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Authors: Simone St. James

The Sun Down Motel (19 page)

BOOK: The Sun Down Motel
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Fell, New York

November 2017


I had been on shift at the Sun Down for an hour. It was midnight, and I was reading the old copy of
I’d found in the office. Drew Barrymore’s baby face was on the cover, her hair lifting in the draft from the wall of flames behind her. Andy and Charlie had just been captured by the CIA, and things were about to get
really bad
. Then the office door opened and Nick walked in.

He was wearing jeans and a black zip-up hoodie. His hair was a little mussed and his beard was thicker. He looked like he just woke up. He carried a six-pack of beer, which he put on the desk in front of me.

“Hey,” he said.

“What’s this?” I asked from over the top of my book.


“I’m only twenty.”

His eyebrows went up. “Are you for real?”

I put my book down, finding a Post-it note to use as a bookmark, because folding the corner of a page—even in a thirty-year-old book—is sacrilege. “Okay,” I said. “I’m not a big drinker, though. What is this for, anyway?”

Nick walked to the corner of the room, pushed some old tourist
brochures off a wooden chair, and pulled it up to the desk. “Because I didn’t answer your texts earlier.” He sat down and pulled a can from the pack.

“You were sleeping,” I said.

“No, I was being an asshole.” He popped the beer open and handed it to me. At the look on my face he said, “It’s what I do.”

“Okay,” I said slowly, taking the beer from him.

He took his own beer and slouched back in the wooden chair, his big shoulders dwarfing the back. “It’s a habit,” he said. “I’ve been an asshole for a long time.”

I sipped my beer politely and glanced at my book, like I was longing to get back to it.

“I’m not used to people being nice to me,” he said.


He waited a beat. “So I’m sorry,” he said. “I apologize.”

I lifted my glasses and scratched the bridge of my nose, then lowered them again. “Okay, I accept.”

He let a breath out, almost like he was relieved. Which couldn’t be right, but a girl can dream. “So what happened with Alma?” he said. “You wrote in your text that you would tell me.”

I sipped my beer again, a tight knot forming at the back of my neck. I had said that, but now I didn’t want to tell him everything that had happened with Alma. Because I’d told her that Nick was here, which I was now sure I wasn’t supposed to. And she’d told me that Nick might not have been upstairs like he said he was.

This was awkward.

So I changed the subject. “I figured something out,” I told him instead. “The woman who haunts this place was named Betty Graham.”

Nick blinked. “The woman who sat on my bed?”

“Yes, that one. She was murdered in 1978 and her body was dumped here at the motel. It was a construction site at the time. She was a schoolteacher who lived alone. They never solved it.”

Here was why I couldn’t stay mad at Nick Harkness: He put all of the
pieces together right away. “Your aunt disappeared only a few years later, from the same place. What are the odds it was two different guys?”

“Exactly.” I nearly shouted it but kept my voice calm at the last second. “There are others, too. Cathy Caldwell.”

Nick frowned, then closed his eyes briefly, remembering. “Girl left under an overpass?”

“That was two years later, Nick. Right in between Betty and Viv. And it was also unsolved.”

“God, this town sucks,” he said, running a hand through his hair and making it stick up more, which still didn’t look stupid for some reason. “Believe me, if some scumbag decides he wants to murder people, the place he’s going to come to is Fell.”

“It seems like a nice place to kill someone,” I said politely.

“There were no leads? Nothing at all?”

“Nothing that made it to the papers. It’s frustrating. I thought Alma Trent might be able to give me some insight, but as soon as I mentioned Cathy and Betty she went quiet and closed me down.”
And then she told me not to talk to you.
I bit my lip.

“What?” Nick said, watching my face.

I sipped my beer again.

“What?” he repeated. Then he frowned, figuring it out. “She said something about me,” he said slowly, as if he were reading the words in writing across my forehead. “Something bad.”

“Not really.”


“I let it slip to her that you’re here,” I confessed. “She seemed so friendly. I’m sorry.”

Nick frowned slowly, as if computing this. “Alma knows I’m here? At the Sun Down?”

“Sort of. Yes.”

“Shit,” he said softly. “I’m going to get a visit. Probably soon.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine.” He shook his head. “It wasn’t going to be a secret forever. I mean, what was my plan? Stay at the Sun Down until I’m sixty? I’ll go crazy before Christmas.”

“She’s not a fan of yours. Like you said.” I put my beer down. “She says there’s a theory that you weren’t in your room when your brother was killed.”

Nick went very, very still. He looked at me for a long moment, his expression going as quietly blank as a blackboard being erased.

I didn’t want to feel nervous, but I did. The nerves made my throat dry and my back tight, made cold sweat start under my T-shirt. “Nick,” I said finally, unable to take the silence.

“Yeah,” he said as if he hadn’t paused. “That was a theory. I remember.”

I swallowed. “I didn’t say I believed it.”

“No, you didn’t.” He swigged his beer, then put the can down. For a second I thought he was going to say he was leaving, that it was over. He even leaned forward in his chair. Then he said, “Who’s the kid? The one I see running around in shorts?”

It took a second for me to realize he meant the ghost. “He hit his head on the side of the pool and died,” I said. “The year the motel opened.”

Nick nodded, as if this made sense. “And the skinny old guy with the cigarette?”

I started, shocked. “You’ve seen him? The smoking man?”

“In the parking lot. He stands there and stares up at my room, smoking. Then he’s gone.”

“He was the one who called the ambulance for the kid. He died six months later. In this office.” Now I swigged my own beer, remembering.

Nick’s eyebrows went up. “Well, that’s just fucking great,” he said succinctly. “So what do we do next?”

We? Was there a
? I didn’t know he was helping me with this. I had
opened my mouth to answer—I had no idea what—when the office door swung open and Heather walked in.

•   •   •

“Hi,” she said. And then she saw Nick and said, “Oh.”

She was wearing skinny jeans, Uggs, and her big parka. Her hair was in its usual bobby pin, her cheeks red with cold. Her eyes were bright like they were the first day I met her and she brought a wash of the cold night air through the door with her. She carried a plain manila file folder under her arm, stuffed with papers. She stopped short and looked at us.

“Heather,” I said as Nick turned in his chair to look.

“You’re Nick,” Heather said, fixing him with her gaze.

“You’re the roommate,” Nick said.

Heather nodded. Her eyes were slightly wide, the only tell she gave that she knew who he was. Only someone who knew her like I did would see it. Without another word to Nick, she turned to me. “I couldn’t sleep, and you don’t get any cell signal here. I have a bunch of stuff for you.”

“Are you okay?” I asked her. “Are you sure you should be doing this?”

“I’m okay now, I promise.” She put her file folder on the desk in front of me, next to the six-pack.

“Want a beer?” Nick asked her.

Heather shook her head and pointed a finger to her temple. “Messes with the meds,” she said, then turned back to me. “I’ve been on the Internet for hours. I went into some of my old files and on the message boards I know. Check out what I found.”

I opened the folder. The papers were printouts from websites: photos, articles, conversation threads on message boards. I saw Betty Graham’s formal portrait, her lovely and reserved face tilted to the camera. Cathy Caldwell at a Christmas party. Victoria Lee’s high school senior photo. And one other face I didn’t recognize. “Who is this?”

“This is the big find,” Heather said. “This is the one even I didn’t know about.” She pulled out the photo. The girl was obviously a teenager,
smiling widely for the camera for her school photo. I felt my heart thud in my chest and my stomach sink. A teenager.

“This is Tracy Waters,” Heather said. “She lived two counties over. She disappeared on November 27, 1982. Her body was found in a ditch two days later.” She pushed the photo to the middle of the desk, so we could all see it. I felt horror creeping into the edges of my vision as I stared.

“November 29,” Nick said.

“Exactly,” Heather said. “Tracy’s body was found the same night that Vivian Delaney disappeared.”

Fell, New York

November 1982


The problem with the traveling salesman was that he didn’t have a routine. Aside from the single page of schedule she’d seen in his car—
Mr. Alan Leckie, 52 Farnham Rd., Poughkeepsie; meeting at head office
—she had no idea where he was headed or when. He certainly didn’t leave home at eight and get back at six like every other working man. That made him harder to follow.

When Viv awoke—whatever time of day that might be—she got into the habit of dressing, running a brush through her hair, and driving to the salesman’s house. First she’d cruise by at regular speed just to see if his car was in his driveway. If it was, she’d park around the corner near the park, sink down in her seat, and wait for him to leave. If it wasn’t, she’d drive on to Westlake Lock Systems on the other side of town to see if his car was in the lot. If it wasn’t there, either, she knew he was on the road.

Those were the three things he did: went home, went to Westlake, and went on the road. He never had a day off, a Saturday where he did errands. Viv knew because she’d spent a day observing Mrs. Simon Hess, who was much easier to follow. Mrs. Hess took their daughter to school, then did all of the family’s shopping and errands, then picked their daughter up again.
That part was simple: Mr. Hess worked and brought home the money, and Mrs. Hess did everything else.

After two fruitless days when he wasn’t in town, she finally got a break. She found his car in the parking lot at Westlake Lock Systems, and as she sat low in her seat at the back of the lot she saw him come out of the building. He was wearing a suit, a navy blue overcoat, and shoes that were shined. He carried a briefcase. He was the perfect figure of a traveling salesman.

I guess I’m just that memorable
, he’d said, and then he’d asked her name.

He acted normal and didn’t change his routine, but Viv knew better. She was tracking a hunter, a predator. There was no thought in her mind anymore that she could be wrong, that this maybe wasn’t the man who had killed Betty Graham at least, and probably others afterward. There was no thought that Simon Hess was just a blameless man going about his workday. There was no thought that she might be crazy.

Hess stopped next to his car and fished in his pocket for his car keys. As he did so he turned his head in a slow, methodical arc, taking in every corner of the parking lot. His eyes in that moment seemed dark and dead, like a shark’s. It was the same look he’d done after he’d almost caught her in his driveway. He was looking for something. For her.

Viv sank lower in her seat and tilted her head to the side so he couldn’t see the top of her head over the dashboard. She even closed her eyes and held her breath, as if that would help.

There was a long pause, thirty or maybe even sixty seconds. Then she heard the
of a car door closing and the turn of the motor. She peeked over the dashboard to watch Hess drive smoothly out of the lot.

I have to be careful
, she thought, so she counted to sixty. Then she started her car and followed him.

•   •   •

He left Fell and took the interstate, exiting after an hour and coming to a town called Plainsview. She followed him down a suburban street, and
when he pulled over she passed him, accelerating away. She circled until she found a spot on a side street and parked. She pulled a hat from her purse—a dark blue knit cap that she’d found in Jenny’s closet. She put it on, got out of the car, put her purse over her shoulder, and walked, like any girl walking down a sidewalk.

She spotted his car, parked in the small lot of a strip mall that had a portrait studio, a hair salon, and a closed-up dentist’s office. She zipped her coat up against the wind, dug her hands deep into the pockets, and kept walking, her eyes ahead and a small frown on her face as if she were thinking about something far away.

She couldn’t see him; she didn’t know where he’d gone. Then, with a jolt that almost startled her, she saw him only twenty feet away, ringing the doorbell of the house she was passing. The hedge had hidden him from view. His back was to her, and for a second she couldn’t help but stare at him as she walked. His body turned, and she realized he could see her reflection in the glass of the storm door. She ducked her head and darted past before he could turn and see her in full.

It was close. She quickly walked around a corner, then another. There was a bus stop with a bench and three people already waiting. Viv tugged the hat down on her forehead, sat on the bench, pulled her notebook from her purse, opened it to the blank pages in the middle, and stared at it as if reading. She kept her face relaxed even when she saw the traveling salesman come around the corner at the edge of her eye.

He paused at the head of the street and stood there, looking at the bus stop. Looking at her. He wanted to know why she had stared at him in shock as she’d walked past him, wanted to know who she was. Viv didn’t look up and she didn’t tense as he watched her. She kept her face blankly intent on her notebook and her breathing even. She knew he was hesitating, not certain he wanted to approach her at a crowded bus stop in the middle of the day.

He was still undecided when the bus pulled up. Her face still blank with boredom, Viv closed her notebook, stood in line with the others, and
got on. She paid her quarter in fare and took a seat as the bus pulled away from the curb. She didn’t risk a look at him through the window.

Sloppy. He’s too smart for that. Be more careful next time.

She waited two stops—one seemed risky—and got off, circling back on foot to the place where she had seen him. This time she didn’t walk the street directly but circled behind a row of houses, where she found a walking path. She stood at the edge of the path, took out her notebook—it was useful for all sorts of things, it turned out—and fished a pencil out of her purse. She stood and faced the trees, the pencil moving over her page, so anyone out for a walk would see a pretty girl sketching a nature scene.

But in the wedge of space between two houses, she could see him. He was on the other side of the street, standing on a front porch, talking to the woman who had answered the door. Their conversation was swift and uneventful. The woman closed the door and Simon Hess pulled a folded piece of paper from his pocket. He took out a pencil—the fact that he was now in Vivian’s own pose was not lost on her—and made a note, then looked at the page intently. He turned the page sideways and back again, and Viv realized he was looking at a map. He had a map of the neighborhood and was making sure he hit every house.

She watched as he moved to another door, and then another. A traveling salesman doing what he was hired to do, cover a neighborhood knocking on doors. After each door he took out his map and pencil and made another mark. Viv edged along the walking path, her own paper and pencil in hand, keeping him in view. He wasn’t being careful. He wasn’t looking around to see if he was being watched. He’d seen her get on the bus, and she knew she had caught the hunter in a rare slip-up. His guard was down. He hadn’t matched the girl waiting for the bus with the footprints in his garden weeks ago. She was watching him unseen.

I’ve never seen him do anything except go to work and back.
You’re barking up the wrong tree, honey.

Part of her knew that anyone would think her crazy.
He’s just a salesman going about his job!
But he wasn’t. She knew that.

His head turned, and Viv took a step back, out of view. A man with a dog on a leash walked by, and she took her pencil to paper, sketching the trees. The man gave her a smile as he passed. “Nice day,” he said.

Viv smiled back. “Yes, it is.”

That made him smile more—men loved it when a girl smiled back at them, answered them as if whatever they’d said was the most wonderful thing. She even saw his step slow as he considered stopping and talking to her.

Move on
, she thought.
Move on.

The salesman could be walking away. Changing neighborhoods, maybe. Or getting back in his car.

The man’s foot paused, and then the dog pulled on his leash, barking at a squirrel. The moment broke.

“Good luck with your drawing,” the man said, following the dog and walking away.

“Thank you!” Viv said cheerfully, as if delighted he would say so. When he was a safe distance away she moved position again, looking for the salesman.

He had moved down the sidewalk and was standing with his map and pencil again. But he wasn’t looking at the map. He was standing very still, his chin raised just enough to look ahead. His gaze was fixed on something, unmoving.

Viv changed position again, trying to see what he was looking at. It was a typical quiet suburban street; a car passed in one direction, then another in the other direction. A woman stood on a driveway, bundled into a winter coat, helping her toddler onto a tricycle. An elderly man with a newspaper under his arm crossed at the end of the street.

The traveling salesman was unmoving, and something about his gaze was hard, cold. Viv moved again, trying to see.

A girl was standing on the curb several houses ahead, where the street curved, holding the handlebars of her bike. She looked about sixteen, tall
and slim, wearing dark jeans and a waist-length hooded coat zipped tight. Her dark blond hair was pulled back into a careless ponytail and she wore chocolate brown mittens. She was unaware of the man looking at her. As Viv watched, the girl swung one leg over the seat of the bike and put her foot on the pedal. She adjusted her balance and pushed off in a graceful motion, putting her other foot on the pedal and powering up. She biked away, her legs pumping, her body pushed forward. After a few moments, she was gone.

Simon Hess watched her, standing on the sidewalk with his map in his hand. It flapped softly in the cold wind. The hem of his long wool coat flapped, too, the gust of November wind rolling up the street and the sidewalks.

At last, as if in slow motion, he folded the map and put it in his pocket, along with the pencil. He blinked his eyes as if waking up. Then he turned and walked toward his car.

He’s hunting
, Viv thought.

She ran to her car to follow him.

•   •   •

An hour later, she gave up in despair. She couldn’t find the salesman’s car or the girl on the bike. She’d tried going in the direction she’d seen them go, but nothing. She’d tried the side streets to no avail. She’d ended up in downtown Plainsview, a main street with a grocery store, a diner, a hardware store, and a broken-down arcade. Simon Hess and his car were nowhere to be seen, and so was the girl.

He wouldn’t do something today. Would he?

Panicked, Viv circled back to the street where she’d first seen the girl, parking where she’d parked before. She got out and walked past the house in front of which the girl had been getting on her bike. Did she live here? Was she visiting here? Or had she only stopped briefly while riding her bike down the street, on her way from somewhere else?

Viv wrote the address in her notebook, then walked back to her car
and waited, watching. It was now nearly four o’clock in the afternoon; she should be exhausted. But she was wide awake, her blood pounding shrilly in her veins.

The traveling salesman was following his next victim. She was sure of it.

The question was, what was she going to do?

BOOK: The Sun Down Motel
3.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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