The Bucci Strain: Imprint

Excerpt from Chapter 13

The diesel engine of the bus sprang to life from its monotonous drone. The bus was only partially full; it seemed only the poor rode the busses anymore, and on this one, most of the passengers were both poor and black. Empty seats were everywhere and most of the passengers had a look of wanting to be left alone. All empty seats were aisle seats.

As the bus began backing out of the small station in Albany, Estelle reclined her seat slightly. Eddie looked away, fearing he would somehow betray himself should he appear to be too interested. By now, the evening dusk made the interior of the bus nearly dark. As it pulled out onto the main highway, Estelle said, "I hope you don't mind if I get a little sleep. It's been a long day and I'm really tired. Perhaps we can talk a little after we get to Jacksonville."

"I'm kind of tired myself. A little sleep sounds really good to me. About an hour or so to Jacksonville, I would guess."

"It's more like two hours from here, depending on traffic. I think we are scheduled to get there sometime after nine o'clock, but I'm not sure."

"That sounds find to me, Mrs. Jefferson. Please wake me up if I sleep past Jacksonville."

"Please call me Estelle, Tom, ah, I mean Eddie. And don't worry, I will wake you. I think the bus is scheduled to stop in Jacksonville for about an hour. Some coffee would be nice then."

"Yes it would. Well, good night, Estelle. See you in a few hours."

"Good night, Eddie."

Doc had worked it out. Sleep was the last thing on his mind.

At Tifton, the bus swung abruptly south on I-75, the major north-south link through central Georgia and up to Atlanta. The next major city would be Valdosta, just a stone's throw north of the Florida line. From Valdosta to Jacksonville was just over one hundred twenty miles, or about two hours driving on the interstate.

Even though he was dead tired from the sheer excitement of the day, Eddie could not sleep. As he lay there he thought about what he must do. Doc wanted him to act as soon as possible, on the bus, before she got away. In the usual way, he discussed the pros and cons of Doc's plan. It was really quite simple. The first thing that must happen was that Eddie must convince her to switch seats with him, placing him in the aisle seat and her near the window. It was important she be seated near the window. Since their seats were near the rear of the bus, he would have some measure of safety, some escape from the eyes of the other passengers behind them.

"Estelle, are you asleep?" He repeated this several times as he finally nudged her awake. She came to slowly, rubbed her eyes and stretched her arms saying, "Are we in Jacksonville yet? What time is it?"

A truck was just beginning to pass the bus and in the reflected light of its headlights, he could briefly see her face as he said, "No, we're not in Jacksonville yet. I hated to wake you, but I'm not feeling well. I need to be near the aisle in case I have to use the bathroom. I think it was the sandwich I had in Albany just before the bus left. Do you mind switching seats with me? I'd really appreciate it if you would." Again, he was struck by the vision of Sister Loretta sitting next to him, so close and so vulnerable. It was tempting not to simply reach over to her and kill her where she sat. Time enough for that, Doc whispered. Time enough for that.

It took a moment for Estelle to fully understand what he was asking. Her mouth was pasty, but as her mind cleared, she managed to respond to the handsome young soldier seated next to her. "Of course I don't mind moving. I know what it's like feeling sick in a moving vehicle. It happened to me once when my father took the family to Atlanta back during the depression. Just the movement of the old car made the stomachs of the entire family seem as if we were on a boat and seasick. We must have stopped ten times between Albany and Atlanta. So, to once again answer your question, of course you may have my seat."

Estelle stepped out into the aisle first, steadied herself on the seat back in front of her and motioned to Eddie to come out. Eddie did likewise, allowing her to move back in front of him and sit down in his seat. He then swung into her seat, gave a sigh for her benefit and said, "Thanks, I think I'm going to need to get to the bathroom real soon. I hope you can get back to sleep. I'm really sorry about this."

She could only make out the general outline of his face against the window across the aisle. It was so like Tom's it frightened her. He was so close, so accessible and it was so tempting to her to just reach over and touch him, and once again relive a moment frozen in her memory for thirty-two years. She shifted slightly and said, "Don't worry about it. I've never had any trouble falling asleep. The sound of this bus makes it easy."

"Thanks, I was hoping it wouldn't disturb you too much. And again, I'm sorry. To make up for it, I'll buy the coffee when we get to Jacksonville."

"That's a deal, Eddie. I hope you feel better. Wake me if there is anything I can do."

Don't worry, he thought, I'll wake you soon enough. Then you'll sleep forever.

He waited a few minutes and then feigned not feeling well. With a low moan, he got up and went to the small bathroom at the rear of the bus. He was careful to notice where people were sitting. To his relief, there was but one person behind him and Estelle. She was an elderly black woman who was asleep. There was an unmistakable odor of wine as he passed her seat. He reasoned she was probably drunk and would not awaken for anything less than the bus overturning. So far, Doc's plan seemed safe.

In the bathroom, he studied his face in the small, water-splattered mirror that hung from the wall by one bolt. His face was haggard; the stubble of his beard was plain and his eyes had dark circles. He looked exactly as he felt -- tired. The smell of the small closet reminded him of Oscar's back in Columbus, and, for a moment, he remembered in detail Bonnie Logan and how it felt so good to strangle her with the straps of her purse. Doc relished the brief reverie as he too recalled the moment of release as the life ebbed from her. He mused whether the same sensation would occur with Estelle. It was something to look forward to.

He splashed some water on his face and rinsed his mouth. The water was not reviving at all. It was at best tepid, not yet having given up the heat gained during the daylight hours. He dried his face with a paper towel and returned to his seat. The bus was passing through a heavy downpour. Now and then far-off lightning painted an almost surreal picture of Sister Loretta. She was sleeping peacefully.

He waited for about fifteen minutes before he turned slightly to look at her. She was slouched back in the window seat. Outside was utter darkness punctuated by occasional flashes of lightning. The rain beat heavily on the metal skin of the bus as it made its dash south, having just crossed the Florida border. Inside the bus was the unmistakable sound and feeling of people sleeping. All his senses were focused on the space immediately around him. No one could see him, and he was sure even if they could, they would pay him little any attention. More and more, he was beginning to feel the time was right.

Estelle was snoring in a slow tremulous pattern. Her breathing had become shallow, her mouth slightly open, her glasses half way down the bridge of her nose. He began counting the seconds between the lightning flashes and the thunder. Usually it was between ten and twelve seconds. That was the time frame, that was the margin he must work with. This time, Sister Loretta must die much more quickly than she did back in Columbus. This time, there was no margin for error.

Briefly, he rehearsed what he was about to do. He had never employed the technique, but had seen it demonstrated in Nam. It was quick, painless, and most of all, always fatal. He was in strong enough physical condition to do it, and, as he once again rehearsed the movements, timing the lightning, seeing, as it were, everything come together in a final moment of death.

He shifted his weight, pressing his right foot against the seat support, gaining an almost imperceptible advantage in the balance he would need. In one quick motion, he looked to his left then into the aisle. All was quiet. The lightning bolt flashed. At most twelve seconds. Quickly, he put his right hand across her chest onto her left shoulder. At the same time, he put his left hand behind her neck, then brought his arm around so that it wrapped around the right side of her head. Now the strength was needed. With all the effort he could muster, he pulled her right shoulder forward and with his left hand, snapped her head to the left. In an instant, several hundred pounds of pressure were concentrated on a few small bones. There was a terrible crunching sound as the cervical vertebrae twisted and finally snapped, severing the spinal column. Estelle never made a sound, never felt anything except the momentary touch of his hand on her shoulder. For a brief instant, before the blackness, she saw Tom.

Six seconds later, thunder sounded.

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