Luther tilted his eyes up. That black barrel fed from Luther's head to McKenna's hand like a growth.
"Don't you 'yes, suh' me." McKenna hit Luther's head with the butt of the pistol.
Luther's knees dropped halfway to the floor but he snapped back up before his knees could make contact. "Yes, suh," he said again.
McKenna extended his arm and placed the barrel between Luther's eyes again. He cocked the hammer. He uncocked it. He cocked it again. He gave Luther a wide, amber-toothed smile.
Luther was dog-tired, bone-tired, heart-tired. He could see the fear covering Clayton's face in a sweat, and he understood it, he could iden--
tify with it. But he couldn't touch it. Not right now. Fear wasn't his problem now. Sick was. He was sick of running and sick of this whole game he'd been playing since he could stand on two feet. Sick of cops, sick of power, sick of this world.
"Whatever you're gonna do, McKenna? Shit. Just fucking do it."
McKenna nodded. McKenna smiled. McKenna holstered his weapon.
The barrel had left a mark on Luther's forehead, an indentation he could feel. It itched. He took a step back and resisted the urge to touch the spot.
"Ah, son, you embarrassed me with the Coughlins, and embarrassment is not something a man of my ambitions can abide." He spread his arms wide. "I just can't."
"Ah, if only it were as easy as 'okay.' But it's not. You'll need to be taxed." McKenna gestured at the toolbox. "You'll put that in the vault you built, if you please."
Luther pictured his mother watching him from above, a pain in her heart at what her only son had allowed his life to become.
"What's in it?"
"Bad things," McKenna said. "Bad, bad things. I want you to know that, Luther. I want you to know that what you're doing is a terrible thing that will immeasurably hurt the people you care about. I want you to realize that you brought this on yourself and that there is, I assure you, no way out for you or your wife."
When McKenna had the gun to his head, Luther had realized one truth beyond any: McKenna was going to kill him before this was over. Kill him and forget all about this. He'd leave Lila untouched simply because getting involved in a nigger prosecution over a thousand miles away was pointless if the source of his rage was already dead. So Luther knew this as well: no Luther, no danger to those he loved.
"I ain't selling out my people," he told McKenna. "Ain't planting anything in the NAACP offices. Fuck that and fuck you."
Clayton let loose a hiss of disbelief.
McKenna, though, looked like he'd been expecting it. "Is that right?"
"That's right." Luther looked down at the toolbox. He looked back up at McKenna. "I ain't--"
McKenna put a hand behind his ear, as if to hear better, pulled the revolver from his belt, and shot Clayton Tomes in the chest.
Clayton held up a hand, palm turned outward. He looked down at the smoke curling from the hole in his overalls. The smoke gave way to a stream of thick, dark fluid, and Clayton cupped his hand under it. He turned and walked carefully over to one of the cans of plaster he and Luther had just been sitting on while they ate and smoked and jawed. He touched the can with his hand before taking a seat.
He said, "What the . . . ?" and leaned his head back against the wall.
McKenna crossed his hands over his groin and tapped the barrel of the pistol against his thigh. "You were saying, Luther?"
Luther's lips trembled, hot tears pouring down his face. The air smelled of cordite. The walls shook from the winter wind.
"What the fuck is wrong with you?" Luther whispered. "What the fuck is--"
McKenna fired again. Clayton's eyes widened, and a small wet pop of disbelief left his mouth. The bullet hole appeared then, just below his Adam's apple. He grimaced, as if he'd eaten something that hadn't agreed with him and reached his hand toward Luther. Then his eyes rolled back from the effort and he lowered the hand to his lap. He closed his eyes. He took several shallow gulps of air and then the sound of him stopped.
McKenna took another sip from his flask. "Luther? Look at me."
Luther stared at Clayton. They'd just been talking about the fi nish-work that lay ahead. They'd just been eating sandwiches. Tears slid into Luther's mouth.
"Why would you do that? He didn't mean anyone harm. He never--"
"Because you don't run this monkey show. I do." McKenna tilted his head and bored his eyes into Luther's. "You're the monkey. Clear?"
McKenna slid the barrel of the gun into Luther's mouth. It was still hot enough to burn his tongue. He gagged on it. McKenna pulled back the hammer. "He was no American. He was not a member of any acceptable definition of the human race. He was labor. He was a footrest. He was a beast of burden, sure, nothing more. I disposed of him to prove a point, Luther: I would sooner mourn a footrest than the death of one of yours. Do you think I'm going to stand idly by while Isaiah Giddreaux and that clothed orangutan Du Bois attempt to mongrelize my race? Are you insane, lad?" He pulled the pistol from Luther's mouth and swung it at the walls. "This building is an affront to every value worth dying for in this country. Twenty years from now people will be stunned to hear we allowed you to live as freemen. That we paid you a wage. That we allowed you to converse with us or touch our food." He holstered the pistol and grabbed Luther by the shoulders and squeezed. "I will happily die for my ideals. You?"
Luther said nothing. He couldn't think of anything to say. He wanted to go to Clayton and hold his hand. Even though he was dead, Luther thought he could somehow make him feel less alone.
"If you speak to anyone about this, I will kill Yvette Giddreaux after she takes her lunch in Union Park some afternoon. If you don't do exactly what I tell you--whatever I tell you and whenever I tell you it--I will kill one nigger every week in this city. You'll know it's me because I will shoot them through the left eye so they will go to their nigger god half blind. And their deaths will be on your head, Luther Laurence. Yours and yours alone. Do we have an understanding?"
He let go of Luther and stepped back.
"Good Negro." McKenna nodded. "Now Officer Hamilton and Officer Temple and myself, we're going to stay with you until-- Are you listening?"
Clayton's body fell off the plaster can. It lay on the floor, one arm pointed at the door. Luther turned his head away.
"We're going to stay here with you until dusk. Say you understand, Luther."