Authors: Janet Evanovich
“That would be my vote too. I'm not crazy about running into Ethel in the dark.”
We continued out of the woods and stood staring at the run-down ranch house in front of us. It was about the size of a double-wide and looked like it was held together with duct tape and Elmer's glue. The rusted-out pickup truck in the front yard had double gun racks across the back window.
“Maybe we should ask if they've seen Ethel since we're here,” I said to Morelli.
“Not a good idea. If they've seen her I can guarantee they're having her for dinner. If they haven't seen her, they'll comb the woods with their dogs until they find her.”
“Okay then, how about if we creep up on them and peek in their kitchen window so we can see if they have the slow cooker going?”
“No. Another bad idea. The mayor frowns on cops moonlighting as peeping toms.”
“Understood. So you stay here, and I'm going to take a quick look.”
Too late. I was halfway across the yard doing a tippy-toe jog. I got as far as the junker truck, and dogs started barking inside the house. The front door opened, and a man looked out. I held my breath and stood statue still. I was in shadow, behind the truck, and I was pretty sure he couldn't see me. The door slammed shut, and I could hear the man yelling at the dogs. The dogs kept barking, the door opened again, and the dogs charged out. Three of them. They were running straight for me, and I had a double fear. The first was that they would tear me to shreds. The second was that Morelli would shoot them.
I had one of the packages of wieners in my sweatshirt pocket. I tore the package open with my teeth and threw the hot dogs at the lead dog. He snapped up a wiener, and it turned into a feeding frenzy when the other dogs reached him and the remaining food.
Morelli ran across the yard, grabbed my sweatshirt sleeve, and yanked me toward the road. We reached the road and walked hand in hand back to the car.
“This was fun,” Morelli said. “We should do this more often.”
We were at the car, and we took a last look around. The sun had set, and the double-wide was a black blob in the darkness. There was some rustling in the surrounding brush, but aside from that it was quiet. No dogs barking. No cats howling. No one screaming that they were being eaten alive by a giant snake.
“Do you think we should look inside before we leave?” I asked Morelli.
“No,” Morelli said. “We should definitely not look inside.”
Forty-five minutes later Morelli pulled to the curb in front of his house.
“Usually Simon gets rebonded when he misses his date,” Morelli said. “What's the deal with him staying in jail?”
“He's being stalked by zombies. He figures he's safer if he's locked up.”
That got a smile out of Morelli. “One of the disadvantages to being a grave robber. I guess occasionally you dig up a zombie.”
“He said he dug into a portal.”
“That can't be good.”
I cut my eyes to Morelli. “You don't believe in zombies, do you?”
“No. Do you?”
“No, of course not.” And if I
believe in zombies I for sure wouldn't admit to it.
â¢Â â¢Â â¢
Bob did his happy dance when we walked through the door. His happiness was enhanced by the fact that we were carrying hot dogs. I snagged a couple bottles of beer from Morelli's fridge, and we all went out to the backyard. Morelli fired up the grill, and before long we were all stuffed full of hot dogs.
“So, what's new?” I asked Morelli.
Morelli cracked open a second beer. “Someone was decapitated last night. Male Caucasian without identification. He was found in the alley behind the hardware store on Broad Street. Looks like he was dragged there. The ME puts the time of death around four
“Is it your case?”
“Yeah, lucky me.”
“And I got nothing. I'm waiting for the lab reports to come back.”
“You didn't recognize him?”
“No one recognized him. He didn't have a head.”
“Are you serious?”
“Unfortunately, yes. No head. Gone without a trace. We checked all the dumpsters in the area but nada.”
My job was bad enough. If I had Morelli's job I'd be a raging alcoholic. Every day he was, figuratively speaking, ankle deep in blood. He witnessed scenes of horrible crimes committed by sick people. And despite this, for the most part he could sleep at night, and he hadn't lost faith in the human race. He'd become a master at compartmentalizing. I'm not so good at it. I frequently sleep with the bedroom light on.
Morelli shut the grill down and wrapped an arm around me. “You know what comes next?”
“I haven't got any ice cream.”
Morelli grinned. “Something better than ice cream.”
“Hard to believe.”
“The key word is
MORELLI LIVES IN
a neighborhood of good people packed into modest houses on minimal lots. His front yard is plain. His grass is kept neat. No flowers. No shrubs. No plastic pink flamingos or plaster statues of the Virgin Mary. He has a large flat-screen television in his living room, a pool table in his dining room, and a small table with two chairs in his kitchen. There are three small bedrooms and a full bath upstairs. The master has a king-size bed, which is a good thing because Bob takes up a lot of space.
Morelli is an early riser, always eager to start his day. On the rare occasion he's not completely eager, he's still propelled forward by routine. My routine has a slower start. I'm mostly
to start my day. Especially when it involves looking for a snake.
Sunlight was pouring into Morelli's room by the time I
dragged myself out of his bed and into the shower. We didn't cohabitate, but I spent enough time there to warrant space in the closet. I retrieved some clean clothes, got dressed, went downstairs, and let Bob out to roam around the backyard. I toasted a bagel, helped myself to coffee, and talked myself into heading out to the office.
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Vincent Plum Bail Bonds is housed in a small storefront office on Hamilton Avenue. It's between the hospital and the bakery, and it's across the street from Chambersburg, better known as the Burg. I grew up in the Burg, and my parents still live there. When I was a kid, the Burg was predominantly Italian with some eastern Europeans scattered here and there. It was home to mostly midlevel mob families and second-generation Americans. The population is more diverse now, but it's still a neighborhood that has strong family bonds, keeps itself clean, and takes pride in displaying the flag.
Lula was already at the office when I rolled in.
“Look at you,” Lula said. “I can tell you got some last night. You got that satisfied look on you.”
It was true that I got some. And it was true that it was satisfying, but that was last night, and I thought the satisfaction Lula was seeing this morning was more from the bagel.
“What's new?” I asked Connie. “Did any skips come in this morning?”
Connie is the office manager. She's a couple years older than
me, she's twice as Italian, and if she was in a bitch-slapping contest with the Rock, my money would be on her.
“We have two new high bonds,” Connie said, sliding the files across her desk.
I paged through the files and gave Lula the condensed version. “Edward Koot. Fifty-seven years old. Shot up a coffeehouse because he said they shorted him on his caramel macchiato. Went outside in a rage and shot up four cars before he was knocked out by a senior citizen who smacked him with a HurryCane. No one was injured except Koot. He had a concussion and got a bunch of stitches in the back of his head.”
“You don't want to mess with them HurryCanes,” Lula said. “They're built to last. I got a neighbor has one of them. Koot got any priors?”
“He was put in an anger management program after a road rage incident.”
“Guess we know how that worked out,” Lula said.
“The second FTA is Zero Slick,” I said.
“I like him already,” Lula said. “That's an awesome name.”
“He's twenty-nine years old, five feet two inches, and he lists his gender as âquestionable.'”
“Guess that covers all the bases,” Lula said. “He must be a confused individual. What'd he do?”
“He accidentally blew up an apartment building on State Street.”
“That don't sound so bad,” Lula said. “It was a accident, right?”
“He was cooking a massive batch of meth at the time.”
“Everybody knows it's best you do that in
batches,” Lula said. “He should have read the instructions. He's lucky he didn't die.”
“It says here that he was out smoking weed when the meth blew.”
“Now that I'm thinking about it, I remember seeing this on the news. There wasn't nothing left of that building. Not that it mattered much on account of it was empty except for the meth cooker. It was gonna be torn down.”
“There's more,” Connie said. “He also left the scene in one of the fire trucks and ran over two police cars before driving through the front door of a 7-Eleven. Rumor has it he's suing the city for discrimination because the fire truck wasn't equipped for a five-foot two-inch truck jacker to drive safely.”
“I always wanted to drive a fire truck,” Lula said. “I might think about being a fireman except they gotta wear them man shoes, and it would ruin my look. I got a image to protect.”
Lula's image for the day involved a bursting-at-the-seams, super-short blue metallic bandage dress that matched her hair, and silver sandals with a three-inch wedge. If I tried to wear something like that I'd look like an idiot, but it seemed to work for Lula. I suppose it's all about expectations.
“I've done preliminary phone work on Koot and Slick,” Connie said. “They don't appear to be employed. Koot got fired from his job as a security guard when he shot up the coffeehouse. Slick lists his occupation as âpharmaceutical activist.' High school graduate. No work history. He's bounced around the country. Seattle, Chicago, Denver.”
“And now he's here,” Lula said. “Lucky us.”
“His parents live in Hamilton Township,” Connie said. “I spoke to his mother on the phone, and she said she didn't know where he was staying, but she might be a place for you to start anyway.”
“He's probably on the lookout for another abandoned building,” Lula said. “I'm suggesting we get a list of them and go trolling. I want to see what someone named Zero Slick looks like.”
“We have a photo,” I said. “He doesn't look like much. Chubby guy with brown ponytail.”
Lula glanced at the photo. “I was hoping for something better. Like he should have some tattoos or purple hair. This man doesn't look like he's living up to his name.”
“Maybe he's more Zero Slick in person,” I said. “We can hunt him down as soon as we check on Ethel.”
Lula's eyes got wide. “Ethel? You mean you haven't found Ethel yet? No way am I going searching for Ethel. Look at me. Do I look like I'm dressed for a snake jamboree? I don't think so.”
“You can wait in the car.”
“I guess I could do that, but don't expect me to get out and go traipsing around.”
“Fine. Great. Wait in the car.”
“You sound like you're all upset about this,” Lula said.
“If you wore more sensible clothes and shoes, you would be able to do more traipsing.”
“If I wore rubber boots up to my pussy I still wouldn't go look in that double-wide,” Lula said.
Connie glanced over at me. “She has a point.”
I blew out a sigh and hiked my messenger bag higher on my shoulder. I said adios to Connie and left the office.
“Your car or mine?” I asked Lula.
“Your car. I just had mine detailed, and I'm not driving my baby on Diggery's dirt road.”
My “baby” did just fine on Diggery's dirt road, because my SUV was a POS that looked like it hadn't been detailed in ten years. I wasn't even sure of the paint color under the grime.
We saw no sign of Ethel on the way in and no sign of Ethel when I parked in front of the double-wide. It was morning, and all was quiet in Diggery's neighborhood. I left Lula in the car and carefully walked to the makeshift steps and open door. It was eerily still. No snorting, slurping animal sounds. No sound of an elephant crashing into furniture. I crept to the top step and looked in. It wasn't as bad as I'd feared. Cabinet doors were open, cereal boxes and jelly jars were scattered around, an upholstered chair had been ripped apart. For all I know the chair might have looked like that when Diggery was in residence. The double-wide didn't smell all that great, but again, it never smelled good. I didn't see Ethel.
“Hello,” I called. “Anybody home?”
The bedroom and bathroom doors were open. I suppose Ethel could have been curled up snoozing in one of those rooms. I wasn't about to investigate. Doorstep was as far as I was willing to go.
I got halfway across the yard, on my way back to my SUV,
and I stopped. This was stupid. I went into filthy, dark, rat-infested buildings looking for rapists and murderers, but I was chickening out on Diggery's double-wide. I blew out a sigh, rolled my eyes, turned, and marched up to the door and stepped in. Not so bad, I told myself. No raccoons, no cats, no rats, dead or otherwise, no snakes in sight. I made my way to the back bedroom and took a quick look around. No Ethel anywhere. I left the double-wide and returned to Lula.
“Well?” Lula asked.
“Good,” Lula said. “Let's roll. I'm feeling creeped out. I think there's zombies around here somewhere. I could feel them watching me. Probably the only reason there's no cats left in that crap-ass double-wide is on account of the zombies scared them off.”
“I thought zombies only came out at night.”
“No way. That's vampires. Zombies never sleep. Okay, so they like the dark, but I'm guessing they could use sunscreen and be okay. The thing is at night they're the most dangerous because that's when they get hungry and want to eat brains.”
“Good to know.”
“You bet your ass. You gotta be real careful of zombies at night.”
I put the car in gear and headed out of Diggery's neighborhood. “What's the address on Slick's file?” I asked Lula.
“He hasn't got an address. Probably he's living under the bridge.”
“Did Connie give us his parents' address?”
“They're in that big apartment complex by the senior citizen place. Unit 106.”
I took Hamilton to Klockner and turned off Klockner into Majestic Mews Apartments. I rolled through the maze of two-story garden apartment buildings, finally locating 106. It was a ground-floor unit with a pot of fake yellow mums at the front door. Very cheery.
“Who we gonna be this time?” Lula asked. “How about if we're Girl Scouts selling cookies? We haven't done that one in a long time.”
I parked in the lot in front of the apartment. “How about if we're bond enforcement and politely ask a few questions?”
“That never works. No one likes us when we're bond enforcement.”
I got out of the car, hung my bag on my shoulder, walked to the door, and rang the bell. A motherly looking woman in her fifties answered.
“Mrs. Slick?” I asked.
“Goodness, no,” she said. “I'm Mrs. Krakowski.”
I introduced myself and told her I was looking for Zero Slick.
A man came up behind the woman. “Who is it?” he asked.
“She's looking for Zero Slick,” the woman said.
The man squinted at me. “Are you a prostitute?”
“No,” I said. “I work for Vincent Plum Bail Bonds.”
Lula leaned forward. “You got something against prostitutes?”
I stepped in front of Lula. “I was given this address for Zero Slick's parents.”
“That's us,” the man said. “Our name wasn't good enough for him. He had to make something up.”
“He's very creative,” the woman said. “He's always been a free spirit.”
“Free spirit my ass,” the man said. “He's a damn snowflake. I didn't even know what a snowflake was until I heard it on the news, and here I amÂ .Â .Â . I got one.”
“Snowflakes are beautiful,” the woman said. “Each one is unique.”
“For crissake, Marie,” the man said. “Give it up. He's twenty-nine years old, and he's never had a job. He doesn't even know if he's a boy or a girl. What's with that? I changed his diaper. I guess I know what he is.”
“It's complicated,” Marie said.
“It's not complicated. If it hangs outside you're a boy.”
“I think he's making a social statement,” Marie said. “He's at the forefront of human rights.”
“I'd like him to be at the forefront of getting a job. How long am I going to have to support this freeloader?”
“You don't support him,” Marie said.
“I know you give him money,” the man said. “I'm working double shifts at the plant, and you've got a food budget that would feed forty people. Where's all that food go to?”
“Does he live here?” I asked.
“No,” Marie said. “You know these young people. They like to be independent.”
“Do you have an address for him?”
“Of course,” Marie said. “He lives in an apartment building in town.”
“He doesn't live there,” the man said. “He blew it the fuck up.”
“You know I don't like that word,” Marie said to her husband.
“He's a drug addict,” the man said. “He smokes dope.”
Marie leaned forward and whispered to Lula and me. “He's really a good boy at heart.”
I gave Marie my card. “If you get an address for him I'd appreciate a call.”
“Of course,” Marie said.
“You gotta respect a mother like that,” Lula said on the way back to the car. “It was real touching the way she always found something nice to say about her loser kid.”
“He was peddling meth. There must be people on the street who know where to find him.”
“He was trying to cook some,” Lula said. “It's not clear if he ever sold any.”
“Okay, so we know he smokes weed. He has to buy that from someone.”
“Weed's everywhere,” Lula said. “You get the special of the day from Cluck-in-a-Bucket and it comes with a side of weed.”
I looked over at Lula and raised my eyebrows.
“Only when Clarence is working the drive-thru window,” Lula said.
“Read through his file. Does he have a significant other? He's some sort of activist. Does he belong to any organizations? Political affiliation?”