Read The Sun Down Motel Online
Authors: Simone St. James
She shoved her hands in the pockets of her coat and walked toward the school. Nothing moved; choir night was still happening. But when she stepped on the edge of the school’s concrete tarmac, the school doors opened and parents and students began to file out. The performance was finished.
There was the sound of a motor, and a car pulled away in the edge of
Viv’s vision. She turned and squinted. It was the same make and model as Hess’s car, but at this angle she couldn’t see the driver. She took a step forward as the car receded, trying to read the license plate, but she could only catch a nine and a seven before the car disappeared.
Simon Hess’s license plate had a nine and a seven.
She walked through the small crowd. She looked like someone’s big sister, or maybe even a senior, so she blended in. Moving against the flow of people leaving, she walked through the school’s open doors. On a folding table was the night’s program, now over. She picked it up.
On the front was a list of the songs in tonight’s performance. On the back was a list of the members of the Plainsview High School Choir. There were fifteen girls.
She folded the page in her pocket and wandered farther down the hall, passing teachers and parents chatting in knots. The school was small, and the crowd was rapidly dispersing. There were other folding tables here, advertising other things: the football team, the science fair. One of the tables had a handmade sign that said
ORDER YOUR 1982–83 YEARBOOK NOW!
Next to it was a copy of the 1981–82 yearbook on display.
This is so easy
, Viv thought as she picked up the yearbook, slid it in her coat, and walked back out the door with the rest of the crowd.
Downtown Plainsview was closing, but a hardware store was still open.
Viv went in, thinking of that car driving away tonight. Thinking of Marnie’s advice:
At least be ready to defend yourself.
And that stupid news item on safety tips for teens:
Use a buddy system. Never get into a stranger’s vehicle. Consider carrying a whistle or a flashlight.
Viv walked up one aisle of the small store, then down the other. A whistle was not much use at the Sun Down, where there was no one around for miles. If she ever used it, she’d be whistling into the wind. As for a flashlight, she pictured shining one into the traveling salesman’s face. That wouldn’t do much, either.
“Excuse me, miss?”
Viv turned to see a boy of about eighteen standing at the end of the aisle. He had pimples on his cheeks and a red apron on. He gave her a smile that was friendly and a little embarrassed. “We’re closing now,” he said.
“Oh,” Viv said, looking around. “I was just—”
“Is there something I can help you find?”
“Maybe.” She smiled back at him. “I was just thinking that I should carry something to defend myself. Because I work nights.”
“Jeez, sure,” the guy said. “We don’t carry Mace, though. You’d be surprised how often we get asked for it.”
“Right.” Viv had never actually thought about how to defend herself. Could she punch someone, kick them? Growing up in suburban Grisham, the idea was absurd. Now she glanced at the darkening windows outside and wondered exactly what she would do.
What would you do if you ever saw real trouble?
her mother had said.
“There’s a baton thing you can carry,” the hardware guy told her. “It gives a good whack, I think. But it’s big and heavy for carrying around every day.” He turned the corner to the next aisle, and Viv followed him. “Personally, if I were a girl and I wanted to defend myself, I’d carry this.” He reached onto a shelf and put a thick leather holder into her hand.
Viv pulled the handle. It was a knife—not the retractable switchblade kind, but a regular knife with a wooden handle and a wicked silver blade. The blade itself was about three inches long and looked like it could cut glass.
“Wow,” Viv said.
“I told you, we get asked a lot,” the guy replied. “This is a hunting knife, but it works for what you want. Small enough to fit in a purse. Sharp enough that you mean business.” She looked up to see that he was smiling at her. “You can even take it jogging in the park. Some pervert comes up to flash you—
At least, if I were a girl, that’s what I would do.”
She blinked up at him, and she smiled at him. She watched him blush.
“I’ll take it,” she said.
Fell, New York
A few thin flakes of snow swirled in the air, white against the darkness. They flitted in front of the blue and yellow of the motel sign like fireflies, looking almost pretty. Thanksgiving was coming, and I’d had an email from Graham a few hours ago, asking if I wanted to spend the holiday with him and his fiancée back home.
I pictured an awkward dinner at Graham and Hailey’s apartment, football on TV. It was the second Thanksgiving since Mom died, and my brother and I should probably spend it bonding and supporting each other. But we didn’t have particularly warm memories of the holiday—Mom always cooked a big Thanksgiving dinner, but she worked and sweated over it for days, making a meal for the three of us that didn’t matter much in the big scheme of things. By the end of it she was always too exhausted to be much fun, and if Graham and I either offered to help her or told her to keep it simple, she got defensive and angry.
She’d even cooked Thanksgiving dinner for us when she was sick. She was still on her feet then, trying to convince herself that she could do everything she used to do. She’d waved us off, gone shopping for a load of groceries when Graham and I weren’t looking. She’d fallen asleep while the turkey was in the oven. Just thinking about it now made me sad. I had
no idea what old idea buried in my mother’s psyche made her crazy at Thanksgiving, and now I would never know.
I loved Graham. He was my big brother, my only sibling, my protector and my torturer for as long as I could remember. The one who didn’t let bullies tease me for being a dorky bookworm, but who also believed that making me watch horror movies at age nine would “toughen me up” and had snuck me my first copy of
. But now he was twenty-three, working in an office, and practically married. While I stood here in the parking lot of the Sun Down at three in the morning, watching the snow, it felt like Graham was on Mars.
I held the photo in my hand out at arm’s length, matching the image to the motel. It was one of Marnie Clark’s stack of photos, taken from the parking lot of the Sun Down in 1982. This shot was taken from near where I was standing, at the edge of the parking lot, facing the motel. I moved the photo until I had it exactly matched—the real motel outside the frame, the 1982 version inside. There was almost no difference at all.
In a weird, scary way, this place was almost magical, stuck in time.
I lowered the photo and picked up the next one from the stack. It was taken from the same angle. There were two cars in the parking lot in the picture, parked in front of rooms 103 and 104. They were boxy, early-1980s cars, ugly and oddly retro-attractive at the same time. A woman was getting out of one of them. She was young and dark-haired and beautiful, sexy and maybe a little mean. Or she just had resting bitch face, perhaps. This was the woman Marnie had been paid to follow and catch cheating. Bannister, Marnie had said the name was. This was Mrs. Bannister, on her way to an assignation at the Sun Down.
I switched to the next photo. My hands were getting cold in my mittens, but I didn’t care. There was no chance that I would be needed inside the Sun Down office anytime soon, because we had no customers, and I liked looking at the photos out here, seeing where Marnie had been when she took them, the real spot where Mrs. Bannister had parked. It was like a door through time.
The next photo showed the door to room 104 opening and a man standing in the gap. He was smiling at Mrs. Bannister. He was fortyish, with salt-and-pepper hair. Not bad-looking, I thought, but it was a mystery why a woman so young would cheat with him at a down-and-out motel. Then again, I was the last person to understand anything about sex.
I looked more closely at the photo of Mrs. Bannister and her lover. Marnie had been at the back of the parking lot, and she’d gotten a lot of the motel into the frame. On the upper edge I could see the second level of the motel, the bottoms of the line of doors through the slats of the second-story railing. There was a dark shadow on the second floor, as if maybe someone was standing there. But then again, it could be anything.
Inside the motel office, I heard the desk phone ring. I jogged back toward the motel, putting the photos in my coat pocket. The ringing stopped as someone picked up the phone, and then the office door opened. Nick stepped out and motioned to me. He’d been in the office going through the rest of the stack of Marnie’s photos. “It’s Heather,” he said.
“Thanks.” My glasses fogged as I walked back inside, and when I pulled my hat off my hair probably looked comical. I continued to make an excellent impression on Nick Harkness in my campaign for seduction.
“Hey,” I said, picking up the receiver he’d left on the desk. It was sort of a thrill, using an old-style telephone. It felt like it weighed five pounds.
“Okay,” Heather said on the other end of the line. “I’ve been researching the Bannisters for the last hour and I’ll tell you what I’ve found: nothing.”
“What do you mean, nothing?” I pawed at my hair with my free hand, trying to pat the flyaways back down. I heard Nick sit, though I couldn’t see him through the fog.
“I mean nothing,” Heather said. “There’s a mention of a Steven Bannister winning a high school high jump contest in 1964, and that’s it. I have no idea if it’s even the right person. No other mentions of either husband or wife at all. And they’re not in the Fell phone book.”
The frustrations of tracking people who didn’t live their lives online.
“Okay. It was a long shot anyway that either of them would have met Viv. What about the man Mrs. Bannister was cheating with?”
“Aha,” Heather said. “Now you’ll see how clever I am. Because I truly am fiendishly clever.”
“Fiendishly?” My glasses cleared, and I glanced over to see Nick sitting in one of the office chairs, leaning it back with his feet pressed against the desk. He was wearing jeans and his black zip-up hoodie, his hair pushed back from his forehead as if he’d pushed it with his fingers. He had Marnie Clark’s photo negatives in his hand and was looking at a strip in the overhead light, squinting a little, his body balanced easily. Even in that pose he looked awesome, scruff on his jaw and all.
“Yes, fiendishly,” Heather said as I watched Nick put down one strip and pick up another. “I talked to a guy online who can do DMV lookups. Those photos of Marnie’s have license plates in them. It cost me seventy bucks, but now I know who owned the cars in those pictures.”
“You’re right—that is fiendish.”
“I know. So here goes: The Thunderbird in the photos belonged to none other than Steven Bannister, high school high jump star. He moved to Florida in 1984 and dropped off the map. The second car belonged to a Robert White, who died in 2002. He would have been forty-one in ’82, so that probably makes him Mrs. Bannister’s lover.”
“Okay,” I said. Nick started to lower his chair, so I stopped staring at him and moved my gaze to a spot on the wall.
“There’s a third car, too. That one belonged to a fellow named Simon Hess. Here’s where it gets interesting.”
Heather paused, purely because she loved the anticipation. “Two things about Simon Hess. First, he worked as a traveling salesman.”
That made a bell ring deep, somewhere in my brain. “Where did I read about a traveling salesman?”
“When you read about Betty Graham,” Heather said. “She was last seen letting one into her house.”
Now the back of my neck went cold. “Oh, Jesus.”
“It gets better,” Heather said. “I looked up old Simon Hess to see if he was dead yet. And I found something interesting. It seems he left on a sales trip sometime in late 1982 and he never came home.”
“What? That makes no sense. What do you mean he never came home?”
Nick was sitting up and watching me now, trying to follow the conversation. I wished like hell this ancient phone had a speakerphone option, but I’d just have to tell him everything after I hung up. How did anyone before 1999 do anything at all?
“He just left and never returned,” Heather said. “And get this. His wife didn’t even call the police. She eventually declared him dead
five years later
, when she tried to claim his life insurance money. She said she thought he’d abandoned her for another woman, but eventually she figured he might have died, so she wanted to sell their house and get the money.”
“Could she just do that?”
“It seems like it. There’s a time period someone has to be missing before they can be declared dead. In New York it’s three years. I couldn’t access the file, but they must have investigated it and decided that Simon Hess was dead and Mrs. Hess got her money.”
I rifled through the pile of photos with my free hand, pulling out the one that had Hess’s car in it. “So his wife said he went missing sometime in 1982, but she didn’t know when?”
“She last saw him in November.”
“These photos are from October. So he was still around.” I brushed my finger along the edge of the photo, then picked up the next one in the sequence, which showed my aunt Viv walking along the walkway from the
room to the office. It was the shot Marnie had cropped and sold to the newspapers, showing Viv’s face. Hess’s car was in the corner of the frame.
“What are the odds that we have two people who went missing around the same time in one photograph?” I said.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence,” Heather said. “And if Simon Hess was Betty’s killer, then I’d say it isn’t a coincidence at all.”
“So he killed Viv and fled town.”
Nick was listening, but he leaned his chair back again, balanced it, and picked up another negative, looking at it through the light. For the first time, I wondered what he was looking for.
“You have to admit, it’s a pretty great theory,” Heather said. “But Simon Hess seems like a dead end. No one’s seen him since 1982 and he’s legally dead.”
“Maybe Alma Trent can help.”
“She isn’t a cop anymore. Do you think we should go to the cops with this?”
I was starting to think so. This was looking less and less like an amateur attempt to satisfy my curiosity and more like something the police could actually use.
I thought of Betty as I’d seen her, tormented and terrifying and somehow still beautiful. Her body dumped here at the Sun Down. Simon Hess’s car here. Simon Hess vanishing. Did he leave town before he could be arrested for murder?
It couldn’t be a coincidence that Hess had come to the motel sometime in October 1982. But what was he doing here?
I smelled cigarette smoke and glanced at Nick again. He wasn’t smoking, of course. He was still looking at Marnie’s negatives, but now he was frowning at them, pulling the strip in his hand closer to see it better.
“I’m going to call Alma tomorrow,” I decided. “I’ll tell her what we have. She’ll know what to do.”
I hung up and dropped into the office chair. “You’re not going to believe this,” I said to Nick.
He righted his chair again and raised his eyebrows at me. “I’ve been here for weeks. I’ll believe a lot of things. Including the idea that the smoking guy is around somewhere right now.”
I met his gaze. It was strange, so strange to have someone share your crazy delusion. Someone who saw the same ghosts you did.
“This is even weirder than that,” I said.
I told him everything. Nick did what he always did, no matter how crazy the story: listened without judging, laughing, or scoffing. All he said at the end was: “Interesting.”
“Yes. If he killed Betty and dumped her here, then he was familiar with this place. Maybe, once it was built, he stayed here on his sales trips. Maybe he’d seen Viv and was watching her. Planning.” He tapped his fingers on the arm of his chair, his gaze moving past me to look at nothing. “They said my father snapped the day he killed my brother, that he went crazy all of a sudden. But it wasn’t true. He planned it.”
I held my breath and waited, listening.
“He’d had the gun for over a week,” Nick said. “He’d never owned a gun before. He went through the process of getting it legally. He spent some time figuring out what he was going to do and putting the plan into motion. He’d even called our high school and said we were taking a family vacation, so both of his sons would be out of school for a while.” His blue gaze was remote. “The only reason Eli was home at all was because his basketball practice had been canceled. He called Dad at work and asked him where he kept the stash of gas money, because he needed to put gas in his car. So Dad knew we were both home. He gave Eli an answer, then left work and came home to kill us.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. “I’m sorry,” I said.
“He said at the trial that he heard voices telling him to do it. But my father was a lawyer. He may have been trying for an insanity defense. I don’t know whether he was lying about the voices or not. In any case, the defense didn’t work.” He looked at me calmly, holding my gaze. “I got asked a lot if I was really in the bedroom when it happened. I was.”
I dropped my gaze to the desk in front of me.
“I spent a lot of time wondering if I should have stayed. If I could have gotten past Dad without being killed, gone downstairs and helped Eli. But he died so fast, and no ambulance could have saved him. I think, deep down, that I knew that. Dad had been quiet in the last few weeks, so quiet. He wasn’t a violent person, but somehow, when I heard the shots and the screaming, I knew. I knew that Dad had shot Eli, and that it would be over in minutes if I didn’t run. I don’t know how it’s possible, but I think I expected it.”
“You had a gut feeling,” I said. “An instinct.”
Nick pressed his fingertips to his forehead and rubbed it tiredly, his eyes closing for a minute. “Maybe. But if I had an instinct, then why didn’t I act on it? Why didn’t I say something? Do something? I know I was a fourteen-year-old kid, but this is the kind of thing that goes through your head when your dad tried to kill you. It’s why I don’t sleep.”
“I bet you could sleep in the right place,” I said. “Not just at the motel. You can’t spend the rest of your life here. I bet you could sleep if you were in a place that made you happy. Where you knew you’d wake up to something good.”