The Martini Shot

A Novella and Stories


By George Pelecanos

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Short stories and a novella from one of crime fiction’s most revered writers.

Whether they’re cops or conmen, savage killers or creative types, gangsters or God-fearing citizens, George Pelecanos’ characters are always engaged in a fight for their lives. They fight to advance or simply to survive; they fight against odds, against enemies, even against themselves. In this, his first collection of stories, the acclaimed novelist introduces readers to a vivid and eclectic cast of combatants.

A seasoned claims investigator tracks a supposedly dead man from Miami to Brazil, only to be thrown off his game by a kid from the local slum. An aging loser takes a last stab at respectability by becoming a police informant. A Greek-American couple adopts an interracial trio of sons and then struggles to keep their family together, giving us a stirring bit of background on one of Pelecanos’ most beloved protagonists, Spero Lucas. In the title novella – which takes its name from Hollywood slang for the last shot of the day, the one that comes before the liquor shots begin – we go behind the scenes of a television cop show, where a writer gets caught up in a drama more real than anything he could have conjured for a script.

By turns heartbreaking and humane, brutal and funny, these finely constructed tales expose the violence and striving beneath the surface of any city and within any human heart. Tough, sexy, fast-paced, and crackling with energy, The Martini Shot is Pelecanos at his very best.


To Charles C. Mish and Estelle Petrulakis

The Confidential Informant

I was in the waiting area of the VA hospital emergency room off North Capitol Street, seeing to my father, when Detective Tony Barnes hit me back on my cell. My father had his head down on the crossbar of his walker, and it was going to be a while before someone came and called his name. I walked the phone outside and lit myself a smoke.

“What’s goin on, Verdon?” said Barnes.

“Need to talk to you about Rico Jennings.”

“Go ahead.”

“Not on the phone.” I wasn’t about to give Barnes no information without feeling some of his cash money in my hand.

“When can I see you?”

“My pops took ill. I’m still dealin with that, so…make it nine. You know where.”

Barnes cut the line. I smoked my cigarette down to the filter and went back inside.

My father was moaning when I took a seat beside him. Goddamn this and goddamn that, saying it under his breath. We’d been out here for a few hours. A girl with a high ass moving inside purple drawstring pants took our information when we came in, and later a Korean nurse got my father’s vitals in what she called the triage room, asking questions about his history and was there blood in his stools and stuff like that. But we had not seen a doctor yet.

Most of the men in the waiting room were in their fifties and above. A couple had walkers and many had canes; one dude had an oxygen tank beside him with a clear hose running up under his nose. Every single one of them was wearing some kinda lid. It was cold out, but it was a style thing, too.

Everyone looked uncomfortable, and no one working in the hospital seemed to be in a hurry to do something about it. The security guards gave you a good eye-fuck when you came through the doors, which kinda told you straight off what the experience was going to be like inside. I tried to go down to the cafeteria to get something to eat, but nothing they had was appealing, and some of it looked damn near dirty. I been in white people’s hospitals, like Sibley, on the high side of town, and I know they don’t treat those people the way they was treating these veterans. I’m saying, this shit here was a damn disgrace.

But they did take my father eventually.

A white nurse named Matthew, redheaded dude with Popeye forearms, hooked him up to one of those heart machines, then found a vein in my father’s arm and took three vials of blood. Pops had complained about being “woozy” that morning. He gets fearful since his stroke, which paralyzed him on one side. His mind is okay, but he can’t go nowhere without his walker, not even to the bathroom.

I looked at him lying there in the bed, his wide shoulders and the hardness of his hands. Even at sixty, even after his stroke, he is stronger than me. I know I will never feel like his equal. What with him being a Vietnam veteran, and a dude who had a reputation for taking no man’s shit in the street. And me…well, me being me.

“The doctor’s going to have a look at your blood, Leon,” said Matthew. I guess he didn’t know that in our neighborhood my father would be called “Mr. Leon” or “Mr. Coates” by someone younger than him. As Matthew walked away, he began to sing a church hymn.

My father rolled his eyes.

“Bet you’d rather have that Korean girl taking care of you, Pops,” I said, with a conspiring smile.

“That gal’s from the Philippines,” said my father, sourly. Always correcting me and shit.


My father complained about everything for the next hour. I listened to him, and the junkie veteran in the next stall over who was begging for something to take away his pain, and the gags of another dude who was getting a stomach tube forced down his throat. Then an Indian doctor, name of Singh, pulled the curtain back and walked into our stall. He told my father that there was nothing in his blood or on the EKG to indicate that there was cause for alarm.

“So all this bullshit was for nothin?” said my father, like he was disappointed he wasn’t sick.

“Go home and get some rest,” said Dr. Singh, in a cheerful way. He smelled like one them restaurants they got, but he was all right.

Matthew returned, got my father back into his street clothes, and filled out the discharge forms.

“The Lord loves you, Leon,” said Matthew, before he went off to attend to someone else.

“Get me out this motherfucker,” said my father. I fetched a wheelchair from where they had them by the front desk.


I drove my father’s Buick to his house, on the 700 block of Quebec Street, not too far from the hospital, in Park View. It took a while to get him up the steps of his row house. By the time he stepped onto the brick-and-concrete porch, he was gasping for breath. He didn’t go out much anymore, and this was why.

Inside, my mother, Martina Coates, got him situated in his own wheelchair, positioned in front of his television set, where he sits most of his waking hours. She waits on him all day and sleeps lightly at night in case he falls out of his bed. She gives him showers and even washes his ass. My mother is a church woman who believes that her reward will come in heaven. It’s ’cause of her that I’m still allowed to live in my father’s house.

The television was real loud, the way he likes to play it since his stroke. He watches them old games on that replay channel on ESPN.

“Franco Harris!” I shouted, pointing at the screen. “Boy was beast.

My father didn’t even turn his head. I would have watched some of that old Steelers game with him if he had asked me to, but he didn’t, so I went upstairs to my room.

It is my older brother’s room as well. James’s bed is on the opposite wall, and his basketball and football trophies, from when he was a kid all the way through high school, are still on his dresser. He made good after Howard Law, real good, matter of fact. He lives over there in Crestwood, west of 16th, with his pretty redbone wife and their two light-skinned kids. He doesn’t come around this neighborhood all that much, though it ain’t but fifteen minutes away. He wouldn’t have drove my father over to the VA hospital, either, or waited around in that place all day. He would have said he was too busy, that he couldn’t get out “the firm” that day. Still, my father brags on James to all his friends. He got no cause to brag on me.

I changed into some warm shit, and put my smokes and matches into my coat. I left my cell in my bedroom, as it needed to be charged. When I got downstairs, my mother asked me where I was going.

“I got a little side thing I’m workin on,” I said, loud enough for my father to hear.

My father kinda snorted and chuckled under his breath. He might as well had gone ahead and said, “Bullshit,” but he didn’t need to. I wanted to tell him more, but that would be wrong. If my thing was to be uncovered, I wouldn’t want nobody coming back on my parents.

I zipped my coat and left out the house.


It had begun to snow some. Flurries swirled in the cones of light coming down from the streetlamps. I walked down to Giant Liquors on Georgia and bought a pint of Popov, and hit the vodka as I walked back up Quebec. I crossed Warder Street, and kept on toward Park Place. The houses got a little nicer here as the view improved. Across Park were the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home, bordered by a black iron, spear-topped fence. It was dark out, and the clouds were blocking any kind of moonlight, but I knew what was over there by heart. I had cane-pole fished that lake many times as kid, and chased them geese they had in there, too. Now they had three rows of barbed wire strung out over them spear-tops, to keep out the kids, and the young men who liked to lay their girlfriends out straight on that soft grass.

Me and Sondra used to hop that fence some evenings, the summer before I dropped out of Roosevelt High. I’d bring some weed, a bottle of screw-top wine, and my Sony Walkman cassette player, and we’d go down to the other side of that lake and chill. I’d let her listen to the headphones while I hit my smoke. I had made mix-tapes off my records, stuff she was into, like Bobby Brown and Tone Lōc. I’d tell her about the cars I was gonna be driving, and the custom suits I’d be wearing, soon as I got a good job. How I didn’t need no high school diploma to get those things or to prove how smart I was. She looked at me like she believed it. Sondra had some pretty brown eyes.

She married a personal injury lawyer with a storefront office up in Shepherd Park. They live in a house in PG County, in one of those communities got gates. I seen her once, when she came back to the neighborhood to visit her moms, who still stays down on Luray. She was bum-rushing her kids into the house, like they might get sick if they breathed this Park View air. She saw me walking down the street and turned her head away, trying to act like she didn’t recognize me. It didn’t cut me. She can rewrite history in her mind if she wants to, but her fancy husband ain’t never gonna have what I did, ’cause I had that pussy when it was new.

I stepped into the alley that runs north-south between Princeton and Quebec. My watch, a looks-like-a-Rolex I bought on the street for ten dollars, read 9:05. Detective Barnes was late. I unscrewed the top of the Popov and had a pull. It burned nice. I tapped it again and lit myself a smoke.

“Psst. Hey, yo.”

I looked up over my shoulder, where the sound was. A boy leaned on the lip of one of those second-floor, wood-back porches that ran out to the alley. Behind him was a door with curtains on the window. A bicycle tire was showing beside the boy. Kids be putting their bikes up on porches around here so they don’t get stole.

“What you want?” I said.

“Nothin you got,” said the boy. He looked to be about twelve, tall and skinny, with braided hair under a black skully.

“Then get your narrow ass back inside your house.”

“You the one loiterin.”

“I’m mindin my own, is what I’m doing. Ain’t you got no homework or nothin?”

“I did it at study hall.”

“Where you go, MacFarland Middle?”


“I went there, too.”


I almost smiled. He had a smart mouth on him, but he had heart.

“What you doin out here?” said the kid.

“Waitin on someone,” I said.

Just then Detective Barnes’s unmarked drove by slow. He saw me but kept on rolling. I knew he’d stop, up aways on the street.

“Awright, little man,” I said, pitching my cigarette aside and slipping my pint into my jacket pocket. I could feel the kid’s eyes on me as I walked out the alley.

I slid into the backseat of Barnes’s unmarked, a midnight-blue Crown Vic. I kinda laid down on the bench, my head against the door, below the window line so no one on the outside could see me. It’s how I do when I’m rolling with Barnes.

He turned right on Park Place and headed south. I didn’t need to look out the window to know where he was going. He drives down to Michigan Avenue, heads east past the Children’s Hospital, then continues on past North Capitol and then Catholic U, into Brookland and beyond. Eventually he turns around and comes back the same way.

“Stayin warm, Verdon?”

“Tryin to.”

Barnes, a broad-shouldered dude with a handsome face, had a deep voice. He favored Hugo Boss suits and cashmere overcoats. Like many police, he wore a thick mustache.

“So,” I said. “Rico Jennings.”

“Nothin on my end,” said Barnes, with a shrug. “You?”

I didn’t answer him. It was a dance we did. His eyes went to the rearview and met mine. He held out a twenty over the seat, and I took it.

“I think y’all are headed down the wrong road,” I said.

“How so?”

“Heard you been roustin corner boys on Morton and canvassing down there in the Eights.”

“I’d say that’s a pretty good start, given Rico’s history.”

“Wasn’t no drug thing, though.”

“Kid was in it. He had juvenile priors for possession and distribution.”

“Why they call ’em priors? That was before the boy got on the straight. Look, I went to grade school with his mother. I been knowin Rico since he was a kid.”

What do you know?”

“Rico was playin hard for a while, but he grew out of it. He got into some big brother thing at my mother’s church, and he turned his back on his past. I mean, that boy was in the AP program up at Roosevelt. Advanced placement, you know, where they got adults, teachers and shit, walkin with you every step of the way. He was on the way to college.”

“So why’d someone put three in his chest?”

“What I heard was, it was over a girl.”

I was giving him a little bit of the truth. When the whole truth came out, later on, he wouldn’t suspect that I had known more.

Barnes swung a U-turn, which rocked me some. We were on the way back to Park View.

“Keep going,” said Barnes.

“Tryin to tell you, Rico had a weakness for the ladies.”

“Who doesn’t.”

“It was worse than that. Girl’s privates made Rico stumble. Word is, he’d been steady-tossin this young thing, turned out to be the property of some other boy. Rico knew it, but he couldn’t stay away. That’s why he got dropped.”

“By who?”


“You got a name on the hitter?”

“Nah.” Blood came to my ears and made them hot. It happened when I got stressed.

“How about the name of the girlfriend.”

I shook my head. “I’d talk to Rico’s mother, I was you. You’d think she’d know somethin ’bout the girls her son was running with, right?”

“You’d think,” said Barnes.

“All I’m sayin is, I’d start with her.”

“Thanks for the tip.”

“I’m just sayin.”

Barnes sighed. “Look, I’ve already talked to the mother. I’ve talked to Rico’s neighbors and friends. We’ve been through his bedroom as well. We didn’t find any love notes or even so much as a picture of a girl.”

I had the photo of his girlfriend. Me and Rico’s aunt, Leticia, had gone up into the boy’s bedroom at that wake they had, while his mother was downstairs crying and stuff with her church friends in the living room. I found a picture of the girl, name of Flora Lewis, in the dresser drawer, under his socks and underwear. It was one of them mall photos the girls like to get done, then give to their boyfriends. Flora was sitting on a cube, with columns around her and shit, against a background, looked like laser beams shooting across a blue sky. Flora had tight jeans on and a shirt with thin straps, and she had let one of the straps kinda fall down off her shoulder to let the tops of her little titties show. The girls all trying to look like sluts now, you ask me. On the back of the photo was a note in her handwriting, said, “How U like me like this? xxoo, Flora.” Leticia recognized Flora from around the way, even without the name printed on the back.

“Casings at the scene were from a nine,” said Barnes, bringing me out of my thoughts. “We ran the markings through IBIS and there’s no match.”

“What about a witness?”

“You kiddin? There wasn’t one, even if there was one.”

“Always someone knows somethin,” I said, as I felt the car slow and come to a stop.

“Yeah, well.” Barnes pushed the trans arm up into Park. “I caught a double in Columbia Heights this morning. So I sure would like to clean this Jennings thing up.”

“You know I be out there askin around,” I said. “But it gets expensive, tryin to make conversation in bars, buyin beers and stuff to loosen them lips…”

Barnes passed another twenty over the seat without a word. I took it. The bill was damp for some reason, and limp like a dead thing. I put it in the pocket of my coat.

“I’m gonna be askin around,” I said, like he hadn’t heard me the first time.

“I know you will, Verdon. You’re a good CI. The best I ever had.”

I didn’t know if he meant it or not, but it made me feel kinda guilty, backdooring him the way I was planning to do. But I had to look out for my own self for a change. The killer would be got, that was the important thing. And I would be flush.

“How your sons, Detective?”

“They’re good. Looking forward to playing Pop Warner again.”

“Hmph,” I said.

He was divorced, like most homicide police. Still, I knew he loved his kids.

That was all. It felt like it was time to go.

“I’ll get up with you later, hear?”

Barnes said, “Right.”

I rose up off the bench, kinda looked around some, and got out the Crown Vic. I took a pull out the Popov bottle as I headed for my father’s house. I walked down the block, my head hung low.


Up in my room, I found my film canister under the T-shirts in my dresser. I shook some weed out into a wide paper, rolled a joint tight as a cigarette, and slipped it into my pack of Newports. The vodka had lifted me some, and I was ready to get up further.

I glanced in the mirror over my dresser. One of my front teeth was missing from when some dude down by the Black Hole—said he didn’t like the way I looked—had knocked it out. There was gray in my patch and in my hair. My eyes looked bleached. Even under my bulky coat, it was plain I had lost weight. I looked like one of them defectives you pity or ridicule on the street. But shit, there wasn’t a thing I could do about it tonight.

I went by my mother’s room, careful to step soft. She was in there, in bed by now, watching but not watching television on her thirteen-inch color, letting it keep her company, keeping the sound down low so she could hear my father if he called out to her from the first floor.

Down in the living room, the television still played loud, a black-and-white film of the Liston-Clay fight, which my father had spoke of often. He was missing the fight now. His chin was resting on his chest, and his useless hand was kinda curled up like a claw in his lap. The light from the television grayed his face. His eyelids weren’t shut all the way, and the whites showed. Aside from his chest, which was moving some, he looked like he was dead.

Time will just fuck you up.

I can remember this one evening with my father, back around ’74. He had been home from the war for a while and was working for the Government Printing Office at the time. We were over there on the baseball field, on Princeton, near Park View Elementary. I musta been around six or seven. My father’s shadow was long and straight, and the sun was throwing a warm gold color on the green of the field. He was still in his work clothes, with his sleeves rolled up to his elbows. His natural was full and his chest filled the fabric of his shirt. He was tossing me this small football, one of them K2s he had bought me, and telling me to run toward him after I caught it, to see if I could break his tackle. He wasn’t gonna tackle me for real; he just wanted me to get a feel for the game. But I wouldn’t run to him. I guess I didn’t want to get hurt, was what it was. He got aggravated with me eventually, lost his patience and said it was time to get on home. I believe he quit on me that day. At least, that’s the way it seems to me now.

I wanted to go over to his wheelchair, not hug him or nothing that dramatic, but maybe give him a pat on his shoulder. But if he woke up he would ask me what was wrong, why was I touching him, all that. So I didn’t go near him. I had to meet with Leticia about this thing we was doing, anyway. I stepped light on the clear plastic runner my mother had on the carpet and closed the door quiet on my way out the house.


On the way to Leticia’s, I cupped a match against the snow and fired up the joint. I drew on it deep and held it in my lungs. I hit it regular as I walked south.

My head was beginning to smile as I neared the house Leticia stayed in, over on Otis Place. I wet my fingers in the snow and squeezed the ember of the joint to put it out. I wanted to save some for Le-tee. We were gonna celebrate.

The girl, Flora, had witnessed the murder of Rico Jennings. I knew this because we, Leticia and me that is, had found her and made her tell what she knew. Well, Leticia had. She can be a scary woman when she wants to be. She broke hard on Flora, got up in her face and bumped her in an alley. Flora cried and talked. She had been out walking with Rico that night, back up on Otis, round the elementary, when this boy, Marquise Roberts, rolled up on them in a black Caprice. Marquise and his squad got out the car and surrounded Rico, shoved him some and shit like that. Flora said it seemed like that was all they was gonna do. Then Marquise drew an automatic and put three in Rico, one while Rico was on his feet and two more while Marquise was standing over him. Flora said Marquise was smiling as he pulled the trigger.

“Ain’t no doubt now, is it,” said Marquise, turning to Flora. “You mine.”

Marquise and them got back in their car and rode off, and Flora ran home. Rico was dead, she explained. Wouldn’t do him no good if she stayed at the scene.

Flora said that she would never talk to the police. Leticia told her she’d never have to, that as Rico’s aunt, she just needed to know.

Now we had a killer and a wit. I could have gone right to Detective Barnes, but I knew about that anonymous tip line in the District, the Crime Solvers thing. We decided that Leticia would call and get that number assigned to her, the way they do, and she would eventually collect the one thousand dollar reward, which we’d split. Flora would go into witness security, where they’d move her to Far Northeast or something like that. So she wouldn’t get hurt or be too far from her family, and Leticia and me would get five hundred each. It wasn’t much, but it was more than I’d ever had in my pocket at one time. More important to me was that someday, when Marquise was put away and his boys fell, like they always do, I could go to my mother and father and tell them that I, Verdon Coates, had solved a homicide. And it would be worth the wait, just to see the look of pride on my father’s face.

I got to the row house on Otis where Leticia stayed at. It was on the 600 block, those low-slung old places they got painted gray. She lived on the first floor.

Inside the common hallway, I came to her door. I knocked and took off my knit cap and shook the snow off it, waiting for her to come. The door opened, but only a crack. It stopped as the chain of the slide bolt went taut. Leticia looked at me over the chain. I could see dirt tracks on the part of her face that showed, from where she’d been crying. She was a hard-looking woman, always had been, even when she was young. I’d never seen her so shook.

“Ain’t you gonna let me in?”


“What’s wrong with you, girl?”

“I don’t want to see you and you ain’t comin in.”

“I got some nice smoke, Leticia.”

“Leave outta here, Verdon.”

I listened to the bass of a rap thing, coming from another apartment. Behind it, a woman and a man were having an argument.

“What happened?” I said. “Why you been cryin?”

“Marquise came,” said Leticia. “Marquise made me cry.”

My stomach dropped some. I tried not to let it show on my face.

“That’s right,” said Leticia. “Flora musta told him about our conversation. Wasn’t hard for him to find Rico’s aunt.”

“He threaten you?”

“He never did, direct. Matter of fact, that boy was smilin the whole time he spoke to me.” Leticia’s lip trembled. “We came to an understandin, Verdon.”

“What he say?”


  • Praise for THE DOUBLE:

    "It's astonishing all the good stuff Pelecanos can pack into one unpretentious book that make the story so rich."—Marilyn Stasio, New York Times Book Review
  • "Pungent, funny dialogue...believable black-and-white friendships...outstanding scene-setting...The Double is fast-paced, its villains feel fresh...Call me a hard-core Pelecanos junkie."—Jocelyn McClurg, USA TODAY

  • "The author laces his story with vivid descriptions of Washington's changing urban landscape. The writing is taut, the violence is graphic and the characters are so well-drawn that they step off the page and into your life. The Double is as good as it gets."—Bruce DeSilva, Associated Press
  • Praise for THE CUT:

    "The writing is spare; the dialogue rings with authenticity; and walking D.C.'s mean streets with Lucas is the next best thing to being there. Easily the best crime novel I've read this year."—Hallie Ephron, Boston Globe
  • "Pelecanos at his best...The Cut crackles with energy."—Dan DeLuca, Philadelphia Inquirer
  • "Every time I read one of George Pelecanos's novels, I'm left a little awed...The guy's a national treasure."—Dennis Lehane
  • "A lean, swift, atmospheric detective novel...The characters-good-hearted, ill-intentioned or in between-are shown by Mr. Pelecanos with loving clarity, free of cliché, condescension or illusion. Spero Lucas is an engagingly layered character...The Cut is a resourceful and notably original work the delivers the thrills of an action movie and the poignancy of fine storytelling."—Tom Nolan, Wall Street Journal

On Sale
Jan 6, 2015
Page Count
304 pages

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