"There's five names on that list. Each one is into me for at least five hundred a week. You boys gone go get it today. And I know what you're thinking in your whiny-assed head-voices. You thinking, 'But, Deacon, sir, we ain't muscle. Smoke and Dandy supposed to handle the hard cases.' You thinking that, Country?"
"Well, normally Smoke and Dandy or some other hardheaded, can't-fucking-scare-'em sons a bitches would be handling this. But this ain't normal times. Every name on that list has someone in their house with the grippe. And I ain't losing no important niggers like Smoke or Dandy here to that plague."
Luther said, "But two unimportant niggers like us . . ."
Deacon reared his head back. "This boy is finding his voice. I was right about you, Country--you got talent." He chuckled and drank some more whiskey. "So, yeah, that's the size of it. You gone go out and collect from these five. You don't collect it all, you better be able to make up the difference. You bring it on back to me and keep going out and bringing it on back until this flu is over, I'll wipe your debt back to the principal. Now," he said, with that big broad smile of his, "what you think of that?"
"Sir," Jessie said, "that grippe be killing people in one day."
"That's true," the Deacon said. "So, if you catch it, you surely could be dead this time tomorrow. But if you don't get my money? Nigger, you surely will be dead tonight."
The Deacon gave them the name of a doctor to see in the back room of a shooting gallery off Second and they went there after they got sick in the alley behind the Deacon's club. The doctor, a drunken old high-yellow with his hair dyed rust- colored, stitched Jessie's jaw as Jessie sucked air and the tears ran quietly down his face.
In the street, Jessie said, "I need something for the pain."
Luther said, "You even think about the spike, I'll kill you myself."
"Fine," Jessie said. "But I can't think with this pain, so what you suggest?"
They went up into the back of a drugstore on Second, and Luther got them a bag of cocaine. He cut two lines for himself to keep his nerve up and four for Jessie. Jessie snorted his lines one after the other and took a shot of whiskey.
Luther said, "We going to need some guns."
"I got guns," Jessie said. "Shit."
They went back to his apartment and he handed the long- barreled .38 to Luther and slid the .45 Colt behind his back and said, "You know how to use that?"
Luther shook his head. "I know if some nigger try to beat me out his house I'll point this in his face."
"What if that ain't enough to stop him?"
"I ain't dying today," Luther said.
"Then let me hear it."
"If it ain't enough to stop him, you going to do what?"
Luther put the .38 in his coat pocket. "I'm going to shoot the son of a bitch."
"Then shit, Negro," Jessie said, still talking through gritted teeth, although now it was probably more from the cocaine than the pain, "let's get working."
They were a scary sight. Luther would admit that much as he caught their reflection in the window of Arthur Smalley's living room as they walked up the steps to his house--two wound-up colored men with masks that covered their noses and mouths, one of them with a row of black stitches sticking out of his jaw like a spiked fence. Time was, the look of them would have been enough to terror the money out of any God-fearing Greenwood man, but these days it didn't mean much; most folks were scary sights. The high windows of the small house had white Xs painted on them, but Luther and Jessie had no choice but to walk right up on the old porch and ring the bell.
By the looks of the place, Arthur Smalley had at one time tried to have a go at farming. Off to his left, Luther could see a barn in need of painting and a field with a skinny horse and a pair of knobby-looking cows wandering in it. But nothing had been tilled or reaped out there in some time and the weeds stood tall in midautumn.
Jessie went to ring the bell again and the door opened and they looked through the screen at a man about Luther's size but near twice his age. He wore suspenders over an undershirt yellowed by old sweat, the mask over his face yellowed with it, too, and his eyes were red from exhaustion or grief or the flu.
"Who you-all?" he said, and the words came out airless, as if whatever they answered wouldn't make no difference to him.
"You Arthur Smalley, sir?" Luther said.
The man slid his thumbs under his suspenders. "What you think?" "I had to guess?" Luther said. "I'd say yeah."
"Then you'd guess right, boy." He leaned into the screen. "What ya'll want?"
"The Deacon sent us," Jessie said.
"Did he now?"
In the house behind him someone moaned, and Luther got a whiff of the other side of that door. Sharp and sour at the same time, as if someone had left the eggs, the milk, and the meat out of the icebox since July.
Arthur Smalley saw that smell hit Luther in the eyes and he opened the screen door wide. "Ya'll want to come in? Maybe set a spell?"
"Nah, sir," Jessie said. "What say you just bring us the Deacon's money?"
"The money, uh?" He patted his pockets. "Yeah, I got some, drew it fresh this morning from the money well. It's still a little damp, but--"
"We ain't joking here, sir," Jessie said and adjusted his hat back off his forehead.
Arthur Smalley leaned over the threshold and they both leaned back. "I look like I been working of late?"
"No, you don't."
"No, I don't," Arthur Smalley said. "Know what I been doing?"
He whispered the words and Luther took another half- step back from the whisper because something about the sound of it was obscene.
"I buried my youngest in the yard night before last," Arthur Smalley whispered, his neck extended. "Under an elm tree. She liked that tree, so . . ." He shrugged. "She was thirteen. My other daughter, she in bed with it. And my wife? She ain't been awake in two days. Her head as hot as a kettle just come to boil. She gone die," he said and nodded. "Tonight most likely. Else tomorrow. You sure you don't want to come in?"
Luther and Jessie shook their heads.
"I got sheets covered in sweat and shit need washing. Sure could use a hand."
"The money, Mr. Smalley." Luther wanted off this porch and away from this sickness and he hated Arthur Smalley for not washing that undershirt.