Just What Kind of Mother Are You?by Paula Daly
Your best friend’s child goes missing. . . .On your watch. A gut-wrenching thriller and a shrewd examination of family life—and the deception that can lie beneath.
A Top Ten Thriller of Fall 2013 (Publishers Weekly) and One of O, The Oprah Magazine—s Five Page Turners That Will Surprise You More Than Once
Lisa Kallisto—an overwhelmed working mother—is the not-so-perfect model of the modern woman. She holds down a busy job running the local animal shelter, she cares for three demanding children, and she worries that her marriage is not getting enough attention. During an impossibly hectic week, Lisa takes her eye off the ball for just a moment, and her whole world descends into a living nightmare. Not only is her best friend’s thirteen-year-old daughter missing, but it is all Lisa’s fault. And to make matters worse, Lucinda is the second teenage girl to disappear in the past two weeks. The first one turned up stripped bare and abandoned on the main street after a horrible ordeal. Wracked with guilt over her mistake, and after having been publicly blamed by Lucinda’s family, Lisa sets out to right the wrong. But as she begins digging under the surface, Lisa learns that everything is not quite what it first appears to be.
In Paula Daly’s heart-stopping and heartbreaking debut novel, motherhood, marriage, and friendship are tested when a string of horrifying abductions tear through a small-town community. Gripping and fast-paced, Just What Kind of Mother Are You? introduces an outstanding new thriller writer with a sharp eye and a terrifying imagination for the horrors that lurk in our everyday lives.
“Riveting! Daly plunges straight into the heart of every parent’s worst nightmare with page turning results. You know this family. You may even be one of these moms. And you will fly through this novel, as their pain, bewilderment, and ultimately determination becomes your own.” —Lisa Gardner, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Touch & Go and Catch Me
“A distinctive voice, masterful plotting, and pitch-perfect characterizations mark British author Daly’s superb debut. . . . Daly’s detailed, richly imagined world and surprising plot twists bring fresh life to the familiar theme of child abduction. In the end, the novel is not just an intriguing puzzle but also a nuanced exploration of friendship, motherhood, fallibility, and the mystery of human relationships.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“This intriguing blend of suspense tale and domestic drama, which has a number of delicious plot twists, will keep readers riveted. . . there is also much insight here into the power games that rule both female friendships and the relationships between husbands and wives. First-rate fiction from an outstanding new thriller writer.” —Booklist (starred review)
“[A] taut novel.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“A unique and utterly gripping thriller. Lisa Kallisto is a very real character, thrown into a situation we’ve all had nightmares about. A compelling read.” —Alison Gaylin, bestselling author of Into the Dark
“Paula Daly’s strong debut . . . is fiendishly addictive as well as perceptive about guilt and social class.” —Guardian (UK)
“Daly’s debut novel explores how interpersonal relationships wax and wane following the disappearance of a local child. . . . The storytelling and Daly’s voice are top-drawer.” —Kirkus Reviews
“What elevates this ordinary story is the extraordinary realism of the characters. As we’re pulled into her class-conscious community, we root for [protagonists] Lisa, Joe and justice. Grade: A.” —Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Anything but predictable . . . a true mystery thriller that takes readers down a circuitous, agonizing path.” —Florida Times-Union
“It’s almost impossible, if you have a heart of any size, to not get wrapped up right away in Lisa Kallisto’s plight—the overwhelmed parent with a marital secret, too much work, too many pets, three kids, not enough time and not enough money. . . . It is a page-turner.” —Scott Spinelli, Three Guys One Book
“One of the most hypnotically gripping books I’ve read in a long, long time. Masterfully written and utterly unputdownable, this thriller will surprise and astound you with every ingenious twist and turn.” —Tess Gerritsen, New York Times-bestselling author of Last to Die
“Paula Daly’s finely-wrought debut thriller deals with overburdened working women who are doing their best but are in danger of being swamped by the conflicting demands being placed upon them. Daly’s characters are well-drawn, complex individuals who oftentimes are not what they seem to be, and her small-town settings seethe with twisted dynamics lurking just below the bucolic surfaces.” —Lisa Brackmann, author of Rock Paper Tiger
“Just What Kind of Mother Are You? is an intricate, absolutely absorbing account of a series of chilling events that once unleashed will keep the reader riveted to the pages. A grave reminder of the heavy responsibility of being a mother, a wife, a friend. Hypnotic and harrowing right up to the pulse-pounding end. Unforgettable.” —Heather Gudenkauf, New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of The Weight of Silence and These Things Hidden
“A crackling good read, Just What Kind of Mother Are You? is a remarkable domestic thriller debut. Fueled by every parent’s worst nightmare, Paula Daly takes you for an intense, gritty and heartbreaking roller-coaster ride. A writer to watch.” —Julia Spencer-Fleming, New York Times bestselling author of One Was A Soldier
“A terrifically assured debut—a compelling read with a wholly appealing protagonist and great doses of humor along with the suspense.” —Kathleen George, author of Simple and The Odds
“A terrifying story that strips away all our preconceptions about love, loyalty, and friendship. Paula Daly writes so compellingly and convincingly about one mother’s descent into the darkest of places, that we can’t help but be dragged along with her. A fantastic debut.” —Carla Buckley, author of Invisible
“I read the book in just a few hours, gripped by the believable characters and switchbacks of the plot. Everyone will recognize the dilemmas in this book and hold their breath for the finale.” —Claire McGowan, author of The Fall and Director of the CWA
“This is a superb debut novel, which engages the reader from the first page and doesn’t let up until the final twist at the very end. An unsettling portrayal of just how easily lives can unravel amid the pressures of modern life. Close the curtains, stoke up the fire and prepare for an excellent read.” —Diane Janes, author of Why Didn’t You Come for Me?
“An assured and nail-biting debut which gives an authentic portrayal of modern family life and the pressures of being a working mother. Daly writes eloquently about an ordinary family plunged into a nightmare and sets her story in the wintry landscape of the English Lakes. A tense and satisfying read.” —Cath Staincliffe, author of Split Second and Dead to Me
He arrives with time to spare. Reverse-parking, he gets out and the cold hits him. Slapping him hard in the face and stinging his skin. He smells good. Expensive.
He’s parked a few hundred yards from the school at the viewing point. On a clear day there’s an uninterrupted vista across the lake, over to the mountains beyond. In better weather there’d be an ice cream van, Japanese tourists taking photographs. Not today, though. Not with the clouds so low in the sky, and not with the autumn darkness fast approaching.
The lake water reflects the trees. It’s a muddy, coffee-colored brown—soon to be slate-grey—and the air is still.
Maybe he should get a dog, he ponders briefly. Something friendly—a spaniel perhaps, or one of those white, fluffy things. Kids love dogs, don’t they? It might just be worth a go.
He checks for signs of life but for the moment he’s still alone. It’s just him, watching. Sizing up the scene, weighing up the risks.
Risk assessment is part of his job. Mostly he just makes stuff up, putting down on paper whatever the fire-safety officer wants to read. Along with a few extras, though, enough to give the impression that he actually gives a shit.
This is different. This, he really does need to look at carefully. Because he knows he can be rash. He knows he can be lacking in the necessary thoroughness and can end up paying for it later. He can’t afford for that to happen now. Not with this.
He checks his watch. Tons of time before he’s expected elsewhere. That’s the great thing about his job, it leaves plenty of time for this other . . . interest.
That’s how he’s thinking of it at the moment, just an interest. Nothing serious. He’s figuring things out, seeing if he likes it. Kind of the way one might do with evening classes.
“Come along for a couple of sessions of calligraphy before you pay in full.”
“Conversational French might not be for you, after all.”
He knows his interest can wane quickly, but that’s what makes him successful, because, don’t all successful people have a low boredom threshold?
As a child he’d been told he couldn’t stick at anything, couldn’t sit still and focus on one thing at a time. He can still be like that so he needs to check before committing. He wants to be sure. He wants to be certain he’s going to follow it through before taking the first step.
He checks his watch. Three forty. They’ll be here soon–the first few making their way home.
He gets back inside his car and waits.
His plan is to gauge his reaction. See if what he thinks will happen does happen. Then he’ll know. Then he’ll know for sure.
When he spots them his pulse flickers. Each is coatless, hatless, wearing shoes inappropriate for the season. The first to pass in front of the car are a couple of girls. Dyed hair, sulky expressions, big, shapeless legs.
No, he thinks, that’s not it. That’s not what he wants at all.
Next are two groups of boys. Fourteen- or fifteen-year-olds. Slapping each other across the backs of heads, laughing at nothing. One of them glances his way before sticking two fingers up. This makes him laugh. Harmless enough, he thinks.
That’s when he sees her.
She’s alone. Walking purposefully. Spine erect, with short, neat steps. She’s around twelve—though she could be older. She might just be young-looking for her age.
She passes in front of the car and again his pulse quickens. He feels a shiver of pleasure flash through him as, momentarily, she slows. She’s hanging back from the group of boys, unsure of what to do. He watches rapt as her face changes, watches as it takes on a determined expression, and at once she makes the bold decision to overtake.
Half skipping, half running, she flits off the pavement and picks up her pace. She’s fawn-like! he thinks, totally delighted by her. Her slim ankles are moving quickly as she pulls away from the group.
He glances down and sees that his palms are wet. And it’s then that he knows for sure. Smiling, he realizes he had not been wrong to come here.
He drops down the sun visor and checks his reflection. He looks exactly the same as he did ten minutes ago, but marvels at how different he feels. It’s as if all the pieces have clicked together, and he understands, perhaps for the first time, what people mean when they say, “It just feels right.”
Turning the ignition, he flicks on the heated seat and, still smiling, heads towards Windermere.
I wake up more tired than when I went to sleep. I’ve had five and a half hours and, after hitting the snooze button for the third time, I lift my head.
It’s the kind of tired I’m beyond finding reasons for. You know the sort, you first notice it and you think: What is wrong with me? I must have some crazy blood disorder. Or, worse, I must have contracted something really awful because no one can feel this tired. Can they?
But I’ve had the checks. The blood tests came back normal.
My GP—a wily old guy who I’m guessing has had more than his fair share of women in complaining of being exhausted all the time—broke the news to me with a wry smile. “Sorry, Lisa,” he said, “but this thing you’re suffering from . . . it’s just life.”
Often I feel like I’m in a giant social experiment. As if some bright spark decided to get all the women of the western world together as part of one big study: Let’s educate them! Let’s give them good, meaningful work to do! Then let’s see what happens when they procreate. Let’s watch it blow!
You think I’m moaning.
I think I’m moaning.
That’s the worst part. I can’t even complain without feeling guilty, because I’ve got everything. Everything a person could possibly want. Should want. And I do. I want all of it.
Where did I go to? I think, looking in the bathroom mirror as I brush my teeth. I used to be so nice. I used to have time for people. Now I’m in a state of constant tired irritation and I hate it.
I’m overwhelmed. That’s the only word I can use to describe myself. That’s what it will say on my headstone.
Lisa Kallisto: she was just so overwhelmed.
I’m the first up. Sometimes my eldest gets downstairs before me if her hair is going through an unruly patch, if she needs to devote extra attention to it. But, usually, at six forty, it’s just me.
“Get up an hour earlier,” the magazines say. Embrace the quiet time, the time before the frenzy starts. Plan your day, make your tick list, drink your hot water with a slice of lemon in it. Detox and you will feel the benefits.
I get the coffee going and start scooping kibble into bowls. We have three dogs, all Staffordshire Bull Terrier crosses—not what I’d pick if I had the choice, but they’re good dogs. Clean, goodnatured, good with the kids, and as I let them out of the utility room where they sleep, they fire past me in a rush of giddiness, sit by their bowls, expectant. “Go ahead,” I say, and they dive in.
Walking them in the morning is generally my husband’s job, because Joe often works late. You’re imagining him in an office, tie pulled loose, hair ruffled, deadline looming? I do it myself sometimes. Never thought I’d marry a taxi driver. Especially one with “Joe le Taxi” painted on the side of his people carrier in great big silver letters.
Joe did an airport run down to Heathrow last night. Some Arabs offered him double the usual fare if he acted as their personal driver for the time they were here in the Lakes. They wanted the usual: trips to Wordsworth’s house, Beatrix Potter’s farm, boat rides on Ullswater, Kendal Mint Cake. I heard him roll into bed around four, round about the time I’d woken up panicking that I’d forgotten to post a Congratulations on Your New Baby card out to one of my kennel girls.
“Get a good tip?” I mumbled, my face pushed hard into the pillow, as Joe wriggled in next to me, smelling of beer.
He always keeps a couple of cans in the car if he’s on a late.
Then, he says, he can get straight off to sleep the minute he climbs into bed. I’m sick of telling him it is not good–taxi driver swigging away at the wheel—but he’s beyond stubborn.
“Tipped me a hundred quid,” he answered, giving my buttock a quick squeeze, “. . . and I’m planning on spending the lot on new underwear for you.”
“You mean for you.” I yawned. “I need a new exhaust.”
For the past eight years I’ve bought new underwear for Joe’s birthday—underwear for me. Every year I question him—”What do you want?”—and every year he stares at me, like, Do you reallyneed to ask?
Once he said he wanted to shop for it himself. But we did away with that arrangement when he came home with red everything. Including red fishnets. “Best if I get it from now on, Joe,” I’d said to him, and he’d said, “Okay,” kind of crestfallen. Though I think he knew deep down I was never going to go for that trashy get-up.
The dogs finish eating and trot to the back door as a pack. My favorite is Ruthie. She’s a Staffy crossed with either a Red Setter or a Hungarian Vizsla. She’s got the brindle coat of a Staffy, but instead of the usual chocolate, autumn browns, she’s had her color turned up in a mad show of russet and henna, copper and bronze. And she has these long, long legs, which make her look as if she’s swapped bodies with another dog.
Ruthie came to the shelter five years ago in a batch of unwanted puppies. A bitch kept for breeding got loose for the day and had a litter of seven. Ruthie was the one we couldn’t home, so, as is often the way, she ended up at ours.
Luckily, Joe is kind of a natural. He’s got that calm authority dogs seem to gravitate towards. He understands dogs in the same way some people understand numbers, or circuit boards. Even if we have a problem case and I bring it home, Joe’s zen effect usually means the dog is settled in by bedtime.
I open up the back door and the dogs rush out, just as the cold and the cats rush in. Winter’s here early. Snow had been predicted and there’s been a heavy fall overnight. The chill seeps into my bones in an instant. I hear the cry of an animal carry across the valley on the thin air and shut the door quickly.
The coffee’s ready and I pour myself what the coffee houses call an Americano–espresso topped up with hot water; my cup holds almost a pint. I hear movement coming from upstairs, small feet on floorboards, the toilet flushing, a nose blowing, and I rally myself. I read somewhere that children measure their self-worth directly from the look on your face and was horrified to realize I’d been greeting my children looking kind of vague. This is because I have a hundred and one things going through my head at any given moment–but they don’t know that. I’m sure they must have spent the first few years of their lives wondering if I actually recognized them at all. I feel dreadful about it now, so often I go a bit too much the other way. My youngest son laps up the attention. But my older two, particularly Sally, who’s thirteen, have taken to eyeing me suspiciously.
She sits at the kitchen table now, full lips swollen from sleep, hair pulled up high in a ponytail to be dealt with later. Next to her is her iPod Touch.
She spoons Rice Krispies into her mouth while at the same time shooing a cat away with her elbow. I watch her from over by the kettle. She’s dark like Joe. They all are. Ask Joe where he’s from and he’ll tell you Ambleside. Most people assume he’s Italian. He’s not. Kallisto is a South American name—Brazilian—though we reckon Joe’s of Argentinian descent. He has dark hair, dark eyes and dark skin. As do the kids. Their hair is shiny black and straight, and they have Joe’s absurdly long eyelashes. Naturally, Sally thinks she’s ugly. She thinks all her friends are beautiful and she is not. This is something we’re working on, but of course she distrusts everything I say, because I’m her mother.
And what the hell would I know about anything?
“PE today?” I ask.
“What are you making?”
I’m never really sure what Tech is. It seems to encompass woodwork, sewing, design, pretty much everything—
Sally puts her spoon down. Looks at me as if to say, You are joking?
“We’re doing food tech,” she says, keeping her eyes fixed on mine. “Food tech, as in cooking. Don’t say you forgot to get the ingredients. The list,” she says, pointing towards the fridge, “is right there.”
“Shit,” I reply quietly. “I completely forgot. What do you need?”
Sally gets up, scrapes her chair across the flagstone floor. All the while I’m thinking, Please be flapjacks, please be flapjacks. I have oats and can cobble together the rest. Or crumble. Fruit crumble would be good. She can use those apples up, throw in a bit of something else from the bottom of the fruit bowl. It’ll be fine.
Sally grabs the piece of paper. “Pizza.”
“No,” I reply, gutted. “Really?”
“We need ready–made tomato sauce, mozzarella, something for the base, like a baguette or pitta bread, and our own choice of toppings. I thought I’d have spicy chicken and green pepper. But I don’t mind having tuna, if that’s all we’ve got.”
We have none of those ingredients. Not one.
I close my eyes. “Why didn’t you remind me about this? I specifically told you to remind me. Why didn’t you remind me when I told—”
“After school on Friday,” she says. “You were on the laptop.”
That’s right, I remember. I was trying to order a delivery of logs and the website wouldn’t accept my credit-card details. And I lost my temper.
Sally’s face now changes from the satisfaction of being in the right to that of mild panic. “Tech is third period,” she says, her voice rising. “How am I supposed to get the stuff by third period?”
“Can you tell the teacher your mother forgot?”
“I told her that last time, and she said, “No more chances.” She said it was just as much my responsibility. She said I could go to the shop myself for the ingredients if I needed to.”
“Did you explain to her that we live in Troutbeck?”
“No, because that would have been argumentative.”
We stand there looking at one another, me hoping an answer will magic itself into my head and Sally wishing that I was better at all of this.
“Leave it with me. I’ll sort it,” I say.
I’m thinking about the day ahead, pouring apple juice into glasses, as the two boys sit down at the kitchen table. We’ve got fourteen dogs in the shelter at present and eleven cats. The dogs I’ve got space for, but one of my most dependable cat fosterers is going in for a hysterectomy tomorrow, so I need to take delivery of an extra four cats this morning. And there are two dogs arriving from Northern Ireland as well that I’d clean forgotten about.
The boys are arguing over who is having the last of the Rice Krispies because neither of them wants the stale Fruit & Fibre that’s been at the back of the cupboard since summer. James is eleven and Sam is seven. They’re both skinny with big brown eyes and no common sense. They’re the type of boys Italian mothers slap across the head a lot. Kind boys, but silly, and I love them fiercely.
I’m resigning myself to the fact that I’ll have to wake up Joe and send him out for the pizza ingredients when the phone rings. It’s seven twenty, so whoever it is does not have good news. Nobody rings me at seven twenty with good news.
“Lisa, it’s Kate.”
“Kate,” I say. “What’s happened? Is something wrong?”
“Yes—no—well, sort of. Listen, sorry to ring so early but I wanted to catch you while you still had the boys at home.”
Kate Riverty is my friend of around five years. She has two children, who are similar in age to both Sally, my eldest, and Sam, my youngest.
“It’s nothing major. I just thought you’d want to know so that you can address it before it gets out of hand.” I stay silent, let her go on. “It’s just that Fergus came home last week saying that he would need money for school, and I didn’t really think much of it at the time. You know how it is . . . they always need money for something. So I gave it to him, and it was only when I was chatting to Guy about it last night and he said that Fergus had asked him for money also that we thought to question him.”
I have no idea where this is going, but that’s not unusual when speaking to Kate, so I try to sound interested. “So what do you think he wants it for?”
I’m guessing she’s going to tell me the teachers have set up a tuck shop. Something she’s not in agreement with. Something she’s against on principle.
“It’s Sam,” Kate says bluntly. “He’s been charging children to play with him.”
“Children are paying him money to play with him. I’m not sure exactly how much because . . . he seems to have a type of sliding scale in operation. Fergus is a little upset about the whole thing, actually. He’s found out he’s been paying substantially more than some of the other boys.”
I turn around and look at Sam. He is wearing Mario Kart pyjamas and is feeding milk directly from his cereal spoon to our old ginger tom.
“You’re not cross that I rang, are you, Lisa?”
I wince. Kate’s trying to sound nice, but her voice has taken on a shrill quality.
“Not at all,” I say. “I’m glad you did.”
“It’s just that if it were me . . . if it were one of mine doing this—well, I’d want to know.”
“Absolutely,” I tell her. Then I give her my standard line, the line that I seem to be giving out to anyone and everyone regardless of the situation I’m faced with: “Leave it with me,” I say firmly.
“I’ll sort it.”
Just before she hangs up I hear Kate say, “The girls okay?”, and I reply, “What? Yes, fine,” because I’m flustered, and I’m embarrassed, and I’m not really thinking straight. I’m wondering how I’m going to tackle the problem of Sam’s new enterprise.
But when I put the phone down, I think, Girls? What does she mean by that? Then I dismiss it, because Kate often gets me on the back foot. Confuses me with what she’s really trying to say. It’s something I’ve had to get used to.