Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go


By George Pelecanos

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“You already been a punk. Least you can do is go out like a man.”

Then a dull popping sound and a quiet splash. In his third appearance in George Pelecanos’s acclaimed series, Nick Stefanos has been spending too much time with bad women and bad booze. Which is why he wakes up one blurry morning on the banks of the Anacostia River, hungover and miserable — and now a witness to a murder. With the help of a partner as straight-arrow as Nick is bent, Nick decides to track down the killer, an investigation that leads them through the roughest part of the nation’s capital, and into the blackest parts of the human soul.


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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.

"Whas'up, Nick?"

"'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."

"Forget it."

"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."

"Shit, Nicky."


"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."

"I guess."

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.


  • "Pelecanos joins company with James Ellroy, Andrew Vachss and Jack O' Connell in extending the noirest tones of crime fiction and unleashes a lacerating view of urban angst and degradation."--Publishers Weekly
  • "One of the country's finest writers, no matter the genre."--Chicago Sun-Times
  • "Mr. Pelecanos. . . is part of a fraternity of writers, including Dennis Lehane and Richard Price, who push the boundaries of crime writing into literary territory, exploring character more deeply than many crime novelists dare, introducing challenging social themes and bucking expectations that everything will come out all right in the end."--Motoko Rich, New York Times
  • "Few novelists have chronicled urban crime as convincingly as George Pelecanos."--Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg, Wall Street Journal
  • "George Pelecanos does not write for those seeking a stock crime novel, who like their books conventional, their plots pat and their endings neatly tied up. . . . Pelecanos writes a different kind of book: gritty, disturbing, and unpredictable . . . powerful and compelling."--Miles Corwin, Los Angeles Times Book Review

On Sale
Jul 27, 2011
Page Count
272 pages
Back Bay Books

George Pelecanos

About the Author

George Pelecanos is the bestselling author of twenty-two novels and story collections set in and around Washington, D.C. He is also a producer and Emmy-nominated writer of HBO's The WireTremeThe Deuce and We Own This City. He lives in Maryland.

Learn more about this author