Luther blinked from the sweat, but he didn't shut his eyes, and he saw the blood flow over the lip of the wound and off Jessie's flesh and spill all over the table, and he could tell by a fleeting glimpse of Jessie's eyes that his friend had exited the place where he was worried about the wound to his jaw and had realized these could be the fi rst moments of a long, last day on earth.

"Give that pussy a towel," the Deacon said and pushed Luther's head away.

Dandy dropped a towel on the table in front of Jessie, and then he and Smoke stepped back. Jessie grabbed the towel and pressed it to his chin and sucked through his teeth and wept softly and rocked in his chair, his mask gone red up the left side, and that went on for some time, no one saying anything and the Deacon looking bored, and when the towel was redder than the Deacon's hat, Smoke handed Jessie another one to replace it and tossed the bloody one behind him to the floor.

"Your thieving old man getting killed?" the Deacon said. "Nigger, that's now the second most memorable moment of your life."

Jessie clenched his eyes shut and pressed the towel so hard against his jaw Luther could see his fingers turn white.

"Can I get an 'amen' on that, brother?"

Jessie opened his eyes and stared.

The Deacon repeated his question.

"Amen," Jessie whispered.

"Amen," the Deacon said and clapped his hands. "Way I fi gure it, you been skimming ten dollars a week from me for two years now. What that add up to, Smoke?"

"One thousand forty dollar, Deacon, sir."

"A thousand forty." The Deacon turned his gaze on Luther. "And you, Country, you either in on it or known about it and didn't tell me, which make it your debt, too."

Luther didn't know what else to do so he nodded.

"You don't need to nod like you confi rming something. You ain't confirming shit to me. I say something is, and it very much is." He took a sip of whiskey. "Now, Jessie Tell, can you pay me my money or it all done got shot up your arm?"

Jessie hissed, "I can get it, sir, I can get it."

"Get what?"

"Your thousand forty dollars, sir."

The Deacon widened his eyes at Smoke and Dandy and all three of them chuckled at the same time and stopped chuckling just as fast. "You don't understand, dope ho', do you? The only reason you alive is because, in my benefi cence, I kindly decided to call what you took a loan. I loaned you the thousand forty. You didn't steal it. If I was to have decided you stole it, that knife be in your throat right now and your dick be in your mouth. So say it."

"Say what, sir?"

"Say it was a loan."

"It was a loan, sir."

"Indeed," the Deacon said. "So, as to the terms of that loan, let me enlighten you. Smoke, what we charge a week for vig?"

Luther felt his head spin and he swallowed hard to keep his vomit down.

"Five percent," Smoke said.

"Five percent," the Deacon told Jessie. "Compounded weekly." Jessie's eyes, which had gone hooded with the pain, snapped open. "What's the weekly vig on a thousand forty?" the Deacon said. Smoke said, "I believe it work out to fifty-two dollars, Deacon, sir." "Fifty-two dollars," the Deacon said slowly. "Don't sound like much."

"No, Deacon, sir, it don't."

The Deacon stroked his chin. "But shit, wait, what's that per month?"

"Two hundred eight, sir," Dandy chimed in.

The Deacon showed his real smile, a tiny one, having himself a time now. "Per year?"

"Two thousand four hundred ninety-six," Smoke said.

"And doubled?"

"Ah," Dandy said, sounding desperate to win the game, "that be, um, that be--"

"Four thousand nine hundred ninety-two," Luther said, not even sure he was speaking or why until the words left his mouth.

Dandy slapped the back of his head. "I had it, nigger."

The Deacon turned his full gaze on Luther and Luther saw his grave in there, could hear the shovels in the dirt.

"You ain't dumb at all, Country. I knew that first time I saw you.

Knew the only way you'd get dumb is hanging around fools like this one bleeding all over my table. It was my mistake to allow your fraternization with said Negro, and that's to my everlasting regret." He sighed and stretched his great bulk in his chair. "But it's all spilt milk now. So that four thousand nine hundred ninety-two added to the original loan come out to . . . ?" He held up a hand to stop anyone else from answering and pointed at Luther.

"Six thousand thirty-two."

The Deacon slapped the table. "It do. Dang. And before ya'll think I'm a merciless man, ya'll need to understand that even in this, I was more than kind because ya'll need to consider what you'd owe if, like Dandy and Smoke suggested, I'd added the vig into the principal every week as I did my computations. You see?"

No one said anything.

"I said," the Deacon said, "do you see?"

"Yes, sir," Luther said.

"Yes, sir," Jessie said.

The Deacon nodded. "Now how you gone pay back six thousand thirty-two dollars of my money?"

Jessie said, "Somehow we'll--"

"You'll what?" The Deacon laughed. "You stick up a bank?" Jessie said nothing.

"You go over to White Town maybe, rob every third man you see all day and all night?"

Jessie said nothing. Luther said nothing.

"You can't," the Deacon said softly, his hands spread out on the table. "You just can't. Dream all you want, but some things ain't in the realm of possibility. No, boys, there's no way you can come up with my--oh, shit, it's a new week, I almost forgot--my six thousand eighty-four dollars."

Jessie's eyes slid to the side and then forced their way back to the center. "Sir, I need a doctor, I think."

"Need you a fucking mortician if'n we don't figure your way out this mess, so shut the fuck up."

Luther said, "Sir, just tell us what you want us to do and we'll sure do it."

It was Smoke who slapped him in the back of the head this time, but the Deacon held up a hand.

"All right, Country. All right. You cut to the chase, boy, and I respect that. So I will respect you in kind."

He straightened the lapels of his white jacket and leaned into the table. "I got a few folks owe me large change. Some of them in the country, some of them right here downtown. Smoke, give me the list."

Smoke came around the table and handed the Deacon a sheet of paper and the Deacon looked at it and then placed it on the table so Luther and Jessie could see it.