Nick's Trip


By George Pelecanos

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In this superbly crafted DC noir, hard-drinking Nick Stefanos is hired to find a friend’s missing wife — if he doesn’t hit rock bottom first.

Nick Stefanos has given up his job in sales to tend bar at the Spot, where drinks and women are both a bit too easily available, and the routine is starting to feel as dead-end as his last gig.

But things are about to change. First, his high-school friend Billy Goodrich asks him to find his wife April, who he says left him for small-time crime boss Joey DiGeordano.

In fact, April has taken off with hog farmer/bondage freak Tommy Crane and, it turns out, with $200,000 of DiGeordano family money. There are powerful enemies on her trail — and now on Nick’s trail, too.

Discover the early work of the Emmy-nominated writer from The Wire and The Deuce, whose authentic sense of place, sharp musical references, and hardboiled style make him one of the most acclaimed in the mystery genre.


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THE NIGHT BILLY Goodrich walked in I was tending bar at a place called the Spot, a bunker of painted cinder block and forty-watt bulbs at the northwest corner of Eighth and G in Southeast. The common wisdom holds that there are no neighborhood joints left in D.C., places where a man can get lost and smoke cigarettes down to the filter and drink beer backed with whiskey. The truth is you have to know where to find them. Where you can find them is down by the river, near the barracks and east of the Hill.

An Arctic wind had dropped into town that evening with the suddenness of a distaff emotion, transforming a chilly December rain into soft, wet snow. At first flake's notice most of my patrons had bolted out of the warped and rotting door of the Spot, and now, as the snow began to freeze and cover the cold black streets, only a few hard drinkers remained.

One of them, a gin-drenched gentleman by the name of Melvin, sat directly in front of me at the bar. Melvin squinted and attempted to read the titles of the cassettes behind my back. I wiped my hands lethargically on a blue rag that hung from the side of my trousers, and waited with great patience for Melvin to choose the evening's next musical selection.

Melvin said, "Put on some Barry."

I nodded and began to fumble through the stack of loose cassettes that were randomly scattered near the lowest row of call. The one I was looking for was close to the bottom, and its plastic casing was stained green with Rose's lime. It was Barry White's first recording, "I've Got So Much to Give," from 1973. The cover art showed the Corpulent One holding three miniaturized women in his cupped hands.

"This the one, Mel?" I palmed it in front of his face. Mel nodded as I slipped the tape in and touched the PLAY button.

Mel said, "Let me tell you somethin' 'bout my boy Barry. You done been on a bad trip with your girlfriend—you put on Barry. Barry be talkin' real pretty and shit, all of a sudden you sayin', 'I learned, baby. I sweeeear I learned.'" The bass of the Barrance came through the grilleless Realistic speakers, and Mel sensually joined in: "Don't do that. Baby, pleeease don't do that."

Melvin Jeffers had just sunk his fifth rail martini. He had begun to sing and in all probability would continue to sing for the remainder of the night. I eyed my options down the bar.

Buddy and Bubba were in place at the far right corner, seated next to the Redskins schedule that was taped to the wall, the one with the placekicker booting the pigskin through goalposts shaped suspiciously like long-necked bottles of Bud. Buddy was short and cubically muscular with an angular face and white blond hair. Like many men who took up body building for the wrong reason, he had found to his dismay that having a pumped-up physique did nothing to diminish the huge chip that was on his shoulder. His friend Bubba also considered himself to be an athlete but was simply broad-shouldered and fat. Bubba had the pink, rubbery face that some unlucky alcoholics get and then keep after their thirtieth birthday.

I moved down the bar, picked up Buddy's mug, and with my raised brow asked him if he wanted another. Buddy shook his head and made sure I saw him look me over. I turned my attention to Bubba.

"How 'bout you, Bubber?" I asked in my best whiny, mid-sixties Brando. "You want one?"

Bubba said, "Uh-uh," then looked at his friend inquisitively, something he did every time I addressed him in this manner. In The Chase, a film that barely contained one of Marlon Brando's most eccentric performances, the legendary actor continually mispronounced the name of Bubba, Robert Redford's character, as "Bubber." It was a film that the Spot's Bubba had obviously missed.

I left them and, as I passed, avoided eye contact with the only remaining customer, a cop named Boyle. Buddy and Bubba were one thing, rednecks wearing ties, but I was in no mood to open that particularly poisonous, psychotic can of worms named Dan Boyle.

Instead I turned my back on all of them and began to wipe down the bottles on the call rack. I caught a sliver of my reflection in the bar mirror between liters of Captain Morgan's and Bacardi Dark, then looked away.

ALMOST A YEAR HAD passed since I had taken my first case, a disaster that had ended with a close friend being numbered among the dead. I emerged relatively unscathed but had caught a glimpse of my mortality and, more startling than that, a fairly obvious map for the remainder of the trip. I had three grand in the bank and a District of Columbia private investigator's license in my wallet. In my license photograph I sported a blue-black shiner below my left eye, a trophy I had earned in a Eurotrash disco while on a particularly ugly binge. Clearly I was on my way.

Though my tenure in retail electronics was over (I had made the poor career move of staging a gunfight in my former employer's warehouse), I began the year with energy. I made the yellow pages deadline, listing myself as "Nicholas J. Stefanos, Investigator," even stepping up for the boldfaced type. I bought a used pair of binoculars and a long-lensed Pentax, printed report forms and business cards, and hooked myself up with an answering service. Then I sat back and waited for the cases to roll in.

When they didn't, I began to take long, daily walks through D.C. I visited galleries and museums, spending more than one afternoon studying the large paintings of Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis in the National Portrait Gallery at Eighth and F. Several times on these visits I was followed through the cavernous halls by suspicious security guards, something I attributed to their boredom and to my progressively hangdog appearance. When I had exhausted the museums, I went to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library and renewed my card, then spent the next week in the Washingtoniana Room on the third floor, mainly in the company of street people who slept silently at the various tables with newspapers wedged in their hands. In that week I read most of the Washington Star's morgue material printed between 1958 and 1961, in an effort to get a feel for those years of my life of which I had no recollection. I then discovered the European reading room at the Library of Congress and read modern history for two weeks in a row, sitting across from an ultrawhite eunuch who wore a bow tie every day and never once looked in my direction. One day I walked the pale yellow tunnel from the Jefferson Building to the Madison Building and stumbled upon the Motion Picture and Television Reading Room on the third floor. I spent the month of March in that room, reading everything from scholarly works on the spaghetti western to André Bazin to something called A Cinema of Loneliness by a guy named Kolker. Though the room was reserved for professionals, no one questioned my presence or bothered me in any way. In fact, no one spoke to me at all. Spring came and I began to haunt the parks and gardens of the city, returning with frequency to the Bishop's Garden at the National Cathedral. Some days I would walk through cemeteries finding them a curious combination of the enigmatic and the starkly real. The Rock Creek Cemetery, with its Adams Monuments, was a particular favorite.

Sometime in May I was suddenly overcome with the natural feeling that it was time to "do" something. The next morning I tied my first Windsor knot in five months and rode the Metro to Gallery Place, where I walked to the offices of Bartell Investigative Services on Eighth at H, located smack in the middle of Chinatown.

I had picked them out of the phone book at random, preferring to work in that section of town, and was surprised upon entering and filling out an application that they would interview me on the spot. But as I stood in a reception area at the front of the office, I studied the other operatives at their desks, beefy guys in tight gray suits with prison haircuts who had the appearance of aging high school linemen, and decided it wasn't for me. I stuffed the application in my breast pocket, thanked the nicotine-throated grandmother type at the desk, and walked out into the street.

I had been all right up to that point, but the experience made me aware of just how irrevocably far from the mainstream I had strayed. I entered the Ruby Restaurant around the corner and had a bowl of hot and sour soup and some sautéed squid. Then I walked to Metro Center and boarded the Orange Line for a short trip to the Eastern Market station. I crossed Pennsylvania and headed down Eighth Street.

On the corner was the bar in which I first met my ex-wife Karen. They had changed both the ownership and the decor, from early eighties new wave to rustic Wild West saloon. I looked in the plate-glass window and saw cigarette-smoking Cambodians shooting pool and arguing. One of them had a wad of ones grasped tightly in his fist, his features taut as he shook the bills in his opponent's face. I kept walking.

I passed carryouts and convenience stores and cheap ethnic restaurants. I passed the neighborhood movie theater so hopelessly run down that it was no longer advertised in the Post, and a record-and-drug store. I passed two bars that catered to lesbians. I passed a bus stop shielding loud groups of young men wearing L.A. Raiders caps and red jackets, and quiet older folks who could no longer laugh, even in cynicism, at their surroundings. Karen and I had lived in this neighborhood during the early days of our marriage.

Toward the end of the street an MP in full dress was directing traffic near the barracks. I crossed over and headed to a bar whose simple sign had caught my eye: THE SPOT. Other than the rectangular glass in the transom, there were no windows. I pushed on the heavy oak door and stepped in.

There was a room to my right painted dark green, housing a few empty deuces and four-tops. Beer posters were tacked to three of the walls and on the fourth was a dart board.

I stepped down into the main bar, which was to the left and ran the length of the room. There were two hanging conical lamps, which dimly illuminated columnar blocks of smoke. A blue neon Schlitz sign burned over the center of the bar. Billie Holiday was singing in mono through the speakers hung on either side of the room. There were a couple of regulars who didn't glance my way and a redheaded woman behind the bar who did. I had a seat at the stool in front of the area she was wiping down.

"What can I get you?" she asked, seeming mildly interested to see a new face. She was in her twenties but had crossed the line from youthful optimism to drugged resignation.

"I'll have a Bud," I said, breaking my daytime drinking resolution.

She pulled a long-neck from the cooler and popped it with a steel opener that looked heavy as a weapon. I waved off a glass as she set down the bottle on a moldy coaster touting Cuervo Gold. After she did that she didn't walk away.

"What's your name?" I asked.

"Sherry," she said.

There was more silence as she stood there, so I pulled a Camel filter from my jacket and lit it. I blew the smoke down, but some of it bounced off the pocked mahogany bar and drifted in her direction. She still didn't move. I thought of something to say, came up blank, then looked up at the cursive neon tubes above my head.

"So," I said lamely, "you sell much Schlitz here, Sherry?"

"We don't sell it at all," she said.

"I thought, you know, with the sign and all."

"We put up whatever the liquor distributors give us," she said, then shrugged and gave me a weak smile. "Fuck it. You know?"

Yeah, I knew. It was my kind of place and I was due. I returned there every day for the next two weeks and drank with clear intent.

In those two weeks I got to know some of the regulars and became a familiar face to the small staff. Sherry was, predictably, looking for other work, as was the other shift bartender, a stout-faced, square-jawed German woman named Mai who had married and then left a young marine as soon as her green card had come through. There was an all-purpose busboy/cleanup man named Ramon, a little Salvadoran with a cocky, gold-toothed smile who didn't understand English except when it had something to do with quiff or his paycheck. The cook, Darnell, worked in a small kitchen to the side of the bar. Mostly I saw his long, skinny arms as he placed food on the platform of the reach-through.

Phil Saylor was the proprietor of the Spot. He came in for a couple of hours in the afternoon and I presumed at closing time to do the book work. Saylor was an unlikely looking—short, soft in the middle, wire-rim spectacles—ex–D.C. cop, originally from South Texas, who had quit the force a couple of years earlier and opened this place. He seemed to make a living at it and to enjoy it. Certainly he enjoyed his abominable bourbon and Diet Cokes, which as owner he inexplicably opted to drink with Mattingly and Moore, the house rotgut.

Saylor's past explained the unusually large percentage of detectives on the D.C. squad who were regulars. Though the Fraternal Order of Police bar in lower Northwest was still popular with D.C.'s finest, this was a place where cops could drink without restraint and in private. And unlike at the FOP, where they were expected to unwind with "a few" after work, they could do their unscrutinized drinking at the Spot while still on duty. In fact, in my two weeks spent with bent elbows at the bar of the Spot, it became obvious that this was a place where serious drinkers from all across the city came to get tanked in peace, without the presence of coworkers, hanging plants, brass rails, or waitresses who overfamiliarly (and falsely) addressed them as "gentlemen."

One Monday late in May I watched the bar as Sherry and Saylor retired to the kitchen for a short discussion. I was alone in the place and had gained Saylor's trust to the point where I was allowed to help myself. I reached into the cooler and popped a Bud and nursed it for the next fifteen minutes while I listened to Ma Rainey on the deck.

Sherry emerged from the kitchen and began to gather up what looked to be her things, stuffing a romance paperback into her purse and then picking up a dusty umbrella from the side of the cooler. Her eyes were a little watery as she leaned in and kissed me lightly on the cheek before walking from behind the bar and then out the front door.

Saylor came out of the kitchen a little later and poured himself a straight shot of Mattingly and Moore. He adjusted the wire rims on his nose as if he were going to do something smart, but instead did something stupid and fired back the shot.

When he caught his breath he looked through me and said, "God, I hate that." His face was screwed tight, but I guessed he wasn't talking about the speed-rail bourbon. "I knew she was giving away drinks to jack up her tips—all of 'em do it, even the honest ones—but there was money missing, five, ten a day, all this past month. I had to let her go, man; I didn't have any choice."

"Don't worry about it, Phil." I had pegged Sherry for a gonif the first day I met her but felt I had no duty to inform Saylor. I didn't owe him anything, not yet. "You still got Mai," I said.

He nodded weakly. "Yeah, and she wants more shifts. But she's got a temper, man, with me and the customers. I don't think I can handle that German wench in here all the time." His hands spread out. "I guess I gotta go through the process of looking for a new girl."

I looked at my beer bottle and saw a thousand more like it on a hundred more dark afternoons. Then I looked into the bar mirror and saw my lips moving. They said, "Hell, I'll bartend for ya, Phil."

He pushed his glasses up again and said, "You kidding?"

"Why not? The cases aren't exactly building up," I said with understatement, then told the biggest lie of the day. "Besides, I've done some bartending in my time."

Saylor thought it over. "I never had a man behind the bar here. Can't say any of these guys would notice the difference." I lit a Camel while he talked himself into it. "I guess I could give you a few shifts, try it out. You start tomorrow?"

"Yeah," I said with the misguided, giddy enthusiasm common in long-term unemployment cases. "Tomorrow."

On the way home I stopped at the MLK Library and borrowed a book on mixology called Karla's Kocktail Kourse, then took it back to my apartment in the Shepherd Park area of Northwest. The book was fine (except for those ridiculous K's in the title) and entertaining with its modern fifties, triangularly matted illustrations, complete with hostesses serving drinks in June Cleaver dresses and the author's insistence on displaying cocktails set next to burning cigarettes. I studied into the night; my cat, confused by my diligence, alternately circled and slept on my feet the entire time. When morning came I was ready.

But I was never really put to the test. I found, with some disappointment, that the patrons of the Spot were hardly the type to call for Rob Roys or sidecars, or any of the book's other extravagant concoctions whose ingredients I had memorized. Neither were they, as Saylor had predicted, unhappy (or happy, for that matter) to see me behind the bar. Generally, their nostalgia for the Sherry dynasty faded with my first shift and their first pop of the day.

As the weeks went by I got quicker with the bottles and memorized most of the regulars' drinks. I snuck my own music onto the deck and received only a couple of belches, and kept the promise to myself never to drink on shift, which made that first one at the end of the day go down even better. I made few mistakes, though the ones I did make were memorable.

There was a guy I called Happy, partly because of what I am convinced was his inability to smile. Happy had hair like gray seaweed, a flat, veined nose, and heavily bagged eyes. He was taken to wearing baby-shit brown sport jackets with white stitching at the seams. The jackets appeared to have the texture of Styrofoam. Often he'd fall asleep at the bar with his hand limply wrapped around his drink glass. One afternoon he spit a mouthful of manhattan over the bar shortly after I served it to him. I looked his way.

"I asked for a manhattan," he mumbled loudly.

I thought of the only explanation. "Sorry. I must have used the dry vermouth instead of the sweet vermouth."

"Listen," he said with a fierce stare and a voice informed by sixty Chesterfields a day. "When I order a manhattan, I don't want any kind of vermouth, you hear? Pour an ounce of bourbon into a martini glass and drop a fuckin' cherry in it. Understand?"

I nodded that I did.

For the summer I had four shifts a week and accumulated quite a bit of cash in the bottom drawer of my dresser. Ironically, I picked up some investigative work soon after I started at the Spot.

The first was a shadow job on the wife of a greeting-card salesman who suspected her of adultery. The salesman had out-of-town accounts and subsequently was away from home three days a week. I spent a good amount of time sitting in my Dodge at the parking lot of her office building in Rockville, smoking too many cigarettes and listening to what was becoming a decidedly boring, unprogressive WHFS. At noon I'd follow her and a couple of her friends to their lunch destination, then follow her back to the office. It wasn't until her husband left town, however, that she cut loose. On the day of his departure she left work early and drove to some garden apartments off the Pike. Two hours later she was gone and I was reading the name off her lover's mailbox. The next day they met at Romeo's apartment for a lunch boff, and I snapped his picture as he walked out the door to return to work. I gave the photos to the husband and watched his lips twitch as he wrote me a check for seven hundred and fifty dollars. It took the better half of a fifth of Grand-Dad that night to wash his broken face from my mind.

Shortly thereafter, the parents of a high school sophomore in Potomac signed me on to get to the bottom of what they hysterically perceived to be their daughter's growing interest in satanism. I hooked up with her fairly easily through her mall-rat friends and we had lunch. She seemed bright, though unimaginative, and her devil worship turned out to be no more than hero worship. She was into Jim Morrison and her ambition, man, was to visit his grave in Paris. In the conference with her parents I told them that in my youth I had survived a fling with Black Sabbath and early Blue Öyster Cult without killing a single cat. They didn't smile, so I told them to relax; in six years their daughter would be driving to law school in her VW Cabriolet and listening to Kenny G like all her other friends from Churchill High. They liked that better and stroked me a check for two hundred and a half. After that I resolved to be more selective in my cases (my bar shifts were keeping me solvent), but I'll never know if I would have held to it since in any case the phone, for the remainder of the year, neglected to ring.

Summer passed and then the fall. When I wasn't at the bar I spent my time reading, jumping rope, riding my ten-speed and, once a week, sparring with my physician, Rodney White, who in addition to being a reliable general practitioner was a second-degree black belt. Occasionally I kept company and slept with my friend Lee, a senior at American University.

The mayor's arrest on charges of possession was big news, though that event was more significant for the local media's shameful self-congratulatory arrogance and their inability to see the real story: the murder rate was at another record high and the gap was widening between the races, socially and economically, every day. But of course there was no story there, no angle. The colonizer and the colonized, just like the textbooks say.

This was also the year that I was to both lose and make two special friends. The friend I made was Jackie Kahn, a bartender at a woman's club called Athena's, located two doors down from the Spot. As I was walking past the windowless establishment one evening in late September, I noticed a flier tacked on the door concerning an upcoming "womyn's" march. I stepped inside and, ignoring a few mildly unfriendly stares, went directly to the bar and had a seat. The bartender gave me the once-over before she asked me what I'd have. She had short black hair and high cheekbones, and deep brown, intelligent eyes. I asked her name first and she said it was Jackie. I ordered a Bud.

After she served it she said tiredly, "Why do you want to come in here, make trouble or something? I mean, we don't mind getting a few guys now and then. But they're usually the New York Mary types, you know what I'm saying?"

"I'm a high school English teacher," I said, feeling a sudden rush from the two bourbons I had rocketed before closing the Spot. "I noticed a misspelling on your flier outside. You have women with a y. Just thought I'd point it out."

"That's the way we spell it," said a humorless type with slicked-back hair sitting to my left. I had the feeling this one didn't like me much. She confirmed it with her next suggestion: "Why don't you just move it the fuck on out of here, chief?"

"He's all right," Jackie said, surprising me. She was looking at me with a smile threatening to break across her face. "What do you really want?"

"A beer," I said, and extended my hand. She shook it. "My name's Nick. I bartend over at the Spot. Didn't feel like having that last one alone tonight." I chin-nodded to the table in the corner. "Thought I'd shoot a game of pool while I was in here. That all right, Jackie?"

"Sure." She nodded, then leaned in close and, with an amazingly quick read of my personality, said, "But do me a favor, Nick—don't be an asshole. Okay?"

I began to frequent Athena's fairly regularly after work for a beer and a game of pool. An ex-Brooklyner named Mattie would wait for me to come in and we'd shoot one game of eight ball for a five spot. Athena's was typical of most of the women's bars in Washington. It was owned by men who saw it only as an exploitable market niche and therefore tended to neglect it in terms of cleanliness and decor. But it was a place to go. To sensationalize the scene would be to give it too much credit; lesbian bars were the same as any other singles bars, with the identical forced gaiety and underlying streams of sadness. People met and fucked or resisted and went home alone.


On Sale
Jun 29, 2011
Page Count
320 pages
Back Bay Books

George Pelecanos

About the Author

George Pelecanos is the bestselling author of twenty novels set in and around Washington, D.C. He is also an independent film producer, and a producer and Emmy-nominated writer on the HBO series The Wire, Treme, and The Deuce. He lives in Maryland.

Learn more about this author