Hell to Pay

A Derek Strange Novel


By George Pelecanos

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Derek Strange and Terry Quinn, the team of private investigators who made their stunning debut in Right As Rain, are hired to find a 14-year-old white girl from the suburbs who’s run away from home and is now working as a prostitute. The two ex-cops think they know D.C.’s dangers, but nothing in their experience has prepared them for Worldwide Wilson, the pimp whose territory they’re intruding upon.

Combining inimitable neighborhood flavor, action scenes that rank among the best in fiction, and a clear-eyed view of morality in a world with few rules, Hell to Pay is another Pelecanos masterpiece for his ever-expanding audience to savor.


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Table of Contents

Reading Group Guide

Preview of Soul Circus

Preview of The Double


Copyright Page

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GARFIELD Potter sat low behind the wheel of an idling Caprice, his thumb stroking the rubber grip of the Colt revolver loosely fitted between his legs. On the bench beside him, leaning against the passenger window, sat Carlton Little. Little filled an empty White Owl wrapper with marijuana and tamped the herb with his thumb. Potter and Little were waiting on Charles White, who was in the backyard of his grandmother's place, getting his dog out of a cage.

"It don't look like much, does it?" said Potter, looking down at his own lap.

Little grinned lazily. "That's what the girls must say when you pull that thing out."

"Like Brianna, you mean? Your girl? She ain't had no chance to look at it, 'cause I was waxin' her from behind. She felt it, though. Made her forget all about you, too. I mean, when I was done hittin' it she couldn't even remember your name."

"She couldn't remember hers either, drunk as she had to be to fuck a sad motherfucker like you." Little laughed some as he struck a match and held it to the end of the cigar.

"I'm talkin' about this gun, fool." Potter held up the Colt so Little, firing up the blunt, could see it.

"Yeah, okay. Where'd you get it at, man?"

"Traded it to this boy for half an OZ. Was one of those project guns, hadn't even been fired but once or twice. Short barrel, only two inches long, you'd think it couldn't do shit. But this here is a three fifty-seven. They call it a carry revolver, 'cause you can carry this shit without no one knowin' you strapped. I don't need no long barrel, anyway. I like to work close in."

"I'll stick with my nine. You don't even know if that shits works."

"It works. Yours jams, don't be askin' me for mines."

Potter was tall, light skinned, flat of stomach and chest, with thin, ropy forearms and biceps. He kept his hair shaved close to the scalp, with a small slash mark by way of a part. His irises were dark brown and filled his eyes; his nose was a white boy's nose, thin and aquiline. He was quick to smile. It was a smile that could be engaging when he wanted it to be, but more often than not it inspired fear.

Little was not so tall. He was bulked in the shoulders and arms, but twiggish in the legs. A set of weights had given him the show muscles upstairs, but his legs, which he never worked on, betrayed the skinny, malnourished boy he used to be. He wore his hair braided in cornrows and kept a careless, weedy thatch of hair on his chin.

Both wore carpenter jeans and button-down, short-sleeve plaid Nautica shirts over wife-beater Ts. Potter's shoes were whatever was newest in the window of the Foot Locker up at City Place; he had a pair of blue-and-black Air Maxes on now. On Little's feet were wheat-colored Timberland work boots, loosely laced and untied.

Little held a long draw in his lungs and looked ahead, exhaling a cloud of smoke that crashed at the windshield. "Here comes Coon. Lookit how he's all chest out and shit. Proud about that dog."

Charles White was walking his pit bull, Trooper, past a dying oak tree, its leaves nearly stripped bare. A tire hung on a chain from one of the branches. When he was a puppy, Trooper had swung on the tire for hours, holding it fast, strengthening his jaws.

"That ain't no game dog," said Potter. "Coon ain't no dog man, neither."

White had Trooper, brown with a white mask and golden-pink eyes, on a short leash attached to a heavy-ringed, wide leather collar. Trooper's ears were game-cropped at the skull. White, of average size and dressed similarly to his friends, moved toward the car, opened the back door, and let the dog in before getting inside himself.

"S'up, fellas," said White.

"Coon," said Little, looking over the bench at his friend. Others thought White's street name had something to do with his color, dark as he was. But Little knew where the name had come from. He'd been knowing Coon since they were both kids in the Section Eights, back in the early nineties, when White used to wear a coonskin hat, trying to look like that fool rapper from Digital Underground, that group that was popular then. There was the other thing, too: White had a nose on him, big and long like some cartoon animal. And he walked kind of pitched forward, with his bony fingers spread kind of like claws, the way a critter in the woods would do.

"Gimme some of that hydro, Dirty."

Dirty was Little's street name, so given because of his fondness for discussing women's privates. Men's, too. Also, he loved to eat all that greasy fast food. Little passed the blunt back to White. White hit it deep.

"Your champion ready?" said Potter.

"What?" said White.

It was hard to hear in the car. Potter had the music, the new DMX joint on PGC, turned up loud.

"I said, is that dumb animal gonna win us some money today?" said Potter, raising his voice.

White didn't answer right away. He held the smoke down in his lungs and let it out slow.

"He gonna win us mad money, D," said White. He reached over and massaged the dense muscles bunched around Trooper's jaw. Trooper's mouth opened in pleasure and his eyes shifted over to his master's. "Right, boy?"

"Sure he's strong enough?"

"Shoot, he was strong enough to drag a log down the block yesterday mornin'."

"I ain't ask you can he do circus tricks. Can he hold his shit in a fight?"

"He will."

"Well, he ain't showed me nothin' yet."

"What about that snatch we did with that boy's dog over on Crittenden?"

Potter looked in the rearview at White. "That dog at Crittenden wasn't nothin' but a cur. Trooper a cur, too."

"The hell he is. You're gonna see today."

"We better see. 'Cause I ain't wastin' my time or my green paper on no pussy-ass animal." Potter slid the Colt under the waistband of his jeans.

"I said, you're gonna see."

"C'mon, D," said Little. "Let's get a roll on, man."

Garfield Potter's street name was Death. He didn't care for it much since this girl he wanted to fuck told him it scared her some. Never did get that girl's drawers down, either. So he felt the name was bad luck, worse still to go and change it. His friends now called him D.

Potter turned the key in the ignition. It made an awful grinding sound. Little clapped his hands together and doubled over with laughter.

"Ho, shit!" said Little, clapping his hands one more time. "Car's already started, man, you don't need to be startin' it again! Maybe if you turned that music down some you'd know."

"Noisy as this whip is, too," said White.

"Fuck you, Coon," said Potter, "talkin' mad shit about this car, when you're cruisin' around town in that piece-of-shit Toyota, lookin' like a Spanish Cadillac and shit."

"All this money we got," said Little, "and we're drivin' around in a hooptie."

"We'll be gettin' rid of it soon," said Potter. "And anyway, it ain't all that funny as y'all are makin' it out to be."

"Yeah, you right. It just hit me funny, is all." Little took the blunt that White handed to him over the front seat and stared at it stupidly. "I ain't lyin', boy, this chronic right here just laid my ass out."

THE dogfights were held in a large garage backing to an alley behind a house on Ogelthorpe, in Manor Park in Northwest. The fights went down once a week for several hours during the day, when most of the neighbors were off at work. Those neighbors who were at home were afraid of the young men who came to the fights, and did not complain to the police.

Potter parked the Chevy in the alley. He and the others got out of the car, White heeling Trooper to his side. They went down the alley, nodding but not smiling at some young men they knew to be members of the Delafield Mob. Others were standing around, holding their animals, getting high, and drinking from the lips of bottles peeking through the tops of brown paper bags. Little and Wright followed Potter into the garage.

Ten to twenty young men were scattered about the perimeter of the garage. A group was shooting craps in the corner. Others were passing around joints. Someone had put on Dr. Dre 2001, with Snoop, Eminem, and all them, and it was coming loud from a box.

In the middle of the garage was a fighting area of industrial carpet, penned off from the rest of the interior by a low chain-link fence, gated in two corners. Inside one corner of the pen, a man held a link leash taut on a black pit bull spotted brown over its belly and chest. The dog's name was Diesel. Its ears were gnarled and its neck showed raised scars like pink worms.

Potter studied a man, old for this group, maybe thirty or so, who stood alone in a corner, putting fire to a cigarette.

"I'll be back in a few," said Potter to Little.

" 'Bout ready to show the dogs," said Little.

"Got a mind to put money on that black dog. But go ahead and bet Trooper, hear?"

"Three hunrid?"

"Three's good."

Potter made his way over to the cigarette smoker, short and dumpy, a raggedy-ass dude on the way down, and stood before him.

"I know you."

The smoker looked up with lazy eyes, trying to hold on to his shit. "Yeah?"

"You run with Lorenze Wilder, right?"

"I seen him around. Don't mean we run together or nothin' like that." But now the smoker recognized Potter and he lost his will to keep his pride. His eyes dropped to the concrete floor.

"Outside," said Potter.

The older man followed Potter into the daylight, not too fast but without protest. Potter led him around the garage's outer wall, which faced the neighboring yards to the west.

"What's your name?"

"Edward Diggs."

"Call you Digger Dog, right?"

"Some do."

"Lorenze called you that when we sold him that hydro a few weeks back. You were standing right next to him. Remember me now?"

Diggs said nothing, and Potter moved forward so that he was looking down on Diggs and just a few inches from his face. Diggs's back touched the garage wall.

"So where your boy Lorenze at?"

"I don't know. He stays in his mother's old house—"

"Over off North Dakota. I know where that is, and he ain't been there awhile. Leastways, I ain't caught him in. He got a woman he cribs with on the side?"

Diggs avoided Potter's stare. "Not that I know."

"What about other kin?"

Diggs took a long final drag off his cigarette and dropped it to the ground, crushing it beneath his sneaker. He looked to his right, out in the alley, but there was no one there. Everyone had gone inside the garage. Potter spread one tail on his shirt and draped it back behind the butt of the Colt, so that Diggs could see.

Diggs shifted his eyes again and lowered his voice. He had to give this boy something, just so he'd go away. "Lorenze got a sister. She be livin' down in Park Morton with her little boy." "Maybe I'll drop by. What's her name?"

"I wouldn't… What I'm sayin' is, you want my advice—" Potter open-handed Diggs across the face. He used his left hand to bunch Diggs's shirt at the collar, then yanked Diggs forward and slapped him again.

Diggs said nothing, his body limp. Potter held him fast.

"What's the sister's name?"

Diggs's eyes had teared up. He hated himself for that. All he meant to do was advise this boy, tell him, don't fuck with Lorenze's sister or her kid. But it was too late for all that now.

"I don't know her name," said Diggs. "And anyway, Lorenze, he don't never go by the way or nothin'. He don't talk to his sister much, way I understand it. Sometimes he watches her kid play football; boy's on this tackle team. But that's as close as he gets to her."

"Where the kid play at?"

"Lorenze said the kid practices in the evenings at some high school."

"Which school?"

"He live in Park Morton, so it must be Roosevelt. It ain't but a few blocks up the street there—"

"I ain't asked you for directions, did I? I live up on Warder Street my own self, so you don't need to be drawin' me a map."

"It ain't too far from there, is all I was sayin'."

Potter's eyes softened. He smiled and released his grip on Diggs. "I didn't hurt you none, did I? 'Cause, look, I didn't mean nothin', hear?"

Diggs straightened his collar. "I'm all right."

"Let me get one of those cigarettes from you, black."

Diggs reached into his breast pocket and retrieved his pack of Kools. A cigarette slid out into his palm. He handed the cigarette to Potter.

Potter snapped the cigarette in half and bounced the halves off Diggs's chest. Potter's laugh was like a bark. He turned and walked away.

Diggs straightened his shirt and stepped quickly down the alley. He looked over his shoulder and saw that Potter had turned the corner. Diggs reached into his pocket and shook another cigarette out from a hole he had torn in the bottom of the pack.

Diggs's boy Lorenze was staying with this girl he knew over in Northeast. Lorenze had kind of laughed it off, said he'd crib with that girl until Potter forgot about the debt. Didn't look to Diggs that Potter was the type to forget. But he was proud he hadn't given Lorenze up. Most folks he knew didn't credit him for being so strong.

Diggs struck a match. He noticed that his hand was shaking some as he fired up his cigarette.

Back in the garage, Potter sidled up next to Little. The owner of the garage, also the house bookie, stood nearby, holding the cash and taking late bets.

In one corner of the pen, Charles White finished sponging Trooper down with warm, soapy water. Diesel's owner, in the opposite corner, did the same. Many dogs were treated with chemicals that could disorient the opponent. The rule in this arena was that both dogs had to be washed prior to a fight.

White scratched the top of Trooper's head, bent in, and uttered random words into his ear with a soothing tone. The referee, an obese young man, stepped into the ring after a nod from the owner of the garage.

"Both corners ready?" said the referee. "Cornermen out of the pit."

White moved behind his dog into the space of the open gate, still holding Trooper back.

"Face your dogs," said the referee. They did this, and quickly the referee said, "Let go!"

The dogs shot into the center of the pit. Both of them got up on their hind legs, attacking the head of the other with their jaws. They snapped at each other's ears and sought purchase in the area of the neck. In the fury of their battle, the dogs did not make a sound. The garage echoed with the shouts and laughter of the spectators crowding the ring.

For a moment the dogs seemed to reach a stalemate. Suddenly their motions accelerated. Their bodies meshed in a blur of brown and black, and the bright pink of exposed gums. Droplets of blood arced up in the center of the ring.

Diesel got a neck-hold and Trooper was taken down. Trooper, adrenalized, his eyes bright and wild, scrambled up and out of the hold. One of his ears had been partially torn away, and blood had leaked onto the dog's white mask. Diesel went in, back to the neck. And now Trooper was down again, in the jaws of Diesel, squirming beneath the black dog.

"Stop it!" shouted White.

Potter nudged Little, who nodded by way of reply.

"That's it," said the referee, waving his arms.

White went into the ring and grabbed Trooper's hind legs, pulling back. Diesel's owner did the same. Diesel relaxed his jaws, releasing Trooper to his man. The spectators moved away from the pen, laughing, giving one another skin, already trying out stories on one another that exaggerated the details of the fight.

"You were right," said Little. "That dog was a cur."

"What I tell you?" said Potter. "Dog's personality only as strong as the man who owns it."

White arrived with Trooper, back on his leash. "I need to fix him up some," said White, not looking into his friends' eyes.

"We'll do it now," said Potter. "Let's go."

A COUPLE of blocks away, near Fort Slocum Park, Potter pulled the Chevy into an alley where there seemed to be no activity. He cut the engine and looked over the backseat at White; Trooper sat panting, his hip resting against his owner's.

"Dog needs to pee," said Potter.

"He went," said White. "Let's just take him to the vet place."

"He already bleedin' all over the backseat. He pees back there, too, I ain't gonna be too happy. Gimme the leash, man, I'll walk him."

"I'll walk him," said White. His lip quivered when he spoke.

"Let D walk him if he wants to, Coon," said Little. "Dog needs to pee, don't make no difference who be holdin' the leash."

Potter got out of the car and went around to White's side. He opened the door and took hold of the leash. The dog looked over at White and then jumped his lap and was out of the car.

Potter walked Trooper down the alley until they were behind a high wooden privacy fence. Potter looked around briefly, saw no one in the neighboring yards or in the windows of the houses, and commanded the dog to sit.

When Trooper sat, Potter pulled the .357 Colt from his waistband, pointed it close to the dog's right eye, and squeezed the trigger. Trooper's muzzle and most of his face exploded out into the alley in a haze of bone and blood. The dog toppled over onto its side and its legs straightened in a shudder. Potter stepped back and shot the dog in the ribcage one more time. Trooper's carcass lifted an inch or two off the ground and came to rest.

Potter went back to the car and got behind the wheel. Little was holding a match to the half of the White Owl blunt he had not yet smoked.

"Gun works," said Potter.

Little nodded. "Loud, too."

Potter put the trans in gear, draped his arm over the bench seat, and turned his head to look out the rear window as he reversed the car out of the alley. White was staring out the window, his face dirty from tears he had tried to wipe away.

"Go on and get it out you," said Potter. "Someone you know see you cryin' over some dumb animal, they gonna mistake you for a bitch. And I ain't ridin' with none of that."

POTTER, Little, and White bought a kilo of marijuana from their dealer in Columbia Heights, dimed out half of it back at their place, and delivered the dimes to their runners so they could get started on the evening rush. Then the three of them drove north up Georgia Avenue and over to Roosevelt High. They went into the parking lot at Iowa Avenue and parked the Chevy beside a black Cadillac Brougham. There were several other cars in the lot.

Potter looked in the rearview at White, staring ahead. "We straight, Coon?"

"Just a dumb animal, like you said. Don't mean nothin' to me."

Potter didn't like the tone in White's voice. But White was just showing a little pride. That was good, but he'd never act on his anger for real. Like his weak-ass dog, he wasn't game.

"I'll check it out," said Potter to Little.

He walked across the parking lot and stood at the fence that bordered the stadium down below. After a while he came back to the car.

"You see him?" said Little as Potter got back behind the wheel.

"Nah," said Potter. "Just some kids playin' football. Some old-time motherfuckers, coaches and shit."

"We can come back."

"We will. I'm gonna smoke that motherfucker when I see him, too."

"Wilder don't owe you but a hundred dollars, D."

"Thinks he can ignore his debt. Tryin' to take me for bad; you know I can't just let that go."

"Ain't like you need the money today or nothin' like that."

"It ain't the money," said Potter. "And I can wait."



DEREK Strange was coming out of a massage parlor when he felt his beeper vibrate against his hip. He checked the number printed out across the horizontal screen and walked through Chinatown over to the MLK library on 9th, where a bank of pay phones was set outside the facility. Strange owned a cell, but he still used street phones whenever he could.

"Janine," said Strange.


"You rang?"

"Those women been calling you again. The two investigators from out in Montgomery County?"

"I called them back, didn't I?"

"You mean I did. They been trying to get an appointment with you for a week now."

"So they're still trying."

"They're being a little bit more aggressive than that. They're heading into town right now, want to meet you for lunch. Said they'd pick up the tab."

Strange tugged his jeans away from his crotch where they had stuck.

"It's a money job, Derek."

"Hold up, Janine." Strange put the receiver against his chest as a man who was passing by stopped to shake his hand.

"Tommy, how you been?"

"Doin' real good, Derek," said Tommy. "Say, you got any spare love you can lay on me till I see you next time?"

Strange looked at the black baggage beneath Tommy's eyes, the way his pants rode low on his bony hips. Strange had come up with Tommy's older brother, Scott, who was gone ten years now from the cancer that took his shell. Scott wouldn't want Strange to give his baby brother any money, not for what Tommy had in mind.

"Not today," said Strange.

"All right, then," said Tommy, shamed, but not enough. He slowly walked away.

Strange spoke into the receiver. "Janine, where they want to meet?"


"Call 'em up and tell 'em I'll be there. 'Bout twenty minutes." "Am I going to see you tonight?"

"Maybe after practice."

"I marinated a chuck roast, gonna grill it on the Weber. Lionel will be at practice, won't he? You're going to drop him off at our house anyway, aren't you?"


"We can talk about it when you come back by the office. You got a two o'clock with George Hastings."

"I remember. Okay, we'll talk about it then."

"I love you, Derek."

Strange lowered his voice. "I love you, too, baby."

Strange hung up the phone. He did love her. And her voice, more than her words, had brought him some guilt for what he'd just done. But there was love and sex on one side and just sex on the other. To Strange, the two were entirely different things.

STRANGE drove east in his white-over-black '89 Caprice, singing along softly to "Wake Up Everybody" coming from the deck. That first verse, where Teddy's purring those call-to-arms words against the Gamble and Huff production, telling the listener to open his eyes, look around, get involved and into the uplift side of things, there wasn't a whole lot of American music more beautiful than that.

His Rand McNally street atlas lay on the seat beside him. He had a Leatherman tool-in-one looped through his belt, touching a Buck knife, sheathed and attached the same way on his right hip. His beeper he wore on his left. The rest of his equipment was in a double-locked glove box and in the trunk. It was true that most modern investigative work was done in an office and on the Internet. Strange thought of himself as having two offices, though, his base office in Petworth and the one in his car, right here. His preference was to work the street.

It was early September. The city was still hot during the day, though the nights had cooled some. It would be that way in the District for another month or so.

" 'The world won't get no better,' " sang Strange, " 'if we just let it be.…' "

Soon the colors would change in Rock Creek Park. And then would come those weeks near Thanksgiving when the weather turned for real and the leaves were still coming down off the trees. Strange had his own name for it: deep fall. It was his favorite time of year in D.C.

FROSSO'S, a stand-alone structure with a green thatched roof, sat on a west-side corner of 13th and L, Northwest, like a pimple on the ass of a beautiful girl. The Mediterranean who owned the business owned the real estate and had refused to sell, even as the offers came in, even as new office buildings went in around him. Frosso's was a burger-and-lunch counter, also a happy-hour bar and hangout for those remaining workers who still drank and smoked or didn't mind the smell of smoke on their clothes. Beer gardens in this part of downtown were few and far between.

Strange made his way through a noisy dining area to a four-top back by the pay phone and head, where two women sat. He recognized the investigators, a salt-and-pepper team, from an article he'd read on them in City Paper a few months back. They worked cases retrieving young runaways gone to hooking. The two of them were aligned with some do-goodnik, pro-prosti organization that operated on grants inside D.C.

"Derek Strange," he said, shaking the black woman's hand and then the white woman's before he took a seat.

"I'm Karen Bagley. This is Sue Tracy."

Strange slid his business card across the table. Bagley gave him one in turn, Strange scanning it for the name of their business: Bagley and Tracy Investigative Services, and below the name, in smaller letters, "Specializing in Locating and Retrieving Minors." A plain card, without any artwork, Strange thinking, They could use a logo, give their card a signature, something to make the customers remember them by.

Bagley was medium-skinned and wide of nose. Her eyes were large and deep brown, the lashes accentuated by makeup. Freckles like coarse pepper buckshotted her face. Sue Tracy was a shag-cut blonde, green-eyed, still tanned from the last of summer, with smaller shoulders than Bagley's. They were serious-faced, handsome, youngish women, hard boned and, Strange guessed—he couldn't see the business end of their bodies, seated at the table—strong of thigh. They looked like the ex-cops that the newspaper article had described them to be. Better looking, in fact, than most of the female officers Strange had known.

Tracy pointed a finger at the mug in front of her. Bagley's hand was wrapped around a mug as well. "You want a beer?"

"Too early for me. I'll get a burger, though. Medium, with some blue cheese crumbled on top. And a ginger ale from the bottle, not the gun."

Tracy called the waitress over, addressed her by name, got a burger working for Strange. The waitress said, "Got it, Sue," tearing the top sheet off a green-lined pad before turning back toward the lunch counter.


On Sale
Feb 23, 2011
Page Count
368 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