Read The Sun Down Motel Online

Authors: Simone St. James

The Sun Down Motel (22 page)

He gave me half a smile. “You think that place exists?”

“Sure it does. There are good places, Nick. They’re different for everyone. I think you’ll find yours.”

“You’re way too nice to me,” he said.

I shrugged. “I have ulterior motives. I have to sit at this desk all night and I have no one to talk to.”

“Maybe, but your theory doesn’t explain the fact that I can sleep in this shitty motel out of all the places on Earth. Because this is definitely not a good place.”

“No. The Sun Down is not a good place. But you can sleep in it because it suits you—at least right now. I know because it suits me, too.”

Nick frowned. “That’s truly messed up.”

I held up the book I’d brought to read tonight—Ann Rule’s classic
The
Stranger Beside Me
. I’d read it so many times it was falling apart. “Have you met me?”

He laughed, which gave me a rush of pleasure. Which I tried to ignore. “So what do we do next?” he said.

I put the book down. “We talk to Alma tomorrow about whether any of this should be turned over to the Fell PD. And we try to find out everything we can about Simon Hess. He could be my aunt’s killer. And we know he crossed paths with her at least once.” I slid the photo across the desk that showed Viv at the motel with Hess’s car in the corner of the frame. “He disappeared around the same time she did. I think if we know why, we can solve what happened to her.”

“I have another question to add to the pile.” Nick put the strips of negatives he’d been looking at on the desk. “Why do we have more negatives than we have prints?”

I sat up straighter. “We do?”

“Yes. I’ve been looking at the negatives, matching them up. There are four photos in the negatives that we don’t have prints of.” He pointed to them, though lying on the desk they just looked like splotches of nitrate. “It looks like some kind of outdoor shot—trees or something. What is it, and where are those photos, and why didn’t Marnie Clark give them to you?”

I looked at the strip of negative and bit my lip. “I guess I’ll get out the phone book. There must be somewhere in town that develops old negatives. After all, this is Fell.”

“You’re right, there is,” Nick said. “You don’t need the phone book. I know where it is. And guess what? It’s open twenty-four hours.”

Fell, New York

November 1982

VIV

Maybe this was how the police did it. Viv had no idea—no movie or TV show she’d ever seen showed her how the police really worked. It was all car chases and shootouts with a background of sexy music. Whereas Viv had a choir list, a yearbook, and her trusty telephone.

She went down the list of names of the girls in the choir, looking each of them up in the yearbook. The seventh girl was the one: The face in the yearbook was that of the girl she’d seen pedaling away on her bicycle, the traveling salesman watching her. The girl’s name was Tracy Waters, and she was a senior.

Viv didn’t have a Plainsview phone book, so she called directory assistance and asked for the number for Plainsview High School. The operator gave her the number for the main office, and Viv dialed it and listened to it ring as she flipped the page in the yearbook, looking for a likely name.

She got a secretary and asked to please speak to the principal. “Who may I say is calling?” the secretary asked.

Viv put her finger on a face in the yearbook—an unattractive girl with a bad perm and glasses that seemed to take up most of her face.
CAROL PENTON
, the name said. “I am Carol Penton’s mother,” Viv said, making
her voice sound older, lower, slightly aggrieved. “I have a concern about my daughter’s security.”

To her surprise, after a few minutes of holding she was put through to a man who sounded about sixty. “How can I help you, Mrs. Penton?”

“I was at Choir Night last night,” Viv said, “and I saw a strange man there. He was looking at the girls.”

“Excuse me? Looking at the girls?”

“Yes. He was there alone.” She described Simon Hess. “He was just standing there by himself—he didn’t have a wife or a child that I saw. I thought it was strange. And when the show was over and everyone was leaving, I saw him again in the hallway. Just standing by himself. He was
staring
. The look in his eyes when he looked at those girls—I didn’t like it one bit. If any man looked at my daughter that way, I’d call the police.”

“Well.” The principal sounded flustered. “That’s certainly a concern, Mrs. Penton. Though perhaps he was an uncle or a distant relative of one of the girls. I’m sure he meant no harm.”

Viv ground her teeth together.
How are you sure? How?
“I thought Carol was attending a school that took the students’ safety seriously.”

“We do, we do.” Now he was placating. “Let me look into the matter. See if anyone knew who this fellow was.”

“He was staring at Tracy Waters,” Viv said. “She walked past and he couldn’t take his eyes off her.” She said it so convincingly that she could see the imaginary scene in her head. “Tracy was with her parents, and none of them acknowledged him. He certainly wasn’t a relative.”

The principal sighed. “Mrs. Penton, what would you have me do?”


Pay attention
,” Viv said, tempted to shout. “Look out for your students, especially the girls. Tell your staff to keep their eyes open. Tell them to look out for Tracy especially. She might be in danger.”

“Mrs. Penton, I’m sure you’re overreacting. We haven’t had a complaint from Tracy’s family. He was likely an innocent fellow who means well.”

No. He is a hunter. There is a hunter after one of your students, you fool.
“If anything happens to Tracy, it’s your fault.” Viv hung up the phone.

She sat for a minute, fuming. She wouldn’t be
overreacting
if she were a cop. If she were a man.

She was so limited, sitting here trying to warn people over the phone. No one would listen. She needed to warn Tracy, and she had to do it right.

She switched tactics, pulled out her stationery, and picked up a pen to write.

•   •   •

At midnight that night, she sat in a chair in the Fell police station, trying not to stare. She’d never been in a police station before. From what she could see, it was an open space with a few scarred desks and telephones. They were all unoccupied in the middle of the night except for Alma Trent’s. At the front was a desk facing the door, where presumably a cop usually sat to direct people who walked in. There was no one there, either. The entire space was dim and empty except for Alma at her desk, the circle of light from her desk lamp, and Viv herself.

Alma turned the page in Viv’s notebook, reading. Viv wanted to get on the phone and call all of these sleeping cops, get them out of bed.
There’s a man named Simon Hess who is going to kill a girl named Tracy Waters. Why is everyone sleeping?

But she had to wait. She chewed her lip and tried not to jiggle her knee in impatience as Alma read her notes.

“Okay, wait,” Alma said, pointing to a page. “What’s this about Cathy Caldwell and door locks?”

“Cathy and her husband bought door locks before she died. From a door-to-door salesman.”

Alma looked up, her face pale. “You can verify this?”

“I don’t know the exact date, but Cathy’s mother remembers it. The locks were bought from Westlake Lock Systems.” She reached over the desk and turned the page. “Westlake Lock Systems also had a salesman scheduled on Peacemaker Avenue, which is Victoria Lee’s street. He was scheduled to make calls there in August of last year.”

“This can’t be,” Alma said, almost to herself. “It isn’t possible.”

“It’s very possible,” Viv said, trying not to sound impatient. “When I asked the Westlake scheduling service what the salesman’s name was, she said it had been erased from the scheduling book. He’s covering his tracks. That means he knows there’s at least a possibility that someone is onto him.”

“A line erased from a scheduling book doesn’t mean anything,” Alma said, but the no-nonsense confidence was gone from her voice. She was almost whispering. “It could be a random mistake.”

“But matched with everything else, it isn’t,” Viv said. “I’ve connected him to Cathy and Victoria for you. We already know that Betty saw a traveling salesman before she died. I can only get so much information by myself, but I bet if you requested all of Westlake’s records, you could find something I couldn’t. The connection between Betty and Simon Hess.”

Alma was staring at her. “You’ve done a lot of work on this,” she said. “Dozens of hours.”

Viv shrugged. “I thought about applying for a job in Westlake’s scheduling department to get access to the book, but it would take too long and it would be too risky. They might put me in another department. Plus I’d actually have to work there all day when I have other things to do. So I can’t get full access to the books on my own, and there are only so many times I can phone them, pretending I’m you.”

“You did what?”

“It isn’t important.”

“It’s important,” Alma said. “Vivian, it’s illegal to impersonate a police officer.”

Viv wanted to scream. “Simon Hess killed Victoria Lee, and her boyfriend was put away for it. And you’re going to put
me
in jail?”

Alma held up a hand. “Back up here,” she said. The firmness was back in her voice, as if she was getting control of the situation. “I took a look at the Betty Graham file after the last time we talked. And one of your premises here is actually wrong. Since Betty was last seen letting a salesman into her house, there was a thorough investigation done into every
company that employs door-to-door salesmen. They couldn’t find any company that had a salesman in the area.”

Viv felt her pulse pound. She was so frustrated, so angry. She didn’t know that. She didn’t know anything, because she didn’t have the access to what she needed to put all the pieces together. She was just a twenty-year-old motel clerk. If only she could see everything she needed.

But she thought it over and shook her head. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Vivian, please. I’m trying to work with you here. But with no salesman in Betty’s neighborhood that day, it means that whoever killed her came to her door
pretending
to be a salesman. Which puts you back to square one.”

“No, it doesn’t. Did they look at the month before the murder? Two months before? The woman in the scheduling department told me that sometimes the salesmen go back for follow-up visits on their own, and those visits aren’t recorded in the schedule book. He could have seen her earlier and gone back.”

Alma looked shocked again. “They said that?”

“Even if he didn’t sell her locks,” Viv continued, “Betty was a teacher. Simon Hess has a daughter who is about ten. Maybe his daughter goes to Betty’s school—but I can’t access the school records. You can. He lives ten minutes away from Betty’s house. He could have seen her in the market, the park. Anywhere.” She pointed to the book. “You have his name. You can find the connection. I can’t.”

Alma frowned. She still wasn’t sold; Viv could tell. She had no idea what else to do, what else to say.

“This is all based on the idea that this man, Simon Hess, checks into the motel where Betty’s body was dumped,” Alma said. “That doesn’t make him Betty’s killer, especially if he isn’t the salesman who came to her house.” She gestured to the notebook, the motel photos from Marnie, other papers Viv had brought. “You’ve done amazing work here, Vivian. You could be an investigator. But I’m just the night duty officer, and you’re just a motel clerk. If I am going to the higher-ups with a killer this
dangerous, like Fell has never seen, I need something so concrete it can’t be argued.”

Viv swallowed. She looked at the desk, at the papers and photos scattered there, her eyes burning.

“This is compelling,” Alma admitted in her kinder voice. “But it’s also full of holes. Big ones. Any case I take up the ladder has to be airtight.
Completely
airtight. I’m already no one on this force. Not a single one of these guys will take me seriously. It’ll be an uphill battle before I even open my mouth, and if I fail, I’ll probably lose my job. They’re just looking for a reason.”

It was a refusal. A kind one, but still a refusal. Viv would weep if she could summon any tears. She would scream if she could find her voice.

“You’re saying the risk is too great,” she said.

“That’s exactly what I’m saying. You’re young, Viv, but I think you’re getting the idea. I’m the night duty officer in a small town—and I’ve worked for
years
just to get this far. I’ve fought tooth and nail. I’ve taken insults and abuse, and I’ll take more. I’ll take it for my whole career. I do it because being a cop is who I am, no matter who tries to tell me differently. But this . . .” She gestured to the papers. “I could lose everything with this. At least, the way it is now. I need more. I need physical evidence. I need eyewitnesses, confessions. No cop could take any of this to court, which means no cop is going to risk his career on it. Including me.”

Viv was numb. It was like Marnie, telling her the risk was too great.
I quit.
She’d promised Marnie she’d go to the police, get help, stop putting herself in danger. But Alma wasn’t going to help her, either. No one was.

She was in this alone.

“He’s going to kill her,” she said, her voice a murmur.

“You saw a man looking at a girl, that’s all,” Alma said. “It doesn’t mean anything. Men don’t go to jail for looking at girls. And you have nothing else you can prove. You saw a car you thought was his, driving away from the high school. You didn’t see who was in it—and even if you had, you still have nothing.”

“Okay.” Viv leaned forward and gathered up her notebook and papers, her maps and photos. “I appreciate you taking the time. I have to go to work now.”

“I’ve upset you,” Alma said.

She couldn’t take that. She couldn’t take Alma’s kindness, her pity that was big-sisterly, almost motherly. It meant nothing if the traveling salesman still walked free, if Tracy died. “He comes to the motel and he checks in under a fake name,” Viv said. “He has no reason to do that because he lives in town, but he does. And every time he does it, Betty Graham wakes up and goes crazy.”

Alma was silent.

“That’s how I know,” Viv said, standing up. “I’ve worked there every night for months, and that’s how I know he killed Betty. Because she tells me every time he’s there. Her body got dumped at the Sun Down, and she never left. You know that’s true as much as I do, except you don’t want to admit it.”

“Honey,” Alma said, “I think it’s time you considered seeing a doctor.”

Viv kicked her chair back and walked to the door. “That’s a lie and you know it,” she said, meeting Alma’s eyes. “You’ve seen her. So have I. The difference is that I listen when she tells me what she has to say.”

She left and closed the door behind her. Her only hope was the letter she’d sent. It was the only way Tracy Waters was going to stay alive.

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