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Authors: Simone St. James

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BOOK: The Sun Down Motel
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“Do you think he would talk to us?” I asked her.

Heather shrugged as she typed. “Why not? We’re harmless. What does he think we’re going to do?”

“If he’s still alive, he’s probably retired. Maybe he doesn’t want to talk about old cases.”

“Or maybe he does. If I’d been chief of police, and I’d retired, I’d be bored out of my mind.” She clicked through a few pages. “Doesn’t look like he’s died. It would help if we knew someone who knew him, though.”

“Maybe Callum can help.”

Heather looked up at me, blank.

“The guy who helped me in the archives room today. I told you.”

“Oh, right. Another one of your men.”

I couldn’t help it; I laughed.

“Well, you have a lot of them,” Heather pointed out.

That made me laugh more. “I like that you don’t know how pathetic I am,” I told her. “I don’t think I talked to an actual, literal man in college. One of them might have spoken to me at a party and I nearly choked on my drink. Then I went home and read
The Deathly Hallows
again so I could tell myself that was why I was crying.”

“My God, we’re truly soul sisters,” Heather said. “Men are not my bailiwick.” At my carefully blank expression, she said, “Relax. Men are my bailiwick
in theory
. I just don’t like . . .” She moved her hands around, miming a bubble. “I don’t like anyone touching me. Anywhere, ever.”

“I get that,” I said.

“Carly,
no one
gets that. Not my parents, not boys, not shrinks. Not anyone.”

I thought again about the lineup of medications on our bathroom counter and said, “I do. Not wanting someone’s hands on you. I get it.”

There was a slow arc of seriousness for a long moment. She looked at me, and I could see she wanted to say something important. But in the end she didn’t, and she looked away with a small sigh.

And I wasn’t lying. I did get it. I thought about Callum MacRae, as nice as he was, and I got it. Then I thought about Nick Harkness, and my first thought was that I could picture wanting his hands on me. I could picture it easily, even though he’d never do it.

I smoothed the photocopied page in my lap and looked down at Viv again. At how alive and unrehearsed she was in this picture, like she was just going about her business instead of posing for a camera. And then it struck me that maybe she hadn’t even been aware this picture was taken. Like someone had taken it and she hadn’t seen.

I looked at the bottom of the picture and read:
Photo by Marnie Mahoney.

Fell, New York

October 1982

VIV

Helen and Robert were at the Sun Down again. So was the green sedan that followed them. It was still there at seven in the morning; it had been there all night. It was raining and the sun was only a faint grayish tinge through the pour of water. Viv wondered how the man in the green sedan could get any good photos in this light.

Her shift was finished, so she shed her polyester vest and put on her coat. Sometimes Janice showed up to relieve her at seven, and sometimes she didn’t. Viv always left either way. There weren’t any real rules at the Sun Down.

There was no sign of Janice, so Viv locked the office door, though she left the neon sign on. She put her hood up to fend off the rain and took the path away from the parking lot, heading toward the pool. She circled the edge of the motel property, her feet in their sneakers splashing in the cold puddles. She trotted along the thin strand of trees that bordered Number Six Road and skirted to the back of the parking lot. By the time she approached the green sedan, from the other side of the motel, her feet were soaked and there was rain running down her neck.

The car was parked at the back edge of the parking lot, the same place as before, its right tires on the line where concrete met dirty gravel. The
inside was dark, and in the rain Viv couldn’t see through the windows. She walked up to the front passenger side and knocked on the window.

A shadow moved inside the car, but nothing else happened. Obviously he wanted her to go away, so Viv bent at the waist and said loudly to the glass, “They’ll be out in ten minutes. They’re getting ready to leave right now.”

Another second of nothing, and then the shadow moved again and the window started to crank down. Viv caught a whiff of a smell that was surprisingly nice, like clean perfume. A woman’s voice said, “What the hell are you talking about?”

Viv stood frozen with surprise, but she recovered herself quickly. “The couple in room one-oh-nine,” she said. “That’s who you’re waiting for, isn’t it? You’re waiting to take pictures. You’ve been here all night.”

Silence from the car, then a breathed “Shit” that Viv could hear over the rain.

“They usually don’t stay this long,” Viv continued. “They leave by four, though you already know that. The man just called his wife to tell her he’s on his way home. She’ll come out any minute. She always leaves first.”

“Shit.” This one was louder. “Get in the back seat, for God’s sake. I’m trying to make a living here.”

Viv opened the back door and slid into the car. She pushed her hood back, dripping on the pleather, and looked at the woman in the front seat.

The woman turned in the driver’s seat and looked back at her. The other woman was black, slender, with natural hair in a short Afro. She looked to be in her late twenties. She was wearing a blouse in an understated floral print and neat jeans. She had no makeup and gold studs in her ears. If she was tired after being awake all night, her face showed no sign of it.

Viv hadn’t expected a black woman. She’d expected a man, a detective type from one of her TV shows. Detectives weren’t black women, not even on
Cagney & Lacey
. Then again, why not? Fell was full of surprises. Viv was almost used to it by now.

Next to the woman on the front passenger seat was a bag of bulky camera equipment and a lunch bag that had obviously contained her dinner. The woman’s dark brown eyes looked straight into Viv’s, and Viv saw someone who was tough, wary, and not a little annoyed, because she knew exactly what Viv was thinking.

The woman’s eyes narrowed with recognition. “You’re the office girl.”

“Yes,” Viv said. “And you’re the one following Helen while she cheats on her husband.”

“That bother you? Are you going to call your boss about it?”

“No,” Viv said. “It doesn’t bother me at all. And I don’t know where my boss is.”

The woman’s face turned harder. “So you came into my car exactly why? Because you don’t have anything better to do?”

Viv held her gaze. “No. I came because I need a favor.”

“A favor?” The woman shook her head, almost laughing. “Shit and double shit,” she said. “This is not my night. I didn’t know you made me, office girl. I obviously need to be more discreet.”

“They have no idea you’re here,” Viv offered. “I’m sure of it.”

“Uh-huh. And how do you know what Romeo says in his phone calls?”

“There’s something defective about the phone line,” Viv replied. “When someone makes a call, I can lift the receiver in the office and listen to it. I do it all the time.”

The woman’s eyes widened for a brief second. “Huh. That’s handy.”

Viv shrugged. “It depends on what you want to hear. But if you want something in return for a favor for me, I can tell you everything either of them has ever said on the telephone at the Sun Down.”

There was a moment of silence as the woman thought this through. The quiet settled throughout the car. Viv wondered if she’d played her cards wrong. Maybe she had. She hadn’t planned on selling out Helen and Robert to get what she wanted, but she was starting to learn that you had to do what you had to do.

“Okay, I’ll bite,” the woman said finally. She held out her hand. “My name is Marnie.”

Viv shook it. “Viv. I think that—”

“Shh.” Marnie dropped her hand and grabbed her camera. “Get down in the seat, will you? Out of sight.”

Viv saw that the door to room 109 had opened and Helen was coming out. She was dressed in jeans again, with a long-waisted black and white shirt under her coat. She put a piece of paper over her head—Viv recognized the yellowed
Welcome to the Sun Down!
card that was on the nightstand in every room—and hurried through the rain to her car.

Watching Helen made Viv think about her parents. After the divorce, her father had remarried in less than a year. Had he cheated? Her mother had never said anything. Then again, her mother was so humiliated she would rather die than tell the truth. The entire divorce had gone down in stony silence—her father was there, and then he was gone. There was no discussion, nothing but her father’s absence and her mother’s panicked insistence on perfection from both of her daughters, as if being perfect would make all of the problems go away.

If there had been cheating, neither parent would ever tell her. Even though she was an adult now. She would never have the truth.

Viv slid down in the back seat as Marnie aimed her camera and clicked it over and over. She captured Helen getting in her car, driving away. Then she put the camera down. “Damn, that woman is cold,” she commented.

“Who hired you?” Viv asked, sitting up in her seat again. “His wife or her husband?”

Marnie glanced at her. “I’m not supposed to tell. But I’ve been sitting in this car all night, so too bad. A lawyer hired me. He represents the husband. The man thinks something is going on.”

“You should have plenty of evidence by now.”

“I do. But I give the lawyer a roll of film and he asks me for another one. He wants it ironclad, he says. Sounds to me like that bitch is going to get put out on her ass. And for what? A few nights with Mr. White in
there? Don’t get me wrong, the man is far from ugly. But a girl can find a not-ugly man any day of the week, and an unmarried one, too. He must be some kind of Superman in bed.”

Viv looked out at the rain and thought about Helen. “I don’t think she’s looking for romance. I don’t know what she’s looking for, but that’s not it.”

“I don’t give a shit what she’s looking for,” Marnie said practically, putting her camera gear back in its bag. “Personally, I’m looking for a check. And I just earned one. Now I get to sleep before my next gig.”

“This is what you do all the time? Every day?” Viv asked. “It seems dangerous. I mean, for a woman. I thought you’d be a man.”

“You did? Well, we’re all disappointed sometimes. You thought I’d be white, too, right? You can say it.”

Viv shrugged. She had.

“I don’t do this all the time,” Marnie said, indicating the parking lot, the motel. “I do other work, too. I take glamour shots and sometimes I work school photo days. Real estate agents need pictures of the houses they’re advertising. On slow days I can pick up five or six houses at four bucks a shot. It isn’t creative, but it’s work.”

Viv had never heard of anyone doing any of that for a living. It seemed her time at the Sun Down Motel was one learning experience after another. “The pictures you take of the motel. Do you still have them?”

“Once I develop them, I keep a copy of every one. Even the ones I’m not supposed to. You never know what’s going to be useful. Why do you ask? Shit, here he comes. Get down. I don’t want him to see you.”

Viv looked out to see Mr. White leaving his room and locking the door behind him. He was slim, fit, and vigorous, and he plainly wore a wedding band on his left hand. He was dressed in a dark suit and light shirt, his tie knotted, salt-and-pepper hair combed back from his forehead. He opened an umbrella and in a flash of panic Viv realized he would have to check out. “There’s no one in the office,” she said. “I’m off shift and Janice hasn’t come in yet. It’s locked.”

Marnie was pulling her camera out of her bag again. “Did he pay up front?”

“Yes.”

“Then don’t worry about it.” She aimed the camera, snapped a few shots of Mr. White walking to the office. He seemed like any average man going to work on an average day, except he was leaving a motel at seven o’clock in the morning after a night with a woman who wasn’t his wife.

“I don’t really need the pictures of him,” Marnie said as the camera clicked. “Just her. But here he is, so I may as well. To each her own, you know? White men aren’t my thing.”

She tossed the words off so easily, and Viv felt the pain of embarrassment in her chest. Even though her mother saw her as a delinquent, the fact was that she was twenty years old and a virgin. She had no idea what kind of man was “her thing.” You had to have tried a few men, at least, to know that. She wondered if she’d ever be as worldly as Marnie, or Helen, or even Alma Trent, who seemed to know everything. Still, she tried it on by saying, “He isn’t my type, either.”

Marnie clicked her camera as Mr. White tried the locked office door, then gave up. She laughed softly, not unkindly. “You’re a sweet girl,” she said as she followed the man through her lens. He walked back down the walkway, tossed the key back into the motel room, closed the door, and jogged to his car. “Tell me what you’re doing in my car in the rain,” Marnie said.

Still slid down in the back seat, her coat rucked up around her ears, Viv let the words
This is stupid
trickle through her mind.

But deep in her gut, she knew they were a lie. The burning inside her chest that had started when she first learned about Cathy’s and Victoria’s murders, of Betty Graham’s body being dumped at the future Sun Down, hadn’t subsided. In fact, it had gotten worse. She wasn’t sleeping during the day, and instead she spent her time at the Fell Central Library, going through more and more old papers, looking for something, anything at all. But she had hit a dead end. The appearance of Helen and Mr. White
tonight, with the green sedan in faithful attendance, had been a godsend that sent her spirits up. It was the thing she’d been waiting for.

Next time this guy comes in, get me something.

This wasn’t stupid. Not at all.

“Have you heard of Betty Graham?” she asked Marnie.

The woman in the front seat went still for a second. “What do you know about Betty Graham?” she asked, and her voice had an edge of suspicion. “And why are you asking?”

“Her body was dumped here,” Viv said. “At the Sun Down, before it was built. Did you know that?”

“Yeah, I knew that.” Marnie lowered her camera as Mr. White drove away. “A lot of people know that. It was a big deal when it happened. My question is, why do
you
know that?”

Because I’ve seen her
, Viv thought. She’d seen the woman in the flowered dress again three nights ago. She’d heard the soft click of heels outside the office door, and when she’d gone to the door and opened it, she’d smelled a faint scent of perfume. The woman in the flowered dress was standing twenty feet away, her back to Viv, the hem of her dress rippling in the wind, her pretty hair lifted from her neck. She hadn’t turned around.

Viv had gathered her courage and said,
Betty?

The woman hadn’t answered. And then she was gone.

“I’m interested,” Viv said, to try to placate the suspicious tone in Marnie’s voice. “I work here, and I heard about this famous murder in Fell. With the body dumped where I work. So I’m interested.”

“Uh-huh.” Marnie’s tone said that cynicism was her usual default. “And what does this have to do with me?”

“The last person to see Betty Graham alive saw her with a traveling salesman,” Viv said. “He knocked on her door and she let him in. No one saw either of them leave. No one knows if he killed her or even who he was.”

Marnie turned in her seat and looked at Viv. “Go on.”

“There’s a traveling salesman who comes to the motel,” Viv said. She pointed out the window, to the Sun Down, sheeted with rain. “He checks in here. To this place. Over and over. And he uses a fake name every time.”

It wasn’t the same as with Alma. Marnie stared at Viv like Viv was reading a page from a book she’d never thought to hear aloud. “You are shitting me,” she said, her voice almost a whisper. “Little girl, you are shitting me.”

“He was here the last time Helen was here,” Viv said. “The last time
you
were here. Taking pictures. So I want to know if he’s in any of your pictures. His face, anything. And I want to know if his car is in your pictures. Because if I can get a license plate, I can find out who he is. Who he really is.”

The words Marnie said were teasing, but her voice was dead serious. “This is what you’re doing, then? Playing Nancy Drew and solving the murder in the middle of the night?”

Viv held the other woman’s eyes and didn’t look away. Her answer was simple. “Someone has to.”

Marnie seemed to think things over. “Okay,” she said, “I can take a look at my shots. They’re all developed.”

BOOK: The Sun Down Motel
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