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Authors: Simone St. James

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Fell, New York

November 2017


The house on German Street was at least sixty years old, a post–World War II bungalow with white wood siding and a roof of dark green shingles. This was a residential street in downtown Fell, a few blocks from Fell College in one direction and the huge Duane Reade in the other. In this small knot of streets, everything had been tried at one point or another: low-rise rental apartment buildings, corner stores, laundromats, a small medical building advertising physiotherapists and massage. In between these were the small houses like this one, the remnants of the original neighborhood that had been picked apart over the decades. This one was well kept, with hostas planted along the front and in the shade beneath the large trees, a fall wreath of woven branches hanging on the door.

There was a car in the driveway. That was a good sign, because Heather and I were dropping in unexpectedly.

“You’re up for this?” I asked Heather for the third time.

She gave me a thumbs-up, and we got out of the car.

We could hear the doorbell chime through the door. After a minute the door opened and a woman appeared. She was black, in her fifties,
with gray hair cropped close to her head. She wore a black sweater, black leggings, and white slippers.

Her eyes narrowed at us suspiciously. “Help you?”

“Mrs. Clark?” I said. “I’m Carly Kirk. We talked on the phone.”

“The girl asking me about the photograph,” Marnie said. “I already told you I have nothing to say.”

“This is my friend Heather,” I said. “We just have a few questions. We’ll be quick, I promise.”

Marnie leaned on the door frame, still not stepping aside. “You’re persistent.”

“Vivian was my aunt,” I said. “They never found her body.”

Marnie looked away. Then she looked from me to Heather and back again. “Fine. I don’t know how I can help, but you get a few minutes. My husband is home in half an hour.”

She led us into the front living room, a well-lived-in space with a sofa, an easy chair, and a big TV. A shelf of photos showed Marnie, her husband, and two kids, a son and a daughter, both of them grown. Heather and I sat on the sofa and Marnie took the easy chair. She didn’t offer us a drink.

“Listen,” she said. “I told you that photo was just something I got paid for. I don’t know anything about your aunt disappearing all those years ago.”

Heather pulled a printout of the article about Vivian from her pocket and unfolded it. There was Marnie’s photo, Vivian with her lovely face and curled hairdo, her head turned and her expression serious. “Do you remember taking this?” Heather asked her.

Marnie glanced at it and shook her head. “I was a freelance photographer in those days. I shot anything that would pay. I took pictures of houses for real estate agents. I did portraits. I worked for the cops a few times, taking shots of burglary scenes.” She put her hands on the arms of the easy chair. “When I met my husband, I took a job with the studio that worked for the school board. I did class photos. It didn’t pay a whole lot, but the
hours were easy and I had my son on the way. I couldn’t run around taking pictures at all hours anymore.”

“You said on the phone you’ve lived in Fell all your life,” I said.

“That’s right.”

“Do you know the Sun Down Motel?”

Marnie shrugged. “I suppose.”

“Here’s the thing,” Heather said. “I took this photo and enlarged it. You see this in the corner here.” She pointed to the corner of the photo of Vivian. “When the picture is enlarged, that’s a number—actually, it’s two numbers, a one and a zero. Like the numbers on the front of a motel room door.” She pulled out her phone. “So I went to the Sun Down and looked at their room numbers. The rooms on the bottom level all start with a one, and the rooms on the upper level all start with a two. And the door numbers look exactly like the numbers in your picture.”

Marnie had gone still, her gaze flat. “What exactly are you saying?”

“The Sun Down hasn’t changed its door numbers since it opened,” I said. “This picture”—I pointed to the photo of Viv—“the one you took, was taken at the Sun Down Motel. Do you remember why you were taking pictures there?”

Marnie barely glanced at the photo. She shook her head. “What do you think is going to come from this?” she asked, looking from me to Heather and back. “Nancy Drew One and Nancy Drew Two. Do you think you’re going to catch a murderer? Tackle him down and tie his hands while the other one calls 911? Do you think some photo pulled out of a thirty-five-year-old newspaper is going to be the smoking gun? Real life doesn’t work that way. I’ve seen enough of it to know. Gone is gone, like I told you on the phone. I look at you two and wonder if I was ever as young as you are. And you know, I don’t think I ever was.”

Her dark brown eyes looked at mine, and I held her gaze. We locked there for a long second.

“You took pictures at the Sun Down in 1982,” I said. “Tell me why.”

Still she held my gaze, and then she sighed. Her shoulders sagged a
little. “I took a side job for a lawyer. Following his client’s wife. I followed her around and took pictures for evidence. She was cheating on him, just like he thought, and she met the other man at the Sun Down. So the pictures I took were not exactly for public use.” She leaned back in her chair. “That job paid me a hundred and seventy-five dollars, and I paid the utility bill for almost a year with it. I was on my own back then, paying for myself. I needed the money.”

I felt a tickle of excitement in the back of my mind. “What was the client’s name?” I asked.

“Bannister, but it was thirty-five years ago. They might both be dead by now, for all I know.”

“So you were taking pictures at the Sun Down while Vivian was there. Did you ever talk to her?” I asked.

“I had no reason to talk to her,” was the reply. “I was in my car in the parking lot. I wasn’t really advertising myself.”

Which wasn’t an answer. “So you didn’t meet her?”

“Did I go in and introduce myself to the night shift clerk while I was following someone? No.”

“You knew what she looked like,” Heather chimed in. “When she disappeared, you knew you had a photo of her and you offered it to the newspapers.”

“I knew what she looked like because her picture was already in the papers,” Marnie corrected her. “When I saw her face, she looked familiar. The articles said the Sun Down, so I checked my photos and I saw the same face.”

“Where are those photos now?” I asked her.

Marnie looked at me. “You think I kept photos from 1982?”

I looked at my roommate. “Heather, do you think she kept photos from 1982?”

“Let’s see,” Heather said. “A divorce case, valuable pictures that could be used as blackmail. I’d keep them.”

“Me, too, especially if there was a known murder victim in them. You might be able to sell the pictures all over again if her body is found.”

“Double the money,” Heather agreed.

“You two are a piece of work,” Marnie said. “I ought to smack both of you upside the head.” She lifted herself out of the chair and left the room.

We waited, quiet. I didn’t look at Heather. When I heard the sounds of Marnie rustling through a closet in the next room, I tried not to smile.

She came back out with a stack of pictures in her hand, bound together by a rubber band. She tossed the stack in my lap. “Knock yourselves out,” she said. “The last time I looked at those was 1982, and they weren’t very interesting then. I doubt they’re any more interesting now. If you think your aunt’s killer is in there, you can do the work yourself.”

I picked up the stack. It looked like a hundred or so pictures. “Has anyone else seen these?”

“The lawyer I worked for back then got copies. I kept my copy just in case, for insurance. I even kept the negatives—you can have those, too.” She dropped an envelope on top of the photos. “Like you said. When I sold the picture of Vivian to the newspapers, the cops didn’t even call me. They didn’t come to my door asking for that stack. So no, no one else has seen them.”

We thanked her and left. When we got into the car and slammed the doors I said to Heather, “Okay, how many lies did she tell, do you think?”

“Three big ones and a bunch of little ones,” she said without a pause.

I thought it over. “I missed a few. Tell me the ones you know.”

She put up an index finger. “One, someone else has definitely seen the photos. They were the last known photos of a missing person. The cops must have at least looked at them, though I don’t know why she’d lie.”

I nodded.

“Two”—Heather put up a second finger—“her old client, Bannister, is definitely not dead. She was trying to discourage us from finding him.”

“I caught that one,” I said.

“And three . . .” Heather opened her file of newspaper clippings. “I’ve seen every mention of Vivian’s disappearance in every paper. The first mention of it on the first day was a paragraph of text.” She pointed to a
few sentences in the
Fell Daily
. “It just says that local girl Vivian Delaney is thought to be missing, blah blah. Call the police if you know anything. There’s no picture. But the next day, Marnie’s photo runs in the paper. Which means Marnie didn’t match the name and the photo to the girl from the Sun Down. When she sold her photo to the papers, she knew Vivian’s name and her face.”

“So she didn’t just sit in the parking lot,” I said.

“No.” Heather snapped her file shut. “She knew Vivian, and she isn’t admitting it. What I want to know is why.”

Fell, New York

November 1982


Viv sat at her kitchen table again with the telephone and the phone book. Next to her—beside the box of Ritz crackers and the jar of cheese—was her notebook. It was open to the pages with the information she’d mapped out last night. She’d sat in the office at the Sun Down for her long, dark shift and made a list of dates.

Betty Graham: November 1978.

Cathy Caldwell: December 1980.

Victoria Lee: August 1981.

Viv tapped the end of her pencil against the table and went over the list again. If Simon Hess did all of these murders—and Vivian was personally sure he had—then there were gaps. Between Betty and Cathy. Between Victoria and now. Unless there were other dead girls she didn’t know about.

She pulled out the sheet of paper from Simon Hess’s scheduling office that she’d stolen from his car. She took a deep breath, got into character, and dialed the number at the top.

“Westlake Scheduling,” a woman answered.

“Good afternoon,” Viv said, lowering her voice to the right tone and letting the words roll. “I’m calling from the Fell Police Department.”

The woman gave a disbelieving laugh. “You’re having me on, right? There aren’t any women police.”

“I assure you, ma’am, that there are,” Viv said. “At least, there’s one, and that’s me. My name is Officer Alma Trent, and I really am a police officer.”

It was the best impression she’d ever done. She sounded competent and older than her years. She put her shoulders back and her chin up to make the sound coming from her throat deeper and rounder.

“Oh, well,” the woman on the other end of the line said, “I had no idea. I’ve never had a call from a police officer before.”

“That’s okay, ma’am. I hear it all the time. I’m looking into a small matter here at the station, and I wonder if you could help me.”

“Certainly, Officer.”

She felt a little kick at that. It must be fun to be Alma sometimes. “We’ve had a few break-ins on Peacemaker Avenue,” Viv said, naming the street that Victoria Lee had lived on. “Nothing too bad, just people breaking windows and jimmying locks. Trying to grab some cash. The thing is that some of these break-ins happened during the day, and one person mentioned seeing one of your salesmen on his street.”

“Oh.” The woman gave a nervous, defensive titter. “You don’t think one of our men would do that, do you? We hire professionals.”

“No, ma’am, I do not think that,” Viv said with the straight seriousness that Alma would give the words. “But I would like to know, if one of your men was in the area, if there’s anything he remembers seeing. Strangers or suspicious folks hanging around, if you know what I mean.”

“Oh, sure, I get it.” Viv heard the rustle of papers. “Did you say Peacemaker Avenue? We keep records of which salesman covered which territory. It’s important to keep it straight so they aren’t overlapping and the commissions are paid right.”

“I’m sure you keep good records, ma’am, and I appreciate anything you can tell me.”

There was more rustling of papers, the sound of pages turning in a
scheduling book. “Here it is. You say someone saw one of our salesmen there?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Well, I don’t know what they were talking about. We haven’t had a salesman cover Peacemaker Avenue since August of last year.”

Viv was silent, her blood singing in her ears, her head light. Victoria Lee, who lived on Peacemaker Avenue, had been killed in August of ’81.

She had just connected the traveling salesman with Victoria Lee—whose boyfriend was in prison for the murder.

“Hello?” the woman on the other end said. “Are you still there?”

Think, Viv.
“Yes, sorry,” she said, channeling Alma again. “Can you let me know which of your salesmen that was? I’d still like to talk to him. Maybe he’s been back to the area and it isn’t in the schedule.”

“That’s true,” the woman said to Viv’s relief. “He may have made a follow-up call. That wouldn’t be in the book.” There was a pause. “Well, darn. We do the schedule in pencil because there are so many changes, but someone’s gone and erased the name right out of the book.”

Checkmate, Simon Hess
, she thought. “That’s strange.”

“It sure is. Maybe two of our men were going to trade and the new names didn’t get written in.”

Viv thanked the woman and hung up. So Simon Hess was covering his tracks. But it was something. She was closing in. She wrote a checkmark next to Victoria’s name.

She flipped to another phone number she’d pulled from the phone book. It was time to put Simon Hess and Cathy Caldwell together.

“Hello?” an older woman’s voice said when Viv had dialed the number.

She didn’t use Alma’s voice this time. Instead, she used the voice she’d just heard at Westlake Lock Systems. “Hello, is this Mrs. Caldwell?”

“No, I’m not Mrs. Caldwell. I’m her mother. Mrs. Caldwell is dead.”

Viv’s throat closed.
Stupid, so stupid.
She’d assumed that Cathy’s mother would also be Mrs. Caldwell, though of course Caldwell was Cathy’s married name. “Ma’am, I’m so sorry,” she managed.

The woman sighed wearily. “What are you selling?”

“I’m not—” She had to get a grip. “I’m, um, calling from Westlake Lock Systems. I wanted to know if you’re satisfied with the locks you bought two years ago.”

It was a long shot. But all the woman had to say was
I don’t know what you’re talking about
and the conversation would be over.
I wish I really were a police officer
, she thought.
It would be so much easier to get people to answer questions.

But the woman replied with, “I suppose they’re fine. I remember when Andrew and Cathy bought them. They didn’t want to spend the money, but your salesman convinced them. With Andrew gone so much, they thought it would make Cathy safer. It didn’t work.”

Viv’s hand was shaking as she put a checkmark next to Cathy’s name. “Ma’am, I think—”

“You’re one of those ghouls, aren’t you?” the woman said. “You aren’t from the lock company at all. Then again, I wonder how you knew about the locks Cathy put in. You’re likely not going to tell me. So let me tell you something instead.”

“Ma’am?” Viv said.

“You think we haven’t had dozens of phone calls at this house? Hundreds? I moved in after Cathy died because my grandson was left without a mother. Andrew is deployed again so it’s just my boy and me. And I’m the one who answers the damn phone calls. They’ve tapered off over the past two years, but we still get them. I can tell a ghoul from the first minute I answer the phone.”

Viv was silent.

The woman didn’t need an answer. “I’ve heard everything,” she continued. “Cathy was a slut, Cathy was a saint. Cathy was targeted by Communists or Satanists. Cathy was killed by a black man, a Mexican. Cathy was having a lesbian affair. Cathy got what she deserved because she had left the path of God. I’ve told Andrew to unlist the number, but he won’t
do it. You ghouls have all the answers, except one: You can’t tell me who the hell killed my daughter.”

The woman’s voice was raw with pain and anger. It came through the phone line like a miasma. Viv still couldn’t speak.

“It’s never going to happen,” the woman said. “Finding him. Arresting him. Letting me watch him fry. I thought for a long time that I would get that chance. But it’s been two years, and they still don’t know who took my girl. Who stripped her, put a knife in her, and dumped her. A sweet girl who wanted to earn her next paycheck and raise her baby. Do you know who killed her? Can you end this for me?”

The words were right there. Sitting in her throat.
His name is Simon Hess.
But something stopped her; maybe it was the knowledge that saying it wouldn’t end this woman’s pain. “I—”

“Of course you don’t know,” Cathy’s mother said. She sounded angry and tired, so tired. “None of you people ever know.”

“He won’t get away forever.” Viv’s voice was hoarse with her own emotion—anger and a different kind of exhaustion. She was tired, too, though she couldn’t imagine how tired Cathy’s mother must be. “He can’t. He’ll make a mistake. He’ll come into the light. There will be justice, I swear.”

“No,” Cathy’s mother said. “There won’t. I’m going to die not knowing who killed my baby. He’s going to walk free.”

There was a click as she hung up.

Viv sat silent for a long time after she put the phone down. She wiped the tears from her cheeks. Then she got up to get dressed.

•   •   •

“Thank you for meeting me,” Marnie said to Viv the next day as they sat on a bench in a park in downtown Fell. “During the day, no less.”

Viv picked at the French fries she’d bought from a fast-food counter on her way here. Vaguely, she realized that she didn’t eat real meals anymore; she snacked on crackers and coffee during the day and ate bologna
sandwiches at night. She couldn’t remember when she’d last slept eight hours.

“You look terrible,” Marnie said, reading her mind.

Viv shrugged. “I feel fine.” It was the truth. She had pushed past tiredness some time ago and now existed on a plane of exhaustion that floated her through the day.

Marnie did not look terrible. She looked great. She wore khaki pants with a pleated waist and a navy blue blouse beneath her wool pea coat, and she had a matching navy knit cap on her head. It was four o’clock in the afternoon, and a few of the people passing through the park looked twice at the black woman and the white woman sitting together.

“Okay, I came to tell you two things,” Marnie said, leaning back on the bench next to Viv. “The first is that I had some downtime today, so I followed your salesman. He’s in Plainsview again.”

Viv straightened. Plainsview, where she’d seen him watching the girl. “Right now?”

“Yes, right now. I followed him to the exit, and then I kept going. Because if I follow him too close and too often, he’ll see me. Which leads me to the other thing I want to say. I quit.”

“What do you mean, you quit?”

“All of this,” Marnie said, waving between the two of them. “The intrigue we have going on. I’m quitting. I’m done. I’m not following this man anymore. I’m not even sure he’s a murderer.”

Viv blinked at her. “There was a salesman from Westlake Lock Systems going door-to-door on Victoria Lee’s street the month she was killed. And Cathy Caldwell and her husband bought locks from a Westlake salesman before she was killed, too.”

Marnie’s lips parted. She looked like someone had slapped her. “Oh, honey,” she said in a rough voice, and Viv thought she was going to say
You’re crazy
It doesn’t prove anything
, but instead she said, “You need to stop before you get yourself killed.”

“He doesn’t know I’m investigating him,” Viv said.

“The hell he doesn’t. A man does crimes like this, he’s looking over his shoulder. Covering his tracks. Waiting for someone to come up behind him.”

Viv thought of the name erased from the Westlake schedule book and didn’t reply.

“You’re going to get hurt,” Marnie said. “I know you think you won’t, but you will. If he can hurt those girls, then he can hurt you. You need to talk to the police and tell them what you’ve found.”

Viv licked her dry, chapped lips and ate a cold French fry.

“Promise me,” Marnie said. “You owe me, Vivian. Promise me you’ll talk to the police. That you’ll try.”

Viv forced the words out. “I promise.” She didn’t want to, but she meant it. She promised it to Marnie, and she would do it. “Please don’t quit.”

Marnie shook her head. “Sorry, but I am. I don’t want to do this anymore. It’s too dangerous. I have a man I’m seeing, and he says he wants to marry me. I can get married and start a family instead of doing this. I’m done.”

“But you’re the one who showed me everything,” Viv said. “You’re the one who took the photos and took me to the murder sites.”

“I was trying to help you, because you were a clueless girl working in the middle of the night. I was trying to show you that there are predators out there. That you have to be careful.” She gave a humorless laugh. “Looks like it backfired on me. How was I supposed to know you’d start hunting the hunter?”

“Maybe you were trying to help, but you knew all about the murders. It interested you, too.”

“Maybe. Yes, okay. But I wasn’t interested like you are now.” Marnie leaned forward, her elbow on her knee, and looked Viv in the eye. “I’m all about survival. That’s how I work. Knowing about the girls getting killed in this town was a part of that survival. Following a killer around is not.” She pressed her lips together and sighed. “I like you. I do. But I have more to lose than you do. I’m not jeopardizing everything I have, everything I’ve worked for, my
, for something I can’t prove, that no
one will believe. I’m not willing to do that and I never was. Do you understand me?”

Viv dropped her gaze to her fries and nodded.

There was a second of silence. “You’re going to Plainsview, aren’t you?” Marnie said.

Viv nodded, still staring at her fries.

“I know I can’t stop you, and you have some serious spine. But be careful, for God’s sake. At least be ready to defend yourself. Don’t be alone with him. All right?”

“I’ll be careful.”

“Damn it,” Marnie said. “If I read about you in the papers, I’m going to be so damn mad at myself.”

But she still rose from the bench, picked up her purse, and walked away.

•   •   •

The trail had gone cold in Plainsview. Viv circled the streets, looking for Hess’s car. She started with the neighborhood she’d last seen him in, then widened out to the next neighborhood and the next. Plainsview wasn’t a very big place, and soon she’d covered it pretty thoroughly.

She ended up at the town’s only high school, Plainsview High. It was a new building, and even though it was dinnertime, the parking lot was full of cars, the lights on in all the windows. Viv saw a handmade sign that said,

She parked on the street and scanned the cars in her view. The girl she’d seen on her bicycle was high school age, which meant she might be here, or her hunter might come to this place. After a minute she got out of the car and looked up and down the street. He wouldn’t park in the lot, but nearby. That was what she would do.

BOOK: The Sun Down Motel
12.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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