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Spero Lucas has a new line of work. Since he returned home to Washington, D.C. after serving in Iraq, he has been doing special investigations for a defense attorney. He’s good at it, and he has carved out a niche: recovering stolen property, no questions asked. His cut is forty percent.
A high-profile crime boss who has heard of Lucas’s specialty hires him to find out who has been stealing from his operation. It’s the biggest job Spero has ever been offered, and he quickly gets a sense of what’s going on. But before he can close in on what’s been taken, he tangles with a world of men whose amorality and violence leave him reeling. Is any cut worth your family, your lover, your life?
The first in a series of thrillers featuring Spero Lucas, The Cut is the latest confirmation of why George Pelecanos is “perhaps America’s greatest living crime writer.”-Stephen King
Table of Contents
Reading Group Guide
Preview of What It Was
Preview of The Double
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THEY WERE in a second-story office with a bank of windows overlooking D Street at 5th, in a corner row house close to the federal courts. Tom Petersen, big and blond, sat behind his desk, wearing an untucked paisley shirt, jeans, and boots. Spero Lucas, in Carhartt, was in a hard chair set before the desk. Petersen was a criminal defense attorney, private practice. Lucas, one of his investigators.
A black Moleskine notebook the size of a pocket Bible was open in Lucas's hand. He was scribbling something in the book.
"It's all in the documents I'm going to give you," said Petersen with growing impatience. "You don't need to take notes."
"I'd rather," said Lucas.
"I can't tell if you're listening."
"I'm listening. Where'd they boost the Denali?"
"They took it up in Manor Park, on Peabody Street. Near the community garden, across from the radio towers."
"Behind the police station?"
"Right in back of Four-D."
"Pretty bold," said Lucas. "How many boys?"
"Two. Unfortunately, my client, David Hawkins, was the one behind the wheel."
"You just have him?"
"The other one, Duron Gaskins, he's been assigned a PD."
"Duron," said Lucas.
Petersen shrugged. "Like the paint."
"How'd David get so lucky to score a stud like you?"
"I'm representing his father on another matter," said Petersen.
"So this is like a favor."
"A four-hundred-dollar-an-hour favor."
Lucas's back had begun to stiffen. He shifted his weight in his chair. "Give me some details."
Petersen pushed a manila file across the desk. "Here."
"Talk to me."
"What do you want to know?"
"How'd they do it, for starters?"
"Steal the vehicle? That was easy. The boys were walking down the street, supposed to be in school, but hey. It's early in the morning, cold as hell. You remember that snap we had back in February? This woman comes out of her apartment, starts her SUV up, and then leaves it running and goes back into the apartment."
"She forget somethin?"
"She was heating up the Denali before she went to work."
"Insurance companies don't like that."
"She left the driver's door unlocked, too. So naturally, being teenage boys, they got in and took the SUV for a spin."
"I would have," said Lucas.
"You did, I recall."
"What happened next?"
"From Peabody, David went south on Ninth to Missouri, then drove east. He caught North Capitol along Rock Creek Cemetery and took that cutoff street west, the stretch that goes by the Soldiers' Home."
"That would be Allison," said Lucas, starting to see it, like he was looking down at a detail map. He had a cop's knowledge of D.C. because he was out in it, street level, most of his waking hours. When he didn't have to drive his Cherokee, Lucas rode his bicycle around town. At night he often walked.
"Here's where they got in trouble. David, keep in mind he's fifteen, no significant driving experience far as I know, he loses control of the SUV. Sideswipes a lady in a Buick, which knocks her out of her lane and into a couple of parked cars."
"By now they'd be on Rock Creek Church Road."
"Yeah, there," said Petersen. "The woman in the Buick? Claims she's got neck injuries."
"That's not good."
"I'm gonna work something out with her attorney."
"This kid's father must be flush."
"This where the police come in?"
"Happens to be a patrol car, coupla uniforms idling nose out at Second and Varnum see this collision."
"And the chase is on."
"Took the police officer a half minute to put his coffee down and flip on the siren and light bar. By that time, David knew he'd been burned, and he jumps the sidewalk and cuts right onto Upshur Street."
"Driving on the Sidewalk, that's a good one."
"Fleeing and Eluding, Leaving the Scene of an Accident, Auto Theft…"
"Kid's got a rack of problems."
"He fishtails when he hits Upshur. Comes out of that and pins it. You know Upshur going west there—"
"It's long and straight. Downhill."
Petersen leaned forward, getting into it. "This boy is screaming down Upshur, Spero. Blowing four-ways, Wale or whatever coming loud out the windows."
"Nah," said Lucas, chuckling.
"Now you're making shit up. You don't know what they were listening to."
"True. They're coming down Upshur, the patrol car, pretty far back but gaining ground, in pursuit. Eventually our boys hit that commercial strip getting down toward Georgia Avenue, at Ninth."
"I know the spot," said Lucas. He was drawing a rough map, very quickly, in his notebook.
"And there's another cop car," said Petersen, "parked right there on the street. The driver is waiting on his partner, who's getting a pack of smokes in a little market they got in that strip."
"What market?" said Lucas.
"I don't know the name of it. Spanish joint, eight hundred block, north side of Upshur. Beer and wine, pork rinds, like that. It's in the file, along with the address. What happens next is, David sees this police car, and I guess he panics, and here's where he makes the last mistake. He cuts a sharp right into an alley, right before Ninth."
"A car is parked in the alley, blocking their way. The boys get out of the vehicle and run; David Hawkins is apprehended on the street. The other boy, Duron, is caught a little while later, attempting to hide in the bathroom of an El Salvadoran restaurant around the corner."
"Who arrested David?"
"The officer waiting in the patrol car. A Clarence Jackson. By then the car in pursuit had arrived on the scene."
"How'd Officer Jackson know that David was one of the boys in the car?"
"In his report, Jackson stated that he observed two boys exit an SUV that they had driven into the alley. Jackson got to David first. The arriving officers arrested Duron in the restaurant."
"Where was Officer Jackson parked when he saw this?"
"It's in the file."
Lucas sat still for a long minute, looking at nothing. He closed his notebook and got up out of his seat. He stood five-foot-eleven, went one eighty-five, had a flat stomach and a good chest and shoulders. His hair was black and he wore it short. His eyes were green, flecked with gold, and frequently unreadable. He was twenty-nine years old.
Petersen watched Lucas stretch. "Sorry. That seat's unforgiving."
"It's these wood floors. The chair sits funny on 'em cause the planks are warped."
"This house goes back to the nineteenth century."
"Your point is what?"
"Ghosts of greatness walk these rooms. I start messing with the floors, I might make them angry."
A young GW law student entered Petersen's office and dropped a large block of papers on his desk. She was dark haired, fully curved, and effortlessly attractive. Tom Petersen's interns looked more or less like younger versions of his knockout wife.
"The Parker briefs," said the woman, whose name was Constance Kelly.
"Thank you," said Petersen. He watched Lucas admire her as she walked away.
Petersen stood and went to the eastern window of his office. Below, on the street, lawyers pulled wheeled briefcases toward the courthouse, uniformed and plainclothes police bullshitted with one another, mothers spoke patiently and angrily with their sons, civil servants took cigarette breaks, and folks of all shapes and colors went in and out of the Potbelly shop on the first floor.
"Life's rich pageant," said Petersen.
"That's a rock record from back in your day, right?"
"Inspector Clouseau, originally."
"You got me on that one."
"I have twenty years on you. At times the perspective is obvious. Other times, no." Petersen looked him over with the respect that men who have not served give to those who have. "You've seen a lot, haven't you?"
"It's been interesting, so far." Lucas slipped his notebook into his jacket and picked up the David Hawkins file off Petersen's desk.
"Bring me something back I can use," said Petersen.
Lucas nodded. "I'll get out there."
THE NEXT morning he stopped by the Glenwood Cemetery in Northeast to see his baba. Glenwood was an old but well-kept graveyard, acres of rolling, high-ground land holding plots with headstones memorializing lives going back to the 1800s. His father was buried here, beside his own parents, on the west side of the facility, which bordered dead-end residential streets stemming off North Capitol in a neighborhood called Stronghold. Past this last section of graves the land dropped off and there went Bryant Street, its short block of row homes in a neat descending line. Lucas looked down at his father's marker and placed a dozen roses on his plot. He said a silent prayer of thanks for the granting of life, did his stavro, and got back in his four-wheel.
He drove a 2001 Jeep Cherokee, the old boxy model with the legendary in-line 6. The model had been discontinued years ago, but because it was sturdy and reliable there were many of them still on the streets. In that respect it was the aughts version of the old Dodge Dart. With his black Jeep, empty of bumper stickers or decals, and his utilitarian clothing, Lucas was unmemorable by design, a tradesman, maybe, or a meter reader, just another workingman quietly going about his business in the city.
Lucas went up to Peabody and began to drive the route of David Hawkins and his friend Duron. Missouri, North Capitol, Allison, and then Rock Creek Church, where it had begun to go wrong. He recalled the adrenaline rush he had experienced the day he and a couple of buddies from the wrestling team had stolen a car, back in high school. It didn't matter who suggested it; they had all participated with enthusiasm, and all had been caught, arrested, and charged. They pled down, and, because they were white and came from stable families, they had pulled community service and loose supervision. There were no further problems; Lucas's mistake was a one-shot deal, and he did not want to shame his parents in that way ever again. By the time he entered the Marine Corps, his conviction had been expunged.
He understood why David and Duron had stolen the SUV. Teenage boys did stupid things; their brains were wired for impulse and fun. Wasn't but a little more than ten years back that he had been one of those reckless boys, too, before September 11 and his tour of Iraq. A sobering decade, a decade that stole his youth.
Lucas drove west on Upshur. He gunned the Jeep going down the hill and pulled over when he reached the commercial strip, near Georgia Avenue. He saw the alley, cut along a salmon-colored building, currently unoccupied, where the boys had been trapped. He looked at the south and north sides of the strip and he studied the businesses and the layout of the street. In his notebook he drew a map showing the locations of the establishments. On the south side: a funeral parlor, a dry cleaner's, a carryout featuring Chinese/steak-and-cheese, a nail salon, and a hair salon; on the north side: a storefront church, a market selling wine and beer, a furnishings store that seemed too upscale for the neighborhood, a hair salon, a Caribbean café, the alley, the salmon-colored building, another Chinese/American hybrid, a seafood carryout, a beverage shop, and on the corner a shuttered barbershop. Many of the stores had English and Spanish signage in their windows; there were blacks, Hispanics, and a few whites out on the street.
He got out of the car and, using his iPhone, took photographs of these businesses and their spots on the block. No one questioned him or got in his way. He went around the corner and noted the commercial layout of Ninth: the Petworth station of the U.S. Post Office, a private-detective agency, another funeral home, the Salvadoran restaurant where Duron had tried to hide, an embroidery shop, and a corner Spanish grocery store that did not have any English signage and was padlocked shut. Above the detective agency door was a lightbox that read "Strange Investigations," with several letters enlarged by the magnifying-glass logo placed over them. He had heard tell of the man, Derek Strange, and his latest partner, a middle-aged Greek whose name he could not recall.
Lucas retraced his steps, crossed Upshur and stood by the Chinese eat-house, where in his report Officer Clarence Jackson stated that he had been parked, and saw that indeed it afforded a direct view of the alley. He took a photograph from that perspective. He looked across the street to the market where Jackson's partner had bought his smokes, and he saw that there was a fire hydrant in front of it. That would explain why Jackson had parked across the street. It would have explained it perfectly, except for the fact that Jackson was police.
Lucas crossed Upshur once again and entered the beer and wine market. It was clean, well stocked with alcohol and food packaged in bags, its walls lined with steel shelving and reach-in coolers. Behind the register counter was a man in his forties, round brown face, white shirt open at the neck revealing a gold crucifix in a thicket of black chest hair. By his bearing and the gold-and-diamond ring on his finger, Lucas surmised that he was the owner. When questioned, the man confirmed this. Lucas gave him his name and identified himself simply as an "investigator." He asked if the owner, who called himself Odin, recalled the day of the arrest, and Odin said that he did. He asked Odin where the officer had been parked when his partner had entered the market to buy his smokes, and Odin said, "He park out front." When Lucas noted that there was a fire hydrant out front, Odin, who like many hardworking Hispanics was a law-and-order man, said rather defensively, "But he is police; he park where he want!"
Lucas got the man's contact information, thanked him, and made a note in his book regarding the pronunciation of Odin's name. He left the store and took multiple photographs of the alley from the point of view of the empty parking spot. He framed these so that the fire hydrant was in the foreground of the shots.
THE NEXT day, Lucas was sitting on the edge of Constance the intern's desk, trying to talk her into something, when Petersen called out to him from his office.
"We should continue this conversation later on," said Lucas.
"You think so?" said Constance, a strand of dark hair over one eye, light freckles across the bridge of her nose. She reminded Lucas of one of those J. Crew girls. There was no trace of a smile on her face, but there was a light in her eyes, and Lucas knew that if he wanted to be in, he was in.
Petersen was behind his desk, loud striped shirt untucked, his blond hair shaggy around his face, looking like an aged Brian Jones. He was checking out photos on his computer screen, displayed from a disk that Lucas had burned from his iPhone.
"These are interesting," said Petersen, Lucas now standing beside him.
"The ones with the hydrant in the foreground? That would approximate the sight line of Officer Jackson. From where he was actually parked, as opposed to where he said he was parked."
"He couldn't have seen deep into the alley from there."
"He could only have seen the head of it, and a small piece of it at that. The report says the Denali was found at the back edge of that salmon-colored building. So, from that perspective, there's no way Jackson could have observed David and Duron get out of that SUV."
"Can anyone testify that Jackson was parked in front of the market?"
From his back pocket Lucas produced his notebook and opened it. "The owner. His name is Odin Nolasco." Lucas spelled it and Petersen wrote it down. Lucas said, "It's pronounced Oh-deen. I don't think he'd willingly discredit a police officer's official report. You're going to have to subpoena him. When you get him on the stand you might have to treat him as hostile."
"Thank you for the legal advice, counselor."
"The visual ID, the link of the boys to the SUV, that's the prosecution's case right there."
"Weren't the boys' prints on the Denali?"
"Their prints were all over it. But that's less significant than what we have here. I was weighing a plea, but now I want this to go to trial. You put it into a D.C. jury's head that a police officer gave false testimony to make a case against a juvenile, nine times out of ten that jury's going to acquit, even in the face of damning evidence."
"Well, there's your ammunition." Lucas held up the notebook. "I've got street maps I drew, right in here, if you need them."
"The Book of Luke."
"Good work, man."
Lucas began to walk from the office, and Petersen stopped him. "Spero?"
"Don't bother Constance. She's a nice girl."
"I like nice girls," said Lucas. He meant it, too.
IT WENT the way Petersen said it would. A month later, he phoned Lucas and got him on his cell.
"David Hawkins was acquitted," said Petersen.
"Duron?" said Lucas.
"Duron will walk, too."
"Do I get a bonus, somethin?"
"In a way. But not from me."
"That would be out of character."
"David's father, Anwan Hawkins, would like to meet you. I think he has something like an extra envelope in mind."
"Anwan Hawkins the dealer?"
"Yeah. Up on trafficking charges at the moment, unfortunately. He's currently in the D.C. Jail."
"He wants me to come there?"
"Visitation days are set by the first letter in the last names, right?"
"That's for social visits; the prison makes audio recordings of those conversations. You should go in as one of my official investigators. Those conversations are confidential."
"I'll put a letter in to the DOC. It takes twenty-four hours to clear."
"You know what Hawkins wants?"
"I believe Anwan is going to make you some sort of a proposal. But I can't have you taking on any side work for a week or so. You've got those interviews to do for me on that Southeast thing. I'm defending Reginald Brooks, the shooter. Remember?"
"So what should I tell Anwan?" Petersen got no comment from Lucas. "Spero?"
"I'll meet with him," said Lucas. "See what he has to say."
Which is how Spero Lucas met Anwan Hawkins, and the truck began to roll downhill.
LUCAS HIT "end" on his iPhone and placed the device on the nightstand beside his bed. The stand held a digital alarm clock, a lamp with a pillowcase thrown over its shade, his Bible, and a couple of other books. Lucas kept two, a fiction and a nonfiction, going at a time. He rolled over and got up on one elbow. Constance Kelly was beside him, naked in the bed.
"That was your boss," said Lucas.
"I don't have a boss."
"Neither do I, technically. I'm an intern, remember? At least you get paid."
"Fifteen an hour."
"It's folding money."
"Don't forget about the meal plan. Horace and Dickies, Litteri's…"
"Tom does like to feed his troops."
Lucas leaned into her. They kissed.
"Why'd he call you on a Monday night?" said Constance.
"He had something for me."
Lucas shook his head. He ran his hand down her neckline, her breast, her ribcage. The inside of her thigh and between her legs.
"I'm not on the stand," said Lucas.
"You do side work," said Constance. "Isn't that right?" In the low light of his bedroom lamp she looked very young.
"Something like that."
"That's how you have all this." She meant his spacious apartment. His bicycle, his car, the kayak hung on hooks on the back porch. In terms of Washington, it really wasn't much at all. But from her perspective, living on a tight budget, it looked like a lot.
"All this," said Lucas, finding a spot she liked.
She gasped a little and arched her back. She sucked at his lip and he pulled away, looking down at her, admiring her.
"I guess you think you're pretty smart," said Lucas.
Her chest blushed pink and he laughed.
"Stop it," she said.
"What's the rush?"
"I mean it," she said, her eyes slightly gone.
She tugged at him and he fitted himself between her, lifting one of her legs. It was slow at first. They searched for it and then they found it and soon it became something else, and the bed moved across the floor. Constance's hand twisted the sheets, her pupils dilated, her hair fanned out about her face. She was the quiet type, but he felt her tense beneath him, and when she made it, Lucas let go and shot a hot river.
They lay there quietly, the sex smell heavy in the room. She liked him to linger. When she was ready she pushed at him a little and she made a small sound when he pulled out. She rolled off the mattress and stood. He watched her cross the room slowly, deliberately, so he could take her in. She was proud of her body and rightly so. He listened to her in the bathroom, washing herself, and then the sound of water drumming in the sink. Thinking, This is what I dreamed of when I was overseas: a nice big comfortable bed in a place of my own, money in my pocket, good-looking young women to laugh with, sometimes just to fuck, sometimes to make love to. God, what more do you need?
Fifteen minutes later, she was dressed and by the front door. He was beside her, shirtless and shoeless, in his 501s.
"You could stay," said Lucas.
"I want to wake up in my own place. I have class in the morning and then I'm doing some work for Tom."
"I feel used."
"No, you don't. You're happy and grateful." She touched his chest, lifted his crucifix, and handled the pendant of blue glass and silver that hung beside it on his chain. "What is this?"
"A mati. It means 'eye.' "
"Like an evil eye?"
"The opposite. It reflects evil back on the onlooker."
"I'm evil." She moved her hand to one of his nipples and pinched it.
Lucas smiled. "Don't I know it."
"I hope we didn't wake up the woman downstairs," said Constance.
"She lived here with her husband for over fifty years. I reckon they christened every room in this house, one time or another. Miss Lee understands that I'm a healthy young man."
He walked her down the stairs that led to the separate entrance to his place. He had the entire second floor of a four-square colonial on the corner of Emerson and Piney Branch Road, in 16th Street Heights. This wasn't the Piney Branch that ran deep into Maryland, a street commuters knew well, but rather a short stretch of road running from Buchanan up to Colorado Avenue, in a country-style atmosphere of quiet lanes and alleys that felt bucolic and was only fifteen minutes north of the White House and deep downtown. A brief bike ride down Colorado to Blagden could take Lucas into Rock Creek Park. Nearby 13th Street was within pedaling distance of the places he needed to go. He had lucked into the spot when Miss Lee, a septuagenarian with a prunish face, a thin cap of cottony hair, and beautiful and wily black eyes, had advertised the apartment the old-fashioned way, with a handbill stapled to a telephone pole. He spotted it one day while cruising through the neighborhood on his Trek. When she interviewed him, she explained that the house was paid for, that she didn't need a tenant for the rent money and was only looking to feel secure with someone in the house. He mentioned that he was a veteran and a marine, and that, coupled with the fact that he repeatedly addressed her as Miss Lee and not by her Christian name, Willie Mae, closed the deal. Given the size of the place, the low rent, and the location, he knew he'd scored.
"Come back," said Lucas to Constance, outside the first-floor door to his apartment.
He kissed her and watched her go to her car, a '99 Civic that might as well have had "student" imprinted on its plates. When she was safely in and her engine had turned over, he went back inside. He had things to do in the next couple of days before he went to visit Anwan Hawkins. For one, he needed to get to the library, check out the newspaper morgue material on the man, and gather any intel on him from Petersen. He also had plans to meet his brother for dinner, down around U. Visit some of the soldiers up at Walter Reed, drop off some books. And he needed to get by his mother's house in Silver Spring to cut her grass. Matter of fact, he thought as he went up the stairs, I should call Mom soon as I get in my room.
Tell her I love her, tell her good night.
ON DETAIL maps it was identified as the D.C. Central Detention Facility, but locals—citizens, inmates, and law alike—called it the D.C. Jail. The holding facility sat at 19th and D, in the Southeast quadrant of the city, on acreage that included the old D.C. General Hospital and RFK Stadium. The jail complex was large, ugly, and bleak. Inmates liked to say that they lived on waterfront property, as several of the east-facing cells gave to a view of the Anacostia River.
In the security area, Lucas signed the book, gave up his driver's license in exchange for a pass, went through a metal detector, and was patted down and wanded. He was the only male visitor who wasn't obviously an attorney or some kind of police. Mothers, grandmothers, aunts, girlfriends, and one nun waited in line. The younger women were led into a closed room where they were instructed to shake out their bras. One woman, wearing shorts and a scoop-necked shirt showing ample cleavage, a double violation of the dress code, was turned away. She exited loudly.
Now Lucas sat on a plastic chair in the visiting room, among women visiting men and several guards. Across from him, behind glass, sat Anwan Hawkins, wearing orange. Hawkins was very tall, lean, and freakishly broad shouldered. He was in his thirties. His long braids framed a chiseled face. One of his front teeth had been capped in gold. His facial hair was haphazardly arranged and ungroomed. It stayed where it grew.
They were speaking into telephones. Though they were spitting distance from each other, the telephone connection made them sound continents apart.
"Thank you for helping my son," said Hawkins, his voice low and husky.
"I did my job."
"Mr. Petersen said you do it well."
"He must like my work. He keeps me around."
Hawkins appraised him. "You look like you can handle yourself out there."
"I just try to show people respect."
"I feel the same way." Hawkins dipped his head. "My man said you fought in the Middle East."
"I was there."
- "As you'd expect from a writer with credit for both The Wire and Treme, Pelecanos expertly renders the streets of the US capital and succeeds where many have failed of late: creating a fully formed antihero whom readers will want to meet again."—Shortlist
- "Pelecanos is incapable of writing a book that isn't gripping, and the dialogue is of a brilliance comparable only with Elmore Leonard and George V Higgins."—The Times
- "Pelecanos keeps readers on their toes with a series of twists that confound stereotypes, drilling the plot along with breakneck prose, sassy dialogue and even shifting into a serious analysis at modern society in all its flawed glory. Exceptional."—The Big Issue
- "Pelecanos, heir to Elmore Leonard's throne, has landed another short, sparkling masterpiece. What's more, The Cut is just the beginning of a planned series for tough, streetwise, mother's boy Spero Lucas."—The Mirror
- "He's best known for writing acclaimed US TV show The Wire. But George Pelecanos has spent many years penning brilliant but under-appreciated crime novels set in Washington DC...the dialogue, characters and sense of location are superb. Pelecanos is a cut above the rest."—Natasha Harding, The Sun
- On Sale
- Jun 5, 2012
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Back Bay Books