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Detective Ash listened as I told him what happened Sunday. Danielle’s mother Sally had called me that morning and insisted that I come by her office. I was surprised to hear from her. I didn’t even know she had my number. But I heard the urgency in her voice and agreed to meet. I was curious, I guess. That, and I had nothing else to do. It was my day off from the coffee shop where I worked, and I’d thought I’d spend it with Michael, but he wasn’t answering my texts.
Sally always was hard to say no to. I drove to her office building, a glass tower that rose in the Houston sky. Sally stepped outside and waved. She was dressed in tailored shorts, low mules, and a printed jersey blouse. Even in casual clothes she looked intimidating, rich.
“Hi, Charlotte,” she said. “Thanks so much for stopping by.”
“Sure,” I said. I had always felt awkward around Sally. “It’s no problem.”
Our footsteps echoed over the polished stone surfaces to a bank of elevators. We went to her floor and she led me past a set of double doors, a reception desk, and a pair of leather
couches. On the wall hung a series of photographs depicting various stages of the Rice Hotel revitalization project. Years ago, downtown was a deserted wasteland after five o’clock. No one believed that people might live there or go there at night. Sally’s company had pioneered the downtown gentrification, changed the city, and made millions. Now urban lofts sprouted everywhere, even in the suburbs.
The air-conditioning froze my sweat, and goose bumps rose along my arms. We walked down the hall to her office. A huge window overlooked the building’s atrium, filled with large leafy plants, ferns, and birds of paradise. Filtered sunlight fell in patches on the sleek office furniture. “Have a seat,” she said, indicating a pair of plush chairs. We each took one.
“How are you, sweetie?” she said. “How’s school going?”
“I’m taking this semester off,” I said. “Taking a break.”
“I wish Danielle had gone to college,” Sally said. “She never has done things the regular way.”
“I guess not,” I said.
“How is Danielle, anyhow?” She tried to sound casual. Soft lines showed around her eyes and mouth.
“Good, I guess. We don’t really hang out.” Sally nodded. “I haven’t seen her since before she . . . left,” she said. I ignored Sally’s clumsy euphemism for prison. I wasn’t surprised Danielle had stayed away from her. She and Sally had never been close.
“Charlotte, I need her phone number.”
“You don’t have it?” I said, surprised.
“She changed it. I have the old one, from when she was on my cell phone plan. We haven’t talked in a long time.”
I did know how to get in touch with Danielle—we’d run into each other at a restaurant a couple of months back and exchanged numbers. But if Danielle wanted to avoid Sally, no way was I getting in the middle of it. I frowned, looking out the window. So strange to see all the tropical plants growing indoors. It seemed backwards.
“Charlotte, I know this puts you in an awkward position. But I really need your help. I need to get ahold of her. My aunt died.”
“Gosh,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“Well, she’d been ill a long time. The problem is, she left Danielle an inheritance. Now the probate lawyers need to talk to her, there’s paperwork to do, and she’s nowhere to be found. It’s a bit embarrassing.”
She said this last in a whisper, leaning forward, conspiratorial.
“Please help me,” she said. As she spoke she slid a white envelope over to me.
“What’s this?” I said.
Inside the envelope was a sheaf of hundred-dollar bills. I counted them twice—a thousand dollars.
“I know you can use it,” Sally said. “I just need her phone number. Please.”
There was no way I could pass up that much money. I searched through my phone for Danielle’s number and read it off to Sally.
“Perfect, darling, thank you so much. I’ll call her tonight, as soon as I’m finished up here.”
“Thank you,” I said. “For the money.”
She stood. “Oh, sweetie. It’s been lovely to see you. You get prettier and prettier. Can you find your way out?”
“Yeah, sure,” I said.
She hugged me goodbye, smothering me again in her expensive perfume, her aura of wealth and power. I hurried past the smooth stone walls of the lobby and out to the parking lot, with its clean painted lines slanting in parallels. I sat in my hot car for a minute, letting my skin thaw before turning the ignition. I felt dazed by the heat and the money in my pocket.
I texted Danielle immediately. It’s Charlotte. Have to see you. It’s important. Drink? She texted me back and we made plans to meet at six at a new bar called the Mockingbird.
Later I drove through traffic to the bar, which occupied a corner strip mall on Westheimer, along with a dry cleaners, one window-broken vacancy, and an accountant’s office called Tax Mex. Inside I ignored the cheap specials and ordered Maker’s, rocks; I was rich.
Danielle showed up late, when I was on my second drink. She was gorgeous, as always, but in a weird, doll- like way: long streaked hair, too much makeup. Her tits looked bigger, fake.
“Charlotte, wow,” she said. “It’s nice to see you.”
She gave me a half hug, kissed the air near my cheek.
“You look great,” I said.
“Thanks. So do you.” She ordered a peach martini from the bartender and I got
“So what’s going on?” she said.
“Don’t get upset.”
“Uh-oh, Charlotte, what?”
“Your mom paid me a thousand dollars for your phone number,” I said.
“Yeah.” I handed her Sally’s envelope. “Here’s your half.”
She opened the flap and thumbed through the bills. “You gave her my number?” she said.
“Yeah. Because she gave me a thousand dollars.”
“Does she want me to have this?”
“She doesn’t know.”
Danielle squinted at me. “Then why are you giving it to me?”
“I figured, worst-case scenario, you could use it to get a new phone. It felt weird to keep it and not warn you.”
“Free money, right? Why not.”
She set the envelope on the bar and centered her drink on top of it. A sticky pink ring dampened the paper.
“Fucking Sally,” she said.
“I know,” I said. “I would have given up your digits for a lot less.”
“Shut up,” Danielle said, laughing.
“Has she called you yet?”
“No. What does she want?”
“She wants to tell you your great-aunt died.”
“Aunt Baby? God, we used to go to her place when I was little. She lived out in Tomball.”
“She left you something in her will. You’ll have to see the lawyer and sign papers, I guess.”
“God, Sally and her lawyer? The worst.”
“I’m sorry about your aunt.”
Danielle shrugged. “I barely remember her. Still, it’s sad. Anyways. It’s great to see you. What have you been doing all this time? I’m surprised we haven’t run into each other more.”
“I guess I stay in the neighborhood a lot. I’ve been working at Common Grounds on Shepherd. The coffee shop.”
“Oh, I know that place. I never go in there. So what else? Are you seeing anybody?”
I laughed. “All you care about is boys,” I said. “But yes, yeah, I have a boyfriend. He’s in a band, he’s nice, we’ve been together about a year.”
“Is it serious?”
“I don’t know, maybe. Kind of serious, yeah. How about you? How’ve you been?”
She rested her hand on the edge of the bar. I’d forgotten her grace, her perfect posture. Her wrists were delicate and freckled.
“I’m doing okay. Good, actually. It really is nice to see you. I can finally have a chance to say thank you for your letters.”
I’d written to her in prison but never heard back.
“I wondered if you got them,” I said.
“I got them. It was really nice of you. They cheered me up.”
“Was it awful in there?” I asked. “I’m so sorry you had to go through all that.”
“It was, yeah. I don’t want to talk about it. But it was good in some ways, too. I got clean. It’s been almost three years.”
“That’s great. I’m so glad,” I said.
“I wanted to write you back,” she said. “It was NA. They really pressure you to cut ties with the people you did drugs with. To make it easier to kick.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I mean, whatever helps, right?”
We sipped our drinks for a minute.
“So what else have you been up to?” I said. “Since you got out?”
“First thing I did was go on a diet. I got fat in there.”
“You did not. I don’t believe it.”
“It’s true!” Danielle said. “They gave us mashed potatoes every fucking day. I gained like five pounds.”
“Oh no, five pounds.” I rolled my eyes.
“Charlotte, listen. I’m glad you texted me.”
“Well, of course. How could I not?”
“No, I mean I missed you. A lot. I know I screwed things up.”
“No more than me,” I said, flustered. “You had bad luck, getting caught. I’ve missed you, too.”
“You’re so sweet,” she said, putting her arm around me.
“We went through a lot of shit together. I’m glad you’re doing okay now.”
“Me, too,” she said, turning to kiss me on the cheek.
A slim, dark-haired girl came up behind us. She looked about our age, mid-twenties, and pretty. Her lips twisted in a half smile.
“Aww, you guys are adorable,” the girl said.
“Audrey, hey,” Danielle said, letting go of me.
“Charlotte, this is my friend Audrey.”
I felt both relieved and irritated at the interruption.
“Hi,” I said. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“You, too,” Audrey said.
“Charlotte is my oldest, dearest friend,” Danielle said. “We haven’t seen each other in ages. We have to catch up.”
“How about a drink?” Audrey said. “Another round?”
“Sure,” Danielle said.
Audrey ordered whiskey, same as me. The bartender brought our drinks, sloshing Danielle’s martini as he set it down. Danielle turned to me.
“Did you hear about Joey?” she said.
“No,” I said.
“He got locked up. Out west. New Mexico, I think.”
“Who’s Joey?” Audrey asked.
“My boyfriend from before,” Danielle said. “We used to, when we’d fuck, we used to try to come at the same time, and right at that second we would shoot each other up. I thought we’d get married. I never had anything like that with anybody else.”
“That’s insane,” Audrey said. “You’re insane.”
“I loved him,” Danielle said. “Fuck, I loved him. We were so in love it was crazy.”
“Are you serious?” Audrey said.
“Yeah, that’s fucking crazy!”
“We were fucking romantic,” Danielle said. She rubbed a mark on her French manicure. She was definitely getting tipsy. Showing off a little, too. I couldn’t tell if she was trying to impress me or Audrey. Maybe both of us.
“Tell me,” I said, “how do y’all two know each other?”
“From work,” Audrey said.
“Don’t tell her,” Danielle said to Audrey.
“Don’t tell me what?” I said.
“Yeah, don’t tell her what?” Audrey said.
“You’ll freak out,” Danielle said to me.
“No, she won’t,” Audrey said. “You’re being paranoid.”
“Fine,” Danielle said. “There’s this guy named Brandon, he works at the cable access channel, Mediasource. He’s a film- maker and he does programming and stuff. We work with him on private projects. We’re models.”
“She’s so weird about it,” Audrey said. “We’re not models, but they call it modeling. It’s for a porn site. Videos.”
“You’re porn stars?”
“We’re not stars,” Danielle said.
“Speak for yourself,” Audrey said. She tossed her hair and pursed her lips, arching her back in a pinup pose. I laughed.
“Wow,” I said. “How does it work? You fuck people and there’s a camera?”
“See?” Danielle said to Audrey. “She’s freaking out.”
“I’m not freaking out,” I said. And I wasn’t. I wasn’t even surprised.
“What’s it like?” I asked Audrey.
“It’s a job. It’s work. There’s a lot of waiting around, stopping and starting. The guys take forever. Or the Viagra wears off.”
“Yeah,” Danielle said. “And you have to look perfect no matter what.”
“You have to try not to look bored,” Audrey said. “Even though it’s really boring. Mostly, anyway.”
“It’s easier than dancing,” Danielle said. “At least you always get paid.”
“Plus Brandon’s nice,” Audrey said.
“Yeah, he’s not a douche bag like you’d think,” Danielle said. “He also makes art movies. He’s super talented.”
“You should come to his screening,” Audrey said. “He’s showing one of his experimental films next week. There’ll be a reception. Free booze.”
“Sounds cool,” I said. “What’s the website called?”
“Can we talk about something else, please?” Danielle said.
“Come on,” I said.
“SweetDreamz,” Audrey said. “With a Z. SweetDreamz.net.”
“It’s a dumb name,” Danielle said.
“So what?” Audrey said.
“I am totally looking it up as soon as I get home,” I said, teasing. “Come on, don’t,” Danielle said.
“Oh my god,” I said. “I’m kidding, I’m kidding. I won’t.”
“You should, though,” Audrey said.
Danielle rolled her eyes. “Enough. We have to go. We’re meeting people for dinner.”
I wondered if she was running away from the conversation. I decided not to bring up her job next time we met.
“Well, it’s great to see you,” I said.
“Me, too,” Danielle said. “This was fun. I’ll see you at the screening?”
“Sure,” I said. “Text me the details.”
Audrey rose and smiled.
“Bye,” she said. “It was nice meeting you.”
Danielle got up, swinging her handbag onto her shoulder. She left the envelope of cash on the bar.
“Hey, you’re forgetting this,” I said, picking it up. It was soggy with condensation from her glass.
“Keep it,” she said.
“No. That’s nuts.”
“I don’t need it. I don’t want anything from her.”
I recognized the tone she reserved for Sally, full of contempt. I knew her well enough to let the subject drop. I nodded, put the envelope in my bag, and waved goodbye. At least I’d tried. Not that I minded keeping the cash. Danielle was always weird about money. I guess it means something different when you grow up rich.
By Melissa Ginsburg
Published by Faber (21 April 2016)
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.
Ginsburg’s Houston is part of a lesser known south, where the urban and rural collide gracelessly. In this shadowy world, culpability and sympathy blur in a debut novel which thrillingly brings its three female protagonists to the fore. Scary, funny and almost unbearably sad, Sunset City is written with rare grace and empathy holding you transfixed, praying for some kind of escape for Charlotte.