Read Hardcore Twenty-Four Online

Authors: Janet Evanovich

Hardcore Twenty-Four (6 page)

EIGHT

RANGER DROVE ME
home and parked in the lot behind my building.

“Diesel is still there,” Ranger said, looking up at my second-floor apartment windows.

“How do you know?”

“I just know.”

“What's this strange connection between the two of you?”

“There's no connection,” Ranger said. “We've crossed paths.”

“You don't like him.”

Ranger studied me for a beat. “I understand him. I know who he is.”

“He's like you,” I said.

“In some ways.”

“That's pretty scary right there.”

Ranger leaned in and kissed me. “You have no idea.”

I left Ranger and trudged off to my apartment. Diesel was sprawled on the couch when I walked in.

“I'm taking a shower,” I said on my way to the bathroom.

“Good move,” Diesel said. “You smell like an outhouse.”

I stopped and looked at him.

“Lucky guess,” Diesel said.

“How's the disturbance in the force? Is it getting better?”

“It's getting worse.”

I gave up a sigh and locked myself in the bathroom. I stuffed my clothes into a plastic trash bag, shampooed my hair three times, and stepped out of the shower feeling like a new woman. I got dressed, pulled my hair into a ponytail, and set out to start my day . . . again.

Diesel was gone when I walked out of the bedroom. No doubt he was skulking around somewhere, checking on the force. I made myself another peanut butter sandwich and looked out my living room window, down at the parking lot. There were two black SUVs idling near the building's back door. One was clearly a Rangeman vehicle. The other was smaller. Hard to tell the make from my vantage point. A Rangeman guy stood by the smaller car. I grabbed my messenger bag and went downstairs.

“From Ranger,” the Rangeman guy said, handing me the key.

It was a Lexus NX 330 F Sport. Shiny new. Didn't smell like an outhouse. I got behind the wheel, and Ranger's men drove off. My plan was to retrieve Lula from the bonds office, take a pizza to Ethel, and hunt down Johnny Chucci.

Lula was pacing when I got to the office.

“I've got the creeps,” she said. “I feel like I'm being followed. Like someone's spying on me.”

“Who?” I asked.

“I don't know,” Lula said. “It's just one of them feelings.”

Connie looked at me and rolled her eyes. This was just short of making one of those circular motions with your finger alongside your head to signify crazy.

“Maybe you're hungry,” I said to Lula. “I promised Ethel I'd bring her a pizza. We could get one for you too.”

“I'd never refuse a pizza,” Lula said. “Especially if it was a Pino's pizza.”

Twenty minutes later I was on my way to Diggery's. Lula had a pizza with the works in a box on her lap, and there was a sausage and extra cheese on the back seat for Ethel. I had her figured for a meat lover.

“I'm feeling better already,” Lula said, selecting a second piece. “I don't know what came over me. It was like my skin was crawling. You ever get that? I mean, I'm not necessarily a nervous person. I don't have any of them panic attacks, so this was weird. I just knew something was wrong.”

“But it's not wrong now?”

“Not so much. I'm settling in with the pizza. You could always count on melted cheese to have a calming effect.”

I turned onto Diggery's road and cringed when I passed the demolished outhouse. Not one of my finer moments.

“It was a lucky break that Ethel decided to go home,” Lula said. “I have to tell you until that happened I wasn't sure it was Ethel.”

And it was still possible that it wasn't Ethel. The only thing I knew for certain was that the snake liked hot dogs.

I parked close to Diggery's front door and did a fast scan for snakes and zombies. I didn't see either, so I gave the pizza to the snake in residence and took off.

“I suppose we'll go looking for Zero Slick now,” Lula said. “How do you think he came up with a name like that?”

“Maybe that's the way he thinks of himself. Zero slickness.”

“That might indicate low self-esteem. He could be a man trying to find himself. He could be a victim of bullying at a young age. Or maybe he doesn't want to be one of those phony slick guys. Maybe he's saying he's real. If you look at it that way he could be attractively manly.”

“He didn't look attractively manly when he hit me with his sign. He looked like a brainless jerk.”

“You got a point. And he was insulting about my abundant body. He might be losing some of his appeal for me.”

My plan was to walk the streets surrounding the building Slick destroyed. This was an area of mostly office buildings with occasional ground-floor shops. There was a church nearby that gave out sandwiches to the homeless every day at noon. A small group of men and women never left the area around the church. They moved about like pack animals, sleeping in doorways. Some were crazy because they were off their meds, and others were crazy because they were overmedicated. I thought I'd show Slick's photo to the crazies, the shopkeepers, and the loiterers and see if anyone had seen him.

I approached the burned-out building and saw the flashing lights of police cruisers a block away.

“Looks like something's going on at the homeless church,” Lula said. “Maybe it's a wedding.”

“Looks more like a crime scene. There's a CSI truck and the ME's truck stuck in with the cruisers. And it looks like Morelli's SUV is parked off to the side.”

I pulled to the curb, Lula and I got out, and walked to the church. A couple uniforms were standing hands-on-hips by the cars, but most of the activity was in the back alley. I could see yellow crime scene tape cordoning off an area. Morelli was there, watching the CSI techs work around what I suspected was a body. I ducked under the tape and walked over to Morelli, standing with my back to the body, not anxious to see the victim.

“What's going on?” I asked him.

“One of the church volunteers came out with trash from lunch and found a homeless man stretched out next to the dumpster. He was one of the regulars who lived on the street.”

“Dead?”

“Yep.”

I was afraid to ask. “Headless?”

“No,” Morelli said. “He still had his head, but someone drilled a hole in the skull, and it appears that the brain might have gotten sucked out. Won't know for sure until the autopsy.”

A wave of nausea slid through my stomach, and I went light-headed for a moment.

“Are you okay?” Morelli asked.

“No. I'm not okay. That's horrible.”

“At least they left the head this time. Makes my job easier.”

“Do you have any leads on this?”

“Not a one,” Morelli said.

“Lula thinks it's zombies.”

“Okay, so now I have one lead. Does she have an address for the zombies?”

“They originally came from the cemetery on Morley Street, but I'm not sure where they're hanging out now.”

“Well, that's a start. I'll check out Morley Street.”

I grimaced and looked at him. “You're kidding, right?”

“Yes. I'm kidding. There's some psycho nutjob out there collecting cadaver brains.”

“So I'm safe as long as I'm not dead?”

“Looks that way.”

“I guess that's comforting.”

“Not to me. The department is working overtime to keep this out of the press, and the mayor is on everyone's ass to find the idiot who's doing it.” His expression softened, and he gently touched my cheek with his fingertip. “Your eye looks awful.”

“Zero Slick hit me with his protest sign.”

“He's an asshole. Do you want me to bring him in and charge him?”

“No. I'll take care of it. You have your own problems.”

“Cupcake,
you're
my problem.”

“I don't want to be your problem. I want to be your sex goddess.”

This got a smile out of Morelli. “You're all that and more.”

I gave him a small kiss and a smile. “Gotta go. Probably I won't see you tonight?”

“Not likely.”

“Okeydokey then,” I said, relieved that I didn't have to address the Diesel issue.

Lula was waiting on the other side of the crime scene tape. “What's up?” she asked.

“Homeless man is dead.”

“And? There's a lot going on for a dead homeless man.”

“He might be missing his brain.”

“Say what? Holy crapola. It's the zombies, isn't it? They came and sucked out his brain. I knew it. I could feel something was happening. I told you, right? I was creeped out. I knew they were roaming around. I bet they wanted my brain, but it wasn't available, so they went somewhere else.”

“Zombies aren't on the short list for the police. They're thinking more lunatic.”

“They don't know nothing. This here's the work of zombies. Anybody could see that.”

I didn't know which was worse . . . a criminally insane cannibal or a hungry zombie. Hard to believe that either existed.

“This neighborhood seems to be congested,” I said to Lula. “I'm thinking we change direction and look for Johnny Chucci.”

“Whatever. I'm a flexible person. There's probably zombies lurking here anyway. Now that I'm thinking about it I can feel them looking at me. You probably want to take some evasive action when you drive out of here.”

“You think zombies can drive?”

“I'm thinking it's possible.”

“Can they only drive forward?”

“I don't know,” Lula said. “That would be one of them zombie mysteries.”

I hung a U-turn and drove to the Burg. Johnny Chucci's mother lives in the Burg. His sister lives in the Burg. His two brothers live in the Burg. His ex-wife lives in the Burg. If Johnny was back, sooner or later, he'd be in the Burg, if not to live at least to visit.

“I guess you know Johnny Chucci,” Lula said.

“Not personally. He's a couple years older than me. Grandma Mazur knows his mom. She sees her at bingo and the funeral home sometimes. I know about the family from Grandma Mazur.”

“Your granny knows everything,” Lula said. “When I grow up I want to be just like her.”

I passed the Chucci file over to Lula. “The family addresses should be listed. I know where the mother lives. I can't remember the others.”

“You gonna just drive around?”

“Yes. And then I'll decide if I want to talk to anyone.”

“I think you should talk to your granny. It would have the added benefit of a piece of coffee cake or some of them Italian cookies. There's always excellent bakery products at your momma's house.”

I'd had the same thoughts. Grandma was tapped into the Burg gossip network. There was a good possibility she knew
something about Johnny Chucci. And, more important, I could use a cookie.

Johnny's parents lived in a two-story frame house that was similar in size to my parents' house. It had a postage stamp front yard, a small front porch, and a single-car detached garage at the rear of their property. There was a blue F-150 pickup parked in the driveway.

“This is a nice house,” Lula said. “It's all kept up with fresh paint, and they even got a pot of flowers on the porch.”

“Do we have an address for his sister?”

“She's two houses down on the same side of the street. It's the house that's painted blue and has the big American flag hanging on the front porch and the kids' toys on the sidewalk. If I had a house of my own I'd fly a flag. It'd be a big one too, on account of I'm not a halfway person. And I'm all for being patriotic.”

“What about the ex-wife?”

“The ex-wife, Judy, is on South Street.”

South Street was on the other side of the Burg and one block away from my parents' house. Convenient for the cookie drop-in. I followed the familiar maze of streets to South Street and idled in front of Judy Chucci's house.

“Holy cow,” Lula said. “She's got gnomes all over her front lawn. It's a gnome-con. There must be forty gnomes here. They're all painted the same, too. Red hats and blue pants. I guess that's classic gnome colors.” Lula shifted in her seat. “You ever notice that Trenton has some strange stuff going on? Clusters of gnomes and zombies. Trenton could be like
Ghostbusters,
where all the
paranormal apparitions get together in one spot, and one day
BOOM
. All hell breaks loose, and we get overrun by funky-ass gnomes.”

I glanced over at Lula. “You realize those gnomes aren't real, right? They're made of plaster, and she probably got them at the flea market.”

“Okay, but who knows what happens at night? They could come alive like the zombies.”

I turned the corner and drove to my parents' house. “You need cake.”

“Hell, yeah.”

NINE

GRANDMA WAS AT
the door when Lula and I set foot on the porch. “I was hoping someone would come to visit,” Grandma said. “The television is on the blink, and there are no viewings at the funeral home today. I got nothing to do.”

“How come there are no viewings?” Lula asked. “Seems like there are always viewings.”

“The word is that they're working overtime at Stiva's trying to get Emily Molinowski's head back on her. She's supposed to have a viewing tonight, and they're advertising an open casket. The funeral home is going to be packed. I'm going a half hour early or I won't get a good seat.”

We all made our way back to the kitchen, where my mother was putting a meatloaf together.

“Sit down and I'll get the cookies,” Grandma said to Lula and me.

Lula took a seat at the small kitchen table. “We just passed
by a house with a whole bunch of gnomes in the front yard. What's with that?”

“You must be talking about Judy Chucci,” Grandma said, setting out a bakery box of Italian cookies. “She's a little nutty with the gnomes. Gets them at the craft store and paints them herself. The inside of her house is filled with them. She said she needed a hobby after the divorce from Johnny. And then she had that accident at work and went on disability. I guess now she sits home all day painting gnomes.”

“What kind of a disability does she have?”

“She worked at the button factory. One of the machines went haywire and spewed oil on her, and she slipped and fell down and broke her back.”

“That's horrible,” Lula said.

“I think it was only broke a little,” Grandma said. “She was laid up for a couple weeks, but she seems to get around okay now. I imagine she'll be on disability until the lawsuit is settled with the button factory.”

I took a cookie from the box. “Does she still see Johnny?”

“Not that I know about,” Grandma said. “It was a nasty divorce. Not as nasty as yours. Your divorce was epic. Still, hers was pretty good.”

“The Chuccis had a custody dispute over the dog,” my mother said. “It dragged on for a year.”

“How was it resolved?” Lula asked.

“The dog died. Choked on a chicken bone,” my mother said.

“That's so sad,” Lula said. “They should have been more careful about giving that dog bones.”

“As I remember, it got into the garbage when Judy was off at work,” Grandma said. “It was a hound dog.”

“That explains it,” Lula said. “My uncle had a hound, and it ate everything.”

“Connie heard that Johnny was back in town,” I said. “He skipped out on Vinnie right before his court date. It was a high bond, and we might recover some of it if I could find Johnny.”

“I'm on it,” Grandma said. “I'll sleuth around tonight at the Molinowski viewing. If Johnny shows up I'll take him down for you.”

“You will do no such thing,” my mother said to Grandma. “And I'm checking your purse when you go out to make sure you don't have a gun in it.”

Grandma winked at me when my mom wasn't looking. She would have the gun wedged into her underwear until she got to the funeral home, and then would transfer it to her purse. Grandma
always
packed. She packed when she went to the bakery. She lived for the chance to say
, “Make my day, punk.”

“Who are you tracking down these days besides Johnny?” Grandma asked.

“Zero Slick is out there,” Lula said. “We started looking for him, but his neighborhood is all blocked off on account of some homeless guy got his brain sucked out.”

“Damn zombies,” Grandma said. “They're running amuck all over the place. Grace Merkle said she saw one tramping through her flower garden the other night. She lives two blocks from the cemetery on Morley Street. She said the zombies are a real nuisance.”

My mother looked over at the cabinet where she kept her whiskey. She checked her watch. Too early for a drink. There were rules to be observed. Good Christian women didn't drink before four o'clock unless they were at a wake. My mother gave up a small sigh and took a cookie.

“You could probably bend the rules, since there are zombies in Grace Merkle's flower garden,” I said to my mother.

“I've got fifteen minutes to go,” my mother said, taking a second cookie. “I can stick it out.”

“Boy, you're a strong woman,” Lula said. “You got real willpower.”

“The rules change when you get to be a senior citizen,” Grandma said. “If I want a snort of whiskey in the morning I go for it. I probably only got about thirty good years left.”

By my calculations, thirty good years had Grandma well over a hundred. No doubt in my mind that she would still be going strong.

“My honey just took a part-time job as a greeter,” Grandma said. “He's working in one of those bars in Key West.”

“You got a honey?” Lula asked.

“I met him on one of them Internet sites,” Grandma said. “He's a real looker.”

“You gotta be careful of those Internet hookups,” Lula said.

Grandma pulled the picture up on her cellphone and showed Lula.

“That's George Hamilton,” Lula said.

“Yeah, there's a good resemblance,” Grandma said. “I'm guessing he's a little younger than me, but I think I can keep up.”

“What's a greeter do for a bar?” Lula asked.

“It sounds to me like he holds up a sign outside saying that they got cheap drinks and live dancers inside,” Grandma said. “He works days, so I'm thinking it'll help him keep that deep tan he's got.”

“No doubt,” Lula said.

My mother crammed two more cookies into her mouth.

“Okay then,” I said. “This has been nice, but Lula and I have to move on. It's about quitting time.”

“Don't worry,” Grandma said. “You can count on me to find out about Johnny.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I'd appreciate any information you can get, but please don't shoot anyone.”

“Not unless I have to,” Grandma said.

“Can't ask for more than that,” Lula said.

I gave my mother a hug, told her to hang in there, and maneuvered Lula out of the house and into my car.

“Your granny is a hoot,” Lula said, buckling herself in. “And imagine snagging a guy who looks like George Hamilton. How cool is that? Are you gonna look up Johnny's two brothers?”

“Not today.”

I drove back to the building Slick destroyed. The crime scene tape was still up, and the CSI people were working. Morelli's car was still there. I cruised the perimeter and didn't see Slick, so I took Lula back to the office.

“See you tomorrow,” Lula said. “Have a good night.”

That was worth an eye roll. I had Diesel squatting in my apartment, and my grandmother was going to Emily
Molinowski's viewing with a loaded gun. Not that it was entirely my fault. She would have gone with a loaded gun as a matter of habit. Problem is, now she was on the hunt for Johnny Chucci. It had seemed like a good idea to ask if she'd heard anything. In retrospect, maybe not smart.

This wasn't going to be a good night.

• • •

My apartment was empty when I walked in. No Diesel. No Morelli. No Ranger. Just Rex asleep in his soup can. I tapped on the side of his cage and said hello.

No answer from Rex.

I opened my laptop and checked my email. I wasted a half hour on Facebook. I logged into a search engine and researched Johnny Chucci and his relatives. Ditto Zero Slick. I didn't get anything new on Chucci. Slick had applied for a car loan and been declined. Possibly he was declined because he listed his address as “Under the bridge.”

I shuffled off to the kitchen and stared into the refrigerator. I couldn't get excited about another peanut butter sandwich. Yogurt, no. Cereal, no. Ham sandwich, no. I grabbed a bottle of beer, took a step back, bumped into Diesel, and yelped in surprise.

“Jeez Louise,” I said. “I hate when you sneak up on me like that. I didn't hear you come in.”

“You were in the zone.”

“I was contemplating dinner.”

Diesel grinned down at me. “I like a hungry woman. Makes life easy. I don't have to work hard to satisfy her.”

“Are we talking about food?”

“Yeah, that too.” He motioned to two bags on the counter. “I got Chinese. Not especially authentic but should be okay.”

I pulled the cartons out of the bag. Kung pao chicken, fried rice, steamed dumplings, some kind of glutinous vegetable mix.

“This is great,” I said. “Thank you.”

The smile was still in place. “How grateful are you?”

“Grateful enough to let you stay one more night.”

Diesel got a couple forks out of the silverware drawer and handed one to me. “That's a start.”

We dumped the food out onto a common plate and dug in.

“How's the force feeling today?” I asked.

“It's not good.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means I've got a cramp in my ass that won't go away.”

“Usually that means your cousin Wulf is in town.”

“I haven't seen him, but it's possible.”

“I'm going to assume he's not the source of the ass cramp.”

“Not at this moment.” Diesel got a beer out of the fridge. “I guess that could change.”

Diesel's cousin Wulf is a dark, mysterious guy with seemingly magical abilities. Diesel regards him as all smoke and mirrors, but I'm not sure. I met him once, briefly, and I couldn't determine if he was very good or very evil.

“So, are you going to tell me the source of your ass cramp?” I asked Diesel.

“No.”

“It wouldn't be zombies, would it?”

“Not likely. Personally, I think they get a bad rap.”

“I hear they like brains.”

“That's the rumor.” He looked down at the food plate. “Are you going to eat that last dumpling?”

“No. I'm full.”

My phone buzzed with a text message from my mom.
Your grandmother needs a ride to the viewing, and I'm holding you responsible if she shoots someone, gets arrested, or tries to take a selfie with the deceased
.

Stick a fork in my eye, I thought. It would be less painful than going to the viewing with Grandma.

“I don't suppose you brought any dessert?” I asked Diesel.

“Dessert is the work of the devil.”

“I'm unhappy. I
need
dessert.”

“I have something better than dessert. Happiness guaranteed.”

“Gonna pass on that.”

“You'll come around,” Diesel said.

I had a fear that he was right. I had limitations on my ability to resist temptation.

I washed my fork and put it in the dish drain. “I have to change my clothes. I'm taking Grandma to a viewing tonight.”

“Emily Molinowski,” Diesel said.

I raised an eyebrow.

Diesel tossed the empty food cartons into the garbage. “Lucky guess.”

I decided on a slim knee-length skirt, sleeveless scoop-neck sweater with a matching cardigan, and ballet flats. Heels would have been sexier, but I wasn't going for sexy. I was going for comfy.

Diesel was stretched out on the couch when I walked into the living room.

“And you're doing what?” I asked him.

“Communicating.”

I stared at him for a long moment. “You're a strange man.”

“Yeah,” he said. “I'm special.”

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