Stratus Fear

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Chapter Six

He upchucked again, for the fourth time in two hours.

What the hell was wrong with him? Buckley Grover should be happy, ecstatic. The job he did yesterday had paid well, well enough for him and his family to get out of that ancient station wagon they had been living in and rent a decent motel room. Yet why did he feel so rotten? The man who sought him out for the assignment had also given Buckley explicit instructions: Find a solid metal weapon and then discard it in a safe, unassuming place. Buckley had done everything except that one directive. He had secured the old crowbar from a nearby junk yard, hitched a ride with a contractor’s crew up to Terre Celeste, broke into the apartment of his mark, and aced the old man. It hadn’t been easy to scale the side of the apartment building but he managed it with skill and cunning and with no one the wiser. Hell, those fat SOBs up there never noticed the hired help anyway. Luckily the balcony doors of the apartment had been open, and all Bucky had to do was invite himself into the mark’s bedroom. Easy and clever, and everything done to the letter—all except the part about making it look like a burglary.

When he heard the music and a female voice humming along with some of the lyrics, Bucky knew someone else was in the apartment, and he certainly didn’t want to get caught by hanging around too long. So, he basically side-stepped the issue of mussing up the place a little. Anyway, who would really notice as long as he did the job intended? Yet he still wanted some leverage just in case this killing came back to haunt him. Bucky had put the crowbar in his duffel bag and then stuffed the bag behind the dresser. Not exactly the most ingenious of hiding places, but he hadn’t time to think things all the way through.

Now he tried to remember the name of the man who gave him those instructions, in addition to the $80,000 in cash and a little box of white capsules, a great hallucinogenic the man had told Bucky, whatever that meant. Bucky just wanted to get high. But instead of feeling euphoric, he felt downright sick.

The banging on the bathroom door made him lift his head out of the toilet.

“Bucky?” his wife called to him. “When are you going to get out of there? I gotta get ready for work.”

“One more minute,” he croaked and flushed the toilet.

“Just hurry up!”

Simbi Grover’s voice sounded like a cross between a screech owl and a tormented coyote. She had been the most vocal about getting this motel room, saying that they needed stability for a change, what with Tyree enrolled in the second grade this fall and Aimee loosing her baby teeth just before starting kindergarten. What the lack of teeth and stability had to do with anything still baffled Bucky, but he had stopped trying to figure out Simbi and her way of doing things long ago.

But at least they now had beds with real mattresses to sleep on and not those air cushions stretched along the car seats. Living out of a car like that for almost a year had been pure hell. So far they seemed to be doing okay, as long as the money held out…as long as Simbi didn’t spend it all.

As if on cue, she yelled, “I need two hundred bucks, Bucky.”

“What for?” Rising a bit unsteady to his feet, Buckley lurched for the door and opened it. “Just what the fuck for, Sim?”

Simbi stood back, a curious look on her heavily made-up face. “I need a new costume.”

“Since when does an itty, bitty square inch of cloth cost two hundred bucks?”

She crossed her arms and let out a little huff of disproval. “It’s not just a piece of cloth but a classy outfit, pink iridescent with real satin and lace, and fluffy sparkle trim besides.”

“Classy my assy.” Feeling a little better, Bucky let out a grunt of satisfaction.

“What’s the matter with you anyhow?” Frowning, she scanned him more seriously now.

Without the make-up Simbi came in quite an attractive package, her long black hair natural, her skin a smooth and creamy latte, her voluptuous curves and bosom all due to Mother Nature’s kind and generous hand. To make ends meet, Simbi had been dancing at the Midnight Lace Club, one of those cheesy dives that catered to lecherous men. Bucky had put up with it because Simbi usually came home with some decent cash. But he planned to put a stop to her nightly gyrations that got men all worked up to lustful proportions. If Simbi wanted to dance, she’d have to do it solely for him now, and get rid of that stupid stage name she used, Sassy N’Sweet.

Suddenly Bucky felt another wave of dizziness. He needed to lie down on the bed.

“There’s nothing wrong,” he countered, not wanting to admit how awful he really felt. As far as Simbi knew he had earned the money by running errands for some of the racketeers he knew, nothing more. And as far as she was concerned, Bucky had made twenty thousand dollars max, although he had grossed eighty thousand. He planned to keep the other sixty thousand hidden for awhile, otherwise Simbi would spend it on ridiculous things like costumes and makeup.

“Well, you look like shit.” Simbi made her diagnosis as she brushed past him to gain access to the bathroom. “Take a nap or something but watch the kids. I got the early shift tonight so I’ll be home around eleven. And oh, I’ll need some money to stop and buy some groceries.”

“We got groceries,” Bucky reminded her as he stumbled over to the lower berth of their bunks and flopped along the mattress.

“We’re out of milk and cereal, and you know how Tye-Tye likes his cocoa buddies every morning.”

“And I like eggs Benny’s-dick, but I don’t see you making them for me on any morning.”

Simbi gave her reflection a studied perusal as she applied more passion-pink lipstick. “Yeah, sure,” she mumbled between pursing her lips. “But we still need milk, cereal, bread and oatmeal for Ami.”

Ah, it felt good to lie down! At least his stomach had stopped churning. Placing his hands behind his head, Buckley tried to relax. Speaking of the kids…

“Hey, where are the squirts?” he asked, mildly curious.

“They’re outside playing. Just make sure to call them in for lunch. There should be some leftover pizza in the cooler, and some joy juice, too.”

Dammit! He told Simbi not to let the kids play in those old jalopies parked in front of the motel. Who knew what the kids could get into and what they could pick up from all those rusted and jagged parts?

“Call them inside,” he ordered, “when you leave.”

“If you say so.” Out of the bathroom now, Simbi reached for her handbag on the dresser, paused, and then glanced at her husband. “Where did you put the cash?”

“I put it away for safe keeping.”

She narrowed her toffee eyes, lovely and full without the artifice of make-up, but exaggerated now with deep azure shadow and silver liner. “Well, I need some now. At least a hundred.”

“Okay, okay, don’t get your panties in an uproar.” Swinging his feet around, he propped himself into a sitting position and then rose slowly. So far so good…

Buckley shuffled over to the closet and dug into the pocket of his old wool fishing jacket. Yep, the rest of his money remained safe and sound, all $60,000 of it. Simbi hated his jacket and wouldn’t bother to look through the pockets.

As he turned away from the closet, another wave of nausea hit him and he doubled over.
“What the—?” His wife came running over and grabbed him by the shoulders. “What’s ailing you, honey? You look so pale, even bluish. Maybe I should take you to the emergency room.”

“No, no!” He forced himself to stand straight again. The cramps had ceased as quickly as they had started. “I’ll be okay. I just need some rest and you got to go to work.”

“Maybe I can take the kids over to Tora’s place. She didn’t come to work last night, but she’s got to be home. Maybe she can watch them overnight.”

“Yeah, yeah, do that.”

“Okay, honey, okay. Let’s get you settled now.” Simbi helped Bucky to the lower bunk bed, the one they slept in as man and wife, the upper berth for the kids.

She fluffed the pillows behind his head and tucked him under the thin blanket, although she quickly abandoned her nursing efforts as the rest of the $20,000 beckoned her like a siren song. Going over to the desk, she picked up the Gideon Bible and fanned through the pages. Bills of various denominations fluttered and settled along the desktop. It would have been nice if Bucky had earned more, but she couldn’t complain too loudly. Twenty thousand was certainly better than nothing. So far, they hadn’t spent too much, just the rent for the motel room and groceries for the kids. Simbi took ten twenties, until she decided she deserved to live a little too, and so added a fifty on top of that. Then shuffling the rest of the bills together, she stuck them between the pages of Genesis. If for no other reason than her gaze rested there, Simbi read a line from Genesis 5: And all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years, and he died.

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