Hank counted the stack of money. It was a lot of money -- a hundred and fifty brand new ten-dollar bills. He looked at Jackson through cold yellow eyes.
"You give me fifteen C's -- right?"
He wanted it straight. It was strictly business.
He was a small, dapper man with mottled brown skin and thin straightened hair. He looked like business.
"That's right," Jackson said. "Fifteen hundred bucks." It was strictly business with Jackson too.
Jackson was a short, black, fat man with purple-red gums and pearly white teeth made for laughing, but Jackson wasn't laughing. It was too serious for Jackson to be laughing. Jackson was only twenty-eight years old, but it was such serious business that he looked a good ten years older.
"You want me to make you fifteen G's -- right?" Hank kept after him.
"That's right," Jackson said. "Fifteen thousand bucks."
He tried to sound happy, but he was scared. Sweat was trickling from his short kinky hair. His round black face was glistening like an eight-ball.
"My cut'll be ten percent -- fifteen C's -- right?"
"That's right. I pays you fifteen hundred bucks for the deal."
"I take five percent for my end," Jodie said. "That's seven hundred and fifty. Okay?"
Jodie was a working stiff, a medium-sized, root-colored, rough-skinned, muscular boy, dressed in a leather jacket and GI pants. His long, thick hair was straightened on the ends and burnt red, and nappy at the roots where it grew out black. It hadn't been cut since New Year's Eve and this was already the middle of February. One look at Jodie was enough to tell that he was strictly a square.
"Okay," Jackson said. "You gets seven hundred and fifty for your end."
It was Jodie who had got Hank to make all this money for him.
"I gets the rest," Imabelle said.
The others laughed.
Imabelle was Jackson's woman. She was a cushioned-lipped, hot-bodied, banana-skin chick with the speckled-brown eyes of a teaser and the high-arched, ball-bearing hips of a natural-born amante. Jackson was as crazy about her as moose for doe.
They were standing around the kitchen table. The window looked out on 142nd Street. Snow was falling on the ice-locked piles of garbage stretching like levees along the gutters as far as the eye could see.
Jackson and Imabelle lived in a room down the hall. Their landlady was at work and the other roomers were absent. They had the place to themselves.
Hank was going to turn Jackson's hundred and fifty ten-dollar bills into a hundred and fifty hundred-dollar bills.
Jackson watched Hank roll each bill carefully into a sheet of chemical paper, stick the roll into a cardboard tube shaped like a firecracker, and stack the tubes in the oven of the new gas stove.
Jackson's eyes were red with suspicion.
"You sure you're using the right paper?"
"I ought to know it. I made it," Hank said.
Hank was the only man in the world who possessed the chemically treated paper that was capable of raising the denomination of money. He had developed it himself.
Nevertheless Jackson watched Hank's every move. He even studied the back of Hank's head when Hank turned to put the money into the oven.
"Don't you be so worried, Daddy," Imabelle said, putting her smooth yellow arm about his black-coated shoulder. "You know it can't fail. You saw him do it before."
Jackson had seen him do it before, true enough. Hank had given him a demonstration two days before. He had turned a ten into a hundred right before Jackson's eyes. Jackson had taken the hundred to the bank. He had told the clerk he had won it shooting dice and had asked the clerk if it was good. The clerk had said it was as good as if it had been made in the mint. Hank had had the hundred changed and had given Jackson back his ten. Jackson knew that Hank could do it.
But this time it was for keeps.
That was all the money Jackson had in the world. All the money he'd saved in the five years he'd worked for Mr. H. Exodus Clay, the undertaker. And that hadn't come easy. He drove the limousines for the funerals, brought in the dead in the pickup hearse, cleaned the chapel, washed the bodies and swept out the embalming room, hauled away the garbage cans of clotted blood, trimmed meat and rotten guts.
All the money he could get Mr. Clay to advance him on his salary. All the money he could borrow from his friends. He'd pawned his good clothes, his gold watch and his imitation diamond stickpin and the gold signet ring he'd found in a dead man's pocket. Jackson didn't want anything to happen.
"I ain't worried," Jackson said. "I'm just nervous, that's all. I don't want to get caught."
"How're we goin' to get caught, Daddy? Ain't nobody got no idea what we're doing here."
Hank closed the oven door and lit the gas.
"Now I make you a rich man, Jackson."
"Thank the Lord. Amen," Jackson said, crossing himself.
He wasn't a Catholic. He was a Baptist, a member of the First Baptist Church of Harlem. But he was a very religious young man. Whenever he was troubled he crossed himself just to be on the safe side.
"Set down, Daddy," Imabelle said. "Your knees are shakin'."
Jackson sat down at the table and stared at the stove. Imabelle stood beside him, drew his head tight against her bosom. Hank consulted his watch. Jodie stood to one side, his mouth wide open.
"Ain't it done yet?" Jackson asked.
"Just one more minute," Hank said.
He moved to the sink to get a drink of water.
"Ain't the minute up yet?" Jackson asked.
At that instant the stove exploded with such force it blew the door off.
"Great balls of fire!" Jackson yelled. He came up from his chair as if the seat of his pants had blown up.
"Look out, Daddy!" Imabelle screamed and hugged Jackson so hard she threw him flat on his back.
"Hold it, in the name of the law!" a new voice shouted.
A tall, slim colored man with a cop's scowl rushed into the kitchen. He had a pistol in his right hand and a gold-plated badge in his left.
"I'm a United States marshal. I'm shooting the first one who moves."
He looked as if he meant it.
The kitchen had filled with smoke and stunk like black gun-powder. Gas was pouring from the stove. The scorched card-board tubes that had been cooking in the oven were scattered over the floor.
"It's the law!" Imabelle screamed.
"I heard him!" Jackson yelled.
"Let's beat it!" Jodie shouted.
He tripped the marshal into the table and made for the door. Hank got there before him and Jodie went out on Hank's back. The marshal sprawled across the table top.
"Run, Daddy!" Imabelle said.
"Don't wait for me," Jackson replied.
He was on his hands and knees, trying as hard as he could to get to his feet. But Imabelle was running so hard she stumbled over him and knocked him down again as she made for the door.
Before the marshal could straighten up all three of them had escaped.
"Don't you move!" he shouted at Jackson.
"I ain't moving, Marshal."
When the marshal finally got his feet underneath him he yanked Jackson erect and snapped a pair of handcuffs about his wrists.
"Trying to make a fool out of me! You'll get ten years for this."
Jackson turned a battleship gray.
"I ain't done nothing, Marshal. I swear to God." Jackson had attended a Negro college in the South, but whenever he was excited or scared he began talking in his native dialect.
"Sit down and shut up," the marshal ordered.
He shut off the gas and began picking up the cardboard tubes for evidence. He opened one, took out a brand-new hundred-dollar bill and held it up toward the light.
"Raised from a ten. The markings are still on it." Jackson had started to sit down but he stopped suddenly and began to plead.
'It wasn't me what done that, Marshal. I swear to God. It was them two fellows who got away. All I done was come into the kitchen to get a drink of water."
"Don't lie to me, Jackson. I know you. I've got the goods on you, man. I've been watching you three counterfeiters for days."
Tears welled up in Jackson's eyes, he was so scared. "Listen, Marshal, I swear to God I didn't have nothing to do with that. I don't even know how to do it. The little man called Hank who got away is the counterfeiter. He's the only one who's got the paper.
"Don't worry about them, Jackson. I'll get them too. But I've already got you, and I'm taking you down to the Federal Building. So I'm warning you, anything you say to me will be used against you in court."
Jackson slid from the chair and got down on his knees.
"Leave me go just this once, Marshal." The tears began stream-ing down his face. "Just this once, Marshal. I've never been arrested before. I'm a church man, I ain't dishonest. I confess, I put up the money for Hank to raise, but it was him who was breaking the law, not me. I ain't done nothing wouldn't nobody do if they had a chance to make a pile of money."
"Get up, Jackson, and take your punishment like a man," the marshal said. "You're just as guilty as the others. If you hadn't put up the tens, Hank couldn't have changed them into hundreds."
Jackson saw himself serving ten years in prison. Ten years away from Imabelle. Jackson had only had Imabelle for eleven months, but he couldn't live without her. He was going to marry her as soon as she got her divorce from that man down South she was still married to. If he went to prison for ten years, by then she'd have another man and would have forgotten all about him. He'd come out of prison an old man, thirty-eight years old, dried up. No one would give him a job. No woman would want him. He'd be a bum, hungry, skinny, begging on the streets of Harlem, sleeping in doorways, drinking canned heat to keep warm. Mama Jackson hadn't raised a son for that, struggled to send him through the college for Negroes, just to have him become a convict. He just couldn't let the marshal take him in.
He clutched the marshal about the legs.
"Have mercy on a poor sinner, man. I know I did wrong, but I'm not a criminal. I just got talked into it. My woman wanted a new winter coat, we want to get a place of our own, maybe buy a car. I just yielded to temptation. You're a coloured man like me, you ought to understand that. Where are we poor colored people goin' to get any money from?"
The marshal yanked Jackson to his feet.
"God damn it, get yourself together, man. Go take a drink of water. You act as if you think I'm Jesus Christ."
Jackson went to the sink and drank a glass of water. He was crying like a baby.
"You could have a little mercy," he said. "Just a little of the milk of human mercy. I've done lost all my money in this deal already. Ain't that punishment enough? Do I have to go to jail too?"
"Jackson, you're not the first man I've arrested for a crime.
Suppose I'd let off everybody. Where would I be then? Out of a job. Broke and hungry. Soon I'd be on the other side of the law, a criminal myself."
Jackson looked at the marshal's hard brown face and mean, dirty eyes. He knew there was no mercy in the man. As soon as colored folks got on the side of the law, they lost all Christian charity, he was thinking.
"Marshal, I'll pay you two hundred dollars if you let me off," he offered.
The marshal looked at Jackson's wet face.
"Jackson, I shouldn't do this. But I can see that you're an honest man, just led astray by a woman. And being as you're a colored man like myself, I'm going to let you off this time. You give me the two hundred bucks, and you're a free man.
The only way Jackson could get two hundred dollars this side of the grave was to steal it from his boss. Mr. Clay always kept two or three thousand dollars in his safe. There was nothing Jackson hated worse than having to steal from Mr. Clay. Jackson had never stolen any money in his life. He was an honest man. But there was no other way out of this hole.
"I ain't got it here. I got it at the funeral parlor where I work."
"Well, that being the case, I'll drive you there in my car, Jackson. But you'll have to give me your word of honor you won't try to escape."
"I ain't no criminal," Jackson protested. "I won't try to escape, I swear to God. I'll just go inside and get the money and bring it out to you."
The marshal unlocked Jackson's handcuffs and motioned him ahead. They went down the four flights of stairs and came out on Eighth Avenue, where the apartment house fronted.
The marshal gestured toward a battered black Ford.
"You can see that I'm a poor man myself, Jackson."
"Yes, sir, but you ain't as poor as me, because I've not only got nothing but I've got minus nothing."
"Too late to cry now, Jackson."
They climbed into the car, drove south on 134th Street, east to the corner of Lenox Avenue, and parked in front of the H. Exodus Clay Funeral Parlor.
Jackson got out and went silently up the red rubber treads of the high stone steps; entered through the curtained glass doors of the old stone house, and peered into the dimly lit chapel where three bodies were on display in the open caskets.
Smitty, the other chauffeur and handyman, was silently embracing a woman on one of the red, velvet-covered benches similar to the ones on which the caskets stood. He hadn't heard Jackson enter.
Jackson tiptoed past them silently and went down the hall to the broom closet. He got a dust mop and cloth and tiptoed back to the office at the front.
At that time of afternoon, when they didn't have a funeral, Mr. Clay took a nap on the couch in his office. Marcus, the embalmer, was left in charge. But Marcus always slipped out to Small's bar, over on 135th Street and Seventh Avenue.
Silently Jackson opened the door of Mr. Clay's office, tiptoed inside, stood the dust mop against the wall and began dusting the small black safe that sat in the corner beside an old-fashioned roll-top desk. The door of the safe was closed but not locked.
Mr. Clay lay on his side, facing the wall. He looked like a refugee from a museum, in the dim light from the floor lamp that burned continuously in the front window.
He was a small, elderly man with skin like parchment, faded brown eyes, and long gray bushy hair. His standard dress was a tail coat, double-breasted dove-gray vest, striped trousers, wing collar, black Ascot tie adorned with a gray pearl stickpin, and rimless nose-glasses attached to a long black ribbon pinned to his vest.
"That you, Marcus?" he asked suddenly without turning over.
Jackson started. "No sir, it's me, Jackson."
"What are you doing in here, Jackson?"
"I'm just dusting, Mr. Clay," Jackson said, as he eased open the door of the safe.
"I thought you took the afternoon off."
"Yes sir. But I recalled that Mr. Williams' family will be coming tonight to view Mr. Williams' remains, and I knew you'd want everything spic and span when they got here."
"Don't overdo it, Jackson," Mr. Clay said sleepily. "I ain't intending to give you a raise."
"Aw, you're just joking, Mr. Clay. Anyway, my woman ain't home. She's gone visiting."
While he was speaking, Jackson opened the inner safe door.
"Thought that was the trouble," Mr. Clay mumbled.
In the money drawer was a stack of twenty-dollar bills, pinned together in bundles of hundreds.
"Ha ha, you're jus
Copyright © 1989 by 1957, 1985 by Chester Himes. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.