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Mar 292015
 

by Lawrence F. Farrar

 

On a July evening in 1963, even more drunk than usual, Claude Dillard hunched against the bar in the paneled club room of the West Harmony Country Club. He had come in about eight o’clock and then devoted the rest of the evening to knocking back Scotch and waters and puffing his way through a pack of Marlboros. He was now the only patron left in the place.
Fifty-three years old, Dillard was a lean man, wiry really, with sharp features, short-cropped gray hair, and gray eyes topped by caterpillar brows. He sported a dark blue polo shirt and gray slacks, accented by a white belt and white shoes. In the bar’s subdued light, his serif-lined face and his arms looked especially tan from the golf he played. Dillard had become an accustomed presence at the bar; for some members a too accustomed presence.
As the evening slipped away, Dillard seemed sunk deep in thought, like a man with a troubled mind. He had exchanged a barely imperceptible nod or two with other club members, but he had not spoken to or been spoken to by anyone.
“I’d have to say Mr. Dillard wasn’t very friendly,” the bartender, Fritz Merkle, later told the manager, Fred Jaffrey. “But then he never is. Always seems to have a chip on his shoulder, kind of sullen, if you know what I mean.”
The trouble began when Merkle told Dillard it was time to leave.
“I’ll go when I’m ready,” Dillard said, his speech slurred; as if a leaden weight encumbered his tongue.
“Sir, we have to close up. It’s a club rule.”
Endeavoring to make out the time, Dillard drew his Rolex close to his face and squinted; then he extended his wrist away and squinted again. Undeterred by his inability to focus on the watch hands (too damn small), he said in a confirmatory way, “Plenty of time.”
“Sir, it’s twelve o’clock.”
“Listen, Franz, or whaever your name is, I’m a member here. I said I’ll leave when I feel like it. Gimme another drink. Scotch and water–and hold the water.” He paused. “Get it? Hold the water.” Dillard seemed to think this was funny.
“Mr. Dillard, would you like me to call you a cab?”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean? You think I can’t drive? I said I wanna another drink.” Agitation laced his voice.
“I just thought maybe . . .”
“You wanna keep your job? You better get me that drink.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Dillard, but I’m not allowed . . .”
“Well, then go to hell.”
That said, Dillard plucked a shot glass off the bar, drew a one-eyed bead, and fired the glass straight into the mirror that ran the length of the bar, cracking the mirror and ruining a bottle of Johnny Walker Black. Then he slid off his stool, muttered something presumably nasty, and, carefully planting one foot in front of the other, steered a sinuous course to the exit. Once there, he halted and clung to the door frame. Without turning around, he said, “Don’t mess with Claude Dillard. Gonna have you job, Buster. Yours and all the rest.”
This was not the first time Claude Dillard had made an ass of himself; nor was it the first time he had concomitantly become a source of concern for the club’s managers and overseers. Those shepherds of the club’s well-being and decorum had for some time reckoned Claude’s behavior quirky at best and, of late, increasingly erratic.
—–
Claude Dillard had benefitted from a pretty good start in life there in West Harmony, Indiana. The son of a small but prosperous furniture manufacturer, as a youngster Claude lived in comfort with his doting parents in one of the finest houses in town. He wanted for nothing if it could be bought in a store or ordered from a catalogue. He also attended the Harmony Country Day School where he had two or three friends. But most of Claude’s schoolmates simply treated him with formal correctness (as they were taught). He never found genuine acceptance from them, tagged as he was with the burden of his father’s humble background.
Claude’s father was an up from the shop floor cabinet maker with a fifth grade education; he spoke ungrammatical English. Despite business success, he had failed to achieve the respectability and acceptance he hoped would go with it. Although people cultivated him, especially when soliciting money, they also patronized him. And they kept their social distance. More than anything, Dillard’s parents had yearned to join the then newly founded West Harmony Country Club. Rejection of their application, not once but twice, engendered heartbreak and bitterness on the part of parents and son alike.
“Whatever their high falutin’ ideas, ain’t nobody better than anybody else, Claude,” his father said. “Remember. You’re just as good as them other kids.” Claude desperately wanted to believe him.
Claude had barely turned fourteen when his father’s business suddenly spun out of control and went under. Foreclosure took the house. And, not long after, both mother and father died in a horrendous auto accident on a county highway. The Harmony Valley Bulletin characterized the weather as fine and the road as dry. Perhaps oncoming headlights had been a factor; Jack Dillard reportedly had night vision problems. But some people believed the elder Dillard, despondent over the collapse of his life’s work, simply let his about to be repossessed Packard drift off the road into a stand of oak trees. No one knew for certain. Young Claude’s world flipped like the car.
No hands reached out to help. At fourteen, Claude set out on an unfamiliar road, the end of which he could not see. For a dozen years he wandered about the Midwest, scratching by as best he could. He slept under bridges and became a habitué of soup kitchens and indigent shelters. He broke his arm in a fall from a ladder while picking apples, failed as a peddler of magazines and of marijuana, spent time in jail for vagrancy, and survived a bout of alcohol poisoning in a hospital emergency room. He washed dishes, and he washed cars. He got saved multiple times as a shill for a tent show revivalist. He nearly lost an eye in a fight with a carnival roustabout. He manned a sanding machine in a window factory. He lived for a while with an over-the-hill prostitute and tried working as a bouncer.
The world scowled and Claude, scorned and beaten down, scowled back. Somebody always had a foot on his neck. Yet, cords of memory linked him to the life he had known as a boy. He believed with unwavering conviction that someday he would relish such a life again. Moreover, he nurtured the related notion he would someday return to his boyhood home in triumph. It became a fixed idea. He would show them all.
At age twenty-five, in the midst of the Depression, Claude caught a break when he landed a job managing real estate properties for a less than scrupulous company in Omaha. Exploiting ignorant and down-trodden people, he made some money at a time many other people did not. You did what you had to do. He then parlayed the skills he learned there into a job with a legitimate firm in Lincoln. Modest success followed modest success and by thirty-five Claude had obtained part ownership in a used car business.
Too old for the World War II draft, he moved into an apartment; enrolled in night classes at a local college, and worked hard to emulate the style and dress of former schoolmates, images of whom remained etched in the landscape of Claude’s memory. After years of barely surviving on life’s margins, Claude began to acquire a veneer of respectability and sophistication.
His real opportunity came, however, when he met Rosella Peckham in a roadhouse outside Kearney, Nebraska in the autumn of 1952. A large woman, rough as a cob, Rosella possessed neither looks nor brains; but she had a great deal of money. Her divorced daddy, who’d made a fortune buying and selling farmland, had succumbed to an aneurism six months before, and Rosella had inherited everything. And everything turned out to be a lot.
“It didn’t matter he was a good person and hard-working,” Rosella said of her father. “All those swells with their noses in the air wouldn’t give him the time of day.”
“Oh, I know the feeling,” Claude said, his words oozing with calculated empathy. “Good lady, it seems we are truly birds of a feather.”
“Yeah. That’s it. Birds of a feather,” Rosella said.
Before the night ended, Claude and Rosella had become happy drunken pals. At six in the morning they routed out a sleepy-eyed justice of the peace and got married. Just short of her forty-fifth birthday, Rosella got a man, and forty-two year old Claude finally got a leg up. It was greed at first sight. The road had become much smoother.
—–
Claude Dillard resurrected himself in West Harmony in 1958 after a thirty plus year absence. By the time he showed up, he had tried his hand at a commercial real estate venture in Milwaukee, owned a car dealership in Des Moines, and, with his wife’s money, backed various pharmaceutical enterprises in Chicago. Once, as Rosella put it, they had come to roost in West Harmony, Claude devoted much of his time, he said, to managing my investments. Based on the size of the Dillards’ deposits in local banks, those investments appeared to be profitable ones. He gave every impression of being well-heeled, something which, Claude hoped, would be noticed by the local business community.
They noticed. Soon after Dillard’s arrival, Emerson Gaines, a stout man and president of the First State Bank chatted with two pals lingering at a table after a Rotary lunch. He described his new depositor, saying, “He seems a bit reserved, maybe even a little distant. Kind of a dry sense of humor, I’d say. Not likely to come up with any knee slappers. Knows his way around the business world, though. Pleasant enough fellow, I suppose.”
As lean as the banker was portly, Norman Bangs, manager of Harmony Porcelain, said, “He heard we’re thinking to put our house up for sale. Asked if he could come by to see it. Not a bad looking fellow. I have to say, though, the wife’s not much. I think he said he comes from around here originally. Had a nice car.” Bangs took a drag on a glowing stogie.
Ray Benner, a vacant looking little man but owner of three West Harmony drug stores, waved the smoke away and chimed in. “I thought he was kind of hard to warm up to. Polite and all that. But, if you ask me, he’s putting on some kind of an act. Seems a little touchy, too, like you better be careful what you say.”
“Everybody’s got their own style,” Gaines said. “Hell, Ray, you ought to be careful what you say to me, too.”
They all laughed. Claude Dillard apparently passed first muster. But he did not necessarily inspire quick affection.
Claude and Rosella promptly laid out a stately sum for a stately colonial, took communion at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, donated money to the day school building fund, and in various ways sought to establish–and ingratiate– themselves as members of the community. Claude’s generous contribution to the Harmony Valley Hospital attracted an especially favorable response. For some folks, the Dillards were like benefactors unexpectedly arrived from a distant planet.
Yet, in the eyes of many other upstanding West Harmony citizens, the Dillards’ civic mindedness came across as contrived. Ray Benner was not alone in his assessment. The Dillards were reaching. Claude told parishioners at St Timothy’s, members of the Kiwanis, or anyone else who would hear him that, “I always missed this place; a lot of happy boyhood memories. Why, I told Rosella West Harmony would be a great place to spend our final years. And now that she’s here, she agrees.”
That assertion, too, failed to convince people, especially old timers who remembered the death of Claude’s parents, the shuttered furniture factory, and the unflattering tales that had sporadically drifted back about the boy who had left town. What possible shreds of nostalgia and happy memories could have drawn him back? Claude carried more baggage than what he’d loaded on that moving van that rolled out of Des Moines.
And Rosella failed to win favorable reviews. After a Wednesday contract bridge session at the West Harmony Ladies’ Club, Marvena Mortinson, a local matron who fancied herself an arbiter of social matters, described Rosella to friends as “a bit rough around the edges.” She emphasized her assessment with an arched eyebrow. One of the other players put it less delicately. “She’s a hick.”
After her first encounter with Claude, no doubt echoing comments picked up from her husband, Sally Benner voiced her opinion to fellow members of the Harmony Valley Garden Club. “Seemed grouchy to me. I bet Mr. Dillard’s got wherever he’s got more out of meanness than out of niceness.” And unfounded rumors persisted that, as a young man, Claude Dillard had spent six months (or maybe it was six weeks) in a St. Louis jail for some kind of financial shenanigans. Or perhaps it had to do with a threat he’d made to someone. It was all very vague.
—–
Claude hardly seemed the kind of person who would seek to soothe his spirits with a round of golf. Yet, more than anything, he coveted a membership in the West Harmony Country Club. No current board member likely knew Dillard’s parents had been rejected all those years before. But Claude had never forgotten those cruel decisions and their deleterious consequences. He had carefully tended his resentment for a very long time.
Claude submitted a membership application only six months after unpacking. He told Rosella, “With all we’ve already done since we got here, there’s no way they can say no.”
Gathered in the club’s conference room, the membership committee, Dr. Thad Thomas presiding, reviewed all Dillard had told them on his application and in an informal interview. Without doubt, Dillard had attained a certain respectability, but what of all those vaporous assertions? And what about his drinking? They’d seen evidence of the drinking themselves.
“Hardly any teetotalers here,” one of the members said to predictable laughter. “But, I hear this fellow Dillard really puts ‘em away.”
More to the point, Dillard was not their kind of guy. He rarely laughed and he displayed none of backslapping bonhomie and boosterism that shaped their lives. Dillard was not a veteran either; most of them were. He exhibited zero interest in the football fortunes of the state university (the alma mater for many of them), and when he came around for an invitational golf match, he proved to be a duffer. Moreover, the latest gossip, that his wife had been an entertainer of some sort, stirred keen interest among the denizens of the ladies’ card room.
In short, the committee members had reservations about whether or not the Dillards were the right sort for the club members’ august company. They did agree that Dillard’s apparent affluence would likely benefit their country club. But, in the end, Dr. Thomas phoned Claude to tell him his application had not been approved.
Thomas said, “We appreciate your interest, Claude. We surely do. But, there’s the requirement for two years residence in West Harmony. Maybe you can apply again later.”
“I thought you said that could be waived.”
“I did think so. Unfortunately the majority felt it could set a bad precedent. Please don’t take it personally, Claude. Your offer for the new locker room couldn’t have been more generous. We’ll certainly understand that you might want to withdraw it.”
“The offer still stands—when I’m a member.”
Mortified by the rejection, Dillard became even more determined to join the club. They wouldn’t pull the same thing on him they pulled on his father. No, sir. How could these people say no to him? He resented these self-styled big-shots, yet he wanted to be one of them. He envied them their manners, their speech, their cheerful self-confidence. They all seemed to know each other. They all laughed at the same jokes about priests and rabbis going into bars. When they reminisced about college days or mentioned SAE or Sigma Nu, Claude could only smile and nod. In Claude’s febrile mind, acceptance as a country club member constituted a conferral of legitimacy and a quest completed. It would offset all the rest.
In the months that followed, he pursued his candidacy with single-minded zeal. At the same time, Rosella, in fact disenchanted with West Harmony from the outset and, it seemed, with Claude, told him he was wasting his time. Acceptance, she said, was no big deal. As far as Claude was concerned, she just didn’t get it.
The next spring, after Claude ponied up several well placed donations to some favorite charities, the committee members relented and voted as one. Claude Dillard was in. The decision, however, had been a grudging one; committee members felt it likely exceeded the boundaries of their better judgment.
And it didn’t take long for the club officers to confirm the correctness of their reservations. Claude Dillard had, they discovered, a flammable temper. Flinging a golf club after a bad shot was hardly unheard of. But, on one of his first outings, Dillard established something of a course record with four tosses in a single round, one of them striking a fellow player. Worse yet, Claude exhibited neither embarrassment nor contrition. He declared Fred Morford, the fellow he hit with his nine iron, had been standing in the wrong place and not paying attention.
Carefully managed and disguised during the time he sought to win favor, Claude’s brusque demeanor became increasingly apparent, especially when he fancied himself on the receiving end of a slight. Little things, petty things, irritated him; the pattern was consistent. Twice he called the manager, Fred Jaffrey, to complain about the parking attendants. “Even though I came out first,” he said, “that kid went and got somebody else’s car before mine. That’s just not acceptable.” And, on another occasion the photo that appeared in the members’ wall gallery upset him. “Not the one I selected. I look ugly. Put up the right one or I’ll take it down myself.”
He also landed hard on waiters, waitresses, and bartenders, especially those who failed to show respect. An improperly grilled steak, seating at a non-window table, or a spilled drink could elicit a vituperative denunciation, this followed by a complaint to Jaffrey. As one waiter described it, “That Mr. Dillard might look good, but he’s one mean son-of-a-bitch, especially when he’s been drinking.”
If the club’s governors expected gratitude or social amenability from Dillard, they had badly miscalculated. They should have known, the board members told each other. Their reception of Claude, tepid to begin with, cooled further. The club members went through the motions of being civil, like Claude’s well-behaving schoolmates once did. But that was it. Undaunted, Dillard told his wife, “I pay my bill just like them; my picture’s on the wall outside the men’s locker room just like them; and I’m a member in good standing just like them.”
But he wasn’t just like them. None of those symbols truly added up to the social acceptability he felt to be his due, that, truth be told, for which he still hungered. He knew he shouldn’t do it, but his response was to bristle. Unfortunately, despite the patina of respectability, Claude remained a product of his hardscrabble past. And, unsurprisingly, the more he bristled, the more people steered clear of him. He was always aggrieved about something; his resentment simmered. They still treated Claude like his father’s son.
—–
In early August of 1963, Rosella abandoned him. It came as no surprise. She hated the local people; she hated West Harmony; she hated Claude’s drinking and complaining; and she hated him. As a consequence she denied him access to all of her separate accounts and shut him out of all their remaining business interests, most of which for a variety of reasons were in her name. She announced that his days of exploiting her had ended. Punkt. She wanted to go back to Nebraska–and did.
She left Claude with the house, the cars (a Mercedes-Benz and–his pride–a ten year old Maserati coup), and a few stock holdings. Not much else. He surely didn’t miss her; over the decade of their marriage she had proven to be stupid, selfish, venal and uncouth. Almost from the outset their marriage had been an untended corpse. Claude exaggerated the direness of his circumstance, but to his way of thinking he was little better off than he’d been thirty years before. He felt himself tumbling down the ladder of success he had worked so diligently to climb. Petulant and bitter, he spent more and more time at the club bar, where his deportment became increasingly random. The odor of whiskey hung about him like cologne.
Claude’s earlier transgressions (he twice threatened staff members) had earned him cautioning phone calls from Jaffrey or the board chairman. However, the mirror breaking caper had generated a written demand for payment and an apology. The board chairman’s letter included a warning that such behavior would not be tolerated in the future. Claude paid the bill and offered a pro forma apology. But as he marinated in his unhappiness, the prospect that he would continue to hold his less desirable impulses in check seemed problematic.
It didn’t take long. First came a brouhaha in the club parking lot at four o’clock on a Friday afternoon when Claude got into a hot dispute with a cab driver. The driver had delivered him from a downtown gentlemen’s club and insisted they had agreed on the fare before setting out. That Claude had been drinking did not contribute to an environment conducive to amicable resolution.
“No way. Too much,” Claude said and tried to walk away. Both the cab driver and a passing greens keeper later described Claude as wild-eyed and out-of-control. Almost as if scripted, he shouted at both men. “I’ll have your jobs. I’ll have you fired.”
Before the confrontation ended, Jaffrey had called the police. Red faced and breathing hard, like a baited animal, Claude tried to launch himself at the cabbie and then threatened the officer who restrained him. “I’ll take you down. I’ll have your badge.” Without further discussion, the police cuffed him and placed him under arrest. As they hustled him into a squad car, Claude continued to hurl threats and epithets. “You’ll pay for this. It won’t be pretty. I’ll get you all.”
A dozen or so bemused and head-shaking golfers and club employees looked on in open-mouthed disbelief. Nothing like it had ever happened at the West Harmony Country Club. Nothing. Ever. After being booked, Claude posted a $500 bond and was released on his own recognizance.
That evening, in an ad hoc meeting, available board members took a decision to suspend Dillard’s membership immediately. They deemed this an interim measure looking to termination by the full board. Whatever his issues might be–and they seemed abundant–they were not the responsibility of the West Harmony Country Club. Enough was enough.
But apparently enough was not enough for Claude Dillard. On Sunday a goodly crowd had gathered for the popular lobster and steak night. Pleasant late summer zephyrs wafted into the dining room through the open French doors; outside many members and their families sat on the terrace savoring the sunlit view across the eighteenth hole and the dogwood- lined fairway beyond. Both the dining room and the terrace hummed with the sound of easy conversation, occasional peals of laughter, and the benign clink of cutlery.
Those closest to the door spotted them first. Claude Dillard and a disheveled blond woman decked out in a tight red dress, deficient at both top and bottom, were arguing with Jaffrey at the dining room entrance. As much of her smeared lipstick adorned his face as hers. Both Claude and his lady friend were in the prevailing vernacular, three sheets to the wind.
“Whaddaya mean, suspended? Since when don’t you have a table for a member?”
“Mr. Dillard, wouldn’t it better if we stepped into the lobby?”
“What the hell for?” As Dillard’s voice escalated, the room became increasingly hushed. Even those on the terrace tuned in, trying to hear what was going on.
“Sir, there are women and children present.”
“I’m hungry,” the woman said. “I thought we were gonna eat.”
Jack Graves, a tall man and one of the board members, got up from his table and came to the door. “Look, Claude, you’re creating a spectacle.’
“Yeah, well you’re a spectacle too.” Claude thrust an accusatory finger at Graves’ chest. “I paid my dues, and I wanna eat lobster. And so does Estelle. Don’cha?”
Like volunteers at the scene of a wreck, two or three more men joined the congregation.
“You’ll have to leave or we’ll be forced to call the police,” Graves said. You and this lady are not welcome here.”
“This lady is Estelle. Did I tell you? An’ she’s a hundred times better than anybody in this bunch.” Claude waved a dismissive hand in the direction of the dining room.
Tittering and sporadic laughter yielded to angry murmurs. “Get him out of here,” someone said loudly.
By now a half dozen men had surrounded the interlopers, and they herded them away from the dining room.
“See them out,” Graves said to a security guard and a pair of waiters.
“Let’s go, honey,” the woman said. “They don’t want us.”
“Okay. Okay,” Claude said. But as they went out the door, he shouted at the top of his voice, “You stiffs haven’t heard the last of this. Not by a damn sight.”
—–
The formal notification that his membership had been terminated, effective immediately, dropped though his mail slot late on Wednesday afternoon. Claude gave the letter a cursory read, tore the envelope in half, wadded up the notice, and then let it flutter to the floor. They can’t do this to Claude Dillard. No way. He did what he always did when he became agitated. He poured himself a drink, the first of several.
At two in the morning Claude parked his old silver Maserati in the club’s deserted parking lot. He turned off the lights and allowed the motor to purr for a moment or two, and then shut it off. A profusion of iridescent stars sparkled above him; in the west forks of heated light arced across the sky. Rays from the new moon bathed the white clubhouse in blue. Claude, however, was in no mood for stargazing or moon viewing.
He surveyed the building for signs of life; only the lobby showed a light.
They’re in there, Claude thought. Sons of bitches are in there. Turned lights off so I won’t know.
He took a swig from a half empty bottle of Jack Daniels. He belched, opened the car door, and climbed out into the night. He belched again and leaned against the hood. Then he walked unsteadily under the portico and up to the front entrance where he tugged on the handle. The door didn’t budge.
“Hey! Open up.” No answer. Claude rocked from one foot to the other. Then he pressed his face against the glass, trying to see inside. Nothing moved.
“Damn it. Open the door.” No answer.
He beat on the door with the heel of his hand and then with his fist. Slowly at first; then faster and harder until the pounding became frenetic. Bam. Bam. Bam. Finally he stopped. His hand hurt.
“I know you’re in there.” He might as well have been howling at the moon.
But he pounded some more. Bam. Bam. Bam. Maybe he could find another way in. But he wasn’t up to it, his brain befuddled by a swirling mix of anger and booze.
“I’m a member here,” he said almost conversationally, but no one was there to hear him. “Paid my dues. I’m a member.” The last was almost a whimper.
Standing in the half light of the moon, Claude fished a handkerchief from his pocket and mopped away the perspiration beading on his forehead. Breathing heavily. Worked up; couldn’t think straight. Had to calm down. But, he couldn’t. Then, facing the empty parking lot, he retrieved a pack of Marlboros from a shirt pocket, found his Zippo, and on his third shaky try lit a cigarette. He took quick, nervous puffs, and then tossed the half consumed cigarette into the boxwood shrubbery flanking the entrance.
“Okay. That’s the way you’re gonna be. Screw you.”
Claude made his way back to the car, the moon now obscured by clouds. He leaned in from the passenger’s side, opened the glove box, reached inside, and retrieved a Browning semi-automatic pistol. He stood with the pistol in his hand, trying to figure out whether he wanted to blow the lock open or just leave a little calling card. He couldn’t sort it all out; the notions became intertwined. No matter. The gun would serve his purpose fine, just fine. He shoved it into his belt.
Claude groped around inside the car until he found the bottle. Uncapped, it had fallen over and created a pool of Jack Daniels on the seat. In an alcoholic haze, he figured out the bottle was empty, but he couldn’t understand why the bottle was empty. He swallowed what few dregs remained and then hurled the bottle as far as he could across the lot. It struck the asphalt with a gratifying smashing of glass.
He giggled. “More to come, folks. More to come.”
He staggered toward the shrubbery to take a leak. Unfortunately he didn’t quite make it. What the hell. He shuffled back to the entrance, took the weapon in his hand, and addressed his invisible audience. “I’m giving you one more chance. Open up!” The response remained unchanging–none.
“You bastards kept my dad out. Can’t keep me out.”
Pow. He fired straight into the back lighted glass door. The slug sailed into the lobby. He paused to admire his handiwork, a patterned spider web of cracks radiating from a nice jagged hole. Claude barely noticed the flashlight waggling past the club room windows. He fired again. Pow. And again. Pow. He’d show ‘em. The weapon spoke for him. Shards of grass littered the entryway.
Even in his muddled state, Claude heard the sirens in the distance. Time to go. He raised the pistol with two hands and squeezed off a final round. Had he seen a form, a shadow, some movement in the lobby? Not sure. No time to check. He dropped into the car seat, revved the engine, and burned out of the parking lot. As Claude raced away, he was unaware of the slumping night watchman who had called 911 just before a slug ricocheted into his chest.
The flashing red lights shot past in the opposite direction as Claude sped onto the highway. The accelerator had a life of its own, and it eagerly sought the floor. RPMs too fast to count. “Flying low, baby,” Claude shouted as he rocketed down the empty road. “Flying low.” The Maserati sailed off the county road about ten miles south of West Harmony and wrapped around a tree. It must have happened around three in the morning. The Harmony Valley Bulletin quoted the first trooper to arrive as saying the road was dry, straight, and lightly trafficked. Semis traveled that highway at night, and Dillard in his low-riding car could have been blinded by headlights. But more likely, the officer said, the booze did him in. Whatever happened, the trooper added, “that Maserati was sure a mess.” Other people, like Fritz Merkle, Fred Jaffrey, and Rosella Dillard, when they heard about it, reached a different conclusion. Claude had been driving close to the edge for quite awhile. He just let her slide over.