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Authors: Simone St. James

The Sun Down Motel (31 page)

BOOK: The Sun Down Motel
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Fell, New York

November 2017


It was chaos at the Sun Down.

There were police cars and an ambulance. The red and blue lights flashed, bouncing off the front of the building, the corridors, the stairs, mixing with the yellow and blue of the road sign—which was lit up again.

Viv pulled into the edge of the parking lot, in a spot that didn’t block the official vehicles. When I got out of the car, she followed me.

There was yellow police tape pulled across the second-floor corridor, and several police were there. More police were on the ground level outside the office, surrounding Nick, who was standing with his arms crossed.

When I tried to approach, a policeman stopped me. “I’m the night clerk,” I said. “I’m supposed to be here.”

“You work here?” he asked.

“Yes.” I gave him my name. “I’m the one who called 911.”

He glanced past my shoulder at Viv. “Who is this?”

“My aunt.” The words came out before I could even think them. “Her name is Christine Fawcett. She picked me up after Callum MacRae attacked me, and then she took me for a bowl of soup.”

The cop was reluctant, but he allowed us through and brought me to another cop, a big, sixtyish man who seemed to be in charge.

As I answered his questions, I kept glancing at Nick. He was flanked by a policeman of his own, who was asking questions and taking down the answers.

“I had no idea the Fell PD even had this many cops,” Viv said softly to me.

Nick raised his gaze and looked back at me. He looked unhurt, and his expression was intent and unreadable. Then his gaze moved to Viv, and I knew he recognized her. He looked almost angry. I wished to God I could get him alone and explain.

“Where’s Callum?” I asked the cop.

He motioned toward the ambulance, which was starting up and pulling out of the parking lot. “From what we can piece together, after he pushed you into the pool, Mr. MacRae took off into the woods with your friend Nick in pursuit. Nick claims he lost Callum somewhere in the chase. After a while he gave up and came back to the motel. He found Callum on the second-floor corridor, unconscious. He was trying to wake him when we pulled up.” He raised his eyebrows at me. “That’s what he says, at least. Do you have anything to add to that statement?”

“I told you what happened,” I said. “Callum attacked me. I called 911. I was afraid he’d come back. My aunt came and picked me up. She took me away, and then we came back here.”

The cop’s gaze flicked to Viv, then back to me. He obviously didn’t recognize her. “Do you need medical assistance?” he asked me.

“No, I need to talk to Nick.”

“That isn’t possible right now. The fact is, we found him bent over Callum MacRae’s body. Until we know exactly what has been going on, we are going to take him for questioning.”

“He didn’t do anything!” I heard my voice rising, cracking. “He only chased after the man who assaulted me! That’s all!”

From where he stood, Nick shook his head at me, silent.

“We’re going to have a paramedic look at you,” the cop said, softer now. “You had a bad fall and you need to be checked out. We’re going to go over your statement again. Miss . . .” He looked at Viv.

“Fawcett,” Viv said. “Christine Fawcett.”

“Miss Fawcett, I’d appreciate it if you’d wait over there until we’re finished with your niece.”

“Of course, Officer.” She reached out and squeezed my hand. Hers was warm; mine was icy cold. “I’m not going far, sweetie. I’ll talk to you soon.”

•   •   •

They took Nick away. It wasn’t an arrest; there were no handcuffs, no reading of rights like on TV. They took him for questioning and he went quietly, his eyes downcast. He was Nick Harkness, the son of one of Fell’s most notorious murderers, the boy who may or may not have been in his bedroom. He was found crouching over a man who wasn’t breathing. He was a suspect whether I liked it or not.

I answered questions as a paramedic checked my blood pressure, checked the bump on my head, shone a light in my pupils, had me follow her finger as she wagged it in the air, had me walk in a straight line. She didn’t think any of my ribs were broken. She gave me some Motrin for the pain.

It seemed to take forever. Yes, I worked at the Sun Down. I had for a few weeks now. No, I did not know Callum MacRae very well; I had only met him a few times. Yes, Nick Harkness was a guest at the motel, even though his name wasn’t in the guest book. He had a deal worked out with the owner.

“What about the damage?” the cop said, flipping the page in his notebook. “You say you’ve worked here a while. Did you notice it?”

“What damage?” I asked.

“The flooding, the leaks, the cracks in the walls.” He looked curiously at me. “You say you’ve never seen it?”

I glanced past him to the motel. For the first time I noticed that there
was water dripping off the second-floor corridor, as if the upstairs level had flooded. What I had taken for shadows on the walls in the darkness—they might be mold. Black mold. The office door was open, and there was water in front of it, too. I tilted my head back and saw that swaths of shingles were gone from the roof, the wood beneath dark with rot.

“I don’t . . .” I was nearly speechless. There was no sign of Simon Hess or Betty Graham, the boy in the pool or Henry, the smoking man. Was the feeling of being watched gone, or was it just my imagination? “It wasn’t like this when I left,” I said.

“That’s what your friend Nick said.” The cop kept saying
your friend Nick
, as if that were an accusation in itself. “Funny that he’s been staying here so long and hasn’t noticed that the ceiling is so water damaged it’s about to cave in.”

“What?” I said.

“The flooding is bad, and old. The carpets in most of the rooms look wrecked. Same with the carpet in the office, even though we haven’t had heavy rain in a long time. There are cracks in some of the load-bearing walls. There’s mold all over the ceilings on the upper floor. Looks like there was a leak in the
room, too, so the entire ceiling is almost black.” He looked up from his notebook and at the motel, as if looking for answers like I was. “It’s strange, but I guess you haven’t been in the rooms very much. Neither has anyone else. No one really comes out here, do they?” He shrugged. “We can’t say how it happened, only that it’s there.”

, I thought,
what did you do?

But she didn’t have to tell me. I had checked her killer into the motel, after all.
Betty is going to be furious.
This was Betty’s version of trashing the place.

As for Simon Hess . . . I had no idea what she had done to him.

“Can I get my things?” I asked the cop as the paramedic finished up. “They’re in the office.”

He nodded. “We’ll have someone get them for you. Then I’ll have someone take you home.”

“I’ll take her.” Viv appeared at my side, putting her hand on my shoulder. “You can’t drive, honey,” she said to me, as if she’d been my aunt all my life. “I’ll get you home.”

When I had my keys and my bag back from my car, Viv led me away. “Viv,” I said, “I appreciate this, but I don’t—”

“Of course I’m not taking you home,” she said. “We’re going to the police station to get Nick out of there. This isn’t over yet.”

•   •   •

“Callum had no visible injuries,” Viv said as we drove into town. “They’re doing a full exam, of course, but it doesn’t appear that he was attacked. They’ll have to do an autopsy to be sure.”

“So he’s dead,” I said numbly.

“As of a few minutes ago in the ambulance, yes,” Viv said. “The official cause of death will likely be something natural, like heart failure or an embolism.”

“And the unofficial cause of death?”

“Betty Graham.” She glanced at me. “He was her killer’s grandson. He should never have gone into that motel. God knows why he did it. Now we’ll never know.”

I looked out the window, wondering what Callum had seen in his last minutes, what had lured him up to the motel’s second floor. His grandfather? Betty? Something else? Despite everything, I felt bad for him. It didn’t seem like he’d had a very happy life. “How do you know he died?” I asked Viv. “You can’t tell me you weren’t talking to Alma Trent on the phone.”

Viv smiled, as if she were a little amused. “Carly, I’ve been a vault for thirty-five years. You need to stop asking questions I won’t answer.”

But I had no intention of stopping. “How did you know that your mother died of cancer?” I asked her.


“You didn’t know that my mother had died, but you knew your mother
had. When I told you that Mom died of cancer, you said . . .” I trailed off as it hit me. “You didn’t say they died. You said cancer runs in the family.”

“It does.”

I felt my stomach lurch. This was too much, all in one night. “You have cancer.” My voice was flat.

“I did have it,” Viv said. “I beat it.”

“And now?”

“Get yourself screened, sweetheart,” she said as we pulled into the police station parking lot. “We’re here.”

•   •   •

They made us wait for two hours. We sat on hard chairs in the police station, watching people come and go. Every once in a while I’d go back up to the duty officer’s desk and ask about Nick Harkness. He’d tell me that he’d let me know as soon as there was any news, and then I’d sit down again.

Viv got up twice and made a phone call, walking a few feet away for privacy. The second phone call was a disagreement—I could tell from her hunched posture, the way she spoke intently into the phone, the low, whispered sound of her voice.
I know. I know. I’m sorry.
Those were the only words I could pick out with my limited lip-reading skills.

“Who were you talking to?” I asked when she sat down again, though I knew it was useless.

For the first time since I’d met her, through everything that had happened tonight, Viv looked visibly upset. “No one.”

“Right,” I said. I was upset myself—tired, worried, in pain. “No one.”

For a second she looked like she’d argue with me or say something hard. Then she sat back in her uncomfortable plastic chair and took my hand in hers. She held it there, her fingers strong and cool over mine. I didn’t move my hand away.

“Do you think he needs a lawyer?” I finally asked, miserable.

“No,” Viv said. “He won’t need a lawyer. There wasn’t a crime
committed, unless they want to try pinning a stopped heart and a bunch of motel mold on him. They’re questioning him extra long because of who he is.”

Because he was Nick Harkness, whose father committed one of Fell’s most famous murders, and who had made a lot of mistakes afterward. Who had been in and out of trouble until he finally left Fell.
We could never prove anything, but I always wondered if Nick was really upstairs in his room like he said he was.

I didn’t know why I felt I had to say it, but I did. “Nick was in his bedroom that day.”

“Yes, I know,” Viv said.

“Alma doesn’t think so.”

“Did she tell you that?” Viv looked at me, still holding my hand. “Alma likes to rattle people if she can. It’s a cop reflex. You should take it as a compliment. It means you shook her up.”

It was the first time Viv had admitted she even knew Alma, but I couldn’t bring myself to feel anything. “He’s not a criminal.”

“No,” Viv said. “I am.”

I looked into her eyes. She really did have beautiful eyes, my aunt Viv. They looked like my mother’s.

“They’ve identified Simon Hess,” she said. “Dental records, though it isn’t official yet. They’re going to process the car top to bottom for evidence.”

She squeezed my hand, then let me go and stood up.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

She didn’t answer, but turned away. The door behind the desk opened, and Nick came out. His blue eyes lit briefly with surprise when he saw me, and then he came my way.

“Hi there,” Viv said to the night shift desk clerk. “I need to talk to a detective.”

Nick came toward me. Tears stung my eyes.

“No,” I said softly, but I didn’t stop her.

“What is it regarding?” the desk clerk asked.

Nick put his hand on my shoulder.

“The body they found in the trunk of a car this morning,” Viv said. “I put it there. My name is Vivian Delaney, and I disappeared thirty-five years ago. I’d like to make a confession.”

It was surprisingly calm, surprisingly civilized. The desk clerk made a phone call. Then he stood up and said, “Come with me.”

Vivian didn’t look back as she followed him into the police station. The door clicked closed behind her.

Fell, New York

February 2018

Three Months Later

It got cold that winter. The snow started early in December and didn’t let up. The winds were icy, the roads hard. I barely made it home to Illinois for Christmas.

I stayed with my brother, Graham, and his fiancée for three days. Then I got back in my car and drove back to Fell.

Graham and Hailey didn’t understand it. Why I wanted to be in Fell, of all places. Why I didn’t want to leave. Why Fell, the place where our aunt had committed murder and pretended to vanish, was home. But it was.

I stayed with Heather for another month, and then I moved into Viv’s apartment on the other side of town. Most people would think it strange that I would take over my aunt’s place after she was indicted for murder—specifically, voluntary manslaughter—but Heather didn’t. “Why not?” she said when I suggested it. “It fits in with the rest of this weird story.”

So I moved in. I quit college—another pissed-off lecture from Graham—and researched what I really wanted to do. For the first months of winter, I lived a quiet life. I read books. I walked. I hung out with
Heather. And I spent dozens of hours, days, in the Fell Central Library, reading and researching. Thinking.

Callum’s autopsy showed that he had died of a brain aneurysm that night at the Sun Down. A quick and painless death, apparently. I was glad he hadn’t suffered. There was a funeral, but it was small and private. I wasn’t invited, and I didn’t attend.

The body of Callum’s grandfather, Simon Hess, was officially identified by police in early December. The cause of death was two stab wounds, one to the chest and one to the neck. The neck wound, said the coroner, had likely been the one to kill Hess, though if left untended the chest wound would have done it in time. The murder weapon was not found on the body, though it was determined to be a hunting knife, very sharp, the blade four to six inches in length.

Vivian Delaney’s defense claimed she had killed Hess in self-defense when Hess admitted to her that he was a serial killer. It made state and national headlines when Hess’s DNA was matched to the DNA found on Betty Graham, Cathy Caldwell, and Tracy Waters. There was no DNA found on Victoria Lee, since she was killed in haste and not raped.

Betty’s, Cathy’s, and Tracy’s families found closure. Victoria’s did not.

I didn’t go back to work at the Sun Down after that night, and neither did anyone else. The building was damaged from the roof to the foundation. Chris, the owner, tried to keep it open, but there were no customers and a county health inspector informed him that he had to close it down. The mold and the damp were a health hazard, the plaster ceilings and walls were starting to crumble to inhalable dust, and the heat didn’t work in the cold. The water pipes froze and the electricity went out, the sign going dark for good.

So Chris did what any sensible man, saddled with an unwanted and unviable business, would do: He got an insurance payout, put the land up for sale for next to nothing, and had the building condemned.

In late December, just after Christmas, a quick chain-link fence went up around the Sun Down, laced with signs that said
The motel sign came down and was carted away in a specialized truck. And in February, when the sky was muddy gray and the ground was churned with dirty snow and slush, the bulldozers and other vehicles moved in.

I watched it. I parked my car on the side of Number Six Road and walked to the chain-link fence, my gloved hands in my pockets and a hat pulled over my ears, the wind freezing my nose and my cheeks, chapping my lips. It wasn’t dramatic or even very interesting; there was no one else there to watch as the machines rumbled around the demolition site, pulling down walls and drilling into the concrete of the parking lot. There was no swelling music, no choir or curtain to fall. Just the streaked, darkening sky and the snow starting to fall as the crew worked day in and day out.

Betty Graham wasn’t there. Neither was Simon Hess, or the little boy, or Henry the smoking man. They were all dead and gone.

My phone rang in my pocket as I stood by the fence, and I pulled it out and yanked off my mitten to answer it. “Hello?”

“Victoria’s case is being reinvestigated,” said the voice on the other end. “They’ve pulled all the evidence and are going over it again. Including reexamining her clothes for traces of the killer’s DNA.”

I turned and started walking back to my car. “Don’t tell me how you know that,” I said to Alma Trent.

“Don’t worry, I won’t,” Alma said. “I managed to make a few friends on the force over the course of thirty years, despite my personality. That’s all I’ll say.”

“If they can pull scheduling records, it will help. Viv’s notebook says that Hess was scheduled on Victoria’s street the month she died.”

“I know. I’ve read the notebook.”

“Not recently,” I said. The notebook was mine now; I’d kept it. By now I’d read it a hundred times. “Have you called Marnie and told her?”

“I have no idea who you’re talking about.”

“Of course you did,” I said as if she hadn’t answered. “You called her first, before me.”

“The name sounds familiar, but I can’t say I place it. You’re thinking of someone else.”

“Tell her I said hello.”

“I would if I knew who you mean.”

I sighed. “You know, one of these days you’re going to have to trust me.”

“This is as trusting as I get,” Alma said. “I’m just a retired cop who takes an interest in the Vivian Delaney case. Call it a hobby, or maybe nostalgia for the early eighties. Where are you? I can hear wind.”

“On Number Six Road, watching the Sun Down get bulldozed into oblivion.”

“Is that so,” Alma said in her no-nonsense tone. “Do you feel good about that or bad?”

“Neither,” I replied. “Both. Can I ask you something?”

“You can always ask, Carly.” Which meant that she wouldn’t always answer.

“Victoria’s boyfriend was originally convicted of her murder. But his case was reopened and overturned. I looked it up, and it turns out that it all started when the boyfriend got a new lawyer in 1987. Do you know anything about that? I mean, something must have changed. There must have been some kind of tip that encouraged him to seek a new trial.”

“I don’t know any lawyers,” Alma said.

Right. Of course. Except she knew for certain that the wrong man had been convicted, and that the right man was dead in the trunk of a car. “Here’s the other interesting thing,” I said. “Right after Tracy’s murder, a homeless man was arrested because he tried to turn in her backpack. Everyone assumed he must be her killer. But the case was thrown out because it was circumstantial. And the reason he went free was because he had a good lawyer.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes. That’s kind of strange, isn’t it? A homeless drifter who has a really good lawyer? It sounds like something someone would help out with if they knew for sure that the man was innocent.”

“I wouldn’t know. Like I say, lawyers aren’t my thing.”

I sighed. I liked Alma, but it was impossible to be friends with her. Heather was more my style. “I took pictures of the Sun Down being demolished on my phone. I think Viv would like to see them the next time I visit her.”

“I hear they’re giving her medical treatment in prison while she awaits trial,” Alma said.

My heart squeezed. Despite everything, Viv was my aunt. “They’re giving her chemo, but they don’t know if it will work.”

Viv had cancer again. She was going to either die of it or spend the rest of her life in prison. Maybe both.

Maybe neither.

Either way, there was nothing more I could do.

Did I feel good about that, or bad? It depended on the day, on my mood, on whether I felt anger at what Viv had put my mother through or the ache of missing family or admiration at some of the things she’d done. There were times I felt all three at once. This was going to take time—time that Viv, maybe, didn’t have.

“She beat it once,” Alma said. “She can beat it again. She can beat anything.”

“Jeez,” I said. “It almost sounds like you know her.”

“I don’t, of course, but she sounds like an interesting lady. Tell her I’d like to meet her someday.”

I rolled my eyes. “Whatever.”

“It’s cold out on Number Six Road. Do you want to come by for a coffee? I don’t care what time it is. I’m a night owl.”

“Me, too,” I said, “but I’m not coming today. I have plans.”

“Is that so,” Alma said again. “It’s about time.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means have fun,” she said, and hung up.

•   •   •

Nick was wearing jeans and a black sweater. He had shaved and he smelled soapy. He had long ago moved into an apartment in a third-floor walkup, a small place that was sparse and masculine and somehow homey. He had started a partnership with an old high school friend in a renovation company, and he ran two renovation crews in town. Maybe some of the business came because he was notorious, but not all of it did. When Nick put his mind to something, he could do anything he wanted.

“I want to study criminology,” I said to him as we ate a late-night dinner at a Thai place downtown. “I can start in the spring, get credits over the summer before I enroll for the fall.”

He lowered his chopsticks. The restaurant lighting was dim, making his dark hair and his shadowed cheekbones almost stupidly gorgeous. I couldn’t decide if I liked him better with his insomnia stubble or without.

“Are you sure about that?” he asked me.

“Yes.” I poked at my pad thai noodles. “I think I’d be good at it. Do you?”

He looked at me for a long moment. “I think you’d be brilliant at it,” he said, his voice dead serious. “I think the world of criminology isn’t ready for you. Not even a little.”

I felt my cheeks heat as I dropped my gaze to my plate. “You just earned yourself another date, mister.”

“I have to earn them? This is like our tenth.”

“No, it’s our ninth. The time we ran into each other by mistake at CVS doesn’t count.”

“I’m counting it.”

“I was in sweats,” I protested. “I had a cold. Not a date.”

“I sent you home, and then I bought all of the cold meds you needed and brought them to you. Along with food and tea,” he countered. “It was a date.”

I most definitely still had a crush on the former occupant of room 210 of the Sun Down Motel.

“Well, tonight is going to be better,” I told him.

It was. We finished our dinner, then went to the revue cinema for a midnight showing of
. There were exactly fourteen people there. I held his hand through the whole thing. When it was over and we went outside, it was snowing. We barely noticed on the drive back to his apartment. We were too preoccupied.

Like my aunt Viv said, a girl has to lose her virginity somewhere, right?

Hours later, when I lay warm in bed with Nick’s arm over me, I turned toward the window in the darkness. I watched the snow fall for a long time before I finally fell asleep.

BOOK: The Sun Down Motel
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