"A perky, enthusiastic, and infectious read."—Library Journal
"A funny, quick-witted protagonist."—Houston Chronicle
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Between juggling lunchboxes, piano lessons, and baby-sitters, public defender turned stay-at-home mom Juliet Applebaum promises to help her famous friend clear her brother's name of murder. But what will she do when she begins to suspect her friend may not be as innocent as she seems?
"A perky, enthusiastic, and infectious read."—Library Journal
"A funny, quick-witted protagonist."—Houston Chronicle
Praise for the Mommy-Track Mysteries . . .
DEATH GETS A TIME-OUT
“Waldman is at her witty best when dealing with children, carpooling, and first-trimester woes, but is no slouch at explaining the pitfalls of False Memory Syndrome either.”
“Waldman skillfully unravels the intertwined relationships . . . to reveal a cunning murder plot . . . Juliet and her patient husband make an appealing couple—funny, clever, and loving (but never mawkish). Waldman has an excellent ear for the snappy comeback, especially when delivered by a five-year-old.”
“A perky, enthusiastic, and infectious read.”
A PLAYDATE WITH DEATH
“Smoothly paced and smartly told.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Sparkling . . . [A] swift and engaging plot . . . Witty and well-constructed . . . those with a taste for lighter mystery fare are sure to relish the adventures of this contemporary, married, mother-of-two Nancy Drew.”
“[A] deft portrayal of Los Angeles’s upper crust and of the dilemma facing women who want it all.”
THE BIG NAP
“Waldman treats the Los Angeles scene with humor, offers a revealing glimpse of Hasidic life, and provides a surprise ending . . . An entertaining mystery with a satirical tone.”
“Juliet Applebaum is smart, fearless, and completely candid about life as a full-time mom with a penchant for part-time detective work. Kinsey Millhone would approve.”
“Juliet is a modern heroine refusing to quit or take another snooze until she feels justice is properly served.”
“[Juliet is] a lot like Elizabeth Peters’ warm and humorous Amelia Peabody—a brassy, funny, quick-witted protagonist.”
“Funny, clever, touching, original, wacky and wildly successful.”
—Carolyn G. Hart
“A delightful debut filled with quirky, engaging characters, sharp wit, and vivid prose. I predict a successful future for this unique, highly likable sleuth.”
—Judith Kelman, author of After the Fall
“[Waldman] derives humorous mileage from Juliet’s ‘epicurean’ cravings, wardrobe dilemmas, night-owl husband, and obvious delight in adventure.”
“[Waldman is] a welcome voice . . . well-written . . . this charming young family has a real-life feel to it.”
—Contra Costa Times
My sincerest thanks go to Diane at the breathtakingly beautiful Casa Luna for giving me a place to stay in Mexico; to Karen Gadbois and Susan McKinney for information on San Miguel; to Jean Rosenbluth for details of Los Angeles life and geography; to Clara Hennen for reading and commenting on the book; to Kathleen Caldwell for her unending support; and to Sophie, Zeke, and Ida-Rose for letting me get my work done. Thanks to Minouche Kandel and Dr. Eric Kandel’s work on recovered memory. Any mistakes and misinterpretations I have made are entirely my own.
I feel special gratitude to Mary Evans and Natalee Rosenstein for shepherding my work so carefully. And, as always, thanks to Michael for making everything possible.
Table of Contents
“DON’T be so rigid, Peter,” I called after my husband as he went to answer the door. “Everybody loves breakfast-for-dinner. Breakfast-for-dinner rocks.” My redheaded five-year-old, Ruby, and her younger brother, Isaac, nodded, slurping up their Cheerios with obvious delight. These were the very same Cheerios that, had it been morning, they would have left disintegrating in a sodden mess at the bottom of their cereal bowls. Kids are such suckers for a change of context. Breakfast-for-dinner. Pajamas to school. Chocolate syrup on their toothbrushes. Okay, maybe that last one would be going too far, but don’t think I hadn’t considered it. Anything to get them to brush.
“That’s the last time I take you seriously when you offer to cook,” Peter said as he came back into the kitchen. He was following in the wake of my best friend Stacy. Stacy is one of those women who was born to make the rest of us feel like we woke up a few hours late and have been scrambling to catch up ever since. She’s a top talent agent at International Creative Artists. Her kid is a math prodigy and a soccer whiz, and competes all over the state—I’m never sure if it’s the matches or the Math Olympics that keep them traveling. By them I mean Zachary and his nanny. Stacy’s too busy to take a bus to Stockton for the semifinals of either algebra or foul-kicking.
In addition to everything else, Stacy is just about the most beautiful friend I have. All this gorgeousness isn’t necessarily natural. She’s a wizard at putting together a good-looking package. She has her hair done by a man who flies in from London once every six weeks, and her makeup is hand-churned from the urine of blind Parisian nuns. Or something like that. Anyway, it comes from France, and a tube of lipstick costs more than a pair of my shoes. And I’m a sucker for expensive shoes. Over the years I’ve gotten used to feeling intimidated in the face of Stacy’s perfection. I’ve even developed the ability to laugh about my lack of self-confidence. I accept the fact that flawlessness is pretty much out of the question for me. Hey, I’m happy if I manage to brush my teeth before noon. Makeup is way beyond me, and the only thing I can remember using a blow-dryer for in recent memory is to dry out a particularly nasty diaper rash. Isaac’s, not my own. I’m ashamed to admit that it probably doesn’t hurt my self-esteem that Stacy’s marriage is, sadly, in a state of semiconstant upheaval; her husband has a weakness for tall, blond twenty-two-year-olds. Women who look just like Stacy did when they met. My marriage, albeit not necessarily the hotbed of romance it once was, is absolutely solid. Peter and I love each other, and have come to accept one another’s flaws and failures. Well, except that whole cooking thing.
“Hey, are those real diamonds?” I said.
Stacy rolled her eyes at the question. Of course they were real. Stacy has an agreement with Harry Winston. She makes her movie star clients wear the jewelers’ designs at the Oscars, the Emmys, and every other awards show, and in return they bedeck her in precious stones whenever she demands it. I’ve seen Stacy draped in ropes of rare, black Tahitian pearls worth tens of thousands of dollars. She showed up at a dinner for the president of our university in a choker so thick with rubies that she looked like she’d had her throat cut. She’s even managed to snag a pair of ten-carat diamond earrings to wear to the odd movie premiere. I’d never before seen her looking quite so magnificent, however.
“Is that a tiara?” I asked. Ruby’s head shot up from her bowl, and she stared at the glittering crown on my old friend’s head. She jumped down from her chair and bolted out of the room. Weird little kid, that one is.
Stacy stared at me, tapping one pointy-toed, stiletto-heeled shoe. “It’s a hairband,” she said.
“A diamond hairband?”
“Yes, a diamond hairband.”
“Are we wearing those nowadays?”
“We seem to be wearing pajamas nowadays. Might I ask why?”
I presented my bowl of instant oatmeal with a flourish. “Breakfast-for-dinner!” I said. Then, eyeing her burnt orange, floor-length, taffeta gown, I hugged my frayed flannel bathrobe around me a little more closely. I cursed myself for not looking harder for the belt for the bathrobe and instead resorting to cinching it with one of Peter’s old ties. “Why are you so dressed up?”
“Think about it,” she said through gritted teeth.
“You and Andrew are renewing your vows . . . in Vegas.”
“Um . . . it’s Oscar night and you’re going to the Vanity Fair party?”
“You’re a fairy princess!” Isaac piped up.
Stacy smiled at him, then glared at me. “No.”
Suddenly, I groaned, overwhelmed with that all-too-familiar feeling of hormonal brain implosion. “You’re going to the Breast Cancer Benefit that you invited me to last month. And that you reminded me about two days ago when we were at yoga.”
“Bingo,” Stacy said.
I smiled weakly. “I guess I don’t have to finish my oatmeal.”
As I tore through my closet trying to find something that even approached evening wear, I cursed my failing memory. “I swear this has nothing to do with you,” I said, poking my head out and smiling weakly at my friend. She stood in the middle of my messy bedroom like Cinderella in the grimy kitchen, after the Fairy Godmother has dressed her, but before she’s gone for her pumpkin ride.
“I know,” she said.
“Last week I made it all the way to Ruby’s school before I remembered that I was on my way to drop off the dry cleaning, not pick up carpool. How about this one?” I held up a pale green crepe gown I’d worn to my cousin Marcie’s son’s black tie Bar Mitzvah the year before. Stacy shook her head, and I went back into the bowels of my entirely unsatisfactory closet. It wasn’t that there weren’t enough clothes in there. On the contrary, the shelves and bars were overflowing. The problem was that nothing fit anymore. Two kids and a lifetime of physical sloth had made my once svelte body a thing of the past. The distant past.
“And yesterday I had to go back to the grocery store three times because I kept forgetting things. This?” I waved a dress at her.
“It’ll do,” she said.
“I blame the children,” I said as I crammed myself into a cocktail dress that I’d last worn long before Isaac had made his appearance. If it weren’t for the fact that every woman I knew was suffering from the same ailment, I would have seriously considered having an MRI. What is it about child-bearing that lowers a fog over the brains of normally intelligent women? Here we all are, competent professionals, used to managing companies, handling crises, hiring and firing people, and now we stumble through our days with yesterday’s underwear peeping out the leg of our slacks. Or maybe it’s just me. Maybe all the other moms juggle carpool, lunchboxes, doctors’ appointments, piano lessons, religious school, parent-teacher conferences, karate, diaper changes, soccer, and babysitters with the same aplomb they brought to graduate school and appellate arguments. Maybe I’m the only one with drifts of unwashed laundry taking over the living room and toilet paper stuck to her shoe.
I pinned a large broach to the bodice of my dress and stuffed my feet into a pair of three-inch black heels with silver buckles that had fit before I’d had two children and grown half a shoe size. They were too fabulous to throw away.
“Okay?” I said to Stacy, as I executed a limping pirouette.
“Hair? Makeup?” she barked.
“Right. Right.” I ran into my bathroom and scrawled a bright red smile on my chapped lips. A little mascara and I was done. My hair, however, was hopeless. I wrapped a towel around my shoulders and dunked my head into the sink. I slicked my wet hair back with most of the contents of a bottle of hair gel and hoped that the cresting wave of eighties nostalgia had reached Joan Jett.
“Done,” I said, coming out of the bathroom. Just then Ruby walked into my room, her hands behind her back.
“I found it, Mommy.”
“What sweetie, what did you find?”
“My princess crown!” With a flourish she presented me with a silver plastic tiara. Much of the paint had chipped away, and one side had been chewed to a frayed stub.
“Wow,” I said. “That would definitely complete my outfit.”
“Now you can have a tiara just like Aunt Stacy’s. Put it on!” my daughter ordered.
“It is not a tiara,” Stacy said. “It’s a diamond hairband.” She had the grace to blush.
“Um, honey, I just did my hair. I’ll put it on later, okay?” I said to my daughter. Her eyes began to fill, and her plump lower lip trembled. “Okay, I’m putting it on right now!” I said, and balanced the tiara on my head. “It’s perfect!”
She smiled and said, “Don’t take it off.”
“You know why we’re friends?” I asked Stacy as I disentangled the plastic teeth of Ruby’s crown from my hair, and struggled to buckle my seatbelt while Stacy peeled out of my driveway.
“Because we know each other better than anyone else does, and that includes our husbands,” she said.
“Nope. Because I make you look so good.”
She smiled at me and, reaching over, pinched my cheek. “You look beautiful, Jules. Fix your pin so it covers up more of that stain.”
WE were just the wrong side of fashionably late to the benefit. The other women at Stacy’s table, all of whom worked with her at International Creative Artists, were already taking delicate quantum-particle bites of their radicchio and fig salads. I noticed that most of them had pushed aside the Gorgonzola cheese. I wondered if it would be acceptable to scrape their plates onto my own.
Stacy and I made our apologies and sat down. She swept a practiced eye over the crowd. The yearly All-Girl Gala for the Cure, sponsored by the Breast Cancer Action League, was a chance for the women of Hollywood to do good while strutting their stuff, without having to bother finding a beard in a flashy Armani tux. The gowns were fabulous, and the deal-making was formidable. Hollywood runs on an old boys’ network, and it wasn’t often that the women were given the chance to engage in the same kind of billion-dollar bonding. The Gala was one of the few times in a year where a young female director could catch a studio executive’s eye without being upstaged by that week’s boy wonder, or a woman with some money to spend could find a script worth investing in without having to funnel her cash through a patronizing tough-guy producer. Since I wasn’t part of the Industry other than as the wife of a middling successful screenwriter, I’d never had a reason to go to the Gala. When Stacy invited me to be her date for what she called Babes for Boobs, I jumped at the chance to see the glitterati do what they do best—glitter.
“Miyake. Armani. Miyake. Valentino. Miyake. God help us—Versace,” Stacy said, pointing a polish-tipped finger at the gowns gliding by our table.
“And yours?” I asked.
“Back of your closet, circa 1993. No, wait—1992.”
“Man, you’re good,” I said.
I finished gobbling up my rare grilled ahi with mango cilantro salsa, and made my own perusal of the room. The lights were dim, in honor of the carefully sculpted cheekbones and Botoxed foreheads. Plastic surgery looks best in soft light. The tables were set with mint green china that matched the papered walls and complemented the gilded chairs. A lavish arrangement of white lilies and tuberoses spilled over the center of each table. The hum of conversation was pitched at a higher level than normal—there was no bass drone to disturb the soprano whirr. Noticeably absent was the noise of clicking silverware. I appeared to be the only woman eating anything at all.
At a table close to the front, I saw my friend Lilly Green. She was leaning forward, her perfect, pointed chin resting on one delicate hand. Her mouth was open in a warm and inviting smile that, if I hadn’t known her so well, I would have assumed was absolutely real, signifying nothing so much as her complete absorption in and delight with her tablemates’ conversation. The truth was most likely that she was bored—she usually was at events like this. Unlike other movie stars, Lilly would much rather have spent an evening playing Scrabble with her kids than reveling in the glitz of Hollywood. But she was also invariably polite, and while not the kind of person either to suffer fools gladly, or engage in phony small talk, she also hated to hurt people’s feelings.
Lilly caught my eye, and waved. I waved back. Stacy looked over at me. “Are you ever going to introduce me to her?” she asked.
“To whom? Lilly?” I pretended innocence but I knew exactly what Stacy was after—a client. I had gotten to know Lilly Green when she made her acting debut in one of Peter’s slasher movies. My husband made his living writing screenplays that appealed to teenage boys and pretty much no one else. They starred cannibals and mummies, supernatural serial killers and bloodthirsty ghouls. Lilly had played a lovely young victim who turned into a homicidal walking corpse. Despite the part my husband had written for her, we became friends. She’d won an Oscar for her next film, and gone from B-movie starlet to full-fledged star. We’d remained close, but I have to admit that I’d grown a little uncomfortable around her. She tended to be surrounded by a retinue of managers, publicists, and assistants, and even though she was still the same, unpretentious woman who picked up Ruby every Wednesday and took her along to riding lessons with her own girls, because Ruby had once mentioned that she liked horses, it was hard for me to figure out how to interact with her. Maybe it all came down to my uncomfortable suspicion of my own motivations. Was I Lilly’s friend because I liked her and had things in common with her, or was I her friend because I liked being friends with a movie star? I didn’t really know the answer to that question.
“Introduce me,” Stacy said, already halfway out of her chair.
“Okay,” I said. “But you have to promise me you aren’t going to try to poach her from her agent.”
Stacy looked shocked, wounded, but I knew better.
Lilly had shaved her head for her most recent role, the Oscar-friendly tale of a mentally retarded woman with breast cancer, and the hair had just begun to grow back. If anything, her shorn skull highlighted her almost luminous beauty. Next to her, Stacy, who always looked so impeccable, so perfectly put together, seemed a pale contrivance. After Lilly and I rubbed cheeks in an approximation of a kiss, I stroked the top of her head. “You have a mohair head,” I said, and she laughed, although it seemed to me that it wasn’t quite the belly laugh I was used to getting out of her. One of my favorite things about Lilly was how she invariably cracked up at my jokes. Peter says I’ll like anyone who thinks I’m funny, and it’s probably true. Although he’s wrong that that’s the only reason I married him; it was just as important that he makes me laugh.
I introduced Stacy, and Lilly politely shook her hand.
“So, what are you doing here?” I asked. “You hate parties.”
“Lilly’s being honored tonight,” Stacy said. “Didn’t you look at the program?”
“Honored?” I asked.
“For dying of breast cancer on screen,” Lilly said. “I guess they couldn’t find a woman what was really sick to drag up onto the stage.”
“You’ve performed a profound service,” Stacy said. “Raising people’s consciousness, increasing awareness. You certainly deserve the award.”
“Maybe,” Lilly said, although it didn’t sound like she really believed it. I had to agree with her. Looking around the room, I wondered how many of the women were struggling in anonymity with the horrible disease from which Lilly had only pretended to suffer. Didn’t they deserve acknowledgment more than she did? After all, when the cameras stopped rolling, she went home. The black cloud never disappeared from their skies.
“So, what are you up to, Juliet?” Lilly asked. “Still solving murders?”
I smiled uncomfortably. “Not murders.” I shifted my weight. My feet had begun to ache in their too-tight shoes.
She cocked an eyebrow at me quizzically.
“Go ahead, tell her,” Stacy said, prodding me in the side with her elbow. “Juliet’s become a private eye!”
I blushed. I was still a little embarrassed about my new career. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it—on the contrary, I was absolutely in love with the job. I’d finally succumbed to the entreaties of my good friend Al Hockey, whom I had met when I was a federal public defender and he was an investigator in the same office. We’d worked on a lot of cases together, and we stayed friends even after I quit to stay home with my kids. When Al hung out a shingle as a private investigator, he asked me to join up with him. As happy as I was with my new identity as sort-of-working-mother, I had the nagging sensation that there was something almost ridiculous about turning my fundamental nature as a nosy snoop into a career.
“Really? A detective?” Lilly asked.
“Well, an investigator. I don’t have my license yet. And it’s only part-time,” I said. At the time Al had made his offer, I’d been slowly going crazy. I know there are women who skillfully and happily manage the transition from full-time, productive member of the work force to stay-at-home mother. I’ve met them in the park. Those are the women who swap homemade Play-Doh recipes and puree their own babyfood from organic produce they grow in their backyards. I’d rather be forced to eat the Play-Doh than make it. And I honestly can’t remember the last time I served a vegetable that didn’t come out of my freezer, unless pickles count. Don’t get me wrong. I love my kids with a ferocity that sometimes scares me. I love their dirty little faces and stubby toes. I love the absurdly funny and piercingly insightful things they say, and the way they tangle their fingers in my hair when I lie down with them to take a nap. But the prospect of spending an entire day alone with them fills me with dread. Keeping two people with a collective attention span of three minutes entertained for an entire fourteen-hour day is a task that makes Sisyphus’s look like playing marbles. Half the time I feel like hiring a nanny and getting my bored, frustrated, rapidly expanding butt back to work as a lawyer. I spend the other half convinced that there’s a point to being there day after day, hour after hour, driving from playdates to piano lessons, doing endless loads of very small laundry, and clinging to sanity with one exhausted fingernail. Al’s offer seemed like a way to do both—be with my kids, and do some work that didn’t involve very short people and a very dirty house.
I had initially suffered from the delusion that it would be a breeze to work part-time while the kids were in school. However, I hadn’t yet ever managed more than a forty-five-minute workday. By the time I dropped Ruby and Isaac off at their two different schools, and ran whatever errands were absolutely critical to the continuation of our existence as a family, I had exactly enough time to make two phone calls or write half a letter before I had to race off to pick them up again. So far Al had been remarkably patient with my glaring absence from our joint venture, although he had taken to calling me his invisible partner.
Lilly narrowed her eyes and leaned forward. “What kind of work are you doing?”
“Criminal defense work, primarily,” I said. “Lawyers hire us to investigate their cases. You know, take pictures of the crime scene, track down witnesses, that kind of thing. And we’ve done some death penalty mitigation work, too.”
“What’s that?” Stacy interrupted. “How do you mitigate the gas chamber?’
“We dig up what we can on a defendant’s background to help the lawyer convince the jury that executing him wouldn’t be fair. You know, like if he was an abused child, or was really nice to his grandmother. That kind of thing.”
Lilly stood up and grabbed my arm. Her face was flushed and beads of sweat stood out on her upper lip. “I need to talk to you,” she said in a low voice.
“Um, okay,” I said, taken aback by her vehemence.
Lilly glanced quickly around and met Stacy’s eye. She bit her lip. “In private,” she muttered.
Stacy raised her eyebrow and smiled stiffly. “I’ll see you back at our table, Juliet,” she said. “Nice to meet you, Ms. Green.” But Lilly had already started to hustle me across the ballroom floor. I stumbled along, doing my best to keep from looking as though I was being dragged against my will.
“Hey Lilly, ease up,” I said. “I can barely walk in these shoes.”
She dropped my arm. “Sorry,” she said. We’d come out into the hallway outside the ballroom. We were on the second floor of the hotel on a kind of mezzanine, looking out over the opulent lobby. The hall was empty except for a short line of women standing outside the ladies’ room. A dumpy woman in a viciously patterned, skin-tight gown looked over at us. Her eyes widened and she jabbed an elbow into the side of the woman standing next to her. A ripple ran through the line, and within seconds everyone was either staring at Lilly, or very obviously and carefully not staring at her. I had a sudden insight into what Lilly’s life must be like. These women were all in the movie business, and even they were incapable of treating her normally. How much worse must it be out on the street?
“Let’s go in here,” Lilly said, opening a door into an empty room and pushing me through. It was another ballroom, although a much smaller one. She pulled two chairs off a stack against the wall and motioned me to sit down.
I perched on the crushed velvet seat and poked at the matching curtain draped along the wall. “I haven’t seen this much mauve since my cousin Dara’s bat mitzvah reception at Leonard’s of Great Neck.”
“Never mind. What’s going on, Lilly? Is everything okay? Are you okay?”
“I have to talk to you about something,” she said, worrying the silk of her skirt with agitated fingers. I cringed, sure she was going to tear through the gossamer fabric. The dress probably cost more than my monthly rent. This kind of anxiousness just wasn’t like Lilly. She was not a nervous person—she had always exuded the kind of serene confidence specific to very beautiful, very successful women, even when it had looked like her career might begin and end with movies in which her heaving breasts were mauled by flesh-eaters.
“Sure, fine, but don’t tear your beautiful dress, okay?”
She let go of her skirt and clasped her hands, as if that were the only way she could keep them under her control. “I want to hire you,” she said.
I blinked in surprise. “For what? We don’t have any experience doing domestic cases. Not that we couldn’t do one, it’s just that we haven’t really done that kind of work. Yet.” Lilly’s ex-husband, Archer, had taken her for a rather remarkable amount of money when they’d divorced, and I figured she was trying to get some of it back.
Lilly ran a hand over her shorn head and looked around the empty room, as if searching for concealed paparrazi and gossip columnists. “It’s not a domestic case. It’s a criminal case.”
I leaned back in my chair and looked at her. She had knotted her hands together so tightly that her knuckles were white.
“No one can know about this, Juliet.”
“I’m still a lawyer, Lilly. Everything you say to me is in confidence.” I waited.
After a moment she seemed to steel herself. She nodded once and looked up at me. “I want to hire you to help in a capital murder case.”
I couldn’t help it—I gasped. “Capital murder? Who? What case?”
Lilly paused again, and then finally said, “Jupiter Jones.”
I felt a rush of something that I’m embarrassed to say was a lot like excitement. The rape and murder of Chloe Jones, the very young wife of the Very Reverend Polaris Jones, founder and leader of the Church of Cosmological Unity, had sent the entire city of Los Angeles into a tailspin. Mrs. Jones had been found raped and murdered in her San Marino home. For a while all of Southern California had been engulfed by paroxysms of terror, convinced that some new Manson Family had come to town. Movie stars decamped to their Aspen and New York lodgings. One televangelist crackpot made the national news by insisting God was exacting revenge for our city’s hedonism; the Chief of Police blamed the city counsel’s assertion of limitations on racial profiling; and the newly elected and xenophobically insane mayor insisted that the influx of illegal immigrants was responsible. When Jupiter Jones had been arrested for the crime, there had been a collective sigh of relief, and then a buzz of titillated horror because the culprit was the victim’s own stepson.
I leaned forward in my chair. “What do you have to do with Jupiter Jones?”
Lilly bit her bottom lip and narrowed her eyes at me, as if to assess my trustworthiness. Finally, she spoke. “He’s my brother.”
My mouth gaped open in what surely must have looked like a caricature of astonishment—or a wide-mouth bass on a hook. “What?”
“Well, my stepbrother,” she said, twisting her hands.
“How is it that the papers haven’t managed to get hold of that piece of information?” It certainly seemed like something The National Enquirer might have been interested in printing. I could write the headline myself. CANCER STAR SISTER OF OEDIPAL MATRICIDE.
“I pay people a lot of money to keep things like that out of the papers. Anyway, my mother and Polaris were together years ago, when Jupiter and I were really little.”
Now I was really confused. “Your mother? Your mother was married to Polaris Jones?” Beverly Green, Lilly’s mother, was the first woman Speaker of the California Assembly. I could write that headline, too. POLITICAL POWERHOUSE LINKED TO NEW AGE CULT LEADER.
“Not my mom. I mean, not Beverly. Beverly is my stepmother. My real mother was married to Polaris Jones. A long long time ago.”
“Your real mother? Who is she? Where is she?” I asked, putting my hand over the knot Lilly had made of hers in her lap.
“She . . . she died. When I was five. I don’t really remember her. We were living in Mexico then—my mother and me, and Polaris. Except he wasn’t Polaris. Back then his name was Artie. Jupiter lived with us, too. And a bunch of other people.”
I raised my eyebrows. She shrugged. “It was kind of a commune, I guess. We all moved back here after my real mother died. I moved in with my dad and mom—I mean my stepmother. Artie and Jupiter came around a lot when I was younger, but after Artie became Polaris and The Church of Cosmological Unity got to be such a big thing, my parents really didn’t have much to do with him. My mom had been elected to the Board of Supervisors by then, and I guess she figured it would look bad if she were associated with all those CCU nut jobs.”
I could certainly understand that. It was hard not to be aware of Polaris Jones’s church. Certain parts of the city were liberally sprinkled with navy blue billboards, painted with silver stars and Polaris’s benevolent visage, and the stern warning that our extraterrestrial ancestors were watching our every move, and finding us wanting. I could never understand how anyone could be taken in by such an obviously ludicrous theology—not that I knew much about it—but I knew the CCU had a massive campus out in Pasadena, packed with disciples spending thousands of dollars on classes that would earn them the points necessary to achieve Primal Infinitude. Periodic newspaper exposés about its shady financial dealings seemed to have little effect on the CCU’s popularity. I think even the Scientologists were getting a little concerned about the thousands of seekers of enlightenment bypassing their Celebrity Center in Hollywood and heading out to Pasadena.
“I don’t get it, Lilly. Why do you want to hire me? What do you want me to do?”
She grabbed my hands in hers and squeezed tightly. “I want you to help Jupiter. They’ve charged him with capital murder, and I can’t bear the idea of him on death row. I don’t remember much about Mexico or my mom, but I do remember Jupiter. Neither of us spoke Spanish, so we were each other’s only playmates. He was littler than I was, maybe two years younger or so. We did everything together. We even slept in the same bed. Honestly, when my mother died and I came to live with my dad, I missed Jupiter as much as I missed her.”
“Does he know you’re trying to help him?”
She nodded. “He called me from jail right after he was arrested. Artie—Polaris—won’t speak to him. I guess that’s understandable, but Jupiter doesn’t have any money of his own. He lived with Polaris and Chloe. I hired his lawyers, and I’m paying them, but that’s a secret. Nobody knows that except them, Jupiter, and me. And now you.”
“Who did you hire?”
I whistled. I’d met the famous defense attorney only once, when we were arguing motions before the same judge. He’d swept into the courtroom like a queen bee surrounded by a swarm of busy little associates. He was empty-handed, which I soon realized was because one of the worker bees was carrying his briefcase for him. Another had hold of his cell phone. Wasserman must have been six foot five, at the minimum. I found out from Peter that in his day Wasserman had been one of the greatest Jewish basketball players ever to play in the NBA, not that there’s a whole lot of competition for that title. He had thick black hair swept high off his forehead, and a quiet voice that nonetheless managed to resonate throughout the high-ceilinged room. Even the judge deferred to Counselor Wasserman, pushing his motion to first on the docket, and nodding and smiling throughout his oral argument. The poor U.S. Attorney who had the ill luck to argue for the government seemed to concede defeat before he even began, and it took only a few moments for the judge to exclude all the evidence that Wasserman wanted out of the case. The legend and his coterie buzzed out of the courtroom, leaving the rest of us defense attorneys feeling suddenly shabby and ill-prepared. We all lost our motions that day.
“If you’ve got him, why in heaven’s name do you need me? I’m sure he’s got a team of investigators working the case already.”
She squeezed my hand harder. “Maybe. Probably. And he’s the best, I know he is. But I don’t trust him. He’s . . . I don’t know. Slippery. I need someone there to make sure he’s doing what he’s supposed to. You’re my friend, Juliet. I know I can trust you.”
I patted her hand, surreptitiously trying to loosen her grip on my now aching fingers. “I am your friend, Lilly. And that’s just why I shouldn’t be working on your brother’s case. It might be a conflict of interest.”
“Because I would be his investigator—part of his legal team—but your friend. Don’t you see how that would be weird?”
“No, I don’t. If I can hire and pay his lawyers, why can’t I hire and pay you? I wouldn’t be asking you to report to me or anything. I just want you on his defense team so I know for sure that there’s someone there who is going to devote herself to Jupiter. Someone who isn’t doing it just for the money, or for the notoriety.”
I blushed. The frisson of excitement I’d felt when I’d first heard the name “Jupiter Jones” had certainly been because of the notoriety of the case. Every criminal defense lawyer dreams of catching the big fish—one of those high-profile cases that end up on Court TV. And I was still, at heart, a defense lawyer. It’s kind of like being Jewish or Catholic. Once you’re born into the religion, you’re doomed, even if you stop going to services. I wanted this case—I wanted it bad. But could I do it? Was it ethical to represent a friend, or the brother of a friend? And did I want to work the hours this case would certainly demand?
“Please, Juliet. I need you. I really need you.”
Lilly had always been there for me, even when I was asking for favors that seemed downright impossible. And she’d stayed my friend, even after she’d become famous. That counted for something, didn’t it? Anyway, who was I kidding? As soon as the words “Jupiter Jones” had left her lips, I was hooked.
“Let me talk to my partner,” I said. “If he thinks it’s okay, and if Wasserman goes along with it, we’ll take the case.”
Lilly flung her arms around my neck. “Thank you so much,” she said.
I hugged her back. “Don’t thank me yet. Let’s see what Al and Wasserman have to say, first.”
“Oh my God!” she said, leaping to her feet. “My award!”
We rushed back into the banquet hall just in time for Lilly to step up to the podium, receive her Tiffany crystal bare torso of a woman with only one breast (could I really have been the only person who thought that was in shockingly bad taste?), and give a gently humorous and profoundly moving speech about the inspiration cancer survivors provide the rest of us. Lilly was a consummate professional. You would never have known, looking at her on the stage, so beautiful that she almost glowed, that, moments before, she’d been pale and frightened, begging me for help.
I’M as macho as the next mother, but I am simply not able to get my children dressed, fed, and out the door in the morning while crouched over the toilet seat, vomiting. The morning after I gobbled up all that Gorgonzola cheese and rare ahi tuna, I had to wake up my husband to help me juggle food poisoning and carpool. Peter works at night. Every evening after we put the kids to bed, he takes a thermos of black, bitter coffee into his office and hangs out with zombies and flesh-eating cheerleaders until dawn. Then he staggers to bed, and loses consciousness until noon. That morning, though, he was awakened earlier than usual by the lovely sound of me gagging and crying for help.
Even his toes looked tired. That was the only part of his body visible to me as I lay on the cool tiles of the bathroom floor. “What’s wrong?” he said, his voice scratchy and barely audible. He cleared his throat. The sound of the phlegm rattling around made me heave again, and I bent back over the toilet.
“Are you sick?” he asked.
“No. I’m just cleaning out the toilet. With my face.”
“Right. What do you need me to do?”
I waved in the general direction of Ruby and Isaac.
Half an hour later, when I’d finally managed to splash some cool water onto my face and stagger out of the bathroom, I found the children sitting in front of the TV, eating hotdogs. They were wearing shorts and T-shirts, and their hair stuck out in tufts all over their heads.
“Hotdogs?” I asked my husband.
He shrugged and said, “Dinner-for-breakfast.”
“Shorts? In the middle of winter?”
“Hey, they insisted. When they freeze, they’ll get the message that they should listen to their father when he suggests warmer clothes.”
“Ruby said it’s ‘Bed-Head Day’ at school.”
“What, did Congress make Bed-Head Day a national holiday while I was in the bathroom? They go to different schools. How can they both possibly have Bed-Head Day?”
I went to the kids’ rooms, yanked a couple of pairs of sweat pants out of the drawers, and shoved my squirming progeny into them. I wiped off their ketchup-smeared faces and dragged a comb through their matted heads of hair. I gave up on Ruby’s curls, and just crammed the mass of red under a baseball cap. Then I went into the kitchen. I was suddenly famished. I riffled through the refrigerator and finally settled on some chocolate pudding packs I’d bought for lunchboxes.
“Sweetie?” Peter said.
“What?” I mumbled with my mouth full of pudding.
“Should you really be eating? If you’re sick?”
“I don’t think you should be eating that if you’ve got food poisoning or a stomach flu. How about some clear soup?”
Soup? Soup! “I’m famished,” I insisted, and then we stared at each other.
“Oh my God,” he said.
“No. It’s not possible.”
“You’re throwing up. And you’re hungry. At the same time.”
“It’s just not possible. It’s the fish from last night. I’m sure Beverly Hills is lousy with vomiting studio executives this morning.”
He shook his head. “But you’re hungry.”
“Look, I’m just not going there. It’s impossible, and that’s that,” I said, and called out to the children to get in the car so that I could drive them to school.
“Hey! That’s lunch pudding!” Isaac hollered when he came into the kitchen.
“Don’t worry. I put some in your lunchbox,” Peter said.
“But she’s eating lunch pudding now! In the morning!” He stood, hands akimbo, exuding the indignation that had lately become his specialty.
“Don’t be stupid, Isaac. It’s dinner-for-breakfast, remember?” Ruby said, rolling her eyes in disgust. “He’s so dumb!”
“Stop calling your brother names!” I scolded around my spoon. I stuck my finger in the plastic cup and scraped up the last of the pudding.
“But that’s lunch pudding!” Isaac said again. “Not dinner pudding.”
“Oh for God’s sake,” Peter snapped, and stomped off in the direction of the bedroom. I forget sometimes that he isn’t familiar with our regular morning routine of aggressive bickering. By the afternoon, when school’s over and I’m no longer trying to rush them out the door, they’ve usually mellowed into a somewhat more manageable whining squabble.
Ruby complained the whole way about a boy in her class, Jacob, who had been picking on the girls. She had me worked up into a fit of righteous maternal indignation, but when she described how Jacob had trained spiders to attack the girls, and one of them had bitten her friend Malika so badly that her eyeball had to be removed, the kid lost me.
“The thing about lying, honey, is that people stop trusting you,” I said, trying to sound schoolmarmish rather than irritated.
“I’m not lying.”
“I’m not. I’m being creative.”
I snorted and was about to blast her when a thought occurred to me. Wasn’t that basically what her father did for a living? Made stuff up? After a while I said, “Maybe you should just warn us when you’re being creative.” I looked in the mirror to find her rolling her eyes at her brother. He smiled at her. Isaac thinks Ruby is God. He believes everything she says, likes everything she likes, and does everything she tells him to do. A few months before, I had watched heartbroken as he valiantly gave up Blue’s Clues when Ruby informed him it was a baby show. He would still snuggle his stuffed Blue, but only when the commander-in-chief was not around to sneer at him.
After I dropped the kids off, I headed down the highway to Al’s garage, our business’s temporary quarters that lately had begun to seem suspiciously permanent. I found Al sitting at his ancient metal desk, cleaning a gun. He had spread a pale pink dishtowel on the scratched and pitted surface of the desk and laid out an antique pistol. He was polishing the brass barrel and gazing at it lovingly, as though it were a picture of one of his daughters.
“Do you do that on purpose?” I asked.
“Play with your guns when I’m coming over. I swear you only do it because you know I hate them.”
“Ms. Applebaum,” he hissed the “z” on Ms. with extra emphasis, “the world does not revolve around you. I’ll have you know that I just got this in the mail. It’s a nineteenth-century naval officer’s flintlock boarding pistol. Look at this little bayonet that swings out from under the barrel.”
“Cute,” I said. “I bet it cost you plenty.”
Al nodded conspiratorially and then glanced over his shoulder at the door leading to the house. “Keep your voice down. Jeanelle thinks it’s a reproduction.”
“I very much doubt that,” I said, and as if on cue, Al’s beautiful, sweet-tempered wife walked through the door, holding a platter of muffins.
“Hi, Juliet. I baked you two some muffins. Blueberry.” She laid the plate down on the table and ruffled her husband’s remaining strands of hair. Al and Jeanelle might seem to an outsider to be the world’s unlikeliest couple. After all, how many members of a gun-toting, antigovernment militia are married to black women? Al claims his unit is not the only multiracial one in the country, but I have a hard time believing that. Al and Jeanelle have been married for close to forty years. They have two daughters, who get their looks from their mother and their politics from their father. One’s an FBI agent and the other is in law school, hoping to become a prosecutor when she graduates.
“The new toy,” Jeanelle said, picking up the pistol and looking admiringly at the engraved lock and wood handle. It was tough to read her expression.
“Uh-huh. Impeccable craftsmanship.” She smiled at him and headed back up the two steps leading into the house. “Don’t work too hard, you two.”
“Fat lot of chance of that,” Al grumbled. It had been a slow month for us. There was barely enough to keep Al busy, and I hadn’t billed a client in over a week. If I didn’t bill, then I didn’t make any money, and I wasn’t much thrilled by the idea of sitting around Al’s garage in Westminister for no money.
“I might have some work for us,” I said, and told Al about Lilly’s offer.
“The Chloe Jones murder,” he said, rubbing his hands together. “That’s definitely high-profile. It would get us noticed. Generate some business.”
“Lilly asked me to do it specifically because she thought we wouldn’t be in it just for the notoriety. She thought we’d be committed to helping her brother, not to drumming up new business.”
“We can help her brother and help ourselves at the same time,” he replied.
“You don’t think it’s a conflict of interest? My friendship with Lilly?”
He scowled. “Look, let’s let the client decide. We’ll ask the kid if he minds; we’ll ask the lawyer if he minds. If they both give the okay, we take the case.”
I didn’t reply. I was too busy running to the bathroom.
“You okay?” Al shouted at my back.
“Bad fish,” I groaned, crashing through the kitchen and making it just in time.
I still wasn’t feeling one hundred percent better the next day, but Al had set up an appointment for us to visit Jupiter Jones at the county jail. One of Raoul Wasserman’s associates would be meeting us. Wasserman had, as it turned out, been willing to let us join the investigative team. I suppose Lilly’s phone call telling him that she’d fire him if he didn’t agree might have had something to do with that.
Unfortunately, we were supposed to meet at the jail at nine in the morning, and I couldn’t drop Isaac off at preschool until eight forty-five. I was almost fifteen minutes late, and decidedly frazzled, when I finally hustled into the jail. I found Al chatting up the attorney from Wasserman’s office. Her elegant black suit revealed a long stretch of very thin, very sexy leg. She wore gorgeous, dainty, slingback heels and I had to stifle myself to keep from asking her where she bought them and how much they had cost. I love impractical, beautiful shoes. As the only part of my body I don’t actively loathe, my feet deserve to be rewarded with a pair of Manolos or Jimmy Choos on a regular basis.
The young attorney looked at me appraisingly, and I self-consciously pulled at the hem of my sweater, tugging it over the waistband of the skirt that I’d had to pin closed because the button had popped off long ago. At least I was wearing a nice pair of Stuart Weizman spectator pumps. I maneuvered one foot forward to show them off.
“I’m Juliet Applebaum,” I said, sticking out my hand.
“Valerie Sloan. You’re late.”
I forced a smile. “I don’t think Jupiter’s going to mind. It’s not like he’s going anywhere.”
“I have another appointment at ten-thirty,” she said.
Al discreetly put a warning hand on my arm. I shrugged him off and smiled grimly at the arrogant young attorney. “Well, then, we’d better hurry,” I said.
Jupiter Jones looked much younger than his thirty years, and drooped over the table as if he were trying to make his lanky body as inconspicuous as possible. His lips were chapped and peeling and he picked absently at them, dropping tiny flakes of skin on the table. I felt the gorge rise in my throat, and I battled it down. The young attorney introduced him to us, and he nodded almost imperceptibly.
“I’m a friend of Lilly’s,” I said, and he finally raised his eyes to mine. “This is Al Hockey.” Al nodded once as Jupiter flashed him a nervous glance. “Lilly wants us to help in your case, to work on your investigative team.”
He mumbled something.
“Excuse me?” I asked.
“Can you get me out of here?” he said softly.
“Mr. Wasserman is doing what he can, Mr. Jones,” Ms. Sloan said. “We’re going to appeal the denial of bail. You know that. Mr. Wasserman told you that in the letter he sent you.”
Jupiter nodded and ducked his head. I watched him peel another curlicue of skin off his lip. He licked nervously at the bright red dot of blood that appeared. I shot the attorney an irritated glance. Why is it that some lawyers never seem to learn how to talk to their clients? Is it that they are so full of their own importance, so confident that they know what’s best, that they can’t see the person for whom they work as anything other than an incompetent child, one who needs to be told what to do? I fear I had had something of that attitude myself, when I first started at the public defender’s office. I was full of good intentions, excited about my role as advocate for the underprivileged. It was a bank robber named Malcolm Waterwright who taught me, finally, to see my clients as people, like myself. He was a middle-aged man with a drug habit. I’d negotiated his guilty plea, and basically forced him to accept it. Of course the choice was his, but I made it clear to him that I knew best, and that there wasn’t really any other option. And truthfully, that was the case. There was a mountain of evidence against him, and we certainly would have lost at trial—pleading guilty reduced his sentence. We were preparing a letter for the judge, asking that he be sentenced on the low end of the applicable sentencing range, when Malcolm blew my complacency away. I asked him about his educational background, and he told me that he had a B.A. in English literature—from the same small New England college that I’d attended. I was stunned. Although I never would have admitted it, I had always felt that my clients were somehow a completely different breed of human than I. They were of a different class, a different society, had a different level of intelligence. I stared at Malcolm, overwhelmed by the realization that there but for the grace of God, and a drug habit, went I. I never treated another client the same after that, even the ones like Jupiter Jones who were accused of crimes that I found personally sickening.
“What’s going on, Jupiter?” I asked. “Is someone hurting you?”
He didn’t answer, just chewed on his lips. I could imagine what was happening to him. Rapists have a terrible time in jail. The only people who suffer more abuse are those accused of child molestation. The ones who, like Lilly’s stepbrother, look weak and afraid are in particular danger.
“Jupiter, tell me what’s going on. If you’re in danger, Mr. Wasserman can make an emergency petition for bail. Or at least request that you be put in protective seclusion.”
He shook his head quickly. “I don’t want to go to the hole.”
Inmates who are in danger and inmates who are a danger get the same treatment. They are put in the SHU—the Segregated Housing Unit—where they spend all but one hour of their day alone in a tiny cell. For that reason, more often than not, victims opt to stay in the general population and just deal with the harassment.
“I told you. Mr. Wasserman has already presented a bail application,” Valerie said reprovingly.
Al and I looked at each other, and he made a couple of notes on the yellow pad he’d brought. One of our first jobs would be to find out exactly what it was that Wasserman was doing about getting Jupiter out of jail before he ended up dead, or worse.
I asked Jupiter to tell us what happened, reminding him that we, like his lawyers, were bound by the laws of attorney-client privilege. Everything he told us would be confidential.
“Why don’t you start with the day Chloe died. Did you see her that day?”
Al and I had to lean over the table to hear Jupiter’s low monotone as he described what he’d done the day his stepmother was murdered. It had been a day like most others. He’d slept late, until almost noon. No one was home when he awoke. His father was out, presumably at the CCU center in Pasadena, where he spent much of his time.
“Where is your room?” I asked.
“In the basement,” he replied. “I have kind of an apartment down there, with a bathroom and sort of an office or game room. It’s where I do my work.”
“What kind of work do you do?”
He shrugged. “I design computer games. At least I’m trying to. I sold one game a few years ago, but it never really made it to the market. I’m working on another one. And I do a little writing. Mostly science fiction.”
I nodded. “Okay, so you got up at around noon, and then what?”
“Ruth, that’s the housekeeper, always saves breakfast for me. I got my plate and my coffee and went out to the pool.”
“You ate by the pool?”
“And then what did you do?”
“I don’t know. I swam a couple of laps, I guess. Read the paper. Maybe took a nap.”
“A nap? But you just woke up.”
He shrugged again. “I was tired.”
I could see Al’s lips pulling into a disapproving line. I knew what he was thinking. What a slacker, lolling around in bed half the day. It was hard not to think that myself.
“And at some point Chloe came home?”
“Did she come out to the pool?”
He nodded again. “We hung out for a while. Got some sun. You know.”
Not really. My skin has all the lovely sun-kissed glow of the underbelly of a scrod.
“Mr. Jones’s semen was found in the victim’s body. There was a DNA match,” Valerie said in a voice much too loud for the small interview room. Jupiter and I both flinched. Al just kept jotting notes.
“Ah,” I said. “Why don’t you tell me a little bit about that?”
He didn’t answer.
“Hey, Jupiter. I know this is hard. But we’re going to have to talk about it,” I said.
He ducked his head and shrugged.
"A perky, enthusiastic, and infectious read."—Library Journal
"A funny, quick-witted protagonist."—Houston Chronicle
Ayelet Waldman currently lives with her writer-husband Michael Chabon and four children.
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She went from a public defender to a stay-at-home mom but now that her two children are older, Juliet Applebaum is going into partnership with Al Hockey, a former investigator for the public defenders. They are opening up a private detective agency housed temporarily in Al¿s garage until they bring in enough money to have a real office. At a Hollywood charity function, Juliet runs into her good friend Lilly Green, a famous actress who is in desperate need of her firm¿s discrete services. Lilly¿s stepbrother Jupiter Jones is accused of killing his stepmother Chloe, the wife of Polaris Jones who is the head of the Church of Cosmological Unity. Chloe was blackmailing Lilly and she asked Jupiter to help her put a stop it. She believes that Jupiter may have killed Chloe because of their close bond but when Juliet starts investigating she comes to believe that Jupiter didn¿t kill Chloe and that makes the real killer exceeding anxious to stop the investigation even if it means murdering again. Although the subject matter of survivor guilt and repressed memories is very serious topics, Juliet¿s interactions with her husband and children bring a note of much need of humor to the somber story line. Readers will be particularly tickled to realize that Juliet is pregnant again and her reaction to this unexpected event is truly memorable. DEATH GETS A TIME-OUT is darker in tone than the previous works in this series but it is just as good. Harriet Klausner