"Where you going with this?"


"Humor me, Mr. Poulson."

Smoke raised another eyebrow at that. "Washington? Same thing. Wished them niggers had fought back, though. Chicago ones had some spirit."

"I passed through East St. Louis on my travels. Twice."

"Yeah? What it look like?"

"Ash," Luther said.

Smoke tapped his fingers lightly on the tabletop. "You didn't come here to kill me, did you?"

"Nope." Luther tipped the bag and a sheaf of money fell out, wrapped tightly in a red rubber band. "That's a thousand dollars. That's half what I feel I owe you."

"For not killing me?"

Luther shook his head. He lowered the gun, placed it on the table, and slid it across the tablecloth. He took his hand off it. He sat back in his chair. "For you not killing me."

Smoke didn't lift the pistol right away. He cocked his head at it, then tilted it the other way to consider Luther.

"I'm done with our kind killing our kind," Luther said. "White folk do enough of it. I won't be a party to any more of it. You want to still be part of it, then you kill me and you'll get that thousand. You don't, you'll get two thousand. You want me dead, I'm sitting across from you saying pull the fucking trigger."

Smoke had the gun in his hand. Luther had never seen him so much as flinch, but there was the gun pointed directly at Luther's right eye. Smoke thumbed back the hammer.

"You might be confusing me with somebody has a soul," he said. "I might."

"And you might not think I'm the kind of man would shoot you right through that eye of yours and then go up the road and fuck your woman up the ass, cut her throat when I come, and then cook me a soup out of your baby boy."

Luther said nothing.

Smoke ran the muzzle over Luther's cheek. He turned the pistol to his right and drew the target sight down the side of Luther's face, opening the flesh.

"You," he said, "will not associate with any gamblers, any drinkers, any dope fiends. You will stay out of the Greenwood nightlife. All the way out. You will never enter a place where I could run into you. And if you ever leave that son of yours because the simple life is too fucking simple for you? I will take you apart, piece by piece, in a grain silo for a week before I let your ass die. Is there any part of this deal you have issue with, Mr. Laurence?"

"None," Luther said.

"Drop my other two thousand at the pool hall tomorrow afternoon. Give it to a man named Rodney. He'll be the one handing out balls to the customers. No later than two o'clock. Clear?"

"It ain't two thousand. It's one."

Smoke stared back at him, his eyelids drooping.

Luther said, "Two thousand, it is."

Smoke thumbed down the hammer and handed the gun to Luther. Luther took it and put it in his coat.

"The fuck out of my house now, Luther."

Luther stood.

As he reached the kitchen doorway, Smoke said, "You realize, your whole life, you'll never get this lucky again?"

"I do."

Smoke lit himself a cigarette. "Then sin no more, asshole."

Luther walked up the steps to the house on Elwood. He noticed that the railings needed repainting and decided that would be his first order of business tomorrow.

Today, though . . .

There wasn't a word for it, he thought, as he opened the screen door and found the front door unlocked. No word at all. Ten months since that horrible night he'd left. Ten months riding rails and hiding out and trying to be another person in a strange city up north. Ten months of living without the one thing in his life he'd ever done right.

The house was empty. He stood in the small parlor and looked through the kitchen at the back door. It was open, and he could hear the creak of a clothesline being pulled, decided that's something else he'd need to tend to, give that wheel a little oil. He walked through the parlor and into the kitchen and could smell baby here, could smell milk, could smell something still forming itself.

He walked out the back steps and she bent to reach into her basket and lift another wet piece of clothing from it, but then she raised her head and stared. She wore a dark blue blouse over a faded yellow house skirt she favored. Desmond sat by her feet, sucking on a spoon and staring at the grass.

She whispered his name. She whispered, "Luther."

All the old pain entered her eyes, all the grief and hurt at what he'd done to her, all the fear and worry. Could she open her heart again? Could she put her faith in him?

Luther willed her to go the other way, sent a look across the grass freighted with all his love, all his resolve, all his heart.

She smiled.

Good Lord, it was gorgeous.

She held out her hand.

He crossed the grass. He dropped to his knees and took her hand and kissed it. He wrapped his arms around her waist and wept into her shirt. She lowered herself to her knees and kissed him, weeping, too, laughing, too, the two of them a sight, crying and giggling and holding each other and kissing and tasting each other's tears.

Desmond started to cry. Wail actually, the sound so sharp it was like a nail in Luther's ear.

Lila leaned back from him. "Well?"

"Well?"

"Make him stop," she said.

Luther looked at this little creature sitting in the grass and wailing, his eyes red, his nose running. He reached down and lifted him to his shoulder. He was warm. Warm as a kettle wrapped in a towel. Luther had never known a body could give off such heat.

"He okay?" he asked Lila. "He feels hot."

"He's fine," she said. "He's a baby been setting in the sun."

Luther held him out in front of him. He saw some Lila in the eyes and some Luther in the nose. Saw his own mother in the jaw, his father in the ears. He kissed his head. He kissed his nose. The child continued to wail.

"Desmond," he said and kissed his son on the lips. "Desmond, it's your daddy."

Desmond wasn't having any of it. He wailed and shrieked and wept like the world was ending. Luther brought him back to his shoulder and held him tight. He rubbed his back. He cooed in his ear. He kissed him so many times he lost count.

Lila ran a hand over Luther's head and leaned in for a kiss of her own. And Luther finally found the word for this day . . .

Whole.

He could stop running. He could stop looking for anything else. Wasn't anything else he wanted. This right here was the full measure of every hope he'd harbored since birth.

Desmond's wails stopped, just snuffed out like a match in the wind. Luther looked at the basket at his feet, still half full with damp clothing. "Let's get those clothes hung," he said.

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