Read Hardcore Twenty-Four Online

Authors: Janet Evanovich

Hardcore Twenty-Four (3 page)

“There's nothing like that in here.”

I called Morelli. “I'm looking for a twenty-nine-year-old guy who has no job and no address. He's confused about his gender, and he blew up a building trying to cook meth.”

“Zero Slick,” Morelli said.

“Yeah. How do I find him?”

“He's a paid activist. He gets fifty bucks and a ride on a bus, and he holds up a sign at whatever event he's assigned.”

“And?”

“Don't know beyond that. You need to look for some sort of protest.”

I disconnected and drove out of the lot. “You need to find a protest,” I said to Lula.

“Anything special you have in mind?”

“No.”

“How am I supposed to do this?”

“Go to Google and ask for future protests in Jersey.”

“Google isn't telling me anything,” Lula said, “but there's some idiot holding a town hall fiasco at the firehouse tonight. I know about it on account of they canceled bingo. Your granny is probably going to be there protesting the canceling. Does that count?”

My Grandma Mazur moved in with my parents when my grandfather checked in to Hotel Heaven. My father is of the opinion that this left him in hell on earth. My mother is a good Catholic woman who goes to mass at least three times a week and prays for God to help her have a cheerful, charitable attitude. When that doesn't work, she drinks. Personally, I think Grandma is a hoot, but then I don't have to live with her.

“Do you know anything about the idiot?” I asked Lula.

“He's some politician.”

“Good enough. Do you want to go to a town hall fiasco with me tonight?”

“Sure. Haven't got anything better to do since they canceled bingo.”

THREE

EDWARD KOOT WAS
next on my to-do list. He lived alone in a small row house three blocks from the coffee house he shot up. I thought chances were good that he was home since he was now unemployed.

“He even looks angry in his picture,” Lula said, paging through Koot's file. “I could tell you what his problem is right now. He needs Botox. I always say, you are what you look. I bet you shoot this man up with Botox, and his whole personality changes.”

I slowly drove past Koot's house. No activity on the street. Shades drawn on all the windows. I turned into the alley that intersected the block and stopped when I got to the back of his house.

“Someone's in there,” Lula said. “The shade's up, and I can see someone walking past the window. Probably it's the kitchen.”

I dropped Lula off with instructions to stay put unless he bolted. I drove around to the front, parked, and went to the front door.

Koot answered on my second knock. “What?” he asked.

I introduced myself and told him he'd missed a court date and needed to reschedule.

“I'm not going to no stupid kangaroo court,” Koot said. “I'm the one who should be suing. Every day I get a caramel macchiato. I'm a loyal paying customer. And all of a sudden I get a half a macchiato from some new little snip just started working there. And do you know what she told me when I asked for the rest of my macchiato? She said, ‘Move along, old man. You're holding up the line.' The hell I will, I told her. And then she said she was gonna call the police. Can you imagine? It was like I was on an airplane. What's happening to this country?”

“I understand your frustration, but probably it wasn't a good idea to shoot up the coffee shop.”

“You can only push a man so far,” Koot said.

“You left the coffee shop and took out four innocent cars.”

“I admit I got carried away. It was like I was in a frenzy, but I wouldn't have gotten all frenzied up if I'd had my macchiato. It's a calming influence in the morning. It starts my day off with a smile.”

“Did you have a macchiato today?”

“Yeah. I go to Starbucks now. It's a longer walk, but they care about their coffee. I get a full cup. Right up to the top. Every time. And it's nice and hot but not too hot.”

My phone rang, and I saw that it was Lula.

“What's going on?” she asked.

“We're talking.”

“Just checking. Wanted to make sure you didn't leave without me.”

I disconnected and turned my attention back to Koot. “Here's the thing,” I said. “You need to come with me and get rebonded.”

“No. Not going to happen. None of this was my fault. End of story.”

He attempted to close the door, but I had my foot in it.

“You'll have a chance to tell all this to the judge,” I said.

“Get your foot out of my door, or I'll shoot it.”

“Have you ever thought about Botox for that wrinkle in your forehead?” I asked.

“Wrinkle? What?”

“You have a big wrinkle between your eyes, and it makes you look angry.”

“That's because I
am
angry. You're disturbing my day. And I don't like you.”

He wrenched the door open, gave me a shove with both hands, and I stumbled back. He slammed the door shut and by the time I got it open, he was running toward the back of the house. I charged after him and saw him exit through the kitchen. I heard him shriek, and then all was quiet. I looked out the back door and saw that Koot was facedown and Lula was sitting on him.

“Is he breathing?” I asked her.

“Hard to tell.”

I cuffed him, Lula got off, and I pulled him to his feet.

“Are you going to read me my rights?” he asked.

“I'm a bounty hunter,” I said. “You haven't got any rights. You signed them all away when you took out the bail bond.”

We loaded Koot into my SUV and drove him to the police station. I turned him in and picked up my body receipt.

“That was easy,” Lula said. “We got our A game on today. We got good juju. I can't wait to rumble at the rally tonight.”

“We aren't going to rumble. We're going to quietly stand at the back of the room and try to spot Slick.”

“Sure, I know that, but we might have to rumble a little if things get dicey.”

• • •

I dropped Lula off at the office and went to my parents' house to mooch lunch. They live five minutes from the office, five minutes from Morelli's house, and a time warp away from me. Even when my mom gets a new refrigerator or buys new curtains the house still feels precisely the same as when I was in school. It's equally comforting and disturbing.

The duplex is small, and cluttered, and immaculately clean. Living room, dining room, kitchen on the first floor. Three small bedrooms and a bathroom on the second floor. My father is seldom home for lunch. He's retired from the post office, but he drives a cab part-time.

I parked on the street, and by the time I got to the front door Grandma Mazur already had it open.

“Just in time for lunch,” she said. “We have olive loaf from Giovichinni's, and Italian cookies from the bakery.”

I followed Grandma to the kitchen at the back of the house and took a chair at the little wooden table. I ate breakfast and lunch at the same table when I was a kid. After school I did my homework there.

“We got company for lunch,” Grandma said to my mom.

My mom was pulling food out of the fridge. Pickles, mustard, macaroni salad, cold cuts, a loaf of bread. “Is olive loaf okay?” she asked me.

“Olive loaf is great,” I said.

My mom is the anchor in the family. She represents normal . . . at least what's considered normal in the Burg. Grandma and I have totally gone rogue.

Grandma set out plates, knives, forks, water glasses. “Did you hear, some idiot politician is talking at the firehouse tonight,” she said. “So, they canceled bingo. I don't know what this neighborhood's coming to. You can't count on anything anymore.” She sat down and spooned some macaroni salad onto her plate. “Last night I went to pay my respects to Leonard Friedman, and they had a closed casket. It shouldn't be allowed. There should be a law. If you go to see someone one last time you should be able to
see
them.”

“He didn't have a head,” my mother said.

“I admit, that makes it tricky, but they could have gotten around it somehow,” Grandma said. “Maybe they should have made more of an effort to
find
his head in the first place.”

“Was he the man killed behind the hardware store?” I asked.

“No,” Grandma said. “Lenny passed at home. Heart attack. A big one. He lost his head at the mortuary. I'm told he was slid into the meat locker on arrival and when they pulled him out
next morning he didn't have a head.” Grandma made herself a sandwich with olive loaf and Swiss cheese. “Emily Molinowski was in the drawer next to Lenny, and I guess she lost her head too. I'm glad I'm not dead this week. When I have my viewing I want to have my head. And I want Evelyn Stoddard to do my makeup. She has a good touch. Sometimes Julie Gross does makeup at Stiva's, and I'm not a fan of her lipstick selections.”

Stiva's funeral parlor is a social center for Grandma and her lady friends. It's free entertainment. It's available seven days a week. And you can count on cookies being served in the lobby.

In the past, Grandma has been known to pry open a closed casket, unlocking it with her nail file, so she could take a peek. On these occasions my mother bypasses prayer and goes straight for the Jim Beam.

“Let me get this straight,” I said to Grandma. “Someone severed two heads at Stiva's, and the heads haven't been found?”

“Yep,” Grandma said. “Pass the pickles to me.”

“How could that happen?”

“I guess it happened at night,” Grandma said. “They came in first thing in the morning to do the embalming, pulled out the trays, and no heads.”

“Wasn't everything locked up? Doesn't Stiva's have a security system? Didn't an alarm go off?”

“Yes. Yes. And no,” Grandma said. “People are thinking it must be an inside job, but I've got another theory. I think it was the zombies. There's rumors going around that there've been zombie sightings. And you know how they like to eat brains. Well, you put two and two together and it makes sense.”

My mother very carefully spread mustard across a slice of bread and precisely placed olive loaf and Swiss cheese onto the mustard. I suspected she was making an effort to stay calm when what she really wanted to do was shake Grandma until her false teeth flew out of her mouth and she stopped rambling on about zombies.

Grandma forked up some macaroni, and I spotted a ring on her finger.

“Is that a new ring?” I asked her.

“It's a friendship ring,” Grandma said. “I got a boyfriend. He's a pip.”

My mother gave up a sigh and cut her sandwich into halves.

“Do I know him?” I asked.

“I met him on one of those Internet sites,” Grandma said. “He lives in Florida. By Key West. I might go down there to visit him. He's a real hottie.”

I sneaked a look at my mom, but she wasn't making eye contact. She was staring at her sandwich.

“What does he do?” I asked Grandma.

“Mostly he fishes. He was a dockworker in Newark, but he's retired now.”

“Not married?”

“His wife died a while back. He has kids but they're in Jersey.”

“You have to be careful about Internet connections,” I said. “You never really know who you're talking to.”

“He could be a serial killer,” my mother said. “He could be a terrorist. He could be some pervert sex fiend.”

“He might be too old to be a sex fiend,” Grandma said, “but I guess he could be a killer.”

“Why me?” my mother asked.

“Don't send him any money,” I said to Grandma. “And don't go to Florida.”

“He could be the one,” Grandma said, pulling up a photo on her phone, handing the phone over to me.

“This is George Hamilton,” I said.

Grandma took the phone back and studied the photo. “He does look a little like George Hamilton, but my honey's name is Roger Murf. Him and George are handsome devils, aren't they?”

From the corner of my eye I saw my mom shaking her head and making the sign of the cross. Next stop would be a trip to the liquor cabinet over the sink.

“Did you send him a picture of you?” I asked Grandma.

“Sort of,” Grandma said. “I didn't have a real good picture, so I sent him one of your mother. We look alike except for the hair, and I'm thinking about going brown anyway.”

My mother sucked in some air and her eyes went wide. “You didn't! Tell me you didn't!”

“It was a nice picture,” Grandma said. “It was the one where you're on the beach at Seaside.”

My mother did the sign of the cross again. “Holy Mother,” she said.

I had a second helping of macaroni, finished my sandwich, ate a bunch of Italian cookies, and pushed my chair back from the table.

“Gotta go,” I said. “Things to do.”

“Are you hunting down bad guys?” Grandma asked.

“Eventually.”

I gave hugs to Grandma and my mom, thanked them for lunch, and escaped to my car. I stopped at the supermarket on the way home and got a couple more packages of hot dogs for Ethel, Pop-Tarts for my hamster Rex and me, bread, cereal, bananas, and assorted frozen dinner–type foods.

FOUR

IT WAS CLOSE
to three o'clock when I lugged my groceries into my apartment building and down the hall to my place. I put the key in the lock, pushed the door open, and yelped. There was a man in my place.

He was over six feet tall, broad shouldered, slim hipped, and nicely muscled. He was beach-bum tan with thick, unruly blond hair cut short, and dark eyebrows and eyelashes that I would kill to have. He was wearing jeans with a rip in the knee, a T-shirt that advertised tequila, and black-and-white sneaker-type shoes. He was drop-dead handsome with perfect white teeth and a lot of attitude. I know about the attitude because I know the man. His name is Diesel. That's it. Just Diesel.

He dropped into my life for the first time several years ago at Christmas, scaring the heck out of me when he suddenly appeared in my kitchen. When I'd asked him how he'd gotten
into my apartment and my life, he said, “Sweetcakes, you wouldn't believe me if I told you.” Nothing much has changed since then.

He's visited a bunch of times since that Christmas, mysteriously coming and going. He doesn't have a key to my apartment, but that never stops him from getting in.

“Surprise,” Diesel said.

“Now what?” I asked him.

“Just passing through and thought I'd say hello.”

He took a grocery bag from me, set it on the counter, and emptied it.

“There are these things called vegetables,” he said. “You ever hear about them?”

“If I want vegetables I eat at my parents' house. And I have baby carrots in the fridge.”

“They're for your rat.”

“He's a
hamster
.”

Diesel opened the box of Frosted Flakes and took a handful.

“You never just stop in to say hello,” I said. “I haven't seen or heard from you in over a year. What's up?”

“There's a disturbance in the force. Thought I'd check it out.”

“That's a little vague.”

Diesel shrugged. “It's what I do, sweetie pie.”

“Right. You weren't planning on doing it here, were you? Like in my apartment?”

“I'd rather be under a palm tree somewhere, but yeah, I'm stuck here for a while.”

“No. You are
not
staying here.”

“Sure I am. I always stay here. You'd be heartbroken if I stayed somewhere else.”

“I'd be overjoyed.”

“You need to work on your hostess skills,” Diesel said. “The whole cranky thing is a major turnoff.”

“Morelli is coming over for dinner tonight. I don't want you here when he walks in.”

“Honey, that's hard to believe. No one would come here for dinner. You only own one pot.”

“I own several pots and a fry pan.”

Diesel grinned. “You're going to give him that frozen mac and cheese, aren't you?”

“The mac and cheese is for me. Morelli is bringing dinner.”

“Okay, I'm in.”

“You aren't in. There's no
in
for you. He's bringing dinner, and he's spending the night.”

“You need to change that plan. I'm not crazy about sharing a bed with Morelli.”

I'd been down this road before with Diesel. He was an immovable object. Too big and strong to push around. Too intelligent to out-psych. He was inexplicably likable, and he smelled like fresh-out-of-the-oven gingerbread. He also left as abruptly and as easily as he appeared. He was an okay guy to know, but a romantic attachment would be a disaster.

“Okay. Great. You can have my apartment, and I'll temporarily move in with Morelli,” I said.

“Not gonna happen,” Diesel said.

“How do you know?”

“Spidey sense.”

I put my groceries away, gave Rex a small piece of Pop-Tart, and went into my bedroom, where I found Diesel sprawled across my bed.

“What are you doing?” I asked him.

“Thinking. Want to join me?”

“No.”

“Afraid you might like it?”

“Yes.”

That got another grin out of him. He reached for me and I ran away, back to the kitchen. I ate what was left of the Pop-Tart, and I called Morelli.

“Yo,” he said. “I was just about to call you. I'm going to have to cancel dinner tonight. We've got a situation here.”

“I've got a situation too. What's your situation?”

“We found some heads.”

“The ones without bodies?”

“Yeah. Problem is we've got more heads than bodies now.”

“How many heads do you have?”

“I'm not authorized to say, but it's more than three and less than ten.”

“That could be a lot of heads.”

“Actually, it's less than five,” Morelli said.

“Have they been identified?”

“Three have been identified.”

“What about the headless guy found behind the hardware store?”

“It looks like one of the heads might belong to him, but the
circumstances are odd. The autopsy has him dying from a heart attack several hours before his head was removed.”

“Eeuuww.”

“Exactly. It's like someone has a head fetish. I'm really tied up here. It would be great if you could walk Bob for me, and maybe we could have a late dinner.”

“No problem.”

I disconnected and marched back to the bedroom.

“So much for Spidey sense,” I said to Diesel.

“Honeypot, you don't ever want to underestimate my Spidey sense.”

“Here's the plan. I'm leaving. I'm going to look for a snake and an FTA. Then I'm going to Morelli's house. I'd appreciate it if you'd talk to Rex once in a while. Make sure he has fresh water. And don't eat all the mac and cheese.”

I threw some clothes and a package of hot dogs into a small duffel bag, said goodbye to Rex, and told him I'd be back. I left the apartment and headed for my car. Truth is I wasn't crazy about the whole leaving thing, but I didn't know what else to do. I was involved in a relationship with Morelli, and he wouldn't be happy to hear I was cohabitating with Diesel.

• • •

I drove to Diggery's double-wide, parked, and peeked inside. No cats. No raccoons. No rats. No snake. Horrible smell. I didn't spend a lot of time peeking. I jumped into my car and looked for Ethel as I inched my way along the road and out of the neighborhood. No luck.

Next stop was Morelli's house. I opened the front door and heard Bob galloping at me from the kitchen. I braced myself, but he still knocked me back against the wall and gave me a lot of Bob kisses. I told him he was a good boy and thanked him for the kisses and he seemed happy with that. I hooked him up to his leash and walked him around several blocks. He pooped twice, and I didn't pick it up. My feeling is if God wanted me to pick up dog poop he would have made it look like diamonds and smell like roses.

I fed Bob and helped myself to a frozen waffle. I was paging through my emails when I got a text from Lula saying she needed a ride, and she saw on the news that protesters were already collecting at the firehouse. Twenty minutes later I had Lula in my car, and I was driving back toward the Burg.

“Is something wrong with your car?” I asked her.

“No. My baby's just fine, but I wasn't gonna take it into no protest zone. Someone throws rocks at
your
car and turns it over wheels up, it's no loss. I mean, sure it's your transportation, but it's not a classic like mine, right? I got a red Firebird. You don't never want anybody throwing rocks at a red Firebird. And it's got a custom sound system. That hummer'll shake the fillings out of your teeth when I crank it up. It's got bass, you see what I'm saying?”

I cut my eyes to her. “Next time you drive.”

“Yeah, I'll do that. What do you think of my outfit? We might get to be on television if this thing gets out of hand, so I want to look good. I hear you shouldn't wear stuff with too much pattern, and that's why I went with this solid purple tank top.”

Lula was wearing five-inch platform stilettos, a skirt that barely covered her ass, and a purple sequined tank top that was two sizes too small for her watermelon-size breasts.

“I like the tank top,” I said. “Lots of sparkle.”

“It's from my Vegas collection from when I was a 'ho. I got a lot of action when I wore this top. 'Course some of that was on account of I had a good corner back then.”

I got a block away from the firehouse and passed two buses that were parked on the street.

“They're the protester buses,” Lula said. “They bring in the professional protesters just in case there's not enough locals. It's just like Morelli said. And I read an article about this, too. I'm pretty sure you could get a degree in protesting if you go to the right college. It's a big thing now.”

“I don't think there's a degree in protesting.”

“There's a lot to learn,” Lula said. “You gotta know about making signs and holding them up in the right fashion. And there's ways to be obnoxious and provoke a fight. Then you gotta shout slogans and such.”

There were about sixty people milling around in front of the firehouse. They looked peaceful enough, holding signs, taking selfies on their smartphones. A bunch of uniformed cops stood on the perimeter. No riot gear. No nervous pacing. No guns drawn. Looking like they'd rather be someplace else.

“This here's disappointing,” Lula said. “I expected some nastiness.”

I parked a block away, and we walked back to the firehouse.
“Remember, we're here to tag Zero Slick. We're not getting involved in the protest.”

“Nothing to get involved in,” Lula said. “This is a yawn. And I don't get these signs some of them are holding. They say ‘Hell, no, we won't go!' What's that mean, anyway?”

“I think they're left over from the sixties when people were protesting the Vietnam War,” I said. “Someone probably grabbed the wrong signs from the warehouse.”

“Hey,” Lula said. “Look over by the street light. It's your granny and two other old ladies. And they got signs.” Lula waved at Grandma. “Yoo-hoo! Granny!”

Grandma turned and saw us and waved her sign. It said
BINGO MATTERS
.

“Now, that's a good sign,” Lula said. “It makes a real statement.”

We didn't see Slick outside, so we went into the firehouse and stood to the back of the meeting room. There was a podium and an American flag at the far end, and rows of folding chairs had been set up for the audience. The room could probably accommodate seventy to eighty people if you squashed them in, but so far there were only fifteen people there.

“We must be early,” Lula said.

I checked my watch. “Nope. We're right on time.”

A woman came out and introduced the speaker. He was a nice-looking man in a blue suit. Glasses. Sandy blond hair. In his fifties.

Lula leaned forward. “Who did she say this guy was? I didn't catch it.”

“He's running for some sort of council seat to replace a man who died.”

The candidate at the podium started to speak, and all the protesters filed in from outside.

“I see him!” Lula said. “I'd know him anywhere.”

“Slick?”

“No. The television guy. The one with the greased-up hair and the fake tan. And he's got a camera guy with him. Do I look okay? This could be my big chance. Is my hair okay?”

Lula was wearing her blond Farrah Fawcett wig. I was guessing it was also from the Vegas 'ho collection. On anyone else the whole deal would look ridiculous, but it was oddly spectacular on Lula.

“The hair's good,” I said.

“It shows off my beautiful mahogany complexion,” Lula said.

This was true.

The problem with trying to find a five-two man in a crowd is that he doesn't stand out. It would be easier to spot Slick if he was six-five. I went seat by seat, row by row, trying to see around the signs. The protesters shouted at the poor man at the podium, and Grandma and her friends contributed to the chaos by chanting “We want bingo! We want bingo!”

“I'm getting a headache,” Lula said. “The only people here who make any sense are your granny and her lady friends.”

A woman carrying a
HELL, NO
sign tried to shove Lula out of the way so she could get to the front, and Lula planted her stiletto heel into the woman's foot.

“I'm injured,” the woman shrieked. “This fat bitch broke my foot.”

Lula leaned in and narrowed her eyes at the woman. “Say what?”

“Fat bitch,” the woman said. “Fat 'ho bitch.”

Lula reached for her purse, and I grabbed her arm. “Do
not
shoot her,” I said. “I'll be really pissed off if you shoot her.”

“How about if I just shoot her in the knee?”

“No!”

“Okay then, can I punch her in the face?”

“No.”

Grandma was at my side. “What's going on? You need some muscle? I got my girls with me.”

“Nothing's going on,” I said.

People were collecting around us, there was a lot of jostling, and voices were raised. I saw the television guy moving in our direction.

“We need to get out of here,” I said to Lula.

“I'm on it,” Lula said. “Stick close.”

I grabbed Grandma's wrist and tugged her after me. An object flew past and hit Lula in the back of the head. It exploded on impact and gushed red. My first thought was bomb. My second was tomato. I turned to look behind me and took a raw egg to the forehead.

The entire room had broken out into a free-for-all. The police rushed in and set off a flash grenade. People were screaming and trampling one another to get to the door. Lula detoured into the firehouse kitchen, and I followed her, dragging Grandma and the ladies along with us. We exited through the back door into an alley. Grandma and the ladies ditched their signs, and we crept around the building and looked out at the street. The
protesters were clustered in front of the lone television guy and his cameraman. They still looked angry, gesturing at the police who were mostly stoic, clearing the way so the buses could get through to pick up their passengers.

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