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Authors: Simone St. James

The Sun Down Motel (8 page)

BOOK: The Sun Down Motel
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Fell, New York

September 1982

VIV

She tried not to listen in on people’s phone calls once she learned the phone trick, but it was hard.

Jamie Blaknik, for example. He was a young guy in jeans and a worn-thin T-shirt who smoked cigarettes, ignoring the
NO SMOKING IN MOTEL
sign and messing with Viv’s ability to detect the smoking man every time he checked in. The smoky-sweet smell of him told her he was most likely a pot dealer, the kind of guy she had never talked to before—the kind of guy who would give her mother a rage fit if she ever brought him home. He was attractive in an edgy, I-won’t-be-nice-to-you way, and Viv’s neck and cheeks always got hot when he checked in and gave her that smirk across the desk.
Nice night
, he’d say, and she’d nod like an idiot, until one night she smiled at him when he walked in and he smiled back.

“Nice night,” he said, pulling a roll of bills from his broken-in jeans pocket and unwrapping a few twenties.

Viv looked at his tousled brown hair, his gray eyes—which were actually rather nice—and his unaffected slouch that went in an easy line from his shoulders to his hips, and said, “You come here a lot.”

“That bother you?” he said in an easy drawl as he picked up a pen and scribbled his name into the guest book.

“No,” Viv replied. “What is it about this place, though? Do you like the view?”

He looked up at her from the guest book and gave her a smile that had a thousand possible meanings to it. She just wished she knew which one. “Yeah,” he said with a touch of humor in his voice. “I like the view.”

“That’s nice,” she said, holding his gaze. “I’m not going to bother you. Just so you know. It doesn’t matter to me what you’re doing.”

Jamie straightened. “Okay,” he said, holding out his hand for his key. He wore a leather bracelet on his wrist, wound with one of woven cloth. “That works for me. I don’t bother you, you don’t bother me.”

“Right.” She rifled through the key drawer to pick him a key.

“Unless you want to party,” he added. “If you do, just come on over to my room and knock on the door.”

Whoa!
That was a step beyond what she was ready for. But Viv handed him his key and batted her lashes, just theatrical enough for him to know she was kidding. “Oh, I couldn’t do that,” she said. “I might get fired.”

He laughed, and his laugh was just as pleasant as the rest of him. “Have it your way, Good Girl,” he said. “The party’s happening anyway. Have a good night.”

He left, and when the light blinked on the phone a few minutes later with its whispered
click
, she lifted the receiver and listened to the low, pleasant hum of his voice.
Hey, man, I’m checked in. You on your way?
He made and took a dozen phone calls from customers, and Viv—who had never even seen a joint in real life, let alone held or tried one—listened to all of it, learning the lingo of the measured bits of weed and how much they cost, appreciating Jamie’s droll sense of humor at his line of work.

On another night a prostitute called her babysitter in between taking her clients, checking in on her four-year-old daughter, Bridget, as Viv listened in.
Make sure she drinks her milk. Let her have a little popcorn but not too much. Did she go to sleep right away or did she get up? Sometimes she has to go potty two or three times. Call you later, I gotta go.
The woman left at five thirty, tying back her long hair as she walked to her car in tight jeans
and flip-flops. It was still dark but there was something about the light at that time of morning, something that let you know dawn was coming soon. It was a different darkness than midnight darkness. In the darkness of five thirty, Bridget’s mother almost looked pretty, her hair shiny and long, her shoulders back. Alone in the office, Viv watched her walk, the effortless way her hips moved, with perfect envy.

“Don’t you see creepy things in that job?” Viv’s roommate, Jenny, asked her one night as they both got ready for work. Jenny was eating yogurt, dressed in her hospital scrubs as Viv stood at the kitchen counter, making her bologna sandwich. The TV was on, showing the ten o’clock news with the volume on low. Viv was wearing high-waisted jeans and a white T-shirt that was cut loosely, billowing from where she had tucked it into her pants. She’d added a slim red belt she thought was pretty in the belt loops.

She looked at her roommate, startled. “Creepy things?”

Jenny shrugged. She’d just redone her perm last week, and Viv quietly envied the perfect curls in her hair, wondered if she could scrape up the budget for a perm herself. “You know, creepy things. Perverts. Homos.”

Viv was more worldly now, after nearly two months at the Sun Down. She knew what homos were, though admittedly she had no idea how to identify one and no idea if she’d ever seen one. “I see lots of hookers,” she said, pleased that she’d used a worldly word like
hookers
. “No homos, though.”

Jenny nodded, taking a scoop of yogurt, and Viv felt like she’d passed a test. “The homos probably go to the park. Still, it must be creepy, working that place at night.”

Viv thought of the ghost woman telling her to run, the shove in the
AMENITIES
room. “Sometimes, yes.”

“Just be careful,” Jenny said. “You’ll end up like Cathy Caldwell.”

Viv wrapped her sandwich in waxed paper. “Who is Cathy Caldwell?”

Jenny waggled her eyebrows dramatically and put on a Vincent Price voice. “Murdered and found under an overpass two years ago. Stabbed to
death!” She dropped the dramatic voice and went back to her regular, bored one. “She lived down the street from my parents. My mother calls me every week. She thinks I’m going to be Cathy Caldwell any day because I work nights. It must be rubbing off on me.”

“Was she working a night shift?” Viv asked.

“No, she was coming home from work,” Jenny said, dipping her spoon into her yogurt. Viv could smell its sour-milk scent. “It terrifies my mother. She thinks she’s going to get a midnight phone call:
Your daughter is dead!
Oh, and don’t go jogging, either.
That
will turn you into Victoria Lee, who was killed and dumped on the jogging trail on the edge of town.”

Viv stared at her, sandwich forgotten. Something was tightening in her chest, like a bell tolling. “What? You mean there’s a murderer in Fell?”

“No.” Jenny seemed sure of this. “Victoria’s boyfriend did hers. It just makes us all scared of jogging. But Cathy Caldwell . . .” She widened her eyes and waggled her eyebrows again. “Maybe it was Michael Myers. Or, like, that story about the babysitter.
The killer is inside the house!

Viv laughed, but it felt forced. She remembered the man who had put his hand on her thigh when she was hitchhiking. How she’d realized that he could leave her in a ditch and no one would ever know.

“Okay, no jogging trail,” Viv said to Jenny. “I don’t jog anyway. I’ve never had anyone bother me at the motel, though.” Even Jamie Blaknik the pot dealer was nice, in his way.

“No one has bothered you
yet
,” Jenny said in her practical, no-nonsense way. She looked Viv up and down. “I mean, you’re pretty. And you’re alone there at night. We single girls have to be careful. I don’t leave the nursing home at night, even to smoke. You should carry a knife.”

“I can’t carry a knife.”

“Sure you can. I don’t mean a big machete. I mean a small one, you know, for girls. I was thinking of getting one myself. And then if one of those old guys at my work gets creepy—
whammo
.” She mimed jabbing a knife into the countertop. Viv laughed again. The only stories Jenny told about being a night shift nurse in a retirement home were that it was
boring, and old people were weird and useless. Jenny didn’t seem to like very many people, but tonight Viv was in her good graces.

Jenny left for work, and Viv bustled around the apartment, getting her last few things together to go to the Sun Down. The TV was still on, and the segment on the news featured a beautiful brunette anchor with the words on screen in front of her:
SAFETY TIPS FOR TEENS
. “Always go out with a friend if it’s after dark,” she was saying from her beautifully lipsticked lips. “Use a buddy system. Never get into a stranger’s vehicle. Consider carrying a whistle or a flashlight.”

Viv turned the TV off and went to work.

•   •   •

At her desk at the Sun Down, wearing her blue vest, she pulled out her notebook in the deserted quiet. Using the meticulous penmanship learned since first grade in Illinois, her letters carefully swirled with feminine loops, she wrote:
Cathy Caldwell. Left under underpass. Victoria Lee. Jogging trail. Boyfriend?

She tucked her pen into the corner of her mouth for a minute, then wrote:
Buy a whistle? A flashlight? A knife?

Outside, she heard a car come into the parking lot. She’d expected this; Robert White, the fortyish man cheating with the woman named Helen, had checked in half an hour ago. Alone, with no luggage, as before.

Curious, she put her pen and notebook down and slipped out the office door, taking a quick trip to the
AMENITIES
room. Helen’s Thunderbird pulled in and parked next to Mr. White’s car, and as Viv watched through the crack in the
AMENITIES
doorway, Helen got out. She was wearing a one-piece wrap dress of jewel blue that set off her short, styled dark hair. This time Mr. White opened the door before she could knock. They smiled at each other and then he followed her into the room, closing the door behind him.

Viv was about to go back to the office, to her desk and her notebook, when she saw the second car.

A dark green sedan pulled into the back of the lot, behind Helen’s
Thunderbird. Viv waited, but no one got out. Now, with the door closing behind Helen and Mr. White, Viv saw the passenger window of the second car roll up as a camera lens ducked back into the car.

Viv waited, her gaze fixed on the sedan, but nothing else happened. The door stayed closed and the mystery car stayed parked at the back of the lot. Whoever was in the car was watching, waiting however long it took for Helen to come out again. The person in the car had a clear view of the
AMENITIES
door and would see her when she came out.

She couldn’t hide here all night, so she dug in her pocket and pulled out twenty cents. She put it in the candy machine, got a Snickers bar, and left the
AMENITIES
room, closing the door behind her. She held the candy bar in her outer hand and angled herself subtly just so—in theater they called it
cheating out
—so that the person in the car could clearly see her Sun Down Motel vest and the Snickers.
Just an innocent employee hitting the candy machine
, she thought. She walked back to the office and closed the door behind her, then positioned herself at the edge of the window, looking at the car again. Maybe she imagined it, but she thought there was a flicker of movement behind the passenger window. Which didn’t make sense, because there was no reason for someone to take a picture of her. No reason at all.

•   •   •

It was a strangely busy night. A trucker stopped in and asked for directions, and when Viv couldn’t help, he pulled out his paper map and the two of them looked at it together, trying to figure out how he could get back to the interstate. There was another phone call with only breathing at the other end of the line. The linen company had left a bin of clean linens behind the motel, and Viv had to figure out how to open the
UTILITIES
door and push it inside. Through all of that, her attention kept wandering back to the scene in the parking lot: the closed motel door, the two cars parked in front of it, and the third car in the back of the parking lot, watching. She wondered if the man in the third car was going to stay there all night. She wondered if he was bored. She wondered if he had seen her.

It was just past two a.m. when another car pulled into the lot and a man walked into the office.

He was alone. He wore a suit and a trench coat, carried a briefcase and a suitcase. Viv remembered her manners and put on a smile as she raised her gaze to his face. She faltered, because he looked oddly familiar. He was in his thirties, decent-looking, clean-shaven. He looked like a thousand other men. Still, there was something in his eyes that she had seen before.

“Evening,” the man said, though it was the middle of the night by now. He approached the desk and set down his suitcase and his briefcase. “I’d like a room, please.”

Viv kept some of the smile on her face. “Sure thing,” she said. “A room is thirty dollars a night.”

“I know.” The man smiled at her, and Viv felt a rush of something—that familiarity again, mixed with something strangely like fear, as if she were remembering a bad dream she couldn’t quite grasp.
This man should never smile
, she thought wildly before she pushed the thought away. There was nothing wrong with his smile. He looked perfectly fine.

“Oh?” she asked him politely when he didn’t elaborate.

His pause was just a second too long, the smile still on his face. “You don’t remember me?” he said. “I stayed here a few weeks ago. I remember you. Oh, well, I guess I’m just that memorable.”

Now something clawed up the back of her memory. “Yes, I remember,” she said. “You’re a traveling salesman.”

“I am,” the man said, smiling again. “And just like last time I need to stay tonight, but I may need to stay longer after I talk to my bosses tomorrow. I go wherever they tell me, you see.”

Viv nodded, turning the guest book and pushing it toward him. “That’s okay,” she said, fighting the urge she had at the base of her spine to get rid of him, get him out of here. She needed to be polite; it was her job. “That’s fine.”

“Thank you.” The salesman took the pen from her—his fingertip
nearly brushed hers, and she gritted her teeth—and swiftly wrote his name. Then he handed over thirty dollars. “I’ll be back tomorrow if I need to stay another night.”

Viv nodded and took the key to room 210 from the drawer. “Here you go. Have a nice night.”

“Thank you . . .” He paused dramatically. “What is your name?”

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