"I tell you what," Jessie said and tugged his jacket, then shot his cuffs. "Tell you what," he said and pointed at the back door of the club, "if that door be unlocked, you can forget what I said. That door open, though? God be in this alley. Yes indeed."

And he walked to it and turned the knob and the door opened. Luther said, "Don't mean shit, Jessie. Don't mean nothing but someone forgot to lock the door."

"You say," Jessie said. "You say. Let me ask you-- You think I'd a forced that man to dig up his girl's grave?"

Luther said, " 'Course not. We were hot. That's all. Hot and scared. Got crazy."

Jessie said, "Let go of them straps, brother. We ain't lifting nothing right now."

Luther stepped away from the car. He said, "Jessie."

Jessie reached out so fast his hand could have slapped Luther's head off his neck but instead it landed soft on Luther's ear, barely touching. "You good kin, Country."

And Jessie went into the Club Almighty and Luther followed and they walked through a foul back hallway that stank of piss and came out near the stage through a black velvet curtain. The Deacon Broscious sat just where they'd left him at the table at the base of the stage. He sipped milky white tea from a clear glass, and he gave them the kind of smile told Luther there was more than milk in the tea.

"Stroke of twelve," the Deacon said and waved at the darkness all around him. "Ya'll done come at the stroke of twelve itself. Should I put my mask on?"

"Nah, sir," Jessie said. "Ya'll don't need to worry."

The Deacon reached beside himself, as if he was looking for his mask anyway. His movements were thick and jumbled and then he waved his hands at the whole idea and beamed at them with the sweat beading on his face thick as hail.

"Haw," he said. "You niggers look tired."

"Feel tired," Jessie said.

"Well, come on over here and sit, then. Tell the Deacon about your travails."

Dandy came out of the shadows on the Deacon's left, carrying a teapot on a tray and his mask flapping from the overhead fan, and he took one look at them and said, "What ya'll doing coming through the back door?"

Jessie said, "Just where our feets took us, Mr. Dandy," and cleared the .45 from his belt and shot Dandy in his mask and Dandy's face disappeared in a puff of red.

Luther crouched and said, "Wait!" and the Deacon held up his hands and said, "Now--" but Jessie fired and the fingers of the Deacon's left hand came free and hit the wall behind him and the Deacon shouted something Luther couldn't understand and then the Deacon said, "Hold it, okay?" Jessie fired again and the Deacon didn't seem to have any reaction for a moment and Luther fi gured the shot had hit the wall until he noticed the Deacon's red tie widening. The blood bloomed across his white shirt and the Deacon got a look at it for himself and a single wet breath popped out of his mouth.

Jessie turned to Luther and gave him that big Jessie- smile of his and said, "Shit. Kinda fun, ain't it?"

Luther saw something he barely knew he saw, something move from the stage, and he started to say "Jessie," but the word never left his mouth before Smoke stepped out between the drums and the base stand with his arm extended. Jessie was only half turned toward him when the air popped white and the air popped yellow-and-red and Smoke fired two bullets into Jessie's head and one into his throat and Jessie went all bouncy.

He toppled into Luther's shoulder, and Luther reached for him and got his gun instead and Smoke kept shooting, and Luther raised an arm across his face, as if it could stop the bullets, and he fi red Jessie's .45 and felt the gun jumping in his hand and saw all the dead and blackened and blue from today and heard his own voice yelling, "No please no please," and pictured a bullet hitting each of his eyes and then he heard a scream--high-pitched and shocked--and he stopped firing and lowered his arm from his face.

He squinted and saw Smoke curled on the stage. His arms were wrapped around his stomach and his mouth was open wide. He gurgled. His left foot twitched.

Luther stood in the middle of the four bodies and checked himself for wounds. He had blood all over his shoulder, but once he unbuttoned his shirt and felt around in there, he knew that the blood was Jessie's. He had a cut under his eye, but it was shallow and he fi gured that whatever had ricocheted off his cheek hadn't been a bullet. His body, though, did not feel like his own. It felt borrowed, as if he shouldn't be in it, and whoever it might belong to sure shouldn't have walked it into the back of the Club Almighty.

He looked down at Jessie and felt a part of him that just wanted to cry but another part that felt nothing at all, not even relief at being alive. The back of Jessie's head looked as if an animal had taken bites from it, and the hole in his throat still pumped blood. Luther knelt on a spot of floor the blood hadn't reached yet and cocked his head to look into his friend's eyes. They looked a little surprised, as if Old Byron had just told him the night's tip pool had turned out bigger than expected.

Luther whispered, "Oh, Jessie," and used his thumb to close his eyes, and then he placed his hand to Jessie's cheek. The flesh had begun to cool, and Luther asked the Lord to please forgive his friend for his actions earlier today because he'd been desperate, he'd been compromised, but he was, Lord, a good man at heart who'd never before caused anyone but himself any pain.

"You can . . . make this . . . right."

Luther turned at the sound of the voice.

"Sm-smart boy like . . . like you." The Deacon sucked at the air. "Smart boy . . ."

He rose from Jessie's body with the gun in his hand and walked over to the table, coming around to stand on the Deacon's right so the fat fool had to roll that big head of his in order to see him.

"You go get that doctor you . . . you . . . saw this afternoon." The Deacon took another breath and his chest whistled. "Go get him." "And you'll just forgive and forget, uh?" Luther said.

"As . . . as God is my witness."

Luther removed his mask and coughed in the Deacon's face three times. "How about I fucking cough on you till we see if I got me the plague today?"

The Deacon used his good hand to reach for Luther's arm, but Luther pulled it away.

"Don't you touch me, demon."

"Please . . ."

"Please what?"

The Deacon wheezed and his chest whistled again and he licked his lips.

"Please," he said again.

"Please what?"

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