mapped out before her first stroke, while I was a power shooter who never played for shape. Some nights I won, anyway—but not that night.
I went back to the bar and settled my tab and left too much for Stella. In the bar mirror, I saw my reflection, bright-eyed and ugly and streaked with sweat. Near the register hung a framed photograph of Jackie Kahn, former Athena’s bartender and the mother of my child, a boy named Kent, now nine months old. I said something loudly to Stella then, my voice sounding garbled and harsh. She began to smile but then abruptly stopped, looking in my eyes. I pushed away from the bar and made it out the front door, to the fresh air and the street.
I unlocked the Spot’s front door, deactivated the alarm by punching in a four-digit number on a grid, and went back behind the bar. I cracked a cold beer and drank deeply. Then I poured Old Grand-Dad to the lip of a shot glass and bent over, putting my lips directly to the whiskey, drinking off an inch of it without touching the glass. I shook a Camel filter out of my pack and lit it. The phone began to ring. I let it ring, and walked down toward the stereo, stumbling on a rubber mat along the way. I found a tape by Lungfish, a raging guitar-based band out of Baltimore, and slid that in the deck. I hit the play button and gave it some bass.
I sat on a stool at the bar, tried to strike a match. A cigarette had burned down, dead-cold in the ashtray. I lit a fresh one, tossed the match toward the ashtray, missed. I reached for my shot glass and saw the half-filled bottle of Grand-Dad in the middle of a cluster of empty beer bottles. I tasted whiskey. The tape had ended. There was not a sound in the bar.
I stepped off the curb outside the Spot. A whooping alarm screamed in the night. Stella walked by me, said, “Nicky, Nicky,” went through the open front door of the Spot, reset the alarm. She asked for and took my keys, then locked the front door. A few women had spilled out of Athena’s onto the sidewalk. Stella returned, held my keys out, then drew them back as I reached for them.
“Come on, Nicky. Come on and sleep it off in the back.”
“I’m all right. Gimme my keys.”
“Gimme my keys. I can sleep in my car. What the fuck, Stella, it’s ninety degrees out here. You think I’m gonna freeze? Gimme my fuckin’ keys.”
Stella tossed me the keys. I tried to catch them, but there was an open beer in one of my hands and the bottle of Grand-Dad in the other. I went to one knee to pick my keys up off the street. I looked up, tried to thank Stella. She had already walked away.
Driving down Independence Avenue, a Minor Threat tune at maximum volume, blowing through the speakers of my Dodge. I stopped my car in the middle of the street, let the motor run, got out of the car, urinated on the asphalt. To my left, the Mall, the Washington Monument lit up and looming, leaning a little toward the sky. Tourists walked hurriedly by on the sidewalk, fathers watching me from the corner of their eyes, pushing their children along, the singer screaming from the open windows of my car: “What the fuck have you done?” Me, laughing.
I drove down M Street in Southeast, the Navy Yard on my right. My first car, a ’64 Plymouth Valiant, bought there at a government auction, accompanied by my grandfather. Must have tried to get back to the Spot, made a wrong turn. Lights everywhere, streetlights and taillights, crossing. I hit my beer, chased it with bourbon. The bourbon spilled off my chin. A blaring horn, an angry voice yelling from the car at my side. The beer bottle tipped over between my legs, foam undulating from the neck. My shorts, soaked; pulled my wallet from my back pocket and tossed it on the bucket seat to my right. Music, loud and distorted in the car.
The car went slowly down a single-lane asphalt road. Trees on both sides of the road. To the right, through the trees, colored lights reflected off water. No music now in the car. The surge of laughter far away, and trebly slide guitar from a radio. Blurry yellow lights ahead, suspended above the water, shooting straight out into the sky. Had to pee, had to stop the car, had to stop the lights from moving. Heard gravel spit beneath the wheels, felt the car come to rest. Killed the ignition. Opened my door, stumbled out onto the gravel, heard the sound of a bottle hit the ground behind me. Started to fall, then gained my footing, stumbling, running now to the support of a tree. Needed to lie down, but not there. Pushed off the tree, bounced off another, felt something lash across my cheek. Shut my eyes, opened them, began to float into a fall. Nothing beneath me, no legs, a rush of lights and water and trees, spinning. The jolt of contact as I hit the ground, no pain. On my back, looking up at the branches, through the branches the stars, moving, all of it moving. Sick. The night coming up, no energy to turn over, just enough to tilt my head. A surge of warm liquid spilling out of my mouth and running down my neck, the stench of my own flowing puke, the steam of it passing before my eyes.
A sting on my cheek. Something crawling on my face, my hands dead at my sides. Let it crawl. The branches, the stars, still moving. My stomach convulsed. I turn my head and vomit.
The slam of a car door. The sound of something dragged through gravel and dirt. A steady, frantic moan.
The voice of a black man: “All right now. You already been a punk, and shit. Least you can do is go out a man.”
The moan now a muffled scream. Can’t move, can’t even raise my head. A dull plopping sound, then a quiet splash.
The black man’s voice: “Just leave him?”
Another voice, different inflection: “Kill a coon in this town and it barely makes the papers—no offense, you know what I mean. C’mon, let’s get outta here. Let’s go home.”
I OPENED MY EYES to a gray sky. I ran my hand through dirt and paper and grass, and something plastic and wet. I stayed there for a while, looking at the leafy branches and the sky. My back ached and I felt stiff behind the neck. I could smell the odor of garbage, my own bile and sweat.
I sighed slowly, got up on one elbow. I looked across the water at the sun, large and dirty orange, coming up in the east. I sat up all the way, rubbed a fleck of crust off my chin, ran my fingers through my hair.
I was down by the Anacostia River—in the marina district, where M Street continues unmarked. I recognized it straight away. My grandfather and I had fished here when I was a kid. He had always thrown back the perch and occasional catfish he had reeled in. The river had been virtually dead, even then.
I was sitting in a wooded area, the grass worn down to weeds and dirt, littered with plastic bags and fast-food wrappers, empty beer cans, malt liquor bottles, peach brandy pints, used rubbers, the odd shoe. I turned to the right and saw my car, nearly hidden in the start of the woods, parked neatly and without a scratch between two trees, all dumb luck. Beyond that, I could see the moored runabouts and powerboats of a marina, and past the marina the 11th Street Bridge, leading to Anacostia. Behind me was the road, cracked and potholed, and behind the road a denser block of trees, then railroad tracks, and then more trees. To my left, the woods gave to a clearing, where a rusted houseboat sat half-sunk in the water. After that, another hundred yards down the shoreline, the Sousa Bridge spanned the river, the lights of which I had noticed but not recognized the night before.
The night before. My memory flashed on something very wrong.
I got up on my feet and walked unsteadily through the trees to the clearing, continued on to the waterline. Wooden pilings came up out of the brown river, spaced erratically around the sunken houseboat. Something appeared to be draped around one of the pilings. The sun nearly blinded me, sent a pounding into my head. I shaded my eyes, went to where the scum of the river lapped at the concrete bulkhead, stood there on the edge.
A young black man lay in the water, his head and shoulders submerged, the shirtsleeve of one bound arm caught on a cleat in the piling. Duct tape had been wound around his gray face, covering his mouth. I could see an entry wound, small and purple, rimmed and burned black, below his chin. The bullet had traveled up and blown out the back of his head; brain stew, pink and chunked, had splashed out onto the piling. The gas jolt had bugged his eyes.
I fell to my knees and retched. The dry heave came up empty. I stayed there, caught air, stared at the garbage and debris floating stagnant in the river. I pushed off with my hands, stood and turned, stumbled a few steps, then went into a quick walk toward the trees. I didn’t look back.
I picked up the empty bottle of bourbon at the side of my Dodge and opened the door. I dropped the bottle inside and fell into the driver’s seat. My keys still hung in the ignition. I looked in the rearview at my eyes, unrecognizable. I checked my watch, rubbed dirt off its face: 6:30 A.M., Wednesday.
My wallet lay flat and open on the shotgun bucket. I picked it up, looked at my own face staring out at me from my District of Columbia license: “Nicholas J. Stefanos, Private Investigator.”
So that’s what I was.
I turned the key in the ignition.
MY GIRLFRIEND, LYLA McCubbin, stopped by my apartment early that evening. She found me sitting naked on the edge of the bed, just up from a nap, the blinds drawn in the room. I had thrown away my clothes from the night before and taken two showers during the course of the day. But I had begun to sweat again, and the room smelled of booze. Lyla had a seat next to me and rubbed my back, then pulled my face out of my hands.
“I talked to Mai at the Spot. She told me she picked up your shift tonight. You had a rough one, huh?”
“Yeah, pretty rough.”
“What’s all over your face?”
“Bites. Some kind of roaches, I guess. I woke up—I was layin’ in garbage.”
“I called you last night,” she said.
“I called you.”
She looked in my eyes. “You been crying or something, Nick?”
“I don’t know,” I said, looking away.
“You got the depression,” she said quietly. “You went and got yourself real good and drunk. You did some stupid things, and then you fell out. The only thing you can do now is apologize to the people you dealt with, maybe try and be more sensible next time. But you shouldn’t beat yourself up about it. I mean, it happens, right?”
I didn’t answer. Lyla’s fingers brushed my hair back off my face. After awhile, she got up off the bed.
“I’m going to make you something to eat,” she said.
“Sit back down a minute,” I said, taking her hand. She did, and everything poured out.
Later, I sat on my stoop as Lyla grilled burgers on a hibachi she had set up on the brick patio outside my apartment. Lyla’s long red hair switched across her back as she drank from a goblet of Chablis and prodded the burgers with a short-handled spatula. My black cat circled her feet, then dashed across the patio and batted at an errant moth. I watched Lyla move against a starry backdrop of fireflies that blinked beyond the light of the patio, and I smelled the deep-summer hibiscus that bloomed in the yard.
After dinner, Lyla drove up to Morris Miller’s, the liquor store in my Shepherd Park neighborhood, for more wine. My landlord, who owned the house and lived in its two top floors, came out and sat with me on the stoop. I had my first cigarette of the day while he drank from a can of beer and told me a story of a woman he had met in the choir, who he said sang like an angel in church but had “the devil in her hips outside those walls.” He laughed while I dragged on my cigarette, and pointed to my cat, still running in circles, chasing that moth.
“Maybe if that old cat had two eyes, she’d catch that thing.”
“She might catch it yet,” I said. “Nailed a sparrow and dropped it on my doorstep the other day.”
“Whyn’t you get you a real animal, man? I know this boy, lives down around 14th and Webster? Got some alley cats would fuck up a dog.”
“I don’t know. I bring a cat around here like your boy’s got, might scare away some of your lady friends.”
“Wouldn’t want that.” My landlord hissed a laugh. “ ’Cause that woman I got now, that church woman? She’s a keeper.”
Lyla returned, uncorked her wine, and poured another glass. My landlord gave her a kiss and went back in the house to his easy chair and TV. Lyla sat next to me and dropped her hand on the inside of my thigh, rubbing it there.
“How you feeling?”
“You’ll be better still tomorrow.”
She bent toward me, and I turned my head away. Lyla took my chin in her hand and forced me to meet her gaze. I looked into her pale green eyes. She kissed me then and held the kiss, her breath warm and sour from the wine.
After awhile, we went inside. I dropped a Curtis Mayfield tape into the deck while Lyla lit some votive candles in my room. I undressed her from behind, kissing the pulsing blue vein of her neck. We fell onto my bed, where we made out slowly in the flickering light. Lyla rolled on top of me and put my hands to her breasts. The candlelight reflected off her damp hair, the sweat on her chest like glass.
I shut my eyes and let her work it, let myself go with the sensations, the sounds of her open-mouthed gasps, the rising promise of my own release, the sweet voice of Curtis singing “Do Be Down” in the room. She knew what she was doing, and it worked; for a few minutes, I forgot all about the man I had become. Or maybe I had gone to another place, where I could let myself believe that I was someone else.
LYLA HAD PLACED MY coffee next to the Post on the living room table the following morning. I picked up my mug and sipped from it while I stood over the newspaper and stared blankly at its front page. Lyla walked into the room, tucking a cream-colored blouse into an apple green skirt.
“It made the final edition,” she said. “Deep in Metro. The Roundup.”
The Post grouped the violent deaths of D.C.’s underclass into a subhead called “Around the Region”; local journalists sarcastically dubbed this daily feature “the Roundup.” As the managing editor of the city’s hard-news alternative weekly, D.C. This Week, Lyla was not immune to criticism of local media herself. But her competitive spirit couldn’t stop her from taking the occasional shot at the Washington Post.
“What’d it say?”
“You know,” she said. “ ‘Unidentified man found in the Anacostia River. Fatal gunshot wounds. Police are withholding the name until notification of relatives, no suspects at this time’—the usual. When you read it, you automatically think, Another drug execution. Retribution kill, whatever. I mean, that’s what it was, right?”
I had a seat on the couch and ran my finger along the edge of the table. Lyla kept her eyes on me as she pulled her hair back and tied it off with a black band.
I looked up. “You still got that friend over at the city desk at Metro?”
Lyla moved my way and stood over me. She rested her hands on her hips, spoke tiredly. “Sure, and I’ve got my own sources in the department. Why?”
“Just, you know. I thought you could see what else they got on this so far.”
“So, what, you could get involved?”
“Just curious, that’s all. Anyway, it’s been awhile. I wouldn’t know where to start.” I thought of my last case, a year and a half earlier: William Henry and April Goodrich, the house on Gallatin Street—a bloodbath, and way too much loss.
Lyla leaned over and kissed me on the lips. “Get some rest today, Nick. Okay?”
“I’m workin’ a shift,” I said.
“Good,” she said. “That’s good.”
She gave me one more knowing look and walked from the room. I listened to the slam of the screen door and slowly drank the rest of my coffee. Then I showered and dressed and left the apartment. The newspaper remained on my living room table, untouched, unread.
THE SPOT COOKED DURING the lunch rush that day. Darnell’s special, a thick slice of meat loaf with mashed potatoes and gravy, moved quickly, and he was sliding them onto the reach-through with fluid grace. Ramon bused the tables and kept just enough dishes and silverware washed to handle the turns. Our new lunch waitress, Anna Wang, a tough little Chinese-American college student, worked the small dining room adjacent to the bar.
Anna stepped up to the service bar, called, “Ordering!” She pulled a check from her apron, blew a strand of straight black hair out of her eyes while she made some hash marks on the check. I free-poured vodka into a rocks glass and cranberry-juiced it for color. Then I poured a draft and carried the mug and the glass down to Anna, a lit Camel in my mouth. I placed the drinks on her cocktail tray just as she speared a swizzle stick into the vodka.
Anna said, “How about some of that, Nick?”
I took the cigarette out of my mouth and put it between her lips. She drew on it once, let smoke pour from her nostrils, and hit it again as I plucked it out. She nodded and carried off the tray. I watched Ramon go out of his way to brush her leg with his as he passed with a bus tray of dirty dishes. Anna ignored him and kept moving.
“Another martini for me, Nick,” said Melvin, the house crooner, whose stool was by the service bar. I poured some rail gin into an up glass and let a drop or two of dry vermouth fall into the glass. I served it neatly on a bev nap, watching Melvin’s lips move to the Shirley Horn vocals coming from the Spot’s deck, and then I heard Darnell’s voice boom from the kitchen over the rattle of china and the gospel music of his own radio: “Food up!”
I snatched it off the reach-through and walked down the bar toward Happy, our resident angry alki, seated alone, always alone. On my trip, I stopped to empty the ashtray of a gray beard named Dave, who was quietly reading a pulp novel and drinking coffee at the bar, his spectacles low-riding his nose, doing his solitary, on-the-wagon thing. Some ashes floated down into Happy’s plate, and I blew them off before I placed the plate down in front of him. Happy looked down mournfully at the slab of meat garnished with the anemic sprig of wilted parsley and the gravy pooled in the gluey mashed potatoes. His hand almost but not quite fell away from the glass in his grip.
“This looks like dog shit,” he muttered.
“You want another drink, Happy?”
“Yeah,” he said with a one o’clock slur. “And this time, put a little liquor in it.”
I prepared his manhattan (an ounce of rail bourbon with a cherry dropped in it, no vermouth) and placed it on a moldy coaster advertising some sort of black Sambuca we did not stock. Then I heard Anna’s tired voice from down the bar: “Ordering!” I moved to the rail and fixed her drinks.
That’s the way it went for the rest of the afternoon. Buddy and Bubba, two GS-9 rednecks, came in at the downslope of the rush and split a couple of pitchers. They argued over sports trivia the entire time with a pompadoured dude named Richard, though none of them had picked up a ball of any kind since high school. Before they left, they poked their heads in the kitchen and congratulated Darnell on the “presentation” of the meat loaf. Darnell went about his work, and Buddy sneered in my direction as he and Bubba headed out the door.
After lunch, I put some PJ Harvey in the deck for Anna while she cleaned and reset her station. Phil Saylor had instructed me to keep blues and jazz playing on the stereo during the rush, but Happy, dashing in his dandruff-specked, plum-colored sport jacket, was now the only customer in the bar. Sitting there in a stagnant cloud of his own cigarette smoke, he didn’t ever seem to respond to the musical selection either way.
Anna split for the day after bumming a smoke, and Ramon retreated to the kitchen, where he practiced some bullshit karate moves on an amused Darnell while I began to cut limes for Mai’s evening shift. I had just finished filling the fruit tray when Dan Boyle walked through the front door.
Boyle parked his wide ass on the stool directly in front of me and ran fingers like pale cigars through his wiry, dirty blond hair.
His lazy, bleached-out eyes traveled up to the call rack, then settled back down on the bar. I turned and pulled the black-labeled bottle of Jack Daniel’s off the call shelf. I poured some sour mash into a shot glass and slid it in front of him.
“A beer with that?”
“Not just yet.”
He put the glass to his lips and tilted his head back for a slow taste. The action opened his jacket a bit, the grip of his Python edging out.
On any given night, the Spot could be heavy with guns, as the place had become a favorite watering hole for D.C.’s plainclothes cops and detectives, the connection going back to Saylor. Guns or no, Boyle had earned a different kind of rep, topped by his much-publicized role in the Gallatin Street shoot-out. I had been there with him, right next to him, in fact, but my participation had remained anonymous. I was reminded of it, though, every time I passed a mirror: a two-inch-long scar, running down my cheek.
“Goddamn it, that’s good,” Boyle said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “I’ll take that beer now.”
I tapped him one and set the mug next to the shot. Boyle pulled a Marlboro hard pack from his jacket, drew a cigarette, and tamped it on the pack. He put it to his lips and I gave him a light.
“Thanks.” Boyle spit smoke and reached for the mug. I bent over the soak sink and ran a glass over the brush.
“Good day out there?” I said, looking into the dirty gray suds.
“Not bad today, if you really want to know. Picked up the shooter that fired off that Glock on school grounds over at Duval two weeks ago.”
“The one where the bullet hit the wrong kid?”
“The wrong kid? If you say so. The kid that got shot, he had a roll of twenties in his pocket, and a gold chain around his neck thicker than my wrist. So maybe he didn’t hit the kid he was going for, but he damn sure hit a kid that was in the life. Shit, Nick, you throw a fuckin’ rock in the hall of that high school, you’re gonna hit someone guilty of something.”
“You’re a real optimist, Boyle. You know it?”
“Like now I need a lecture. Anyway, you want to talk about sociology and shit from behind that bar, go ahead. In the meantime, I’m out there—”
“In that concrete jungle?”
“ ‘Concrete Jungle,’ ” I said. “The Specials.”
“Gimme another drink,” Boyle mumbled, and finished off what was in his glass. He chased it with a swig of beer and wiped his chin dry with the back of his hand.
Happy said something, either to himself or to me, from the other end of the bar. I ignored him, poured Boyle another shot. I leaned one elbow on the mahogany and put my foot up on the ice chest.
“So, Boyle. How about that kid, the one that got it two nights ago—”
“The one they found in the river?”
“Yeah. I guess that was a drug thing, too.”
“Bet it,” Boyle said. “But it’s not my district. So that’s one I don’t have to worry about.”
“Let me ask you something. You know what the weapons of choice are on the street this month, right? I mean, it changes all the time, but you’re pretty much on top of it. Right?”
“These enforcers. They in the habit of using silencers these days?”
Boyle thought for a moment, then shook his head. He watched me out the corner of his eye as he butted his cigarette. Happy called again and I went down his way and fixed him a drink. When I came back, Boyle was firing down the remainder of his Jack and draining off the rest of his beer. He left some money on the bar, stashed his cigarettes in his jacket, and slid clumsily off his stool.
“Take it easy, Nick.”
I took his bills and rang on the register, dropping what was left into my tip jar. In the bar mirror, I saw Dan Boyle moving toward the front door. He turned once and stared at my back, his mouth open, his eyes blank. Then he turned again and walked heavily from the bar.
I WORKED ANOTHER SHIFT on Friday, and in the evening Lyla and I caught a movie at the Dupont and had some appetizers after the show at Aleko’s, the best Greek food in town for my money, on Connecticut, above the Circle. Lyla had a few glasses of retsina at the restaurant and a couple more glasses of white before we went to bed. I didn’t drink that night—three days now without a drop, the longest downtime in a long, long while. I had some trouble going to sleep, though, and when I did, my dreams were crowded, filled with confusing detail, unfamiliar places, blue-black starlings rising in the corners of the frame.
On Saturday, Lyla went into the office to put the finishing touches on a cover story, and I rode my ten-speed down to the Mall to catch a free Fugazi show at the Sylvan Theater. A go-go act opened to a polite crowd, and then the band came out and tore it up. I saw Joe Martinson, a friend and contemporary of mine from the old postpunk days, and we hung together in the late-teen crowd that was getting off—clean off—on the music.
That night, Lyla and I stayed at my place and listened to a few records. Lyla drank a gin and tonic and switched over to wine, and around midnight she called me outside, where I found her sitting on a blanket she had spread in the yard. She smirked as I approached her, and as she opened her legs, her skirt rode up her thighs, and I saw what that smile was all about. It was a good night, and another day gone by without a drink. But my dreams were no better than those of the night before.
On Sunday, we drove down to Sandy Point and buried our toes in the hot orange sand, then cooled off in the bay, dodging the few nettles, which were late that year due to the heavy spring rains. In the evening, I drove over to Alice Deal Junior High and worked out with my physician, Rodney White, who ran a karate school in the gym. Though I had resisted “learning” tae kwon do—I had boxed coming up in the Boys Club and was convinced that hand technique was all I needed to know—I had been doing this with Rodney for years now, and he had managed to teach me some street moves as well as the first four forms of his art. I finished the last of those forms, and Rodney and I got into some one-step sparring.
“All right, man,” Rodney said.
We bowed in, and then I threw a punch. Rodney moved simultaneously to the side and down into a horse stance, where he sprang up and whipped a straight, open hand to within an inch of my throat. I heard the snap of his black gi and the yell from deep in his chest.
“What the hell was that?”
“Ridge hand,” Rodney said. “Keep the first joints of your fingers bent. You’ll be striking with the whole side of your hand. And the kicker’s in the snap of the wrist, right before the strike. Step aside, and use the momentum coming up to drive it right into the Adam’s apple. You do it right, man, you’ll ruin somebody’s day.”
I tried it, then tried it again. “Like that?”
Rodney gave a quick nod. “Something like that. More snap, though, at the end. Like everything else, it’ll come.”
“Get your gloves, man,” Rodney said. “Let’s go a few.”
After we sparred, I drove back to my place and grabbed a beer out of the refrigerator and took it with me into the shower. I didn’t think about it one way or the other, as this was something I did every time I returned from Rodney White’s dojo. No bells went off and I felt no guilt. The beer was cold and good.
I stood in the spray of the shower, leaned against the tiles, and drank. I thought about what had happened at the river, and what I had heard: the inflection of the voices, the words themselves, the animal fear of the boy. The memory had resonance, like a cold finger on my shoulder. Everyone else had this wrapped up and tied off as a drug kill, another black kid born in a bad place, gone down a bad road. But I had been there that night. And the more I went back to it, the more I suspected that they were wrong.
I got out of the shower and wrapped a towel around my middle, then got myself another beer. I cracked the beer and went to the living room, where I phoned Dan Boyle.
“Yeah,” he said, over the screams and laughter of several children.
“Boyle, it’s Nick Stefanos. What’s goin’ on?”
“These fuckin’ kids,” he said, letting out a long, tired breath into the phone. “What can I do for you?”
I told him, and then we went back and forth on it for the next half hour. In the end, against his better judgment, he agreed to do what I asked, maybe because he knew that we both wanted the same thing. I set a time and thanked him, then hung the receiver in its cradle. Then I tilted my head back and killed the rest of my beer.
I could have called Boyle back and ended it right then. If I had just called him back, things might not have gone the way they did between Lyla and me, and I never would have met Jack LaDuke. But the thirst for knowledge is like a piece of ass you know you shouldn’t chase; in the end, you chase it just the same.
AFTER MY MONDAY shift, I walked out of the Spot and headed for my car, with Anna Wang at my side, a colorful day pack strung across her back. She wore black bike shorts and a white T-shirt that fell off one muscled shoulder, leaving exposed the lacy black strap of a bra. I let her into the passenger side and then went around and got myself behind the wheel.
“Boss car,” Anna said as she had a seat in the shotgun bucket of my latest ride.
“I like it,” I said with deliberate understatement. Actually, I thought it was one of the coolest cars in D.C.: a ’66 Dodge Coronet 500, white, with a red interior, full chrome center console, and a 318 under the hood. After my Dart blew a head gasket a year earlier, I had gone into the Shenandoah Valley and paid cash—two grand, roughly—to the car’s owner in Winchester, and I hadn’t regretted it one day since.
Anna snagged a cigarette from the pack wedged in my visor and pushed in the dash lighter. I hit the ignition, and the dual exhaust rumbled in the air. Anna glanced over as she lit her smoke.
“What are you, some kind of gearhead, Nick?”
“Not really. I just like these old Chrysler products. My first car was a Valiant with a push-button trans on the dash. After that, I had a ’67 Polara, white on red, the extralong model, a motel on wheels. My buddy Johnny McGinnes called it my ‘Puerto Rican Cadillac.’ It had the cat-eye taillights, too. A real beauty. Then I had a ’67 Belvedere, clean lines, man, and the best-handling car I ever owned. I guess because of the posi rear. Then my old Dart, and now this. I’ll tell you something, these Mopar engines were the strongest this country ever produced. As long as there’s no body cancer, I’ll keep buying them.”
Anna took a drag off her cigarette and smirked. “ ‘Posi rear’? Nick, you are a gearhead, man.”
“Yeah, well, I guess you got me nailed.” I looked her over and caught her eye. “Speaking of which, there’s this tractor pull, next Saturday night? I was wonderin’… if you’re not doing anything, I’d be right proud if you’d care to accompany me—”
“Very funny. Anyway, you can just take your girlfriend to that tractor pull, buster.”
At the top of 8th, we passed an old haunt of mine, a club where you used to be able to catch a good local band and where you could always cop something from the bartender, something to smoke or snort or swallow in the bathroom or on the patio out back. I had met my ex-wife Karen there for the first time one night. The original club had closed years ago, shut down at about the same time as my marriage.
Anna looked out the window. “You ever go in that place?”
“I thought ’cause, you know, they cater to that thirty-plus crowd.”
“Thanks a lot.” I could have backhanded her one, but she was so damn cute. “Where you headed, anyway?”
“Drop me at the Eastern Market Metro, okay?”
I did it and then got on my way.
I DROVE DOWN M Street, past the Navy Yard and the projects and the gay nightclubs and the warehouses, and kept straight on past the 11th Street Bridge ramp as M continued unmarked, past Steuart Petroleum, down through the trees toward the water, past a couple of marinas and the Water Street turnoff, to the wooded area where the rusted houseboat sat submerged in the river amid the wooden pilings. I pulled off in the clearing and parked my car next to Boyle’s.
An old man with closely cropped salt-and-pepper hair sat in a metal folding chair, holding a cheap Zebco rod, a red plastic bucket and green tackle box by his side, a sixteen-ounce can of beer between his feet. Two young men leaned against a brilliantly waxed late-model Legend parked beneath the trees and looked out toward the carpet green of Anacostia Park across the river. Boyle stood on the edge of the concrete bulkhead, his shirtsleeves rolled above his elbows, his beefy hands at his side, a manila envelope wedged under one arm, a hot cigarette drooping lazily from his mouth. I walked across the gravel and joined him.
“You’re a little late,” Boyle said, glancing at his watch.
“Had to wait for Anna to clean her station. Gave her a lift to the subway.”
“What’re you, sniffin’ after that Chinee heinie now?”
“Just gave her a ride, Boyle.”
“Like to have me some of that. Never did have a Chinese broad when I was single. Any suggestions on how to get one?”
“You might start by not calling them ‘broads.’ Women don’t seem to like that very much these days. They haven’t for, like, forty years.”
“Thanks for the tip. I’ll work it into my next sensitivity discussion. The department’s very big on that now, since those uniforms handcuffed that drunk broad—I mean, inebriated woman—to that mailbox last winter. Maybe I could get you to come down and lecture.”
I looked at the envelope under Boyle’s arm. “So what you got?”
“Not yet,” Boyle said. He transferred the envelope to his hand and dragged deeply on his cigarette. A large drop of sweat ran down his neck and disappeared below his collar. “Where were you that night?”
I pointed to a dirt area of paper and cans and garbage just inside the tree line, behind the fisherman. “Right about in there.” One of the young men leaning on the Legend gave a brief, tough glance my way, and the other stared straight ahead.
“If they were parked where we are—”
“I don’t know where they were parked. I didn’t see anything. I couldn’t even lift my head.”
“Well, the freshest tire prints we got were there. We were lucky to get those—someone called in an anonymous on the murder pretty soon after it happened. That was you, right?”
Boyle moved his head in the direction of our cars. “So if that’s where they were parked, and they took the kid straight down to the water and did him, then went right back to their vehicle, it’s possible they didn’t see you layin’ back there in the trees.”
“What, you don’t believe me?”
“Sure, I believe you all right.” Boyle took a last hit off his smoke and ground it under his shoe. “Just tryin’ to figure things out. C’mon, let’s take a walk, get away from those two entrepreneurs.”
“Those guys dealers?”
Boyle shrugged. “That’s a thirty-thousand-dollar car, and they ain’t real estate developers. Anyway, I’m Homicide, not Narcotics, so I couldn’t give a rat’s ass. But it’s a bet that they aren’t holdin’ right now. This road dead-ends up ahead, past the bridge at the last marina. The locals know not to do business down here—no place to run to. Those guys are probably just relaxing before going to work later tonight. But I don’t need any witnesses to what I’m about to do. Come on.”
We went back to the road and walked north toward the Sousa Bridge. A mosquito caught me on the neck. I stopped and slapped at it, looked at the smudge of blood on my fingers. Boyle kept walking. I quickened my step and caught up with him.
Boyle said, “That thing you pulled with the silencer. That was pretty cute. It didn’t hit me until I got off my bar stool. ’Course I phoned the detective in charge of the case soon as I left the Spot. Ballistics report had come in earlier that day.”
“You were right. A silenced twenty-two. A Colt Woodsman, I’d guess, if it was some kind of hit.”
“A twenty-two. That proves it wasn’t a gang thing, right?”
“It doesn’t prove anything. A kid on the street can get his hands on any piece he wants, same as a pro, and for all I know, a twenty-two is the latest prestige weapon. Don’t get ahead of yourself, Nick.”
We went beneath the bridge and moved to the last set of legs before the river. A gull glided by and veered off toward the water. The metallic rush of cars above us echoed in the air.
Boyle leaned against a block of concrete, one of many that sat piled near the legs. “Tell me why else you think this isn’t a drug kill.”
“Let me ask you something, Boyle. You ever know whites and blacks to crew together in this town?”
“ ’Course not. Not in this town or any other town I ever heard of.”
“It was a white man and a black man killed that kid. I heard their voices. And I’ll tell you something else. You might want to check up in Baltimore, see if some similar shit has gone down. The white guy, he talked about going ‘home,’ used that extra long o the way they do up in South Baltimore. The guy was definitely out of BA.”
“You got it all figured out. A pro hit, out-of-town talent. Come on, Nick, you’re puttin’ an awful lot together with nothin’.”
“I’m telling you what I heard.”
Boyle looked down at the manila envelope in his hand, then back at me. “I give you what we got, what are you gonna do with it?”
“I know what’s going to happen to this if the shooters aren’t found in a few more days. Not that it’s the fault of you guys. They got you working two, maybe three homicides at a time, and I know it doesn’t stop.” I shrugged. “I’m just going to get out there, ask around like I always do. I find anything you can use, I’ll head it in the direction of the guy who’s assigned to the case.”
“Whatever. Who’s on it?”
“Guy named Johnson’s got it. He doesn’t come in the Spot, so you don’t know him. He’s a competent cop, a little on the quiet side. But he is straight up.”
“If I find out anything, it’ll come to you.” I pointed my chin at the envelope.
Boyle breathed out slowly. “Well, we got nothing, really. Nothing yet. The kid’s name was Calvin Jeter. Seventeen years of age. Dropout at sixteen, high truancy rate before that, no record except for a couple of f.i.’s, not even misdemeanors. Johnson interviewed the mother, nothing there. Said he was a good boy, no drugs. It’s like a broken fuckin’ record. Jeter didn’t run with a crowd, but he hung real tight, all his life, with a kid named Roland Lewis. Haven’t been able to locate Lewis yet.”
“Lewis is missing?”
“Not officially, no.”
“What about forensics, the crime scene?”
“The slug was fired at close range. You saw the burn marks yourself. A twenty-two’ll do the job when the barrel’s pressed right up there against the chin.” Boyle’s eyes moved to the river. “The tire tracks indicate the doers drove some kind of off-road vehicle. Similar tracks were found in a turnaround area at the end of the road, past the last marina. Which tells me that when they left, they headed right for the dead end, had to backtrack—so maybe they weren’t local guys after all.” Boyle looked at me briefly, then away. “Like you said.”
“One important thing, maybe the only real lead we got. There’s a potential witness, someone who actually might have seen something. A worker down at the boatyard says there’s this guy, some crazy boothead, sits under this bridge”—Boyle patted the concrete—“sits right on these blocks, wearing a winter coat, every morning just before dawn, reading books, singing songs, shit like that. And the estimated time of death was just around dawn.”
“That’s about right,” I said.
“And if your friends drove under the bridge, then turned around and drove back, and if this mental deficient was here, there’s a very good chance he got a good look at the car. Maybe he noticed the license plates. Maybe he can ID the shooters themselves.”
“So who’s the guy?”
“The guys at the boatyard, they don’t know him. They never introduced themselves, on account of the guy was stone-crazy.”
“Anybody interview him since?”
Boyle flicked a speck of tobacco off his chin. “He hasn’t been back since. We don’t even know if he was here that particular morning. Johnson’s checked it out a couple of times, and we’ve got a couple of uniforms sitting down here at dawn for as long as we can spare ’em. But so far, nothing.”
“All this stuff in the reports?”
“Yeah.” Boyle pushed the envelope my way but did not hand it over.
“What’s the problem?”
“I know what’s going with you, that’s all. You think because you got polluted and happened to fall down near where a kid got shot, that makes you responsible in some way for his death. But you ought to be smart enough to know that you had nothin’ to do with it—that kid woulda died whether you had been laying there or not. And consider your being drunk some kind of blessing, brother. If you coulda got up off your ass, most likely they woulda killed you, too.”
“I know all that.”
“But you’re still gonna go out and ask around.”
Boyle sighed. “You got no idea what kind of trouble I could get into.” He pointed one thick finger at my face. “Anything you find, you come to me, hear?”
Boyle tossed me the envelope. “Don’t fuck me, Nick.”
He walked away and left me standing under the bridge.
Excerpted from Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go by Pelecanos, George Copyright © 2011 by Pelecanos, George. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.