The Deacon wasn't wearing his mask, though Smoke and Dandy were, and his smile was big and white. "Aw, that's music to my ears, I do swear." He reached across the table and managed to clap both of them on a shoulder. "Ya'll making the money, right? Heh heh heh. Yeah. You liking that, right? Making them greenbacks?"

Jessie said, "We trying, sir."

"Trying, hell. Doing is what I see. Ya'll the best runners I got."

"Thank you, sir. Things been a little tight of late because a that flu. So many people sick, sir, they ain't got no heart for the numbers right now."

The Deacon waved that away. "People get sick. What you gone do? Am I right? They sick and their loved ones be dying? Bless us, Heavenly Father, it tries the heart to see so much suffering. Everyone walking the streets with masks on and the undertakers running out of coffins? Lord. Times like these, you puts the bidness aside. You just puts it up on a shelf and pray for the misery to end. And when it do? When it do, then you go right back to bidness. Damn sure you do. But not"--he pointed his fi nger at them--"until then. Can I get an 'amen' on that, my brothers?"

"Amen," Jessie said, then lifted his mask and ducked his glass under there and slammed back his whiskey.

"Amen," Luther said and took a small drink from his glass.

"Shit, child," the Deacon said. "You supposed to drink that not romance it."

Jessie laughed and crossed his legs, getting comfy.

Luther said, "Yes, sir," and threw the whole thing back and the Deacon refilled their glasses and Luther realized that Dandy and Smoke now stood behind them, no more than a step away, though Luther couldn't have said when it was they'd arrived in that spot.

The Deacon took a long slow drink from his own glass and said, "Ahhh," and licked his lips. He folded his hands and leaned into the table. "Jessie."

"Yes, sir?"

"Clarence Jessup Tell," Deacon Broscious said, turning those words into song.

"In the flesh, sir."

The Deacon's smile returned, brighter than ever. "Jessie, let me ask you something. What's the most memorable moment of your life?" "Sir?"

The Deacon raised his eyebrows. "You ain't got one?"

"I'm not sure I understand, sir."

"The most memorable moment of your life," the Deacon repeated. Luther felt sweat bathe his thighs.

"Everyone's got one," the Deacon said. "Could be a happy experience, could be sad. Could be a night with a girl. Am I right? Am I right?" He laughed, his face folding all over his nose with the effort. "Could be a night with a boy. You like boys, Jessie? In my profession, we don't cast aspersions on what I like to call specifi ed taste."

"No, sir."

"No sir what?"

"No, sir, I don't like boys," Jessie said. "No, sir."

The Deacon showed them his palms in apology. "A girl, then, yeah? Young, though, am I right? You never forget 'em when you were young and they were, too. Nice piece of chocolate with a ass you could pound all night and it still don't lose its shape?"

"No, sir."

"No sir you don't like a fine young woman's ass?"

"No, sir, that's not my memorable moment." Jessie coughed and took another slug of whiskey.

"Then what is, boy? Shit."

Jessie looked away from the table, and Luther could feel him composing himself. "My most memorable moment, sir?"

The Deacon clapped the table. "Most memorable," he thundered and then winked at Luther, as if, whatever this con was, Luther was somehow in on it with him.

Jessie lifted his mask and took another swig. "Night my pops died, sir."

The Deacon's face strained with the weight of compassion. He dabbed his face with a napkin. He sucked air through pursed lips and his eyes grew large. "I am so sorry, Jessie. How did the good man pass?"

Jessie looked at the table, then back into the Deacon's face. "Some white boys in Missouri, sir, where I was reared?"

"Yes, son."

"They come and said he'd snuck onto their farm and killed their mule. Said he'd meant to cut it up for food but they'd caught him at it and run him off. These boys, sir? They showed up at our house next day and dragged my pops out the house and beat him something fierce, all in front of my mama and me and my two sisters." Jessie drained the rest of his glass and then sucked back a great wet hunk of air. "Aw, shit."

"They lynch your pops?"

"No, sir. They done left him there and he died in the house two days later from a busted-up skull. I was ten year old."

Jessie lowered his head.

The Deacon Broscious reached across the table and patted his hand. "Sweet Jesus," the Deacon whispered. "Sweet sweet sweet sweet Jesus." He took the bottle and refilled Jessie's glass and gave Luther a sad smile.

"In my experience," the Deacon Broscious said, "the most memorable thing in a man's life is rarely pleasant. Pleasure doesn't teach us anything but that pleasure is pleas urable. And what sort of lesson is that? Monkey jacking his own penis know that. Nah, nah," he said. "The nature of learning, my brothers? Is pain. Ya'll think on this--we hardly ever know how happy we are as children, for example, until our childhood is taken from us. We usually can't recognize true love until it's passed us by. And then, then we say, My that was the thing. That was the truth, ya'll. But in the moment?" He shrugged his enormous shoulders and patted his forehead with his handkerchief. "What molds us," he said, "is what maims us. A high price, I agree. But"--he spread his arms and gave them his most glorious smile--"what we learn from that is priceless."

Luther never saw Dandy and Smoke move, but when he turned at the sound of Jessie's grunt, they'd already clamped his wrists to the table and Smoke had Jessie's head held fast in his hands.

Luther said, "Hey, ya'll wait a--"

The Deacon's slap connected with Luther's cheekbone and busted up through his teeth and his nose and eyes like shards of broken pipe. The Deacon's hand didn't leave his head, either. He clenched Luther's hair and held his head in place as Dandy produced a knife and sliced it along Jessie's jawbone from his chin up to the base of his ear.

Jessie screamed long after the knife had left his flesh. The blood climbed out of the wound like it had been waiting its whole life to do so, and Jessie howled through his mask and Dandy and Smoke held his head in place as the blood poured onto the table and Deacon Broscious yanked on Luther's hair and said, "You close your eyes, Country, I'll take them home with me."