"The money," Jessie said, and the .45 was in his hand, dangling beside his leg. "No more bullshit, old-timer. Get the fucking money." Another moan from inside, this one low and long and huffi ng, and Arthur Smalley stared at them so long Luther started to think he'd fallen into some sort of trance.
"Ya'll got no decency at all?" he said and looked first at Jessie and then at Luther.
And Luther told the truth. "None."
Arthur Smalley's eyes widened. "My wife and child are--"
"The Deacon don't care about your domestic responsibilities," Jessie said.
"But you-all? What you care about?"
Luther didn't look at Jessie and he knew Jessie wasn't looking at him. Luther pulled the .38 from his belt and pointed it at Arthur Smalley's forehead.
"Care about the money," he said.
Arthur Smalley looked into that barrel and then he looked in Luther's eyes. "Boy, how does your mama walk the street knowing she birthed such a creature?"
"The money," Jessie said.
"Or what?" Arthur said, which is exactly what Luther had been afraid he'd say. "You gone shoot me? Shit, I'm fi ne with that. You want to shoot my family? Do me the favor. Please. You ain't gone do--"
"I'll make you dig her up," Jessie said.
"You heard me."
Arthur Smalley sagged into the doorjamb. "You didn't just say that."
"I damn well did, old man," Jessie said. "I will make you dig your daughter out her grave. Else I'll tie your ass up, make you watch me do it. Then I'll fill it back in, while she lying beside it, so you'll have to bury her twice."
We're going to hell, Luther thought. Head of the line.
"What you think about that, old man?" Jessie put his .45 behind his back again.
Arthur Smalley's eyes filled with tears and Luther prayed they wouldn't fall. Please don't fall. Please.
Arthur said, "I ain't got no money," and Luther knew the fi ght was gone from him.
"What you got then?" Jessie said.
Jessie followed in his Model T as Luther drove Arthur Smalley's Hudson out from behind the barn and crossed in front of the house as the man stood on his porch and watched. Luther shifted into second gear and put some juice into it as he passed the small fence at the edge of the dirt yard, and he told himself he didn't see the freshly turned dirt under the elm. He didn't see the shovel that stuck upright from the dark brown mound. Or the cross made from thin planks of pine and painted a pale white.
By the time they'd finished with the men on the list, they had several pieces of jewelry, fourteen hundred dollars in cash, and a mahogany hope chest strapped to the back of what had once been Arthur Smalley's car.
They'd seen a child gone blue as twilight and a woman no older than Lila who lay on a cot on a front porch with her bones and her teeth and her eyes lunging toward heaven. Saw a dead man sitting against a barn, blacker than black could ever get, as if he'd been struck by lightning through his skull, his flesh all bumpy with welts.
Judgment Day, Luther knew. It was coming for all of them. And he and Jessie were going to go up and stand before the Lord and have to account for what they'd done this day. And there was no possible accounting for that. Not in ten lives.
"Let's give it back," he said after the third house.
"Give it back and run."
"And spend the rest of our short fucking lives looking over our shoulders for Dandy or Smoke or some other broke- down nigger with a gun and nothing left to lose? Where you think we'd hide, Country? Two colored bucks on the run?"
Luther knew he was right, but he also knew it was eating Jessie up as awful as it was eating him.
"We worry about that later. We--"
Jessie laughed, and it was the ugliest laugh Luther'd ever heard from him. "We do this or we dead, Country." He gave him an open- armed, wide- shouldered shrug. "And you know that. Less you want to kill that whale, sign you and your wife's death warrant in the pro cess."
Luther got in the car.
The last one, Owen Tice, paid them in cash, said he wouldn't be around to spend it no way anyhow. Soon as his Bess passed, he was going to get his shotgun and ride that river with her. He'd had him a raw throat since noon and it was starting to burn and without Bess there wasn't no fucking point to it anyway. He wished them well. He said, sure he understood. He did. Man had to make a living. Wasn't no shame in that.
Said, My whole fucking family, you believe that shit? A week ago we all in the pink, eating dinner 'round the table--my son and daughter- in- law, my daughter and son- in- law, three grandchildren, and Bess. Just sitting and eating and jawing. And then, then, it was like God Hisself reached through the roof and into their house and closed his hand 'round the whole family and squeezed.
Like we was flies on the table, he said. Like that.
They drove up an empty Greenwood Avenue at midnight and Luther counted twenty-four windows marked by Xs and they parked the cars in the alley behind the Club Almighty. There was no light coming from any of the buildings along the alley and the fire escapes hung above them and Luther wondered if there was anything left of the world or if it had all gone black and blue and seized up with the grippe.
Jessie put his foot on the running board of his Model T and lit a cigarette and blew the smoke in a stream toward the back door of the Club Almighty, nodding his head every now and then, as if he heard music Luther couldn't and then he looked over at Luther and said, "I walk."
"I do," Jessie said. "I walk and the road is long and the Lord ain't with me. Ain't with you neither, Luther."
In the time they'd known each other, Jessie had never, not once, called Luther by his Christian name.
"Let's unload this shit," Luther said. "Yeah, Jessie?" He reached for the straps that held Tug and Ervina Irvine's hope chest to the back of Arthur Smalley's car. "Come on now. Let's get this shit done."
"Ain't with me," Jessie said. "Ain't with you. Ain't in this alley. I think He done left this world. Found Hisself another one to be more concerned with." He chuckled and took a long drag on his cigarette. "How old you think that blue child was?"
"Two," Luther said.
" 'Bout what I guessed, too," Jessie said. "Took his mama's jewelry, though, didn't we? Got her wedding ring right here in my pocket." He patted his chest and smiled and said, "Heh heh yeah."
"Why don't we just--"