The Red Dog wailed that night. Bud and Angela Claypool were in top form. She had turned out to be of good cut. And I swear, her hospitality was just that. She had a kind heart. Why she looked at me the way she did, I would never know—and neither would anyone else.
Bud, contrary to my original opinion, had no class. He got her nice and loaded at the bar. A fireman for the railroad, he spent his off hours at the club with his cronies. She accompanied him from time to time. This would be the last.
As the evening went on, he again invited me to their place to listen to some blues records he’d just bought at a swap meet in Farmington. He thought I’d be interested. I took him up on the invitation. But I should have sensed things weren’t right.
We got in his car. Angela complained about her seat belt. It wouldn’t lock. Bud paid no attention to her. I sat in the back seat.
As we got on the road, I noticed Bud driving fast, too fast.
“Hey, slow down!” My alarms were going off. He kept racing faster, faster. Suddenly the car veered, and we headed straight for the Rock.
The Rock. That’s what they called it. The only natural formation on the flats higher than a tree, it seemed significant. A large dolomite deposit on the side of Highway 371 in the outskirts of town, it stuck out of the desert floor like a sore thumb. It got its name from the fact it looked like it sounds, a big rock. We hit it. She flew through the windshield.
Bud unbuckled his belt and jumped from the car. I sat, dazed. I didn’t understand why he’d open my door and unbuckle my belt. But, I got out. A car rolled up. Some friends of Bud’s had followed us.
“Hurry up! Get in!” The driver called through the window. Bud threw himself into the passenger’s seat and the tires spun, tossing gravel into the air.
“Hey. Where are you going?” I screamed. None of it made sense till I got over to Angela’s crumpled body. Any life in her vanished with the impact on the big rock. Then it all made sense. Bud wanted Angela dead.
He had committed the perfect crime: A drunk driver’s passenger takes it. That’s par for the course. It happens all the time. He’d lose his license for a year and have to take some drunk driving classes; attend a 12-step course and do a stint with Alcoholics Anonymous. A piece of cake if you want to get rid of dead weight, who in this case, was his wife.
I could hear him tell the Sheriff, I told her to buckle up. Oh God, I didn’t realize I was so drunk! Put me in jail, I don’t deserve better! He’d listen to condescending words from the court. Heads would shake all around. And he would walk. But with me in the equation, it would be no sweat.
Nick Dade was just extra insurance. Guess who was driving? Not Bud Claypool. No, in this scenario good old Nick was the fool behind the wheel. Who were they going to believe, a drifter off the train wreck, or Claypool’s Favorite Son? All-star and former quarterback for New Mexico State? He was the Great-great-grandson of one of the founding fathers of the town, for god’s sake. I was up the creek and my canoe had sprung a leak.
I could tell the balloon ride Bud and Angela were on was running out of air. Ever since that first night in the diner, when I didn’t leave town right away suspicions flew. Everyone in town had distrust for the stranger, I was just too naïve to catch on. The side-wise glances, the forced hello’s on the street, whispers in the background. Snickering, joking; only, they never let me in on the joke.
New York City had made me too innocent if you can believe it. I was from a town where everything was out in the open. Hate, love, fear, whatever you felt, you wore it on your sleeve. But, here, I was caught up in the middle of the intrigues of small-town-USA social politics.
Maybe Angela gave me the eye every once in a while. But was that reason to leave her dead, like so much road-kill? Was it a reason to put her away? There was obviously more to it. Was it for the insurance? Or, was Bud taking those trips to Farmington on business, as he claimed? Maybe it was monkey business.
Maybe he’d found a new Lolita on his rambles to the flea markets in Farmington. Maybe he wanted to live the single life again. Maybe they weren’t getting along. But if that was the case, they sure didn’t show it. She treated him like a king, putting up with his late nights stumbling into bed drunk, reeking of booze, stale cigarettes and other women’s perfume.
A lot of things were going through my mind. But the big question was, what’s wrong with this picture?
There I was, holding Angela in my arms when Sheriff Richardson pulled up in his squad-car, lights flashing, siren blasting. Oh, he knew what he would find. Funny thing, I wondered who called him?
At the jail house, I heard some words regarding my lack of responsibility. OK, I could deal with that; but the stolen car angle shook me, and the talk of kidnapping? Whoa, hold on there! I rode in the back seat. Bud drove. Ask him.
Bud came rushing through the Sheriff’s Office door. He punched me, kicked me, screamed and yelled.
“You murderer! I’ll kill you!” Sobbing, weak and listless, he acted the perfect grieving husband. I knew I would take the rap.