Murder Plays Houseby Ayelet Waldman
The Applebaums, with a new arrival on the way, must find a bigger house. But in the tough L.A. real estate market, you practically have to kill to find a house. So no wonder Juliet is prepared to overlook a corpse on the grounds of her dream house. To gain the owner's favor, Juliet promises him she'll find his sister's killer. See more details below
The Applebaums, with a new arrival on the way, must find a bigger house. But in the tough L.A. real estate market, you practically have to kill to find a house. So no wonder Juliet is prepared to overlook a corpse on the grounds of her dream house. To gain the owner's favor, Juliet promises him she'll find his sister's killer.
Read an Excerpt
“Well-plotted . . . Juliet is a wonderful invention, warm, loving and sympathetic to those in need, but unintimidated by the L.A. entertainment industry she must enter to search for clues . . . What a motive, what a resolution, and how clever of Juliet to figure it out.”
“The Mommy Track mysteries get progressively feistier and wittier . . . Murder Plays House is a well-thought-out mystery.”
—Midwest Book Review
“As always, Waldman uses humor to portray the Los Angeles scene while making some serious points about what is really important in life. This thoroughly modern cozy will be popular.”
“Witty Waldman is so endearingly pro-kid that you may run right out and get pregnant and so unsparing about Hollywood sylphs and pro-anorexia websites that you may never diet again.”
DEATH GETS A TIME-OUT
“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.”
“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.”
“Think Chinatown, but with strollers and morning sickness. Arguably the best of Waldman’s mysteries.”
—Long Island Press
A PLAYDATE WITH DEATH
“Smoothly paced and smartly told.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Sparkling . . . 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 lot like Elizabeth Peters’ warm and humorous Amelia Peabody—a brassy, funny, quick-witted protagonist.”
“A delightful debut filled with quirky, engaging characters, sharp wit, and vivid prose.”
—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.”
MY thanks to Sylvia Brownrigg, Peggy Orenstein, Micheline Marcom, and Susanne Pari, brilliant writers and fine editors all; to Natalee Rosenstein, Esther Strauss, and Rebecca Crowley for taking such good care of me; to Lisa Desimini for such delightful and original covers; to Jan Fogner for details of the real estate business (all errors are my own, of course); to Kathleen Caldwell for her unending support; to Mary Evans, not just a remarkable agent, but a good and loyal friend.
Sophie, Zeke, Ida-Rose and Abraham give me something to write about, and their father makes everything possible.
Berkley Prime Crime Books by Ayelet Waldman
THE BIG NAP
DEATH GETS A TIME-OUT
A PLAYDATE WITH DEATH
MURDER PLAYS HOUSE
THE CRADLE ROBBERS
Table of Contents
AS I huddled in the six inches of bed that my three-and-a-half-year-old son allowed me, I comforted myself with the knowledge that at least I was marginally more comfortable than my husband, who had been reduced to camping out on the floor. We didn’t normally permit Isaac to evict us from our bed, but since he’d made his toddler bed uninhabitable with a particularly noxious attack of stomach flu, we’d been forced to let down the drawbridge and allow the barbarian through the gate.
“Are you sure you don’t want to sleep on the couch?” I whispered to Peter.
“Honey? Do you want to try the couch?”
“Yeah, right,” he muttered.
“It’s not that wet,” I said defensively.
He groaned and rolled over.
It wasn’t my fault that the dryer broke down two loads into laundry day. Perhaps it was shortsighted of me to use the couch as an impromptu drying rack, but how could I have anticipated a night of vomiting and musical beds?
I jumped as Isaac jammed his foot into my stomach, and reached a protective hand around my bulging belly. I patted at the tiny elbow I felt poking up just north of my belly button and murmured to the little girl swimming in the warm dark inside of me. This was likely just the first of many beatings she would suffer at the hands of her older brother.
“Juliet?” Peter said softly.
“Is he asleep?”
“Like the dead.” I heaved myself over so I could see Peter’s shadowed form on the floor.
“You win,” he said.
“Good,” I replied. Then, “I win what?”
“You win. We buy a house. A big house. With lots of beds. At least two for each of us.”
I sat up in bed. “Really? Really? Oh sweetie, that is so great. You will not be sorry, I promise. I’ll start looking tomorrow. I’ll find something with enough room for all of us, and even a special place for your collection.”
The truth was, I’d started looking for a house months before, and Peter probably knew it. I had paid little or no attention to his insistence that our entire family could continue to fit comfortably into a two-bedroom apartment, even with the pending arrival of our surprise third child. Peter was just nervous about spending the money on a house. He preferred the flexibility of a month-to-month lease, comforting himself with the notion that if his screenplays ever stopped selling, we could just pack up our children and his twenty cubic feet of vintage action figures still in the original blister packs and move into the trailer next to his mother’s. Yeah. Like that would ever happen. While it’s possible that there has been born a man both cruel and strong enough to force this particular Jewish American Princess into a double-wide in Cincinnati, Ohio, it is certainly not the sweet, sensitive, grey-eyed guy I married.
Anyway, I knew the moment I saw the double pink line of the pregnancy test that we were going to buy a house, and since then all of Peter’s protestations and carefully constructed arguments about mobility and low overhead had had about as much effect on me as flies buzzing around the ears of a hippopotamus. Sure, they were irritating, but did they prevent me from wallowing in the mud of the Los Angeles real estate market? As my six-year-old daughter would say, “I don’t think so.”
I drifted off to a sleep enchanted by dreams of second bathrooms and front-loading washers. Alas, it seemed as if I had only just managed to close my eyes when I was awakened by an insistent whine in my ear.
“Come on, Mama. It’s seven fourteen! We’re going to be late for school.” As I had every morning since Ruby’s sixth birthday, I cursed my mother for buying my overly conscientious daughter that Little Mermaid alarm clock.
I hauled myself out of bed, scooping Isaac up with me, and prodded Peter with one toe. “Bed’s all yours, sweetie,” I said.
Peter leapt up off the floor and burrowed into the newly vacant bed. I sighed jealously and herded the children back to their room. My husband works at night; he finds the midnight hours most conducive to constructing the tales of mayhem and violence that characterize the particular style of horror movie for which he has become marginally well known. That leaves the morning shift to me, a system that works well, by and large, although on the mornings following nights punctuated by the cries of sleepless children, I sometimes wonder if I’m getting the short end of the stick. Before allowing myself to become awash in a sea of self-pity, I reminded myself that since I barely earn enough with my fledgling investigative practice even to pay a babysitter, it is in my interest to make it possible for my husband to get his work done.
I left Isaac wrapped in a blanket in front of the television set, a sippy cup of cool, sweet tea propped next to him, and a plate of dry toast balanced in his lap. He had strict instructions to wake his dad if he felt sick again. He had already started to nod off when his older sister and I walked out the door.
“Mama, what’s in my lunch?” Ruby said as we drove down the block to her school.
“Peanut butter on whole wheat, pretzels, half an apple, and a juice box, of course.” I always packed Ruby the identical lunch. She is a picky child, and I’m a lazy mother, and once we figure out something that suits both of us, we stick with it.
She sighed dramatically.
“What?” I said.
“Well, it’s just that that’s an awful lot of carbs.”
I nearly slammed into the car in front of me. “What did you say?”
“You know, carblehydrapes. Like bread and stuff. They make you fat.”
“First of all, it’s carbohydrates. Second of all, they do not make you fat. And third of all, you don’t need to worry about that, for heaven’s sake. You’re only six years old!”
I could feel my daughter’s scowl burning into the back of my neck.
“Honey, really. You don’t need to worry about your weight. You’re a perfect little girl.”
“Miss Lopez says I’m fat.”
Now I really did leap on the brakes. “Your teacher called you fat?” I was very nearly shouting.
“Not just me. All of us. She says there’s a eminemic of fatness.”
“Right. Epinemic. We’re all fat. The whole first grade.”
I pulled into the drop-off area of her school and turned to look at my child. Her red curls were tamed into two pigtails on either side of her narrow face. She was wearing a thick sweater and jeans, so it was impossible to see the shape of her body, but I knew it better than I knew my own. I knew those knobby knees, the narrow shoulders, the tiny rounded belly. I’d memorized that body the moment it came out of me, and had been watching it ever since. She wasn’t fat. On the contrary. She was lengthening out into a skinny grade-schooler who looked less and less like my baby every day.
“Sweetheart, there might be an epidemic of obesity—that means fatness—in the whole country. But not you, or your friends. You guys are all perfectly shaped. You don’t need to worry about your weight. All you need to worry about is being healthy, okay?”
Ruby shook her head, sending her pigtails bobbing. “You worry. You worry all the time about being fat.”
“No I don’t,” I lied, feeling a vicious stab of guilt. I had obviously done exactly what I swore never to do. I had infected my lovely little girl with my own self-loathing. Despite all my promises to myself, I had handed down to her my sickening inability to see in the mirror anything other than my flaws. Was it too late? Was Ruby already doomed to a life of vertical stripes and fat-free chocolate chip cookies?
She unclipped her seatbelt and bounded out the door, dragging her Hello Kitty backpack behind her.
I rolled down my window and shouted, “Don’t forget to eat your lunch!”
She didn’t bother to reply.
AS I waited in traffic to get on the freeway, I called my partner, Al Hockey. Al and I had worked together at the Federal Public Defender’s office, in the days when I imagined that I’d spend the rest of my life representing drug dealers and bank robbers, cruising the streets of Los Angeles looking for witnesses who might have seen my clients anywhere but where the FBI claimed they had been. Back then, I’d been a fan of the leather miniskirt, and thought of child-bearing as little more than an excuse to buy cute maternity suits and garner a little extra sympathy from the female members of my juries. It had never occurred to me that once I had my kids I’d end up shoving all my suits into the back of my closet and spending my days in overalls and leggings, ferrying squealing bundles from Mommy and Me to the park, and back again.
Al had once told me that lawyers like me, the ones who seem to get off on squiring the lowlifes through the system and giving the prosecutors a run for their money, invariably end up growing old on the job. I remember that I felt a flush of pride at his words, but replied that I wasn’t getting off on it—rather, I loved being a public defender because I did justice. Al had looked up from the evidence we were sifting through and held up a photograph of our client pointing a gun at a terrified bank teller. I’d muttered something about the Constitution protecting the guilty as well as the innocent, and had gone back to preparing my cross-examination.
I had surprised both Al and myself by deciding not only not to spend my life as a public defender, but also to quit work altogether to stay home with my kids. On my last day at the office, I swore to Al that I’d be back someday, but neither of us had imagined that the work I’d return to would be as his partner in a private investigation service run out of his garage in Westminster. Al and I specialize in criminal defense investigations, helping defense attorneys prepare their cases. We interview witnesses, track down alibis, take photos and video of the crime scenes, and do everything we can to help earn our clients the acquittals they may or may not be entitled to. As partnerships go, we have a good one. His years as a detective with the LAPD taught him top-notch investigative skills, as well as the delicate art of witness intimidation, and my criminal defense experience makes it easy for me to anticipate what an attorney will need when trial rolls around. Given the spotty quality of the private defense bar, sometimes I end up crafting the defense from start to finish, even going so far as to give the lawyer an outline for a closing argument.
We work well together, Al and I, even if ours is an unlikely match. I’m a diehard liberal, and Al’s, well, Al’s something else altogether. I pay my dues to the ACLU, and he pays his to his militia unit. He belongs to a unique band of gun-toting centralized-government-loathers. Although some of their rhetoric is a bit too close to that of the white supremacists seeking to overthrow the U.S. government, Al and his colleagues are an equal-opportunity bunch. They’d have to be. Traditional groups would have tossed Al out as a race-mixer, and despised his children as mongrels. Al’s wife, Jeanelle, is African-American. Al’s positions are purely political and entirely unracist. He feels that all of us, white, black, brown, and green, are being screwed over by a government concerned with maximizing the wealth of the very few. The difference between Al and normal people who might at least sympathize with that opinion, especially come April 15, is that Al expresses his belief by amassing guns and marching around in the woods with a cabal of similarly committed loonies.
“What have we got going on today?” I asked Al, when he snarled into the phone. Not a morning person, my partner. That’s one of the few traits he shares with my husband, although Peter would take issue even with that. He hates to think he has anything in common with Al. Peter just doesn’t find the whole libertarian-militia-black-helicopter thing as charming as I do.
“Rats. Rats is what we’ve got going on,” Al said.
“Those rats pay our bills,” I reminded him. Al is a notorious despiser of lawyers, preferring to call my fellow members of the bar either “liars” or “scum,” and referring to every firm we do business with, somewhat tediously, as “Dewey, Cheetum & Howe.”
“Not your kind of rat,” he said. “Real rats. Big, fat tree rats, all over the office. My idiot neighbor took down his palm tree, and they’ve all migrated into my garage.”
I felt my stomach heave. “Al,” I groaned. My rat phobia probably stems back to the time my mother let me take my kindergarten class gerbil family home for Christmas vacation. I woke up on New Year’s Day to find that Penelope, the mother gerbil, had eaten her children. Also the head of Squeakers, her husband. I found her belching over the remains of Squeakers’s body. All these years and two children later—while there are certainly days when I sympathize with Penelope’s impulse—I still cannot abide rodents. Even rabbits are too whiskery and slithery for my taste. And rats are beyond the pale.
“I’m not coming to work today,” I said.
“I figured as much. Anyway, why should you even bother? It’s not like we’ve got any business.”
Al isn’t a guy inclined to self-pity, which made his woeful tone of voice all the more worrying. Our business had been limping along lately. We’d certainly experienced flush moments, but it had been far too long between well-paying gigs. Al’s optimism had been less and less apparent, and now I feared it had seeped entirely away.
“When is the exterminator due?” I asked.
“Today, but who knows if he’ll be able to do anything. They’re everywhere.”
“So what do you want to do today? Come up here and work out of my house?”
“No point. Nothing to do. I’m calling this day a loss and heading on over to the shooting range as soon as the rat guy shows up.”
“Good idea.” Firing a few rounds into a paper mugger was just what Al needed to improve his mood. By tomorrow he’d be chipper again. I hoped.
I decided to take advantage of my newly acquired day off and do some house hunting. I had already gone around with a realtor a few times, in a more or less desultory manner, just to see what was out there, and what our money could buy us. Not as much as I’d hoped, it turned out. Lately, I’d taken to cruising the nicer neighborhoods, more to torture myself with what I couldn’t afford than for any other reason. Although there was always the chance that I’d pass a house at the same time an ambulance pulled away, bearing its owner to his final rest, and setting in motion a probate sale.
I pulled into a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, bought myself a mocha freeze (promising the baby that this would be the last jolt of caffeine I’d expose her to for at least a week), and pulled out my cell phone.
“Kat Lahidji,” my realtor murmured in her slightly breathy voice.
“Hey Kat, it’s Juliet.”
“Hi! Are you on your way to class?” Kat and I had met at a prenatal yoga class on Montana Boulevard. I liked her despite the fact that she, like every other pregnant woman in that part of greater Los Angeles, didn’t even look pregnant when seen from the rear. She was in perfect shape, still doing headstands in the sixth month of pregnancy. She had sapphire blue eyes and nearly black hair that she tamed with a collection of silver and turquoise pins and clips and wore swirled into a knot at the nape of her neck. Only her nose kept her from being exquisitely beautiful. It looked like something imagined by Picasso—a combination of a Persian princess’s delicate nostrils, and the craggy hook of a Levantine carpet merchant. Kat had once told me that her mother-in-law was on a tireless campaign to convince her to explore the wonders of rhinoplasty.
Kat and I had become friendly, meeting weekly for yoga, and even once or twice for lunch, although Kat never did much more than push her food around her plate. Despite the fact that her food phobia made me feel compelled to double my own consumption in order to compensate, we enjoyed each other’s company. We had the same slightly off-beat sense of humor, were plagued by similar insecurities about the state of our careers and the quality of our parenting, and shared a fondness for crappy chick flicks that disgusted our husbands to no end. I had been surprised to find out that Kat was a real estate agent—she seemed entirely too, well, real, for that dubious profession. She did have the car for it, though. She drove a gold Mercedes Benz with the embarrassing vanity plate, “XPTD OFR.” When she had caught me puzzling out the plate’s meaning, she had blushed a kind of burnt auburn under her golden skin, and told me that her husband had bought her the car, plates and all, as a present to celebrate her first year’s employment in his mother’s agency.
“You work for your mother-in-law?” I had asked, shocked.
“Yes,” Kat sighed.
“The nose-job lady?”
“The very same.”
I had wanted to ask my friend if she was out of her mind. But I had also wanted her to show me some houses, so the question didn’t seem particularly appropriate.
Kat responded to my invitation to join me on a morning of house-hunting with her usual professional excitement. “God, do you really want to bother?” she said. “I mean, what’s the point? There’s nothing but dumps out there.”
“There’s got to be something. I finally got the official go-ahead from Peter; I’ve graduated from a looky-loo to a spendy-spend.”
She sighed heavily. “All right. I’ll see what I can scrape up to show you. At least it will get me out of here for a couple of hours.”
Kat was a truly dreadful real estate agent. Perhaps she kept her loathing for her job hidden from clients who didn’t know her personally, but I doubted it. She lacked the fundamental realtor ability to seem upbeat about even the most roach-infested slum. On the contrary. She had a knack for telling you as you pulled up in front of a house exactly what was wrong with it, why you were sure to hate it, and why she wouldn’t let you buy it even were you foolish enough to want it. Her standard comment about every house was, “Who would ever live here?” Sometimes she just shuddered in horror and refused even to step out of her car, forcing me to explore on my own. It made for entertaining, if slightly unproductive, house-hunting.
I actually might have considered the first house Kat showed me that day. It was a crumbling Tudor whose prime was surely in the 1920s or 30s, but the kitchen and bathrooms still had the original art tiles, and the master bedroom had a killer view of the Hollywood Hills. It could have worked for us, except for the fact that in the gaggle of young men hanging out on the corner in front of the house I recognized one of my old clients. He’d weaseled his way out of a crack cocaine conviction by ratting out everyone both above and below him in the organization. Given that in the thirty seconds I was watching him, I saw him do two hand-offs of what looked suspiciously like glassine packets, I figured he had resumed his original profession. Either that or he was still working for the DEA, and was just pretending to deal.
“Nice neighborhood,” I said to Kat.
She laughed. “My mother-in-law calls it ‘transitional.’”
“Transitioning from what to what?”
“Slum to crime scene, apparently,” she said. That kept us giggling through the next couple of inappropriate dives.
“Okay, I’ve got one more house on my list, but there’s probably no point. It’s not even really on the market,” Kat said. We were attempting, with the assistance of another round of frozen coffee drinks, (no reason not to start breaking promises to this baby early—her childhood was most likely destined to be a series of failures on my part, and if Ruby and Isaac were anything to go by, caffeine exposure would surely be the least of her problems) to recover our senses of smell from assault by a 1920s Craftsman bungalow with four bedrooms and forty-two cats.
“I don’t think I can stand it, Kat,” I said.
“I told you they all sucked.” She heaved her feet up on the dashboard and wriggled her toes with their violet nails. “My legs are killing me. Look at these veins.” She traced her fingers along the mottled blue lumps decorating her calves. Kat was only six months pregnant, a month or so behind me, but already she had a brutal case of varicose veins, the only flaw in her otherwise perfect pregnant persona. I had been spared that particular indignity, but had plenty of others to keep me occupied: ankles swollen to the size of Isaac’s Hippity Hop, most notably, and a belly mapped with stretch marks like a page out of the Thomas Guide to the city of Los Angeles. I was desperately hoping the lines would stop at the city limits, and not extend all the way out to the Valley.
“It’s kind of nice how your toenail polish matches the veins,” I said.
“I paid extra for that. Anyway. One more. I’m sure it’s no better than any of the others, but I haven’t seen it yet. My mother-in-law asked me to go check up on it for her. Apparently it belongs to the boyfriend of the son of her cousin. Or something. She wants to make sure they’ve got it in shape to show it. We could just pretend we went, and go catch a movie or something.”
My ears perked up. “Gay owner?”
Kat nodded, stirred her straw in her drink without sipping, and held out her hand for my empty cup. “Yup.”
“That’s terrific!” I said. Gay former owners are the Holy Grail of the West LA real estate market. Who else has the resources, energy, and taste to skillfully and painstakingly decorate every last inch of a house down to the doorknobs and crown moldings? Single women generally lack the first, straight men always suffer from a dire shortage of the third, and straight couples with children definitely have none of the second.
“Movie time?” Kat said, hopefully.
“No. Let’s go see the house.”
“But it’s not even on the market. And it’s bound to be hideous.”
“Come on, Kat! Gay owners! Let’s go!”
I wasn’t disappointed. We pulled up in front of a large, stucco, Spanish-style house with wrought-iron miniature balconies at every front window, tumbling purple bougainvillea, and a small but impeccably maintained front garden. The house was only about ten or so blocks from our apartment in Hancock Park, in an even nicer neighborhood called Larchmont.
Even Kat looked strapped for something negative to say. Finally, she grumbled, “I’m sure it’s out of your price range.”
I jumped out of the car and raced up the short front walk. The house was a little close to the street, but the block seemed quiet, at least in the middle of the day. I was already imagining how the neat square of grass would look with Ruby’s bike overturned in the middle and Isaac’s plastic slide lodged in the flowerbeds.
The front door was of carved oak. In the middle of the broad, time-darkened planks was a knocker in the shape of a gargoyle’s head. I grabbed the lolling tongue and rapped once. Kat came up behind me.
“There’s a lock box,” she said. She reached into her purse, pulled out a keypad, and snapped it onto the box attached to the door handle. Then she punched a few numbers into the keypad, and a little metal door at the bottom of the box slid open. In the box was a security key that looked like it belonged in the ignition of the Space Shuttle rather than in the front door of my dream house. The house I planned to live in until I was an old lady. The house I intended for my children to call ‘home’ for the rest of their lives. My house. Mine.
“Open it, already,” I said.
Kat rolled her eyes at me. “Playing hard to get, are we?”
It was real estate love at first sight. The front door opened into a vaulted entryway with broad circular stairs leading up to the second floor. A heavy Arts and Crafts style chandelier hung from a long chain. It looked like the pictures of the Green & Green mansions I’d seen in books about early Los Angeles architecture.
The living room took up the entire right side of the house. At its center was an enormous fireplace tiled in pale green with a relief of William Morris roses. The walls were painted a honey yellow and glowed from the lights of the ornate wall sconces with hand-blown glass shades that were set at regular intervals around the room. There was a long, rectangular Chinese carpet in rich reds and golds.
“I wonder if they’ll leave me the carpet?” I said.
Kat shook her head. “Don’t get so excited.”
“What?” I said. “This is my house. It’s perfect. I’m buying it.”
“I’m sure there’s, like, a twenty-thousand-dollar pest report. And a brick foundation. Plus, Larchmont is known for car theft because it’s so close to Beverly Boulevard. It’s a car jacker’s fantasy—the lights are all perfectly linked. Anyway, you can’t afford it. Let’s go get some lunch.”
“You’re really good at this, you know?”
She just followed me across the hall to the dining room. There was another fireplace in this room, smaller but just as beautiful as the one in the living room. The walls were papered in what had to be vintage floral wallpaper, tangled ivy, and vines dotted with muted roses. I immediately began fantasizing about all the dinner parties we’d give in this room. The fact that we’d never actually given a dinner party, and that my culinary skills are limited to pouring skim milk over cold cereal, interfered not at all with this flight of the imagination.
“Oh my God,” Kat said, from behind the swinging doors she’d passed through. I followed her into the most beautiful kitchen I’d ever seen. The centerpiece was a restaurant stove as big as my station wagon. Across from the stove was a gargantuan, stainless steel Sub-Zero. The appliances were professionally sleek, the counters zinc, and there were more cabinets and drawers than in a Williams-Sonoma outlet. One half of the huge space was set up as a sitting room, with a deep, upholstered couch, and a wall unit that I just knew hid a television and stereo system.
I sighed, and turned to Kat. “There’s no way I can afford this place.”
She rifled through some papers. “There isn’t even an asking price yet.”
“It’s definitely going to be more than I can afford.”
“I told you. Should we even bother going upstairs?”
“Why not? I’m already depressed. A little more won’t kill me.”
There were three small but adorable bedrooms on the second floor, with a shared bath, and a master bedroom that nearly made me start to weep with longing. It was so large that the owner’s massive four-poster bed fit into one small corner. There was an entire wall of built-in bookcases, a fireplace, and not one, but two upholstered window seats. But it was the master bathroom that really got to me. It was Zelda Fitzgerald’s bathroom. Two oversized pedestal sinks, a built-in Art Deco vanity with dozens of tiny drawers and a three-panel mirror, black and white tiled floor and walls, and the largest claw-foot tub in the known universe. It was so big it could easily fit a family of five. Or a single pregnant woman.
“I hate you,” I said to Kat. “Why would you show me this house? I can’t afford it, and nothing else will ever seem good enough after this.”
She sighed. “I know. It’s totally hopeless. Let’s go see the guesthouse.”
She began reading from the printout in her hand. “Two room guesthouse with full kitchen and bath, located in garden.”
“Guest house like office for Peter, and even office for Al and me so we can escape the rats in Westminster?”
But she was already headed down the stairs.
The guesthouse was as beautifully restored and decorated as the main house. We opened the door into a pretty living room with wainscoted walls and leaded glass windows. However, unlike the main house, which was immaculate to the point of looking almost uninhabited, the guesthouse was clearly lived in. There was a jumble of shoes next to the door—Jimmy Choo slingbacks, Ryka running shoes, and a pair of black clogs with worn soles. The tiny galley kitchen with miniature versions of the main house’s lavish appliances was filthy—there were dishes on nearly every surface, and a month’s worth of crumbs on the counters.
“Ick,” I said.
“Some people,” Kat said. “It would have killed the tenant to clean up? The place is probably infested with mice. Or rats. Definitely cockroaches.”
One corner of the living room was set up with a long wooden table scarred with rings from glasses and what looked to be cigarette burns. On the table was a brand new Mac with a screen larger than any I’d ever seen. There was also a huge, professional-quality scanner, a color laser printer, a printer designed specifically for digital photographs, and a thick stack of manuals and reference books. I lifted one up—“The Mac Genius’s Guide to Web Design.”
“Check this out,” I called. “I bet there’s like twenty thousand dollars worth of computer equipment here!”
“Hmm?” Kat said.
There were two large stacks of eight-by-ten photographs on the table. One showed a generic-looking blond woman, her hair teased into a halo around her head, and her lips shiny and bright with gloss. An illegible signature was scrawled across the bottom with black marker. The other stack was of a more peculiar photograph. It was clearly of the same woman, but showed her from the back, with her face turned away from the camera. Her arms were wrapped around her body, her fingers gripping either shoulder. The bones of her spine stuck out like a string of large, irregularly shaped beads along the center of her back. These photographs were also signed with the same indecipherable scribble.
A bulletin board hung crookedly on the wall, and I winced at the hole I was sure the nail had made in the thick, creamy plaster. The board was full of what appeared to be fan mail, much of it in the ornate curliques of young girls’ handwriting. I stood up on my tiptoes to read one of the letters, but Kat stopped me.
“Come on,” she said. “Don’t be so nosy.”
I flushed. That’s certainly one of my worst qualities. Or best, if you consider my job.
“She must be an actress,” I said.
“With a knack for self-promotion. And a really good website.”
Kat shrugged, not particularly interested, and led the way down the small hallway next to the kitchen. We walked into a surprisingly large bedroom, with French doors opening to the garden. Dappled light shining through the windows illuminated the piles of clothes and gave the veneer of dust on every surface a golden luminescence.
“Pig,” Kat said.
“Yeah, but it’s a gorgeous room anyway, don’t you think?”
“Is that the shower running?” I asked, but Kat had already pulled open the door to the bathroom and begun to scream.
ALICIA Felix’s was not the first dead body I’d ever seen, but I think it would take years of experience in crime-scene investigation before one became inured to the sight of a naked woman slumped against the wall of her bathtub, her chest and belly defaced with a scrawl of stab wounds. I reached the bathroom door in time to catch Kat as she tottered backwards. I held my friend up with one arm as I stared at the grim scene in the small, white-tiled room. Kat sagged against me, her face buried in her hands, her chest heaving. I looked at the dead woman for only a moment, but what I saw seared itself into my memory. This was a hideously violent murder. The poor woman’s torso had been hacked and torn, nearly shredded. Her wide-open eyes had a milky quality, as though a haze had lowered over them as life seeped away. Her body looked rigid, almost like a grotesque statue, particularly around the neck and jaw. Her skin was mottled; above the flesh was white and waxy, but what I could see of the bottom was purple, the color of a deep bruise. Postmortem lividity, the pooling and settling of the blood in response to gravity. The shower was still running, washing her body with a constant stream, and thus there was very little blood spilled anywhere at all. I could see only the smallest smudge just underneath the woman’s shoulders and neck, which were bent to one side by the protruding taps of the shower.
What made the starkest impression on me, however, was not so much what had been done to her, although that was certainly awful, it was rather the shape of the woman’s body. She was, in a word, emaciated. Her legs were long and horribly thin, withered as if by a wasting disease. Her knees bulged larger than her thighs, contrasting starkly with her skin-draped femur and tibia bones. Her ribs and the gullies between them were clearly visible even despite the stab wounds. Her clavicles stood out from her neck, nearly framing her bony jaw. The only hint of fleshiness about her body was the one breast, the right, that had not been horrifically mutilated. It sat, perfectly round, obviously fake, in the brutalized expanse of her chest.
I slowly backed out of the doorway, pushing Kat behind me. I settled her on the edge of the bed, but then remembered that the room was a crime scene. The whole house was one, and Kat and I had wandered through it freely, stomping across the floors and carpets, handling everything, probably obliterating all signs of the murderer. I grasped Kat more firmly around the shoulders, heaved her off the bed, and together we stumbled out to the courtyard. I sat her down in one of the wrought-iron lounge chairs in the garden. She leaned her head back on the white muslin cushion, her eyes still closed. I don’t think she had opened them since she’d first seen the body. I reached into my purse, pulled out my cell phone, and dialed 911. Then I called Al. He asked no questions, just took down the address and hung up the phone.
Kat and I sat in silence while we waited for the police to arrive. A gnarled and lush jasmine vine grew up a trellis nailed to the side of the guesthouse, and the air was redolent with the blossoms’ heady fragrance. I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply, relishing the smell, the steady beat of my heart, and the sun warming my flushed cheeks. It felt, for a moment, as if Kat and I were ensconced on a tiny island of sweet-smelling tranquility, the twittering of birds and the steady hum of our breath the only sound that disturbed the silence.
In a few minutes, however, I heard the faint shriek of police sirens, and got up to open the front door to the four uniformed officers that were the first of the hordes that soon invaded; their loud voices, heavy footsteps, and barking radios banishing every trace of that odd moment of serenity.
THE supervising detective seemed a bit taken aback at the sight of two heavily pregnant women rolling around in the middle of his crime scene. In addition to asking us the same long series of questions about who we were, what we were doing there, and what we had seen, that we had already answered for the uniformed officers who arrived first on the scene, and again for the detectives who had shown up fifteen minutes later, he grilled us about how we knew each other, even going so far as to request a description of the prenatal yoga class in which we’d met. I watched him carefully jot down the name and address of the yoga studio, and did my best not to express frustration at the thoroughness of his inquisition. This was, after all, his job. He had no way of knowing at this stage of the investigation what clues, what individuals, would come to be important. Kat and I, as the discoverers of the body, were, of course, his first and so far only possible suspects.
I was in the middle of recounting, for the third time, what we had been doing in the house, when Al arrived.
My partner walked into the yard, flanked by police officers. One of them, a grizzled man who seemed too old to be a cop at all, let alone a uniformed officer, called out to the detective, “Hey, this is Al Hockey. He used to be on the job. He knows the redhead.”
I gave Al a relieved smile, and he winked at me. He extended his hand to the detective, whose brusque manner had already begun to dissipate.
“My partner giving you some trouble?” Al asked.
“Your partner?” the detective said.
“I’ve been doing some private security work since I retired. Juliet works with me.”
“Al left kicking and screaming,” the older officer said. “Bullet took him out, but he’d still be here if it weren’t for that.”
The detective nodded. “I’m about done with my questions,” he began. Just then, we were interrupted by a piercing shriek.
“What’s going on here? What are you all doing here?” A small woman with pitted olive skin meticulously covered by a smooth sheen of expensive make-up, was standing in the French doors, hands on her hips, her face twisted into an anxious scowl. “What happened?” she yelled.
The detective heaved himself laboriously to his feet and walked over to the woman. At the sound of her voice, Kat had finally roused herself from her stupor. She had not been able to answer the police officers’ questions with much more than whispered monosyllables, and I was worried that she was in some kind of shock. Now, she glanced over at the woman and groaned, “Oh, God.”
“What? Who is that?”
Nahid Lahidji’s eyes were hidden behind a vast pair of Jackie O sunglasses, but she certainly didn’t seem old enough to be Kat’s husband’s mother. She had the clothes for it, though. She looked exactly like what she was, a fabulously successful Beverly Hills real estate agent. Her trim body was encased in a chartreuse Chanel suit with large gold buttons and matching stiletto pumps. Her black hair was sprayed into a bobbed helmet, and her diamond earrings flashed in the sun. Her thin wrists were heavy with bracelets and bangles, and her lipstick was fire-engine red.
Mrs. Lahidji blew by the detective as if she hadn’t even noticed his presence. “Katayoun! What’s happened here? Why are the police here? What have you done?”
“What?” I asked, dumbfounded at the absurd accusation. I turned back to Kat, expecting her to blow up at this tiny, designer-clad, green goblin, only to see her close her eyes once again.
“Katayoun! I’m talking to you!” the woman said sharply.
By now the detective had caught up with her. “Excuse me, ma’am,” he said, “I’m going to have to ask you a few questions.”
She spun on one elegantly appointed heel. “One minute. I’m talking to my daughter-in-law!”
“Mrs. Lahidji,” I interrupted. “I’m Juliet Applebaum, and Kat was showing me the house. I’m afraid we found a body in the guesthouse.”
“A body!” she shrieked. “The house isn’t even on the market yet!”
I was not quite sure what to make of that comment. Was it standard procedure to dump a body only after the house had an official MLS listing?
The detective finally managed to refocus Kat’s mother-in-law’s attention on him.
“Ma’am?” he said. “I’ll need to know your name.”
“Nahid Lahidji. And who might you be?”
The cop identified himself and asked her whether she knew the name of the deceased.
She replied, “A woman? Blond? Fake boobs?”
“Well, I, uh, I couldn’t make a definitive call about the breast implants,” he said, looking a little embarrassed. “But yes, a blond woman.”
“In the guesthouse?” Nahid barked.
“Then it must be the owner’s sister. God knows there wouldn’t be any reason for another woman to be on the property.”
“Do you know her name?”
“Of course I do. This is my listing!”
“Nahidjoon, please.” Kat whispered. Nahid paid not the slightest attention to her.
“Ma’am?” the detective asked softly, almost tentatively. Why, I wondered, did the man seem so utterly cowed by this miniature tyrant?
“Felix, like her brother. Her first name is Alicia. She’s an actress.”
I felt terrible leaving Kat in the clutches of her terrifying mother-in-law, but by the time the detectives released us I was desperate to get home. I’d called Peter and asked him to pick Ruby up from school, and had found out that Isaac’s stomach flu had returned with a vengeance. I hated the idea of Peter taking him out, even just to do a carpool run, but not even Al could convince the detective that I was needed at home. In fact, he didn’t intimidate the supervising detective anywhere near as much as the diminutive Nahid Lahidji did. It was Kat’s mother-in-law who got us sprung. After she had engaged in a conversation with the detective in which she’d asked as many questions as she’d answered, she turned to me.
“Business card,” she snapped.
“Excuse me?” I said. By then I’d become as silent as Kat.
“Give me your business card. And your driver’s license, too.”
I proffered the requested documents wordlessly.
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