Read an Excerpt
“Customary humor . . . dependable tart mommy-track wisecracks.”
—Midwest Book Review
“Human and credible characters—in particular, a smart, sensitive sleuth . . . should delight committed fans and attract new ones.”
“Waldman always provides full-bodied characters, humor, and a socially conscious plot that entertains as it enlightens.”
“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.”
—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.”
“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
“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.”
“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.”
—Sue Grafton, author of the Kinsey Millhone Mysteries
“[Juliet is] a lot like Elizabeth Peters’s 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.”
Berkley Prime Crime Books by Ayelet Waldman
THE BIG NAP
A PLAYDATE WITH DEATH
DEATH GETS A TIME-OUT
MURDER PLAYS HOUSE
THE CRADLE ROBBERS
Table of Contents
NINE years ago, in preparation for my third date with Peter, I schlepped out to Queens on two subways and a bus in order to borrow a black lace bra from my friend Cindy Rappaport. And now? Now I couldn’t even be bothered to scrape the baby spit-up off my T-shirt before crawling into bed. If my husband’s hand had accidentally brushed against those parts of my body once seductively draped in expensive French lace, I would probably have chewed it off. I love Peter, I really do. It was only because I’m so crazy about him that I was at all concerned that our matrimonial bed had become as arid as the Oklahoma Dust Bowl. I understood the reasons for the drought, but I was far too drained and exhausted to miss the rain. At four months old, Sadie, our third child, weighed in at nineteen pounds. I realize that only other mothers of freakishly sized children have the infant growth charts burned into the insides of their eyelids, so let me provide a translation: Sadie was officially off the charts. So far off, in fact, that the nurses in our Los Angeles pediatrician’s office recalibrated the scales every time we came for an appointment, positive there was some mistake. The baby had done nothing but nurse since she was born, and her need for constant access to my body meant that my husband was obliged to keep his hands to himself. His hands, and everything else.
“Don’t even think of touching me,” I said as Peter leaned in for a kiss. Then I pasted an insincere smile to my face. “I mean, gosh, honey, I’m just so tired tonight.”
“So what else is news?” Peter said, sighing.
Before our current romantic crisis, I had assumed that I was the source, from both the nature and nurture sides, of my children’s thespian talents. Those tremulous sighs, that bitten lip, the eyelashes wet with barely suppressed tears—hadn’t I seen those reflected back in the mirror all my life? Hadn’t my own parents shown a truly remarkable fortitude in the face of precisely the same wiles? And yet here was Peter, giving my six-year-old daughter Ruby and her younger brother Isaac a run for their money in the drama queen department.
Peter sighed again, so loudly that it was almost a groan. I looked at him. He was sunk in the deep crevasse in the middle of our massive bed, staring at himself in the mirrored ceiling, and practicing his beleaguered husband expression. He’d become rather adept at it over the past few months. He looked downright wounded, so pathetic that I was almost willing to overcome my aversion to all things physical. Almost.
“The crack in the mirror is getting bigger,” I said, to distract him.
“Are you serious? Where?” Peter’s expression changed to one of concern, even panic. Ramon Navarro built our house in 1926. The actor lived in it for only a few years before he went on to more fabulous accommodations and ended up murdered in a Hollywood Hills mansion in 1968. The only reason we could afford the house was because it was not only completely run down, but a bit, well, quirky. The Latin lothario had had something of a baroque design inclination, and while touches like the basement dungeon, which Peter used as an office, and the Maxwell Parrish–style murals that seemed entirely innocent until you realized that the lovely young woman in the long pink gown sported a distinct Adam’s apple and hands and feet that were a mite too big for a lady, were part of the charm of the house, we could have done without the mirrored bedroom ceiling. Our contractor had informed us, however, that as soon as we pried off the splintering glass we were going to have to deal with the ancient plaster crumbling above it, and the rotten floor joists above that. Until we had the desire and financial wherewithal to replace not just the ceiling but the floor of the third story above it, we were going to have to live with our reflected selves. Then the contractor made some joke about bordellos, which neither Peter nor I thought was funny, for obvious reasons.
Through necessity I had discovered that in order to distract Peter from thoughts of sex, I had to turn his attention to something potentially more disastrous, like the possibility that our slowly cracking mirrored ceiling was going to come crashing down on top of our heads.
Peter heaved himself onto his elbows and glared up at the crack. Our bed was also a legacy of the late Mr. Navarro, handed down to each subsequent owner of the house by virtue of the fact that there was no way to move the massive thing out. The room had clearly been constructed around it. Judging by its size, the entire house may well have been built around it. While I was quite in love with the intricately carved headboard, I would happily have bought a new mattress to replace the ancient and sagging one that was on the bed. It couldn’t possibly have been the same one on which the movie star had entertained guests of various genders and professional and religious affiliations, but it sure smelled that way. However, nowadays nobody, it seems, makes a king and a half, and I hadn’t yet gotten my act together to order a specially constructed mattress to fit the huge old bed. It looked like I was going to have to do it soon, however, because a series of tiny pink dots had lately appeared on Sadie’s belly and back, leading to the inevitable conclusion that the mattress suffered from something far worse than mere malodorousness: an infestation of creepy-crawlies. Nothing like spending a king’s ransom on a house only to find it populated by an entire nation’s worth of invisible citizens.
“This house is going to kill us,” Peter said. “It’s going to crush us and bleed us like a succubus.”
“I love our house.”
“I love it, too, but it’s still going to suck the life out of us.”
“Hey, did I tell you that Isaac wants a King Arthur birthday party?” The second floor of the house had a series of Juliet balconies looking down into the living room. The flagstone floors and balconies made for the perfect setting for enacting the drama of the Knights of the Round Table.
“What a cool idea!” Peter said. “We can rent ponies and have jousting in the ballroom!”
Well, at least I’d succeeded in distracting him. The birthday party was well over a month away, and my husband is something of space cadet, or a Luftmensch, as my grandmother would have said. His brain is in the clouds, his mind distracted by things like his next horror screenplay or his bid on an eBay auction for a Maskatron action figure (with three masks, a pair of weapon arms, and two flesh-tone thigh pieces). Within a month, neither he nor Isaac would remember this birthday party idea, and I would not have to tell them that if they thought that the cosseted preschoolers in Isaac’s class were going to be allowed to hurl lances at one another, or that I was going to allow ponies in the house, they were out of their minds. Still, I was happy that at least Peter was finally thinking, however briefly, about something other than our sex life. Or lack thereof.
By morning, all three kids had migrated into our bed like refugees from a natural disaster. Except that the calamities they were running from were overpriced furniture, matching linens, and enough toys to populate a series of children’s books. The only rooms in our house that were entirely furnished were the ones belonging to the three children. I’d spent an entertaining and expensive afternoon shopping from the comfort of my hospital bed while recovering from my last caesarean section. On the very day I realized we had actually found a house, I had purchased online everything I was missing for the kids’ rooms, making sure it all matched. My mother, a woman whose photograph, with her trademark early 80s perm and brightly colored reading glasses, can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary under the word “frugal,” never once bought matching bedroom furniture for me when I was a child. In fact, my bedroom “sets” were always inherited from the most recently deceased relative on either side of the family. I slept on Tante Froma’s foam rubber mattress until I was nine, stored my clothes in Uncle Sol and Auntie Gertie’s colonial chest of drawers until high school, and lived surrounded by my great-aunt Nettie’s fascination for all things Danish Modern until I went to college. I swore that when I had children, my daughter would have a little white canopy bed with a matching dresser and desk. So far Ruby appeared not to care in the slightest about her lovely bedroom furniture and seemed only interested in wheedling herself into our bed whenever possible. Isaac could be sleeping in a shoebox for all he noticed his immediate surroundings. I had high hopes for Sadie, however, even though she had yet to spend more than the first two hours of any night in her carefully chosen Victorian-style crib with the pansy-print bumper and sheet set. She was bound to one day appreciate the fact that the knobs on her dresser matched the cushion on the desk chair, which were the same shade of sunny butter yellow as the linings in the baskets in which she would store her shoes, once she was big enough to wear them. Wasn’t she?
I popped Sadie off the nipple and, holding my breath, shifted her into the bassinet pulled up alongside our bed. She belched softly, and then settled down. I exhaled, relieved at having for once made a successful breast-to-bassinet transfer, and turned to wake up the other two children. Then I heard a low rumbling. I turned back and the cloying sour smell of a breast-fed baby’s dirty diaper accosted me. While I watched, a tangerine stain spread across the front of Sadie’s pale blue onesie.
“I just don’t get why it’s orange,” Ruby whispered. She sat up in bed next to me, staring into the bassinet.
“It’s almost the exact color of your hair.”
Ruby opened her mouth in a simulated retch. “Gross, Mom.”
Sadie pursed her lips and sucked, still deeply asleep. This, I thought, is the biggest difference between a first-time mother and a third. Never, never, would I have allowed Ruby to lie festering in her own filth. Now, I wouldn’t wake Sadie up if the house were burning down around us. I’d just wheel her outside in her bassinet and tell the firefighters to turn off their damn sirens.
“Go get dressed, kid,” I said to Ruby. “If you’re ready in five minutes or less, I’ll make pancakes.”
THE beauty of being a self-employed mother is that you can take your baby to work. That’s also the horror of being a self-employed mother. Although, who am I kidding? I’m so barely employed that it hardly counts, and I certainly have no right to whine. (Not that that has ever stopped me before.)
I used to have a career. I used to be a criminal defense attorney working at the federal public defender’s office in downtown Los Angeles. I represented drug offenders and bank robbers with the odd white-collar boiler room scam artist thrown in just to keep me on my toes. I loved my job. There was nothing I enjoyed more than a morning interviewing a client in the Metropolitan Detention Center, followed by an afternoon court appearance to argue a motion to reveal the identity of a confidential informant, topped off by an evening spent preparing a witness for cross-examination. It was when those days were complicated by pumping breast milk and racing home to see the baby before she fell asleep that the joys of work began to pale. I left the federal defender’s office when Ruby was fourteen months old, full of plans to go with her to Mommy & Me, to sit with her on my lap at story hour in the library, to take long walks around the reservoir with her in the stroller, to laze away our days at the playground.
And that’s what we did. Our lives were about Mommy & Me and the playground and story hour and crayons and building blocks. We went to the library, to the park, to the zoo, to the art museum. We made necklaces out of Cheerios and ate banana and almond butter sandwiches. Three days of that and I was ready to be institutionalized. In the years since then, I have gone on to prove that it is possible to be both so busy that you realize only at dinner time that you’ve eaten nothing all day but eleven frozen frappucinos and half a rice cake you found under the baby’s car seat and, at the same time, to be so bored that a radio news segment on blind trout fishermen strikes you as the most provocative thing you’ve heard since college.
When I was pregnant with Isaac I began, accidentally at first, to do some investigation work. My husband says I was drawn to the work because I am nosy; he thinks that I have an unhealthy need to know what is going on in the lives of people around me. I think my natural curiosity is part of my charm. I’m nowhere near as bad as my grandmother, who stole Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s famous line, “If you have nothing nice to say, come sit by me.” I’m at least interested in finding out both the good and the bad about people. Is it my fault that the latter seems so much more prevalent and easier to discern?
Not quite two years ago, my old colleague Al Hockey convinced me to go into business with him. Al’s not a lawyer. He’s an ex-cop who retired from the force when the health consequences of the bullet he took made it difficult for him to function in uniform. He wasn’t going to sit behind a desk and push a pen; that’s just not the kind of guy he is. But the department wasn’t about to let him back on the street with a crumpled colon and a chip on his shoulder. To be fair, the chip’s been there all his life, and they shouldn’t have hired him if they weren’t interested in a cop who was constitutionally incapable of sucking up to the brass. After he quit the force, Al became a defense investigator with the federal defender’s office, and then he went out on his own. Al and I are unlikely friends, but friends we are, and partners, too, although every so often I wonder if my excessive fertility isn’t going to drive him to dissolve the partnership and throw me out on my ass. But I’m done having kids. Even if I wanted more, back then I wasn’t letting Peter close enough to bring another Applebaum-Wyeth into the world.
“Any rats today?” I asked as I walked into Al’s garage.
I’d tried to convince Al to shift our offices to one of the many bedrooms in my new house, but after glaring at the gargoyle chandeliers and homoerotic murals, Al had hopped back into his SUV and rolled on home to Westminster. I don’t mean to imply that my partner is an intolerant man. Sure, he’s a neoconservative nut, but his militia unit is the only racially integrated one in the United States. His wife is African American, and he is a card-carrying Libertarian and thus adamantly in favor of things like gay marriage. As far as he’s concerned, people can sleep with whomever and whatever they like, so long as the object of their desire is either a consenting adult or an inanimate object. He is, however, an old-school kind of guy, and certain things make him uncomfortable. Like the fact that my husband would be working underneath us in a dungeon with real handcuffs dangling from the walls and his storyboards propped up against an antique vaulting horse that none of us is naïve enough to think was ever really used for gymnastics. So it was the garage for Al and me, rats and all. Al insisted that the vermin infesting our makeshift office were tree rats, as if the fact that they normally made their homes in tall and gracious California palms made them any less disgusting.
“They’ve been quiet today,” Julio, our office assistant, said.
“Please tell me you’re not working on the computer.”
“Of course not.” He tapped a few keys and the screen went dark. One of the conditions of Julio Rodriguez’s supervised release from federal prison was that he have absolutely no contact with computers. That’s what happens when you’ve been convicted of immigration fraud through computer hacking. If being banned from the keyboard effectively means that you’re barred from all employment other than the most menial, well, that’s not the Probation Department’s problem, is it? Al and I had been on a protracted and so far unsuccessful campaign to convince Julio’s probation officer that society as a whole would be better served by harnessing this kid’s significant technological talent than by forcing him to flip burgers or stand on a street corner waiting for day-laborer work. We were hoping that the fact that Julio never personally benefited from his hacking would count for something. The system he had manipulated belonged to the old Immigration and Naturalization Service, and he had been giving away Social Security cards, not selling them. But so far our pleas had fallen on deaf ears. The probation officer was of the opinion that whatever his motives, Julio was an incorrigible criminal with an addiction to Internet havoc and, like an alcoholic from booze, he needed to be kept away from the computer at all costs. While I thought the guy was overreacting, and I knew Julio wasn’t about to commit another crime, I had to admit that there was a certain truth to the fact that our assistant could not, no matter how hard he tried, keep his fingers from dancing on the keyboard. In the couple of months since he’d started working for us, our network had already magically reconfigured itself and was now working at about four times the capacity and twice the speed. My hard drive had been restructured, too. I wasn’t asking, but I knew it wasn’t Al who had renamed and reorganized the database.
“Where’s the boss?” I asked.
“Ah.” My partner is not much of a morning person and is as addicted to caffeine as Julio is to digital technology.
I sat down in my chair, pulled a baby blanket over my shoulder, and lifted Sadie out of her car seat. She wasn’t crying yet, but she was making the snuffling noise that was a prelude to the frantic rooting for the breast that heralded the hysterical weeping. If I could cut her off at the pass, I might be able to get her to sleep for another hour. If so, it was possible that I would actually accomplish something this morning. That would be an event so unusual that it might cause my partner to fall to the floor in a dead faint.
“Anything new come in?” I asked.
“No,” Julio said. “But Al is helping me with a personal problem.”
My heart sank. It is so rare for a public defender to see clients turning their lives around. Julio, who had served his time and left prison with the fortitude and confidence to rewrite the story of his life, was the exception, not the rule. I couldn’t bear the idea that his tale was going to be one with an unhappy ending.
“What happened?” I said.
“Don’t sound so tragic,” Al snarled from the doorway. His eyes were puffy from lack of sleep and he held a giant coffee mug in his hand. “It’s not Chiki. It’s his cousin.” Chiki. Right. I reminded myself that Julio had recently, with an uncharacteristic blush and stammer, invited us to call him by his nickname.
“My cousin’s bunkie.”
“What’s a bunkie?”
“That’s what the ladies in prison call their cellmates. My cousin Fidelia is up at Dartmore. She called last night looking for help for her bunkie. The lady just had a baby, and someone stole the kid.”
“Apparently,” Al said, his old desk chair squeaking under his weight, “the girl signed the baby over to a foster family, thinking it was just supposed to be for a few days or weeks, and she’s now afraid they’ve absconded with the child.”
I shook my head. “Okay, hold on gentlemen. Back up here. Tell me what’s going on slowly enough for my nursing-addled mind to comprehend it. Who are we talking about?”
“Her name is Sandra Lorgeree. She was just a couple months pregnant when she got busted, and she had the baby in prison,” Chiki said. “She’s doing five years.”
“And her baby got put into foster care?”
“Not exactly,” Chiki said. “California Department of Corrections regulations allow moms to spend just twenty-four to forty-eight hours with their newborns in the hospital after they give birth. Then the ladies get sent back to the prison. The babies got to be turned over to the custody of a blood relative. If the lady has no blood relative, then she has to find someone who is a foster parent licensed by the state of California. Otherwise the baby goes to the Department of Social Services and they put the baby in foster care.”
“What’s the difference who puts the baby in foster care?”
“This whole licensed foster parent thing has made things really complicated. It used to be that when a prisoner who had no blood relatives would have a baby, she could ask a friend to come up and get the baby and bring it back home. But now, the Department of Corrections won’t release the babies to anyone who isn’t a licensed foster care provider, even if that person is who the mom wants her baby to be with.”
“But I still don’t understand why this is ‘baby stealing.’ I mean, yes, it’s awful and all that, but when the woman gets out she can just go get her kid, right?”
Chiki clucked his tongue in frustration. “It’s real bad when DSS takes a baby, because as soon as they do, the clock starts ticking for termination of parental rights.”
“What do you mean, ‘termination’? Just because the woman’s in prison? What if she’s only serving like a year or something?”
Chiki gave me a look like I was the most ignorant person he’d ever seen. “If DSS get their hands on a baby, they only give the mom six months. That’s all. I know one lady, she got a three-month extension, but that’s it. After that, the baby is gone.”
I’m ashamed to say I didn’t believe Chiki. I made a few murmurs of doubt, settled a sleeping Sadie in her car seat, and turned to my computer. With a few clicks of the mouse, I was reading a state statute that confirmed what Chiki had said. When a child up to age three is taken by the state, for whatever reason, the mother has, indeed, only six months to get it back. If she can’t take the child back, she loses parental rights altogether. The idea behind this is a good one—infants should not languish in foster care, but instead should be adopted. But for women who are in prison, this requirement has devastating consequences. Once the children of a woman who is serving a sentence longer than six months enter the foster care system, she loses them forever, even if her sentence is only a year.
“This is awful,” I said.
“No kidding,” Al said.
“You’re opposed to this?” I was surprised. Al was usually in favor of people sleeping in the beds they’d made, no matter how full of nails.
“You’re damn right I am. The government has no right to take someone’s child!”
“So what happened to Sandra?” I said.
Chiki said, “She didn’t have no relative to take her baby, and no friend who was licensed.”
Sandra had been at her wit’s end, like many other women whose families lived too far away to make the trip to Dartmore prison, about sixty miles southeast of San Jose. All pregnant women in the state of California are automatically transferred to this isolated facility, as it’s close to a maternity hospital. The fact that it’s a maximum-security prison seems not to bother the California Department of Corrections overmuch. The social worker at Dartmore presented Sandra and other pregnant prisoners with what appeared to be their salvation. The Lambs of the Lord, a church-based foster care agency located in Pleasanton, a small city not too far from San Francisco, would send a family to take custody of their babies for as long as it took for the women to arrange alternative care. As soon as the prisoner’s family or friends were available to pick up the baby, the agency would arrange transfer of custody. In the meantime, the baby would be safe, well cared for, and most importantly, out of the dangerous hands of the State.
Women immediately began signing on the dotted line. At any given moment, somewhere between one and two hundred prisoners in California are in the advanced stages of pregnancy, and they’re all shipping to Dartmore as they approach their due dates. Within weeks, the Lambs had dozens of grateful recruits, including Sandra Lorgeree. She turned her baby boy over to a sweet-faced young couple from the Lambs of the Lord a mere eight hours after he was born, and no one had seen the baby since.
“What does that mean, ‘no one has seen him’?” I said. “Of course she hasn’t seen him. She’s in jail. Has someone else gone looking for him?”