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“[This] Harlem saga vies with the novels of David Goodis and Jim Thompson as the inescapable achievement of postwar American crime fiction.” —The New York Times
For the love of fine, wily Imabelle, hapless Jackson surrenders his life savings to a con man who knows the secret of turning ten-dollar bills into hundreds–and then he steals from his boss, only to lose the stolen money at a craps table. Luckily for him, he can turn to his savvy twin brother, Goldy, who earns a living–disguised as a Sister of Mercy–by selling tickets to Heaven in Harlem. With Goldy on his side, Jackson is ready for payback.
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 gunpowder. Gas was pouring from the stove. The scorched cardboard 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 streaming 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."
Jackson forced himself to laugh.
"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 just joking, Mr. Clay," Jackson said as he took out five bundles and stuck them into his side pants-pocket.
He rattled the handle of the dust mop while closing the safe's two doors.
"Lord, you just have to forgive me in this emergency," he said silently, then spoke in a loud voice, "Got to clean the steps now."
Mr Clay didn't answer.
Jackson tiptoed back to the broom closet, put away the cloth and mop, tiptoed silently back toward the front door. Smitty and the woman were still enjoying life.
Jackson let himself out silently and went down the stairs to the marshal's car. He palmed two of the hundred-dollar bundles and slipped them through the open window to the marshal.
The marshal held them down between his legs while he counted them. Then he nodded and stuck them into his inside coat-pocket.
"Let this be a lesson to you, Jackson," he said. "Crime doesn't pay."
As soon as the marshal drove off, Jackson started running. He knew that Mr. Clay would count his money the first thing on awakening. Not because he suspected anybody would steal it. There was always someone on duty. It was just a habit. Mr. Clay counted his money when he went to sleep and when he woke up, when he unlocked his safe and when he locked it. If he wasn't busy, he counted it fifteen to twenty times a day.
Jackson knew that Mr. Clay would begin questioning the help when he missed the five hundred. He wouldn't call in the police until he was dead certain who had stolen his money. That was because Mr. Clay believed in ghosts. Mr. Clay knew damn well if ever the ghosts started collecting the money he'd cheated their relatives out of, he'd be headed for the poor house.
Jackson knew that next Mr. Clay would go to his room searching for him.
He was pressed but not panicked. If the Lord would just give him time enough to locate Hank and get him to raise the three hundred into three thousand, he might be able to slip the money back into the safe before Mr. Clay began suspecting him.
But first he had to get the twenty-dollar bills changed into ten-dollar bills. Hank couldn't raise twenties because there was no such thing as a two-hundred-dollar bill.
He ran down to Seventh Avenue and turned into Small's bar. Marcus spotted him. He didn't want Marcus to see him changing the money. He came in by one door and went out by the other; ran up the street to the Red Rooster. They only had sixteen tens in the cash register. Jackson took those and started out. A customer stopped him and changed the rest.
Jackson came out on Seventh Avenue and ran down 142nd Street toward home. It came to him, as he was slipping and sliding on the wet icy sidewalks, that he didn't know where to look for Hank. Imabelle had met Jodie at her sister's apartment in the Bronx.
Imabelle's sister, Margie, had told Imabelle that Jodie knew a man who could make money. Imabelle had brought Jodie to talk to Jackson about it. When Jackson said he'd give it a trial, it had been Jodie who'd gotten in touch with Hank.
Jackson felt certain that Imabelle would know where to find Jodie if not Hank. The only thing was, he didn't know where Imabelle was.
He stopped across the street and looked up at the kitchen window to see if the light was on. It was dark. He tried to remember if it was himself or the marshal who'd turned off the light. It didn't make any difference anyway. If the landlady had returned from work she was sure to be in the kitchen raising fifteen million dollars' worth of hell.
Jackson went around to the front of the apartment house and climbed the four flights of stairs. He listened at the front door of the apartment. He didn't hear a sound from inside. He unlocked the door, slipped quietly within. He didn't hear anyone moving about. He tiptoed down to his room and closed himself in. Imabelle hadn't returned.
He wasn't worried about her. Imabelle could take care of herself. But time was pressing him.
While trying to decide whether to wait there or go out and look for her, he heard the front door being unlocked. Someone entered the front hall, closed and locked the door. Footsteps approached. The first hall door was opened.
"Claude," an irritable woman's voice called.
There was no reply. The footsteps crossed the hall. The opposite door was opened.
The landlady was calling the roll.
"As evil a woman as God ever made," Jackson muttered. "He must have made her by mistake."
More footsteps sounded. Jackson crawled quickly underneath the bed, keeping his overcoat and hat on. He heard the door being opened.
Jackson could feel her examining the room. He heard her try to open Imabelle's big steamer-trunk.
"They keeps this trunk locked all the time," she complained to herself. "Him and that woman. Living in sin. And him calls himself a Christian. If Christ knew what kind of Christians He got here in Harlem He'd climb back up on the cross and start over."
Jackson heard her walk back toward the kitchen. He rolled from underneath the bed and got to his feet.
"Merciful Lawd!" he heard her exclaim. "Somebody done blowed up my brand-new stove."
Jackson flung open the door to his room and ran down the hall. He got out of the front door before she saw him. He went upstairs instead of down, taking the stairs two at a time. He had scarcely turned at the landing when he heard the landlady run out into the corridor, chasing him.
"Who you be, you dirty bastard!" she yelled. "It you, Jackson, or Claude? Blew up my stove!"
He came out on the roof and ran to the roof of the adjoining building, past a pigeon cage, and found the door to the stairway unlocked. He went down the stairs like a bouncing ball but stopped at the street doorway to reconnoiter.
The landlady was peering from her doorway in the other building. He drew back his head before she saw him, and watched the sidewalk from an angle.
He saw Mr. Clay's personal Cadillac sedan turn the corner and pull in at the curb. Smitty, the other chauffeur, was driving. Mr. Clay got out and went inside.
Jackson knew they were looking for him. He turned, running, and went through the hallway and out of the back door. There was a small concrete courtyard filled with garbage cans and trash, closed in by high concrete walls. He put a half-filled garbage can against the wall and climbed over, tearing the middle button from his overcoat. He came out in the back courtyard of the building that faced 142nd Street. He ran through the hallway and turned towards Seventh Avenue.
A cruising taxi came in his direction. He hailed it. He'd have to break one of the ten-dollar bills, and that would cost him a hundred dollars, but there was no help for it now. It was just hurry-hurry.
A black boy was driving. Jackson gave him the address of Imabelle's sister in the Bronx. The black boy made a U-turn in the icy street as though he liked skating, and took off like a lunatic.
"I'm in a hurry," Jackson said.
"I'm hurrying, ain't I?" the black boy called over his shoulder.
"But I ain't in no hurry to get to heaven."
"We ain't going to heaven."
"That's what I'm scared of."
The black boy wasn't thinking about Jackson. Speed gave him power and made him feel as mighty as Joe Louis. He had his long arms wrapped about the steering wheel and his big foot jammed on the gas, thinking of how he could drive that goddam DeSoto taxicab straight off the mother-raping earth.
Margie lived in a flat on Franklin Avenue. It was a thirty-minute trip by rights, but the black boy made it in eighteen, Jackson biting his nails all the way.
Margie's husband hadn't come home from work. She looked like Imabelle, only more proper. She was straightening her hair when Jackson arrived and had a mean yellow look at being disturbed. The house smelled like a singed pig.
"Is Imabelle here?" Jackson asked wiping the sweat from his head and face and pulling down the crotch of his pants.
"No, she is not. Why did not you telephone?"
"I didn't know y'all had a telephone. When'd y'all get it?"
"I ain't seen you since yesterday."
"No, you have not, have you?"
She went back to the kitchen where her hair irons were on the fire. Jackson followed her, keeping his overcoat on.
"You know where she might be?"
"Do I know where who might be?"
"Oh, her? How do I know if you do not know? You are the one who is keeping her."
"Know where I can find Jodie, then?"
"Jodie? And who might Jodie be?"
"I don't know his last name. He's the man who told you and Imabelle about the man who raises money."
"Raises money for what?"
Jackson was getting mad. "Raises it to spend, that's for what. He raises dollar-bills into ten-dollar bills and ten-dollar bills into hundred-dollar bills."
She turned around from the stove and looked at Jackson.
"Is you drunk? If you is, I want you to get out of here and do not come back until you is sober."
"I ain't drunk. You sound more drunk than me. She met the man right here in your house."
"In my house? A man who raises ten-dollar bills into hundred-dollar bills? If you are not drunk, you is crazy. If I had met that man, he would still be here, chained to the floor, working his ass off every day."
"I ain't in no mood for joking."
"Do you think I am joking?"
"I mean the other one – Jodie. The one who knew the man who raises the money."
- On Sale
- Dec 17, 1989
- Page Count
- 160 pages
- Hachette Book Group