Hungry Ghosts: A Darcy Lott Mystery

Hungry Ghosts: A Darcy Lott Mystery

by Susan Dunlap

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In Buddhist lore, hungry ghosts have huge bellies and needle–thin necks and—because they cannot swallow the food they crave—their hunger is insatiable. The Barbary Coast, San Francisco's infamous red–light district in the days when sailors could sit down for a drink and wake up on a ship bound around the Horn, has plenty of hungry ghosts. But it is the living ghosts who threaten stunt double Darcy Lott when she returns to San Francisco to serve as assistant to her Zen teacher, Leo Garson, in his new zendo.

Darcy brings her own ghosts along as well. She is haunted by the disappearance of her beloved brother Mike and her estrangement from her family. From a turret atop a San Francisco Victorian, as she prepares for a thirty–five–foot dive to the sidewalk, she spots Mike on the roof of the zendo. By the time she reaches the roof, he is gone. When someone else she cares about disappears the next day, she fears the past is about to repeat itself. But Lott is unable to convince anyone of the danger, even her oldest brother, a police detective. Until a brutal murder shocks them all.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781619022713
Publisher: Catapult
Publication date: 09/14/2013
Series: The Darcy Lott Mysteries , #2
Sold by: Penguin Random House Publisher Services
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 444 KB

About the Author

Susan Dunlap is the author of nineteen novels and a collection of short stories, and editor of an anthology. She has won Anthony and Macavity awards and has been president of Sisters in Crime. Her day jobs have ranged from teaching Hatha yoga to working on a death penalty defense team. She and her husband live near San Francisco.

Read an Excerpt



5:40 A.M.

I GREW UP in San Francisco, but I'd never noticed this Victorian, much less its turret roof, thrust out thirty-five feet above Broadway. Now, in the eternity between taking position on the steep tiles and getting the cue for my stunt, I was noticing it plenty. The crew had coated the tiles with stickum, but before I could get my feet in place the fog had washed them slick. My legs bowed, feet curling around the curve of the roof, jamming against the tiles. I pressed and released my toes to keep the soles from going numb. A rust-eaten weather vane jerked in the wind; I used it for balance, but it would never hold my weight.

Below, the marquee lights of the strip joints flashed red-bulbed nipples on watermelon breasts. Headlights swept left as cars swung into the detour around the camera crane and the scurrying crews. The first unit — the director, actors awaiting their shot at the post-dawn light — were out of the makeup wagon and gathered around the lunch cart on the sidewalk half a block east. The second unit — the stunt crew — director, other stunt doubles, special effects guys — kept their distance. They would have watched the run- through on this stunt last night when the catcher bag spit Jenny Chin back up and onto the sidewalk. They must have heard the crack when her kneecap shattered. Heard her scream and then the roar of the ambulance racing from the corner where another one now stood.

My hand tightened on the useless weather vane. Maybe Jenny Chin hadn't run a gauge on the catcher bag's pressure; she could have miscalculated the blowup ratio for her weight. I'm careful, meticulous. I wanted to believe she wasn't, that the error had to be hers, not caused by a cheap bag, a bad gauge, or shoddy tie-downs I hadn't even been able to see in the dark.

"Too late now!" I said aloud to buoy myself. But I heard the quiver in my voice. The director called me to replace Jenny because of my reputation from East Coast and L.A. jobs, right? Not because I was new on the books back here in the city I'd left as soon as I could get out. Not because, like coming back home, I had no choice.

Already the nightlife quality of the street was fading; in ten minutes it would be dawn and the illusion of dusk we were creating would no longer be possible. We had one take for this gag. No way could I afford to blow it off. Nor end up like Jenny Chin.

"Two minutes!" the director called.

The wind snapped the short kimono I was wearing against my icy legs. Concentrate! Don't think! Not about San Francisco. Not about steering clear of it. Not about coming back here where every street held memories of Mike; not about his leaving. Focus on the gag. Nothing else.

I stared down. The thirty-five-foot fall would take 1.4755 seconds, barely time to throw myself heels over head, flail for the camera, and stretch out horizontal, spine down to hit the bag and spread the force of impact throughout maximum body surface. Come down curled and you take it fully on your spine — or your head. I brought every bit of my attention inward, mentally ran through the gag, felt my legs pushing off hard, feet pulling free of the gunk on the tiles, the dive into the header toward the bull's-eye on the bag, the twist and stretch. I could feel my back land softly on the bag, could feel a smile spread, could hear the applause of the second unit gang.

"One minute!"

A minute is an eternity when you've done everything already.

The icy wind snapped the gold silk against my ribs and turned the black strands of my wig to razors. Down below, the grips pushing props and hauling dollies pulled up fast. Cameramen shifted behind their lenses. The gaffer switched on the overhead spot on the crane, turning the street black and white. Broadway was dead still: no traffic, no sound. Two blocks away south of me, on a futon above the Barbary Coast Zen Center, my Zen teacher, Leo Garson, was sleeping. He couldn't bear the thought of watching me fall.

I made one final spot check for the red bull's-eye in the middle of the bag, then cut my eye-line to the ground. From now on I'd look only outward. Walling out all thoughts, in that endless minute I stared straight ahead to Pacific Avenue, spotting the zendo by its curlicued roof.

"Twenty seconds, Darcy!" the director yelled.

He cued for lights and camera. A gust shook the turret. I grabbed, steadied, straightened up. A huge spotlight began a circle that would end on the turret and be my cue to move. The light, ten times brighter than day, panned across the street along the empty roofs of the Broadway strip joints, the bookstores and offices and decorators' shops on Pacific Street, on a corner of the roof of the Barbary Coast Zen Center.

Lit up a man walking across that roof.

A tall, thin man with red, curly hair like my own.

Mike, my brother, who'd been missing for 11 years.

"Mike! Omigod, Mike!" I pushed off to catch him before he vanished. My foot burned and hit air. I froze, panicked. I jolted back, lurched for the weather vane, grabbed it with both hands. It shook, bent. I pushed my foot hard into the tiles, willing the stickum to hold. A gust flung me to the side. Sweat ran down my back, down my legs, over my feet. I was shaking all over.

"Ten seconds!"

Forget Mike! Concentrate on the gag! But I peered into the dark for the zendo roof. The light had moved away. Mike couldn't have been there, but —

The spotlight slapped my arm. I jolted. I wasn't ready, wasn't set. I'd forgotten all about the gag. Thirty-five-foot fall. What was I ...

The camera was on me! No time to recheck — the light steamed my skin.

1.4755 seconds, the time it takes to snap your fingers. I pushed off hard. The run-through in my memory took over. Silence was thick around me; the light walled off my eyes. For an instant I floated in that magic moment of fullness that mysteriously lures one to jump.

The moment vanished. I plunged, my head straight down. The red circle on the bag raced up toward me. Air slammed my face. I flailed my legs and arms for the camera, pulled my body the way it was supposed to be. Had to be. Hair whipped my face, covered my eyes; I squinted through it, ready to hit the mark I couldn't see. To hit it dead-on perfect.

The bag was like cement. It slammed my shoulder. I bounced. My feet were in air; I wasn't in the bag! I was on the edge. Flying off the edge like Jenny Chin. I crashed onto the sidewalk. Pain shot through me, walled out the world. It was all I could do to breathe. I couldn't feel my legs, my shoulder, my back, nothing but the tsunami of pain. Noise splattered. Someone was yelling.

"What?" I forced out.

"Are ... you ... okay?" a male voice yelled in my ear.

"Yeah." I was using every speck of air that hadn't been knocked out of me. My feet burned; my legs felt like crumbling cement. I doubled over, couldn't straighten up. Needed air. My lungs ached. Red dripped from my shoulder. I breathed in as hard as I could, commanded myself to straighten up. "I'm fine." A gofer threw a blanket over my shoulders.

"You nearly missed it!" The second unit director's voice seared with blame.

"Like Jenny Chin?" I was in his face. "Your stunt double blows out her kneecap. Your replacement does it spot-on and gets tossed onto the sidewalk. You looking for blame, Sparto, get yourself a mirror!"

Robin Sparto was a little wiry man with a pale mouth that couldn't decide which way to shift. In another second it'd stretch into outrage. But I'd be out of here then. So much for this job I thought I couldn't afford to blow.

He made some crack about me and the cable car leap, but I didn't have time to deal with that. A cab was about to take the detour. I hailed it and ran.

I had to have imagined Mike up there on the roof. He'd been out of my life more than twenty years. I couldn't let him disappear again.


"Which airport?" the cabby asked as I threw myself into the back.

"Just go!"

He shot forward, screeching to a stop at the light.

"Hey, lady, you okay?" He turned full around, a big, round-faced guy who looked like his other job was as a bouncer, like "okay?" meant "able to pay?"

"I'm fine. Drop me at Pacific and Sansome."

"What about the airport?"

"Just go!"

"A two-block fare! Hey, I gotta make a living."

"From all the fares you rejected at this hour?"

"You coulda walked!"

Mike was getting away! "Get going, dammit!"

He pulled a right and launched the cab downhill on Battery, like a sequence out of Bullitt. "San Francisco!"

I'm pretty sure I heard him mutter the old local saw about the nuts rolling west, but I ignored it, too busy yanking sweats and sandals out of my bag, jamming legs into pants as we screeched furiously around corners. "Next block, stop!"

He hit the gas, flying west on Pacific, coming violently to a pause at the corner before jolting across Sansome.

I pulled on my sweatshirt. "Middle of the block, the building with the curved roof."

"The old Baytown bordello?" His grin told me he'd watched me dressing in the rearview. Big surprise. What did I expect when I'd hopped in wearing the world's shortest kimono? "Wait for me." I thrust a twenty at him, leapt out, and raced across the sidewalk into a courtyard, eyeing the brick building for stairs to the roof. None. Had to be inside.

The wooden door was huge, like the entrance to a medieval fortress. Without hope, I yanked. It popped open. I ran inside, into an alcove. The room ahead was big, empty, shiny-floored. Stairs led up from the alcove. In two bounds I took the six steps to the landing, pushed off, raced on up to a small hallway with doors on three sides. Leo's boots were outside one.

It wasn't Leo I was after. I pulled open other doors — kitchen, bathroom, empty room with a window at the far end, the street side. I shoved the window full open and swung out onto the ledge. Above me was the sharp curve of the roof. I leapt, caught the corner, hauled myself up far enough to see that the space was empty, as I'd known all along it would be.

Mike wasn't there.

I'd deluded myself, just as I had dozens of times in a dozen cities when I'd spotted lanky guys with dark red curly hair, who pushed off with each step the way he did, red-headed men who wrapped an arm across a woman's back and gave her shoulder that special little pat, only to turn around and once again disappoint me with the face of a stranger.

What did you expect? I asked myself, as I stared at the empty roof. Still, I was crushed. I was also stupid, and hanging over the edge of a roof two stories above the sidewalk. The cabdriver was yelling at me.

The roof behind the façade was plain tar and gravel. Stubbornly, I hoisted myself over the edge and up onto the highest point where I could see other roofs. But there was no red-haired man loping away. Clinging to the last frayed thread of hope, I eyed Pacific Avenue east and west. Nobody in sight. No one but the irate cabbie, that is. Not even a moving vehicle or a lit shop sign. Just one dark window after another.

The man who could have been Mike was gone. He'd had plenty of time to climb down and walk away or drive off before I got here. If he'd been on the roof at all. Spotting him had been so far-fetched, even I couldn't really believe it. If Mike were beside me now, he'd be laughing at his kid sister. "Always were into happy endings, weren't you, Darce? No wonder you want to be a stunt coordinator — control the great illusion." He'd be nudging me, laughing louder, assuring me everything was possible.

The fire escape of the neighboring building was in the back, an easy swing from this roof. So now there was not even a question of how anyone could have gotten up here. I clunked down the metal stairs, stuck with the less-than-comforting knowledge that I would repeat this chase some other year in some other town. I rounded the rear corner of the building into a brick courtyard. The cabbie was still screaming.

I ran toward him. "Did you see a man leave the building?"

"I been watching for you! Your twenty, lady, it's gone, and the meter's ticking. I should have left you hanging out the window."

"No one came out of the building?"

"Not that I saw, but like I say, you were grabbing all my attention throwing yourself out the window. I thought I was going to have to scrape you off the sidewalk." He took the bill I was holding out, a second twenty, and said, more calmly, "You're not the first."

"To jump here?"

"It's a real bad vibe place. Jumpers, you hear about them. One was a whore who hit head first, but that was over a hundred years ago. The building was saloon downstairs, cribs above."

I laughed. It was all too familiar. Growing up in the city, I'd heard plenty about the days when law stopped well east of California, and the Barbary Coast was notorious for separating men from their money. "Are you in this area a lot?"

"Yeah, sure."

"Have you seen a guy who looks like me? But older, mid-forties. About six foot."

He stared at me, paused. "That color red hair, that dark?"

I nodded.


"Maybe?" Maybe? My breath caught. Maybe, really? "Either you've seen him or not."

He waited a beat, still watching me. "I'll let you know." He dipped his big bald head and swung into the cab. "Bad vibes."

I grabbed his shoulder. "You know who I'm talking about!"

"I didn't say that." He smacked the door shut. "I'll be back, don't worry."

He'd all but copped to it. What was he hiding? It was all I could do not to try to shake it out of him. But I'd lost leads, or strangers I mistook for leads, before by losing control. I took a breath and went with what would keep him here. "Bad vibes? What does that mean?"

His hand was on the ignition key, but he stopped before turning it, and for the first time really seemed to be thinking. "You part of this Zen group?"

"Yes." I released his shoulder.

"You do exorcism?"

"No, that's Catholics."

"Too bad."


"It's not just old-time stuff. A fellow had a heart attack right in the middle of the day. Jeweler. Customers in the shop. Splat. Dead."

"People die." This was his big bad vibe?

"Then the next tenant's partner sold everything — business, house, car — out from under him. First sign that gave him a clue was when the rent check bounced. After that it all went south."

"Double crosses." I shrugged. And him seeing a guy who could be Mike, that would turn out to be as much nothing.

"So then," he went on, ignoring me, "the place sat empty till now, windows boarded up, and you could hear weird noises inside, and there were snakes coming out of it."

"Oh, please! Save it for the tourists! I don't have time for this!"

I'd barely finished when he hit the ignition and sped off toward Columbus Avenue. My twenty, of course, was still in his hand. I stood in the empty street, fuming at him, at me, and, suddenly, freezing.

Dawn was easing into the cold fog of this February day. There was a cement bench across the courtyard. I sat, trying to block out my memories by imagining snakes pouring out of the big double doors, but it was useless. All I could think of was my brother, Mike, who had walked out of the house one day at the age of twenty, when I was sixteen, and had never come back. He's abandoned me to a life with his ghost. I couldn't — wouldn't — imagine him dead, unable to conceive of anything that would justify a decision to slam the door on his entire family, on me, his confidante. I read every story about amnesia victims, lapped up the hope. I had called red-haired strangers, flown across country on an hour's notice to find one who'd been released after fifteen years in a federal lockup, I'd hired a detective, and, after a few years, another. The only endings were dead ends. Above all I had avoided returning home to San Francisco, where memories of Mike might come around any corner but he never would.

But it was Leo, Garson-roshi, my Zen teacher, who rounded the gate from the street. He stood in the dim light, smiling. "Where have you been, Darcy? When you jumped off that turret —"

"You came to the shoot?" The shoot seemed ages ago. "You told me you couldn't bear to watch."

"I can't. But I did, anyway. The guy beside me — he was lugging some equipment — almost slapped a hand over my mouth when you jumped. Good move, too. I groaned so loud you'll hear it on the soundtrack."

"I wasn't in any danger. I know what I'm doing."


Excerpted from "Hungry Ghosts"
by .
Copyright © 2008 Susan Dunlap.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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