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The new Mommy Track Mystery from the national bestselling author of Murder Plays House.
Ayelet Waldman's one-of-kind sleuth tracks the mysterious whereabouts of a missing infant to a widespread, top-secret puzzle that's nothing to play with.
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Ayelet Waldman is a Harvard Law School graduate and former public defender who is now a stay-at-home mom. She lives with her writer husband Michael Chabon and four children.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
“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...
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