Holy Roller church sisters were crying and wailing and daubing at their red-rimmed eyes with black-bordered handkerchiefs.

Dining car waiters were extolling the virtues of their former chef.

Whorehouse madams were exchanging reminiscences about their former client.

Gambler friends were laying odds that he'd make heaven on his first try.

Ice cubes tinkled in eight-ounce glasses of bourbon whisky and ginger ale, black rum and Coca Cola, clear gin and tonic water. Everybody was drinking and eating. The food and liquor were free.

The blue-gray air was thick as split-pea soup with tobacco smoke, pungent with the scent of cheap perfume and hothouse lilies, the stink of sweating bodies, the fumes of alcohol, hot fried food and bad breath.

The big bronze-painted coffin lay on a rack against the wall between the piano and the console radio- television-record set. Flowers were banked about a horseshoe wreath of lilies as though about a horse in the winner's circle at the Kentucky Derby.

Mamie Pullen said to Johnny Perry's young wife, 'Dulcy, I want to talk to you.'

Her usually placid brown face, framed by straightened gray hair pulled into a tight knot atop her head, was heavily seamed with grief and fear.

Dulcy looked resentful. 'For Chrissake, Aunt Mamie, can't you let me alone?'

Mamie's tall, thin, work-hardened old body, clad in a black satin Mother Hubbard gown that dragged the floor, stiffened with resolve. She looked as though she had been washed with all waters and had come out still clean.

On sudden impulse, she took Dulcy by the arm, steered her into the bathroom and closed and locked the door.

Doll Baby had been watching them intently from across the room. She moved away from Chink Charlie and pulled Alamena to one side.

'Did you see that?'

'See what?' Alamena asked.

'Mamie took Dulcy into the crapper and locked the door.'

Alamena studied her with sudden curiosity.

'What about it?'

'What they go so secretive to talk about?'

'How the hell would I know?'

Doll Baby frowned. It relieved the set stupidity of her expression. She was a brownskin model type, slim, tan and cute. She wore a tight-fitting flaming orange silk dress and was adorned with enough heavy costume jewelry to sink her rapidly to the bottom of the sea. She worked in the chorus line at Small's Paradise Inn, and she looked strictly on the make.

'It looks mighty funny at a time like this,' she persisted, then asked slyly, 'Will Johnny inherit anything?'

Alamena raised her eyebrows. She wondered if Doll Baby was shooting at Johnny Perry. 'Why don't you ask him, sugar?'

'I don't have to. I can find out from Val.'

Alamena smiled evilly. 'Be careful, girl. Dulcy's damn particular 'bout her brother's women.'

'That bitch! She'd better mind her own business. She's so hot after Chink it's a scandal.'

'It's likely to be more than that now Big Joe is dead,' Alamena said seriously. A shadow passed over her face.

Once she had been the same type as Doll Baby, but ten years had made a difference. She still cut a figure in the deep purple turtle-neck silk jersey dress she was wearing, but her eyes were the eyes of a woman who didn't care any more.

'Val ain't big enough to handle Johnny, and Chink keeps pressing Dulcy as if he ain't going to be satisfied until he gets himself killed.'

'That's what I can't see,' Doll Baby said in a puzzled tone of voice. 'What's he giving such a big performance for? Unless he's just trying to get Johnny's goat?'

Alamena sighed, involuntarily fingering the collar covering her throat.

'Somebody better tell him that Johnny's got a silver plate in his head and it's sitting too heavy on his brain.'

'Who can tell that yellow nigger anything?' Doll Baby said. 'Look at him now.'

They turned and watched the big yellow man push his way through the crowded room to the door as though enraged about something, then go out and slam the door behind him.

'He's gotta make out like he's mad just because Dulcy went into the crapper to talk to Mamie, when all he's really tryin' to do is get the hell away from her before Johnny comes.'

'Why don't you go too and take his temperature, sugar,' Alamena said maliciously. 'You been holding his hand all evening.'

'I ain't interested in that whisky jockey,' Doll Baby said.

Chink worked as a bartender in the University Club downtown on East 48th Street. He made good money, ran with the Harlem dandies and could have girls like Doll Baby by the dozen.

'Since when ain't you interested?' Alamena asked sarcastically. 'Since he just went out the door?'

'Anyway, I gotta go find Val,' Doll Baby said defensively, moving off. She left immediately afterward.

Sitting on the lid of the toilet seat inside of the locked bathroom, Mamie Pullen was saying, 'Dulcy, honey, I wish you'd keep away from Chink Charlie. You're making me awfully nervous, child.'

Dulcy grimaced at her own reflection in the mirror. She was standing with her thighs pressed against the edge of the washbowl, causing the rose-colored skin-tight dress to crease inside the valley of her round, seductive buttocks.

'I'm trying to, Aunt Mamie,' she said, nervously patting her short-cut orange-yellow curls framing the olive- brown complexion of her heart-shaped face. 'But you know how Chink is. He keeps putting himself in my face no matter how hard I try to show him I ain't interested.'

Mamie grunted skeptically. She didn't approve of the latest Harlem fad of brownskin blondes. Her worried old eyes surveyed Dulcy's flamboyant decor-the rainbowhued whore-shoes with the four-inch lucite heels; the choker of cultured pink pearls; the diamond-studded watch; the emerald bracelet; the heavy gold charm bracelet; the two diamond rings on her left hand and the ruby ring on her right; the pink pearl earrings shaped like globules of petrified caviar.

Finally she commented, 'All I can say is, honey, you ain't dressed for the part.'

Dulcy turned angrily, but her hot long-lashed eyes dropped quickly from Mamie's critical stare to Mamie's man-fashioned straight-last shoes protrudmg from beneath the skirt of Mamie's long black satin dress.

'What's the matter with the way I dress?' she argued belligerently.

'It ain't designed to hide you,' Mamie said drily, then, before Dulcy could frame a comment, she asked quickly, 'What really happened between Johnny and Chink at Dickie Wells's last Saturday night?'

Dulcy's upper lip began to sweat.

'Just the same old thing. Johnny's so jealous of me sometimes I think he's crazy.'

'Why do you egg him on then? Do you just have to switch your ass at every man that passes by?'

Dulcy looked indignant.

'Me and Chink was friends before I even knew Johnny, and I don't see why I can't say hello to him if I want to. Johnny don't take no trouble to ignore his old flames, and Chink never was even that.'

'Child, you're not trying to tell all that rumpus come just from you saying hello to Chink.'

'You don't have to believe it unless you want to. Me and Val and Johnny was sitting at a ringside table when Chink came by and said, 'Hello, honey, how's the vein holding out?' I laughed. Everybody in Harlem knows that Chink calls Johnny my gold vein, and if Johnny had any sense he'd just laugh, too. But instead of that he jumped up before anybody knew what was happening and pulled his frog-sticker and began shouting about how he was going to teach the mother-raper some respect. So naturally Chink drew his own knife. If it hadn't been for Val and Joe Turner and Big Caesar keeping them apart Johnny would have started chivving on him right there. Didn't nothing really happen though 'cepting they knocked over some tables and chairs. What made it seem like such a big rumpus

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