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Authors: Simone St. James

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BOOK: The Sun Down Motel
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The schedule pages had letterhead, a contact name, a phone number. Viv slid the bottom page from the pile—maybe he wouldn’t notice the bottom page gone?—and folded it into her pocket. She was just pushing the door shut when she looked up and saw the face in the living room window.

It was a girl, about ten, with long, straight hair tucked behind her ears. She was watching Viv with no expression.

Viv started. There had been no sign of kids anywhere. She should run, but instead she followed an impulse and met the girl’s eyes through the window. She put a finger to her lips.
Be quiet, okay?

The girl gave no indication of agreeing or not. Instead she lifted a hand and pointed silently in the direction of the front door.
He’s coming.

Adrenaline spiked straight through Viv’s body, up the back of her neck and down into her gut. She ducked down the driveway and jogged to her car, trying to look casual in case anyone was looking—
I belong here! I’m just trotting down this street, no problem!
She got to her car and slid into the driver’s seat as the front door of the salesman’s house opened. She flattened herself down on the seat, trying to make the car look empty.

After a few seconds she dared a peek through the window. The salesman—Simon Hess—was standing in the driveway where she had just been, looking back and forth up the street. He was still wearing the pants and rolled-up dress shirt he’d been wearing in the kitchen. His gaze hit her car and passed over it, seeing it empty. Viv held her breath.

He turned back to his own car, circled it. He looked in the passenger window and opened the passenger door. He picked up the stack of papers.

Did I put them back in the right place? Did I?

He stared at the stack for a long time. Too long. Thinking, Viv knew. Trying to pin down what wasn’t quite right. Trying to think of who had been in his car in his driveway—the passenger door had
shut when she closed it, she knew that, and now she knew he’d heard it. He was trying to put this together with the strange phone call. Trying to think of who it could be.

Slowly he put the papers back in the car and closed the door again. He turned and walked around the side of the house, disappearing.

Viv straightened quickly, turned on her car, and drove away. Her hands were slick and icy on the wheel.

Her mind raced. The salesman would see her footprints in the soft dirt
of the garden at the side of the house: slim tennis-shoe prints. He would know it was either a boy or a girl who had been snooping at his house, not a large man. He’d figure a teenager. Viv’s shoes were white unisex tennis shoes, and technically they could belong to a teenage boy. The salesman was more likely to believe a boy prowler rather than a girl.

That would work to her advantage—if the daughter didn’t give her away.

She didn’t think the daughter would give her away.

Still, the phone call had been from a woman. He would be suspicious, on his guard. Wondering what someone wanted from him. Because he knew, now, that someone wanted

I am hunting the hunter, and he suspects it.

The game is on.

She was afraid. Terrified, actually. But she was just starting.

Now she needed her next move.

Fell, New York

November 2017


The Internet was a gold mine of information on Cathy Caldwell. Whereas I’d spent months subsisting on the few paragraphs I could find about my aunt Viv, Cathy Caldwell was a whole different ball game. Cathy Caldwell was famous.

She hadn’t always been famous. My first search for her name brought up a list of articles from the last few years—true-crime blogs, a podcast, and a Reddit thread with dozens of posts. Google showed me a photo, a 1970s color snapshot of a pretty woman with sandy brown hair standing in a sunlit back yard somewhere, smiling with a small baby on her hip. She was wearing short shorts and a turquoise halter top, her face a little blurry the way old snapshots always are from the days of film cameras with manual focus. The picture looked like the kind that was stuck in those old photo albums with plastic film that you smoothed over each page.

“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me about Cathy Caldwell,” I said to Heather as I sat glued to my laptop after we got back from talking to Jenny Summers.

I was half joking, but Heather answered me seriously. “I told you we have a lot of dead girls in Fell.”

“You weren’t kidding. What was the other name she said? Victoria something?”

“Lee.” Heather was standing in the kitchen, like she’d gone in there for something and then forgot what it was. She zipped the collar of her zip-up hoodie all the way up her neck, as if she was cold. She looked blankly at the closed door of the fridge. “That one was solved, and then it wasn’t.”

I frowned at her, though she wasn’t looking at me. “What does that mean?”

“Her boyfriend was convicted, and then it was overturned a few years later. He was proven innocent.”

“Truly?” I opened a new tab and started a new search. “That’s incredible.”

Heather turned and looked at me, her face still set in serious lines. “I can’t talk about this anymore.”

I took my hands from my laptop keys. “What?”

“The dead girls. I spent too much time reading about them a few years ago. It put me in a bad place. I’m not supposed to read about them anymore, you know?”

“Depression?” I asked her. “Anxiety?”

“A mix.” She shrugged. “They go together. They bring the insomnia. And the bike accident I had—there was trauma from that.” She glanced down at her zipped-up hoodie. “I have other issues, too, I think you may have guessed. My therapist says I have to work through it, but I can’t get . . . fixated on negative things.” She glanced at me. “I guess I’m not as much help as I thought I was. Sorry.”

“No, I’m sorry,” I said. “I showed up in your life and brought my problems. It’s my fault.”

She rolled her eyes and waved her hand. “It’s fine. Just do the searches yourself. I’m going to go study. Maybe have a nap.” She walked toward her bedroom, still hunched into her sweatshirt. It was so big, and she was so small, that she looked like a young girl in it. She got to her bedroom
doorway, then put her hand on the frame and looked back at me over her shoulder. “Look up Betty Graham,” she said. “And when you’re done, help yourself to my meds.” Then she went into the room and closed the door behind her.

•   •   •

Cathy Caldwell. Young, married, mother of a baby, her husband deployed. Left work one day and never came home; her body was found under an overpass, dead of stab wounds to the neck.

It happened in 1980. There was a sensation in the local newspapers for a while, and then, with the case ice-cold, the attention dropped off. Within a few years Cathy was forgotten—until a popular true-crime podcast revived the story in 2016. Then there was a rash of attention again, a new generation of amateur sleuths trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Cathy’s baby son, now grown, did interviews, supplied photos. He talked about the unique pain of growing up knowing a monster had murdered your mother, knowing that whoever that monster was, he was still walking free.

But for all the Internet’s attention, the case was still unsolved. There was DNA but no match in any system. There was nothing else to go back to, no other leads that new technology could magically exploit. Memories were rusty. A growing number of people, like Cathy’s husband, were now dead. The only paper-thin theory, backed by zero proof, was that the husband hired someone to do it for the life insurance money. Otherwise, nothing.

There was less about Victoria Lee. She’d been strangled and dumped off a jogging trail in 1981, and her boyfriend was quickly arrested and convicted of the crime. Unlike the lengthy odes to pretty, sweet Cathy, there was no one to talk about how wonderful Victoria was. Instead there was a cropped, blurry photo of her face, obviously chopped from a group picture, and the caption
Murder victim Victoria Lee
. Cathy was a wife, a mother, beloved and kind and innocent. Victoria was just a murder victim.

In 1988 Victoria’s boyfriend got a new legal team and won a second trial, based on a technicality in the first trial. In the new trial it came out that Victoria had been wearing a thin gold chain around her neck when she was strangled. The chain had been buried in the flesh of her neck, and whoever strangled her would have had marks on his hands. Victoria’s boyfriend had no marks on his hands. His conviction was overturned and he was set free.

Which meant that Victoria’s murder, initially solved, was unsolved again.

I didn’t know why I was reading this. I didn’t know what it had to do with my aunt Viv. But I couldn’t stop.

Betty Graham was next. She had been murdered in 1978 and dumped on a construction site. Betty was a schoolteacher with no husband and no kids, and she’d kept to herself. A neighbor had seen a traveling salesman knock on Betty’s door and get let in. No one saw her alive again.

Betty had had her own small Internet revival, though not as big as Cathy’s. A few armchair sleuths had written about her, including a well-researched long-form article on a true-crime website. The details of the murder were scarce, but they made me go cold.

Betty had fought.

It wasn’t released at the time, but the article’s author had dug it out of the coroner’s report decades later. Betty’s body had bruises on the arms, the back, the shoulders. Her fingernails were torn and bloody. Her knees were swollen and damaged. There were scrapes on her leg and her hip, as if she’d been dragged. Her knuckles were bloody—her own blood—and four of her fingers were broken. She was missing two teeth. The coroner posited that she had been put somewhere, likely the trunk of a car, and had fought the whole way in. Then fought to get out. Then fought some more before her killer raped her, then stabbed her five times in the chest and finally killed her.

Then he’d dumped the body on a heap at a construction site—the site of the future Sun Down Motel.

My head went light. The Sun Down. A woman’s body had been dumped at the Sun Down.

I scrolled through the article and found a photo of Betty Graham. She had a conservative haircut and wore a high-necked blouse, but there was no hiding that she was a beautiful woman. She was sitting for a formal portrait photo, likely for the school where she worked, her head tilted at that specific angle they always used in old school photos, her hands folded demurely in front of her, a polite smile on her face. She was beautiful but she was closed off, her eyes and demeanor saying
don’t approach
. She looked like the kind of woman who could be polite and pleasant to you for years, and decades later you realize you don’t know a single personal thing about her because she’s never told you.

If you looked at her face, you wouldn’t see a woman who would fight and bleed to her dying breath. You saw a woman who would lead a boring spinster existence to the end of her days, not someone who scratched her nails off and crawled on her knees in an effort not to die. You wouldn’t see someone who wanted to live so badly, so desperately that she would do anything.

Then again, maybe you might.

Maybe you saw a woman who hated dying so much that she refused to do it all the way. Maybe you saw the woman in the flowered dress at the Sun Down Motel. Because I had. It was definitely her.

And if I had seen Betty, then it was possible Viv had seen her, too.

Five minutes later I was in the bathroom, sweating and gripping the counter with icy hands, hoping I wouldn’t faint.

We had a conversation about Cathy Caldwell a few weeks before Viv died.

The woman in the flowered dress, looking down at me from the upstairs level.

Betty Graham, fighting and dying and getting dumped in the place where I now worked. Where Viv had worked.

We were single girls who worked at night. Do you think we didn’t know the dangers, even back then?

Cathy fucking Caldwell. How could I be so stupid?

I bent over the sink and turned the cold water on. I put my hand under it, meaning to splash it on my face, but I couldn’t quite do it. I just stood there, staring down at the water going down the drain.

This was the connection. It had to be. Viv had known about Cathy Caldwell in 1982—she had had a conversation about her with her roommate. If Viv knew about Cathy, it was entirely possible she knew about Betty Graham. Especially since Betty’s body was dumped at the Sun Down construction site. It was one of those things you’d hear about when you’d worked in a place for a while.

If the woman in the flowered dress was Betty—and she was—then Viv had seen her. Known who she was. She could have figured it out, just like I did.

And it had something to do with her disappearance. It had to.

I spent too much time reading about dead girls a few years ago. It put me in a bad place.

Viv was sad. And she was also sort of angry, especially toward the end.

Viv had been out a lot at the end. Out pursuing something that wasn’t a man. Something that made her angry.

The water still running, I raised my gaze to the shelf next to the medicine cabinet. I took in Heather’s line of medications, arranged just so.

Betty, Cathy, Victoria. They were dark things, and following them led to a dark place. I could see it so easily, how you could walk through that door and never come out. How reading about the dead girls would lead to thinking about them all the time, to obsessing about them. Because after all this time, after decades and overturned convictions and reams of Internet speculation, no one knew who freaking killed them. No one at all.

If I was going to solve this, I was going to have to go through the door.

So I went.

Fell, New York

November 2017


Two days later I was back in the archives room at the Fell library, going through old newspapers again. This time I bypassed the microfiche and went straight to the paper archives.

I read every article about Betty Graham’s body being found in 1978. The murder had been the top story in Fell that year, a terrifying mystery in a town that had thought itself innocent up to then. There were anxious updates about how the police had nothing new, and the Letters to the Editor columns were filled with letters like
Should we lock our doors at night?
Are our streets safe anymore?
“I don’t even want to let my daughter go to the roller rink,” one woman—I pictured her in a sharp pantsuit with feathered hair, carefully hanging her macramé plant holder—complained. A man wrote, “I will not let my wife stay home alone.” I pictured his wife popping Valium, thinking,
Please leave me home alone. Just for ten minutes
. Another man wrote, of course, that it must have something to do with black people, because who else could it be?

There was nothing anywhere about Betty’s injuries. The police hadn’t released that information. Was it too graphic for the public in 1978? Or did they withhold it because it was something only the killer would know about? Probably both.

I flipped forward to 1980. That was the year of Cathy Caldwell, and for the first time I wondered if the same killer could have done both. It didn’t look like it on the surface: Cathy and Betty had been taken differently, killed differently. Cathy didn’t have injuries like Betty did. But both were pretty; both had been raped, stabbed, and dumped; and it was too much of a coincidence that a place as small as Fell would have
vicious killers. I’d seen speculation about this from the armchair sleuths on Reddit, but the Fell police had nothing to say. Besides, if the same man had done both murders, he’d either stopped or moved away after Cathy. Or died.

Or he’d stayed, and he’d killed Viv in 1982.

“Hey,” said a voice at my shoulder. “It’s you again.”

I jumped and looked up. It was Callum MacRae, the guy who spent all of his time in the archives room, digitizing everything. “Hi,” I said.

“It’s almost six,” he said, smiling at me. “The library’s about to close. They’ll do an announcement in a minute or so.”

“Oh, right.” I looked around. “I should probably go.”

“How’s it going?” he asked as I stood up. “The search for your aunt, I mean.”

He was wearing jeans and a zip-up hoodie today, both of them new-looking and not cheap. He knew how to dress, even if his social life seemed to be lacking. “I haven’t found her yet,” I said. “I haven’t even gotten close.”

“That’s too bad. Anything I can do to help?”

I gestured to the archives behind me. “You already helped by showing me how to go through the old papers instead of relying on the microfiche. So thanks for that. I found things I wouldn’t have found otherwise.”

“Really?” His eyebrows went up. “Like what?”

I couldn’t say why I felt uneasy, but I did. He was a nice guy in nice clothes taking an interest in my project, and yet I had the urge to sidle away. “Just the history of this place, I guess,” I said. “There seem to be a lot of murders here.”

“Ah.” Callum smiled again. “I warned you about that. So I guess you see what I mean.”

“Yeah, I guess so. How is the digitizing going?”

Callum spread his hands out, as if to show me they were empty. “I’m done for the day. And the place is about to close. What are you doing right now?”

I gaped at him because I was a dork. “What? Why?”

“We could go get dinner.”

“I can’t.” It was a lie, but I pulled my phone from my pocket and saw that I’d had a phone call while I had it on silent. I recognized the number: Alma Trent, the retired cop that Nick Harkness had suggested I contact. I’d left her a message a few hours ago. “I have an appointment,” I said to Callum, hoping that it was true.

“Oh, really? Where?”

I blinked at him but he waited for an answer, as if unaware he was on the edge of rude. A lifetime of training—
be nice!
—rose up and I said, “Um, I think I’m going to talk to Alma Trent, who was a police officer back when my aunt disappeared.”

The librarian made the announcement about the library closing, and I started toward the doors. Callum followed.

“That sounds interesting,” he said, unbelievably. “Can I come?”

“It isn’t a good idea,” I said, fumbling, as I pushed through the doors. “I promised I’d go alone.”

His voice went a notch darker. “The cop made you promise that?”

We were outside the library now, and I could see my car parked in the pay spot at the curb. “Yeah,” I said. “Thanks for offering, though. Talk to you soon, okay?” I gave him a fake-cheery wave and got into my car. Before I turned the key I pulled out my phone and listened to the message Alma had left.

She told me she was retired—I knew that from Googling her, like I knew her number from the good old Fell phone book—but she would be happy to talk to me. She had a pleasant, no-nonsense voice, a plain way of
speaking. She told me I should just let her know when I could visit and she’d put some coffee on.

I called her back and told her I was coming, and she gave me her address. When I hung up, I gave in to impulse and texted Nick Harkness.
You up?
I wrote, because I was never sure when Nick was sleeping.

There was no answer. I stared at my phone for a minute, and then I added,
I’m going to see Alma Trent, the cop you told me about

I paused just in case. Still nothing.

I felt lame now, but I finished:
I’ll tell you about it tonight.

Not that he cared, of course. Why would he? I didn’t even know what he did with his time besides sleep. The only reason I had his number was that he’d told me to text him when his pizza arrived last night.

I didn’t know why I was texting him, except that I didn’t want to see Alma Trent alone. And I didn’t want to ask Heather because she was fragile about the whole thing right now. The last thing I needed was to worry that I was damaging Heather’s mental health.

Still no answer. I sighed and put my phone down. I’d go alone.

I looked out the window. Callum was still standing in front of the library, his hands in the pockets of his hoodie. Watching me. When I looked at him, a slow smile touched his mouth, and he gave me a wave.

I started the car and drove.

•   •   •

Alma lived outside Fell, on the opposite side of town from the Sun Down, on a two-lane road that led to a well-kept old farmhouse. It was fully dark now but I could see that the house was of white clapboard, the shutters painted dark green. Pots, now filled with dead plants, lined the front porch, and as I approached the door a dog started barking. I knocked at the screen door, since the dog had obviously given me away.

“Hold on,” came Alma Trent’s voice from inside. Then, in a lower voice: “Stop it, you crazy thing. Honest to God, you’re an idiot.”

The dog kept barking, and a minute later the front door opened. Alma was in her late fifties, with gray-streaked brown hair tied back in a
ponytail and no makeup on her pleasant face. She wore old jeans that bagged a little and a plaid flannel shirt under a brown cardigan. She was still fit and looked strong, and she gave me a kind smile. “Carly?” she said.

“Hi.” I held out my hand. “It’s nice to meet you. Thanks for taking the time.”

We shook, her hand going easy on mine, though I could tell she could crush me if she wanted. “Come in,” she said. “I put the coffee on, like I said. I know it’s late for coffee, but I’m a night owl. Comes from doing all those years of night shift.”

“Right,” I said, following her down the front corridor and into her kitchen, which was dated but cared for. A small dog, some kind of terrier, barked his authority at me and then joyously smelled the cuffs of my jeans, dancing around my shoes. “I’d love some coffee. I’m a night person myself.”

“Watch your step. My dog’s an idiot.” She led me through the cozy house into the small kitchen, where she gestured for me to take a chair. She paused, looking closer at me in the light. “You look a lot like her,” she said.

I didn’t have to ask who
was. I felt a zap of excitement again. I was in the presence of someone who had seen Viv, known her.

I opened my mouth to ask a question, but Alma started first. “Can you tell me something? What is it that brings you here looking for an aunt who died before you were born?”

“Technically she might not be dead,” I said.

Alma’s eyebrows shot up politely. “Okay.”

“I mean, she is,” I said. “She probably is. But they never found a body. Though she left her wallet and her car behind and everything.” I trailed off. I sounded like a ditz.

If Alma agreed, she didn’t say it. She opened a cupboard and took out two mugs. “It was a terrible night,” she said. “I remember it well. The night I found out she was missing, of course. She’d been gone for four days by then.” She paused by the coffeepot, lost in thought. “That shouldn’t have happened, that lag. But it did.”

“How?” I asked. It was like she was reading my mind.

“No one was paying attention, that’s how,” Alma said. “Vivian was quiet and kept to herself. She didn’t invite attention. Her roommate was away, I seem to remember. But she was far from anyone who cared about her. The owners of the motel didn’t even notice when she didn’t show up to work. If you want to meet people who make an art of not being curious, go to the Sun Down Motel.”

I watched her as she poured coffee into two mugs. She had a calm about her, an unhurried quality that wasn’t tentative. I hadn’t known what to expect, but I could picture this woman scraping up a drunk, teenaged Nick Harkness at a party. Giving him a lecture and sending him on his way. In her decades as a cop, she must have seen a lot worse. “How did you know Viv?” I asked her.

She looked at me, her eyebrows up again. “How do you take your coffee?” When I asked for cream, she turned back to the cups. “I was Fell’s night-shift duty officer for thirty years. I got called out to the Sun Down from time to time. Viv called me once or twice—truckers arguing in the parking lot, I think was the first one. You got petty disturbances like that at the Sun Down. It was just that kind of place. Still is.”

“I know,” I said as she set my mug in front of me. “I work there.”

For the first time, I surprised her. She paused, her hand still on my mug of coffee. “I beg your pardon?”

“I work the front desk,” I said. “Nights, just like Viv did. I went out there to ask a few questions, and there was a Help Wanted ad, and I just . . .” I watched as she pulled a chair back and sat down. “What?”

Alma shook her head. “The Sun Down isn’t a safe place to work, that’s all. It never has been. I worried about Vivian working there alone at night. Now it looks like I’m going to worry about you.”

She knows about the ghosts
, I thought, but when I looked at her face, I wasn’t sure. She would make a great poker player. And I wasn’t going to bring up ghosts with anyone except Nick, who had seen what I had seen. “I guess the Sun Down has always had bad luck,” I said. “I mean, Betty
Graham’s body was found there while the motel was being built. And there was a boy who died in the pool.”

Alma sipped her coffee and looked at me as if she might be reassessing. Maybe she’d expected an airheaded twenty-year-old dunce who liked to Twitter. Who knew? Most people expected that. “How do you know about that?” she asked.

“The Fell library archives.”

She put her mug down, her expression calm. “Okay. What do you want to know from me?”

I pulled my own mug toward me. I didn’t sip it yet, though I’d barely slept today and I needed the caffeine. “Can you tell me anything about Viv’s case file? What was in it?”

“I was just the night shift duty officer, not a detective. I didn’t work missing-person cases.”

“But you saw the file,” I insisted.

She sighed and lowered her hand below the seat of her chair in the absent way that dog owners do. Her dog pushed his nose into her palm. “I read the file,” she admitted. “I knew Vivian. It bothered me that she would go missing. She wasn’t wild, and she wasn’t on any drugs. And she wasn’t stupid.” She scratched the dog’s head. “It was like the newspapers said, I guess. It seems that she went to work, because her car and purse were at the motel and she talked to the man on shift before her. But she vanished sometime during her shift, leaving everything behind.”

“Her roommate says that Viv was out a lot during the day in her last weeks. That she seemed down or angry about something. She also said that when she got their phone bill after Viv disappeared, there were phone calls on it that she didn’t make. She says she gave the phone bill to the cops but never heard from them again. It was like they didn’t even follow up.”

Alma shook her head. “I don’t remember that.”

“Jenny says she doesn’t think there was a boyfriend, but there was something going on.”

“Jenny didn’t know her very well.” Alma’s voice was slightly clipped.
“Considering she sat in an empty apartment for two days and didn’t wonder where her roommate had gone. Whether she was even all right.”

“Okay,” I said. “The newspapers all described Viv as pretty and outgoing, but Jenny says she wasn’t outgoing at all.”

“Pretty, yes,” Alma said. “She truly was. That was one of the reasons I worried about her working alone at the Sun Down every night. But no, she wasn’t outgoing. She was quiet, a little intense. She could light up when she was talking about something she was interested in. But I never heard about her having any friends.”

“What was she interested in?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“You said she’d light up when she talked about something she was interested in. I just wondered what that was.”

Alma paused, still stroking her dog. “You know, I don’t remember. A movie or a TV show, maybe. We passed the time chatting. Like I say, I was worried about her.”

“No one at the motel knew her?”

“Like who?” Alma said. “There’s no one around on the night shift. I knew Jamie Blaknik was one of the regulars out there, and he’d definitely met her, but that was all I could get out of him.”

BOOK: The Sun Down Motel
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