Extract: Sunset City by Melissa Ginsberg
Twenty-two-year-old Charlotte Ford reconnects with Danielle, her best friend from high school, a few days before Danielle is found bludgeoned to death in a motel room. In the wake of the murder, Charlotte’s life unravels and she descends into the city’s underbelly, where she meets the strippers, pornographers and drug dealers who surrounded Danielle in the years they were estranged.
Dark, thrilling and almost unbearably sad, Sunset City is not to be missed.
Read on for an extract…
It had rained hard through the night and now the water raced and swirled, overflowing the ditch in front of my building. Houston was always flooding, the whole city built atop paved wetlands. The storm kept the sky dark, and the streetlights glowed through the morning. I stepped into my rubber boots and splashed to the barbecue shack around the corner. I ordered a baked potato filled with butter and sour cream and bacon and slow-smoked brisket, then bought beer at the liquor store next door. On the walk home, the temperature began to rise and moisture thickened the air.
As I approached my building I noticed a guy on my landing. I didn’t recognize him. I figured he must have the wrong apartment.
“Who are you looking for?” I called to him.
“Charlotte Ford,” the man said.
He stood under the awning above my door, a curtain of rain enclosing him on three sides. He had rough, dark features: hooded eyes, strong jaw, and a blunt Irish nose that softened his appearance. I liked how he said my name.
“That’s me,” I said. “Have we met?”
He stood aside to let me out of the downpour. We crowded into the space, walls of water around us, while I dug for my keys. Rain fell from his hair onto his nose and he wiped it away. I smiled without meaning to, because he was so handsome and close. I got the door open and backed into the apartment, set my food on the front table.
“Detective Ash,” he said. “HPD.”
In an instant I thought of every law I ever broke, trying to figure out how much trouble I was in. Cops always scared the shit out of me—a reflex from the old days, from when I was dealing.
“You’re Charlotte Ford?” he said.
“Could I come in?” he said.
“Okay,” I said, pretending to be calm.
He stepped inside and glanced around. We were both dripping water on the floor. I took my shopping bags into the kitchen, stashed the beer and the food in the fridge. The detective followed and leaned against the wall, watching me. He took up too much space in the room. I felt claustrophobic, trapped. I was sweating in my raincoat, bright red rubber, its canvas lining dotted with unicorns.
“You know Danielle Reeves?” he said.
“Yeah, I know Danielle.”
I should have figured it had to do with her. Danielle was my oldest friend, the only person in the world who understood where I’d come from. I’d hardly seen her in the last few years, but that didn’t matter. I was ready to bail her out, lie, provide an alibi—whatever she might need. She was my friend. I would protect her.
“What’s this about?” I said.
“I’m afraid I have some bad news,” he said. “Danielle Reeves is dead.”
“What?” I said.
“Danielle is dead,” the detective repeated.
“She was murdered,” he said, watching me carefully. “Let’s sit down.”
We went to the living room and I sat on the couch. He took the chair by the window. A watery spill of streetlight outlined his face.
“Are you sure?” I said.
“That’s crazy. I just spoke to her.”
“When was that?”
“Two days ago. Sunday evening. We met for a drink.”
“And yesterday?” he said.
“Yesterday, no, I didn’t see her. I haven’t talked to her since Sunday.”
“Where were you last night?”
“Here. It was raining. I didn’t go out.”
“Can anybody confirm that?”
I shook my head. He wrote in a notebook. I became aware of the shattering rain on the cars outside. I felt for a cigarette in the pocket of my raincoat. Water dripped from it and soaked the upholstery. I always took off my raincoat and hung it on the hook by the door. Why hadn’t that happened? My mind rushed, confused, like the current in the gutter—I couldn’t get hold of a thought.
I lit the cigarette, took a drag. The smoke hovered around my head, weighed down by humidity.
Ash said, “Danielle’s mother tells me you and Danielle are old friends.”
I tried to speak but my throat constricted, and I began sobbing. I observed myself, curious and dismayed. I didn’t even understand the situation, yet here I was crying in front of a stranger. None of it made sense. My cigarette fell from my hands. The detective picked it up and stubbed it in the ashtray on the windowsill. A part of my brain thought of how I must look: no makeup, snot, the terrible sounds coming from my throat. I grew more and more embarrassed, which made it harder to compose myself. It took a while before I could breathe normally.
The detective stared at me like you would a sculpture, without caring what it thought. What he was saying about Danielle, it couldn’t be real. It didn’t make sense. She had already survived all the drugs and prison. She was finally doing okay.
“She can’t be dead,” I said.
“She is, Ms. Ford.”
“Not murdered. It’s ridiculous. If she was going to die it would’ve happened before.”
“What do you mean?” the detective said.
“Forget it,” I said.
He wrote in his notebook again and spoke. “Tell me about the night you saw Danielle.”
“We met for a drink.”
“Was that a regular thing?”
“Not exactly,” I said. “We sort of lost touch.”
I looked away, said nothing. It was a few years back, in the middle of the drugs and her arrest, but I was not about to talk about that with this guy.
“When she went to prison?” he asked.
I hated that he knew that about her. I saw her from his perspective—a stripper, a drug addict, a felon. I could see the judgment in his eyes, the dismissal.
“You don’t understand,” I said.
“What do I not understand?” he said.
“She’s not a junkie or some stripper whore. That’s bullshit.”
“Ms. Ford, take it easy. I’m trying—”
“Leave her alone. You can’t assume, because she went to prison—you don’t know anything about her!”
I hadn’t meant to stand up, or to talk so loud. The muscles in my legs tensed and trembled. I wanted to kick something, to run and run.
“Okay,” the detective said. He stood, too. He didn’t look friendly anymore. “Come with me,” he said.
“To the station.”
“Are you arresting me?”
“Not unless I have to.”
He took my arm and pushed me to the door, waited while I closed and locked it. We went to his car, a green SUV parked in the middle of the street, alongside the deep gutter. I stepped in a puddle and water leaked into my boots. He opened the passenger-side door and stood there until I got in. He silently steered to a strip mall on Richmond and parked in a lot full of cop cars. Inside he guided me past a cluster of uniformed guys and a roomful of desks. Benches lined one wall. A black kid, about fifteen years old, sat at one end, wrists cuffed, looking at the floor, at his untied shoes. Loud and ugly, the place banged against my eyes. The detective showed me into a dank windowless room with a table and a chair and a camera mounted inside a steel cage. The lights buzzed from the ceiling.
“Wait here,” he said.
He left, closing the door behind him. The molded plastic chair was missing one of the bolts that attached it to the metal legs, and it rocked and bent as I shifted my weight. The walls were green concrete blocks, interrupted only by the door and a dark mirror across from it. I glanced at my reflection once—my face pale and bedraggled, strands of wet hair stuck to my cheek—and didn’t look again. I kept thinking, I shouldn’t be here. There’s been a mistake. I got out my phone and tried to call Michael, my boyfriend. I wished I were with him in his cozy apartment, or back at home, or anywhere else, really. But it was no good, I couldn’t get any cell reception.
A crack in the cement floor showed where the foundation had shifted. Damp seeped in and I remembered the rain outside. The ceiling lights hummed, muting the distant voices and ringing phones. No way could Danielle be dead. She was the most alive person I knew.
The detective came in with a chair and a manila file folder.
“I’m not interested in judging your friend. I’m not making any assumptions about her,” he said. “You’re wrong about that.”
He opened his folder and slid some photographs across the table. One fell on the floor and I bent to pick it up. He watched me, his arms crossed, his foot tapping the floor.
“Nobody,” he said, “no matter who they were, what they did, should go through this. It was terrible, what happened to Danielle. I am trying to find out who killed her. I’m not judging her. I’m looking for information.”
I examined the picture in my hand. Meaningless shapes and colors arranged themselves and I saw a person, and blood. Lots of blood. My eyes went out of focus again and I dropped the picture. He handed me another one, a close up of Danielle’s face, puffy and covered in brown blotches. I recognized her jawline, and her arm in the foreground of the photograph, bruised and blotchy, the fingers curled. One long nail hung broken, still attached by glue to a corner of the nail bed. The photographs had been taken in a hotel room: a lamp, a seascape screwed into the wall. In places brown blood obscured everything.
“It was a blunt instrument,” he said. “It was heavy.”
The next one showed her chest, pushed in and misshapen. Her fake boobs sat on top of the wrecked body, intact, pointing the wrong way. Blood soaked her blouse.
“Broken ribs,” he said. “The bone shards punctured her lung. She could have died from that or the blood loss, we’re still trying to determine that. Some of the injuries are postmortem. Do you understand what that means, Ms. Ford? The person who did this kept beating her after she was dead.”
I closed my eyes and tried to breathe. My mouth flooded with saliva.
“You’re not gonna throw up, are you?” he said.
He grabbed the wastebasket and set it down next to me. I gripped the table’s edge and stood. I had to get out, get away from those pictures.
“I don’t feel right,” I said, but I couldn’t hear myself because of the traffic sounds loud in my ears. I saw white.
When I regained consciousness I seemed to be lying on the floor. I couldn’t hear. Nausea circled my body. The detective stood far above me, and I watched a uniformed cop hand him some brown paper towels and a cup of water. My head hurt. My arm hurt. I touched my head and my fingers came away wet.
“I don’t think it’s bad,” the detective said to the other cop. “The head always bleeds a lot.” He knelt beside me and said my name. “Ms. Ford? Charlotte? Can you focus on my hand? Follow my hand with your eyes.”
His features were indistinct, backlit by the paneled lights in the ceiling. I tried to speak but the sounds scraped.
“I’m gonna sit you up, okay?” he said.
The detective lifted me by the shoulders while trying to support my head. He held the paper towels firmly to my brow, where it hurt the most. I blinked, leaning against him, and tried to focus my vision. He propped me against the wall and straightened my legs in front of me.
“Go get a soft drink,” he told the other guy. “And a candy bar.”
The detective took some clean paper towels from the pile next to me on the floor and replaced the bloody ones. I didn’t mind sitting there while he took care of me. As long as I wasn’t looking at those pictures anymore.
“It shouldn’t need stitches,” he said.
The other cop came in with a Hawaiian Punch and a bag of animal crackers. The detective popped the top on the can and held it to my lips. “Small sips, Charlotte. Good. You’re all right, you’ll be fine.”
He lifted the towel from my face and said, “Your color’s coming back. Put your arms around my neck. I think you can get up now. Ready? I’ll help you.”
I leaned into him. He smelled like rain and skin with sharp spice underneath. He eased me into the chair, took my hands, and placed them in my lap.
“You hit the table on your way down,” he said. “Drink.”
I took another sip of punch.
“We’ll get you home soon, all right? You faint a lot?”
“If you feel dizzy, lean over. Rest your head between your knees. Don’t get up so fast next time.”
“Okay,” I said.
“I’m sorry about the pictures. You all right now? Enough to talk?”
“Okay. You haven’t seen Danielle lately, until Sunday.”
I took a deep ragged breath and began.