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Authors: Simone St. James

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Fell, New York

November 2017

CARLY

Tracy Waters was murdered on November 27, 1982,” Heather said. “She was last seen leaving a friend’s house in Plainsview, heading home. She was riding a bicycle. She was eighteen, and even though she had her driver’s license, her parents only rarely lent her their car and she didn’t have her own.”

I sipped my Diet Coke. “I know that feeling,” I said. “I didn’t have a car until I was eighteen, when my mother sold me her old one. She charged me five hundred dollars for it, too.”

“I’m a terrible driver,” Heather said. “I could probably get a car, but it’s best for everyone if I don’t.”

We were sitting in a twenty-four-hour diner on the North Edge Road. It was called Watson’s, but the sign outside looked new while the building was old, which meant it had probably been called something else a few months ago. It was five o’clock in the morning, and Watson’s was the only place we could find that was open. We were both starving.

“So,” Heather said, taking a bite of her BLT. She was wearing a thick sweater of dark green that she was swimming in. She had pulled the top layer of her hair back into a small ponytail at the back of her head. She flipped through some of the articles she’d printed out. “Tracy was a senior
in high school, a good student. She didn’t have a boyfriend. She only had a few girls she called friends, and they said that Tracy was shy and introverted. She had a summer job at the ice cream parlor in Plainsview and she was in the school choir.”

I looked at the photo Heather had printed out. It was a school portrait of Tracy, her hair carefully blow-dried and sprayed. She had put on blush and eye shadow, and it looked weirdly out of place on her young face. “She sounds awesome,” I said sadly.

“I think so, too,” Heather said. “She went to a friend’s house on November 27, and they watched TV and played Uno until eight o’clock. Oh, my God, the eighties. Anyway, Tracy left and got on her bike. Her friend watched her pedal away. She never got home, and at eleven her parents called the police. The cops said they had to wait until morning in case Tracy was just out partying or something.”

I stirred my chicken soup, my stomach turning.

“The cops came and interviewed the parents the next morning, and they started a search. On November 29, Tracy’s body was found in a ditch off Melborn Road, which is between Plainsview and Fell. At the time, Melborn Road was a two-lane stretch that no one ever drove. Now it’s paved over and busy. There’s a Super 8 and a movie theater. It looks nothing like it did in 1982.” She turned the page to show a printout of an old newspaper article.
LOCAL GIRL FOUND DEAD
was the headline, and beneath it was the subhead
Police arrest homeless man.

“A homeless guy?” I asked.

“He had her backpack. He seems to have been a drifter, passing through from one place to another. He had a record of robberies and assaults. The thing is, he actually went to the police to
turn in
the backpack when he heard the news. They kept him on suspicion, and when he couldn’t provide an alibi for the murder, they charged him.”

“That’s it? They didn’t look at anyone else?”

“It doesn’t seem like it. He said he found her backpack by the side of
the road, but who was going to believe him? His fingerprints were all over it, and there was a smear of Tracy’s blood on one of the straps. There were no other suspects. Her parents were beside themselves. They said they’d had a warning that someone had been following Tracy. The whole story fit.” She held up a finger, relishing the story in her Heather way. “But.
But.

“You like this too much,” I said, smiling at her.

“Whatever, Dr. Carly. You’re not listening. The next part gets interesting.”

“Like it wasn’t interesting before. Go ahead.”

“The homeless guy was never convicted. He never even went to trial. It seems that even though he was homeless, he had some kind of access to a good lawyer. Everything was hung up for over a year, and then the charges were dropped and he was set free. The case was opened again, and it’s still open. Tracy’s parents eventually got divorced, but her mother has never given up on solving the case. She started a website for tips on Tracy’s murder in 1999. She still has it, though from what I can tell it’s mostly run by Tracy’s younger brother now. There’s a Facebook page and everything. And remember how I said that someone had been following Tracy? They knew because they got an anonymous letter in the mail the week before she was killed. And now that letter is posted on the Facebook page and the website.” She took a sheet of paper out of her stack and handed it to me.

It was a scan of a handwritten letter. I read it over.

This letter is to warn you that I’ve seen a man following Tracy Waters. He was staring at her while she got on her bike and rode away on Westmount Avenue on November 19 at 2:20 in the afternoon. After she rode away he got in his car and followed her.

I know who he is. I believe he is dangerous. He is about 35 and six feet tall. He works as a traveling salesman. I believe he wants to kill Tracy. Please keep her safe. The police don’t believe me.

Keep her safe.

I pushed my soup away. “This is the saddest letter I’ve ever read in my life,” I said.

“The mother was worried when they got it. The father thought it was a prank. The mother decided that the father must be right. A few days later, Tracy was dead. Hence the eventual divorce, I think.”

“A traveling salesman,” I said, pointing to the words. “Like Simon Hess.”

“Who disappeared right after Tracy was murdered. But if you can believe it, it gets even better.”

I sat back in my seat. “My head is already spinning.”

“Tracy’s mom always felt that the letter was real,” Heather said. “She thought it was truly sent by someone who saw a man following Tracy. And it wasn’t a homeless drifter, either.” She tapped the description of the salesman. “This letter is part of why the case against the homeless guy was eventually dropped. But get this: In 1993, over ten years after the murder, Mrs. Waters got a phone call from Tracy’s former high school principal. He told her that he had a phone call a few days before Tracy’s murder from someone claiming to be another student’s mother. The woman said that she’d seen a man following Tracy, and that she thought the school should look out for her.”

“And he didn’t tell the police?” I said. “He didn’t tell anyone for ten years? Why not?”

“Who knows? He was probably ashamed that he didn’t do anything about it at the time. But he was retired and sick, and he felt the need to get it off his chest. So this was a preventable murder. Someone warned both Tracy’s parents and her principal about it. And if either of them had listened and kept Tracy home, she wouldn’t have died.”

I blinked at her. “A woman,” I said. “The person who called the principal was a woman.” I picked up the scan of the letter and looked at it again. “This could be a woman’s handwriting, but it’s hard to tell.”

“It’s a woman’s,” Heather said. “Tracy’s mother had a handwriting expert analyze it.”

There were too many pieces. They were falling together too fast. And the picture they made didn’t make any sense. Who knew that Tracy was going to be killed? How? It couldn’t possibly be Vivian, could it?

And if Vivian knew that Tracy was going to be murdered, why couldn’t she save herself?

“Did you call Alma?” Heather asked.

“I sent her a text,” I said. “She said she was a night owl, but it’s still sort of weird to call someone you barely know in the middle of the night when it isn’t an emergency. I’m not even sure she texts, to be honest. If I don’t hear from her this morning, I’ll call her.” I looked at the time on my phone. “I should probably get back to the Sun Down. Not that anyone would know I’ve been gone.”

“Where’s Nick?”

“Off somewhere getting those negatives developed. He said there’s an all-night place in Fell.”

“That would be the ByWay,” Heather said, gathering her papers. “I think they still rent videos, too.”

“Fell is officially the strangest place on Earth.” I looked at Heather as she picked up her coat. “What would you say if I told you the Sun Down was haunted?”

She paused and her eyes came to mine, her eyebrows going up. “For real?”

“For real.”

She watched me closely, biting her lip. Whatever expression was on my face must have convinced her, because she said, “I want to hear everything.”

“I’ll tell you.”

“And I want to see it.”

I rubbed the side of my nose. “I can’t guarantee that. She doesn’t come out on command.”

“She?”

“Betty Graham.”

Heather’s eyes went as wide as saucers. “You’re saying that Betty Graham’s ghost is at the Sun Down.”

“Yeah, I am. Nick has seen her, too.”

“Is she . . . Does she say anything?”

“Not specifically, but I think she’s trying to.” I thought of the desperate look on Betty’s face. “There are others. There’s a kid who hit his head in the pool and died. And a man who died in the front office.”

“What?”

“Keep your voice down.” I waved my hands to shush her. “I know, it’s weird, but I swear I really saw it. Nick is my witness. I didn’t say anything before because it sounded so crazy.”

“Um, hello,” Heather said. She had lowered her voice, and she leaned across the table toward me. “This is big, Carly. I want to stake the place out. I want to get photos. Video.”

I looked at the excited splotches on her cheeks. “Are you sure that would be good for you?”

“I’ve read and seen every version of
The Amityville Horror
there is. Of course it’s good for me. I’m better with ghosts than I am with real life.”

“This is real life,” I said. “Betty is real. She’s dead, but she feels as real as you and me. And the first night I saw her, there was a man checked in to the motel, except he wasn’t. His room was empty and there was no car. I know—maybe he left. But I keep thinking back to it, and I’m starting to wonder if he didn’t leave at all.”

“If he didn’t leave, then where did he go?”

We looked at each other uncertainly, neither of us able to answer. The door to the diner opened and Nick walked in. He brushed past the dead-eyed truckers and exhausted-looking shift workers without a sideways glance. He had an envelope in his hand.

“Photos,” he said.

He sat on my side of the booth as I scooted over, as if he was already learning to stay out of Heather’s no-touch bubble. He brought the smell
of the crisp, cold morning with him, no longer fall but heading for winter. He opened the envelope and dumped the photographs onto the table.

We all leaned in. There were four photos, each of the same subject from a different angle: a barn. It was old, half the roof fallen in. The photos were taken from the outside, first in front, then from farther back, then from partway down a dirt track.

“Why would Marnie take these?” Heather asked.

“Why didn’t she have prints?” Nick added. “Either she never made any, or she made them and gave them to someone.”

“It’s a marker,” I said, looking at the photos one by one. “This barn is important somehow. She wanted a visual record in case she ever needed to find it again.”

We stared at them for a minute. The barn looked a little sinister, its decrepit frame like a mouth missing teeth. The sagging roof was sad, and the front façade, with its firmly shut doors, was blank. It looked like a place where something bad had happened.

“Where do you think it is?” Heather asked.

“Impossible to tell,” I said. “There aren’t any signs. It could be anywhere.” I peered closer. “What do you think this is?”

In the farthest angle, something was visible jutting over the tops of the trees.

“That’s the old TV tower,” Nick said. “It’s gone now. They took it down about ten years ago, I think.”

I looked at him. “But you know where it was?”

“Sure I do.” He was leaned over the table, his blue gaze fixed on the picture. “It’s hard to tell what direction this is taken from, but it can’t be more than a half mile. These farther shots are taken from a driveway. A driveway has to lead to a road.”

I grabbed my coat. “We can go now. The sun’s starting to come up. We have just enough light.”

“Don’t you have to be at work?” Heather asked.

“They can fire me. I came to Fell for this, remember? This is all I want.”

“But we don’t know what this is,” she said, pointing to the pictures.

I looked at the pictures again. “It’s the key.” I pointed to the barn. “If Marnie wanted to be able to find that barn again, it’s because there’s something inside it. Something she might want to access again.”

“Or something she might want to direct someone else to,” Nick added.

I looked at both of them, then said the words we were all thinking. “What if it’s a body? What if it’s Vivian’s body? What if that’s what’s in the barn?”

We were quiet for a second and then Nick picked the photos up again. “We’ll find it,” he said. “With these, it’ll be easy.”

•   •   •

It took us until seven. By then the sun was slowly emerging over the horizon, hidden by a bank of gray clouds. All three of us were in Nick’s truck. We’d circled the area where the TV tower used to be, driving down the back roads. We were on a two-lane road to the north of the old tower site, looking for any likely dirt driveways.

“There,” I said.

A chain-link fence had been put up since the photos were taken, though it was bent and bowed in places, rusting and unkempt. A faded sign said
NO TRESPASSERS
. Behind the fence, a dirt driveway stretched away. I dug out one of Marnie’s pictures and held it up.

The trees were bigger now, but otherwise it looked like the place.

Nick turned the engine off and got out of the truck. Heather and I got out and watched him pace up the fence one way, then the other. Then he gripped the fence and climbed it, launching himself over the top. His feet hit the ground on the other side and he disappeared into the trees.

He reappeared ten minutes later. “The barn is there,” he said. “This is the place. There’s no one around that I can see—there hasn’t been anyone here in years. Come over.”

BOOK: The Sun Down Motel
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