Read Hardcore Twenty-Four Online

Authors: Janet Evanovich

Hardcore Twenty-Four (8 page)

TWELVE

LULA AND I
walked to the back of her apartment building and got into the Lexus.

“I wouldn't mind taking a look at the street with the food trucks and T-shirts,” Lula said. “I might want a commemorative T-shirt.”

I drove around the block, found the food truck street, and cruised the length of it. It was slow going because it was packed with people. They were buying ice cream in waffle cones, cotton candy, sausage sandwiches, zombie glow sticks, zombie T-shirts, and zombie ball caps. A guy dressed in zombie rags was playing the accordion. A sign advertised valet parking.

“I'm thinking if you use valet parking here you're not likely to get your car back,” Lula said.

“Do you need to buy something?” I asked her.

“Not bad enough to stand in line for it. Where'd all these people come from? Why aren't they working?”

I cut across town and took Klockner to Majestic Mews. I parked a short distance from the Krakowski apartment and settled in.

“How long are we going to sit here?” Lula asked.

“Until lunch.”

“In that case, I'm putting my seat back and taking a nap. As you know, I didn't have an ideal night.”

A little after eleven o'clock, Marie Krakowski exited her apartment and walked to a silver Nissan Sentra. She was carrying a bulging cloth grocery bag and a small cooler chest. Bingo. Dollars to donuts she was taking lunch to her son.

“We're on the move,” I said to Lula. “Raise your seat.”

Marie pulled out of the lot, and I followed at a distance. She left Hamilton Township and took Olden Avenue to Morley Street.

“Oh crap,” Lula said. “She's going to the cemetery. She's taking lunch to the zombies. You said she has a cooler. Maybe she's got a head in it.”

“Marie Krakowski doesn't impress me as being a zombie chaser. She's a mom, and I'm pretty sure she's feeding her son.”

“Yeah, but he could be a zombie by now if he's in the zombie cemetery.”

The cemetery on Morley Street was small as far as cemeteries go. It was attached to a nondenominational church that was also small. Both were very old, dating back to the Revolution.

Marie parked in the church parking lot and took her cooler and grocery bag through the wrought iron gate that led to the cemetery.

“Now what?” Lula said.

“We wait. I don't want to create a scene when the mother is there.”

“That's real nice of you.”

It had nothing to do with being nice. Marie Krakowski was an additional complication. One more person to worry about. She could be carrying a gun in the cooler. Never underestimate a protective mother.

She was in the cemetery for twenty minutes. When she returned to her car she was empty-handed. I waited for her to leave the parking lot and then I entered the cemetery.

“Stay here at the gate,” I told Lula. “If he takes off on me, he'll run this way and you can stop him.”

“No problem,” Lula said, “but we should have a code word if that happens, so I'm ready.”

“How about if I yell out ‘
Stop him!
'”

“Yeah, that'll work. And I'm getting my gun ready, so if any zombies show up I can shoot them in the head.”

I followed the path from the gate toward the heart of the cemetery. Most of the headstones here were old and weather beaten, names and dates no longer readable. The newer graves were located at the far end, but they were few and far between. The plots had been used for generations, and space was scarce.

I found Zero Slick sitting with his back to a tombstone, dousing a ham sandwich with Tabasco sauce. He looked up when I approached, but he didn't seem alarmed.

“So?” I asked.

“So, what?”

“What are you doing here?”

“Eating lunch. Go away.”

“I feel like there's a story here,” I said to Slick.

“It's none of your business.”

“Not true,” I said. “I'm supposed to capture you. Right now, everything you do is my business.”

“Capturing me won't do anybody any good.”

“It'll be good for me. I get money when I bring you in.”

“A pittance compared to what I'm going to make. Two months from now I'll be world-famous, and you'll still be nothing.”

“How so?”

“I'm not telling you.”

“Here's the deal. I'm going to cuff you and drive you back to the police station. Court is in session right now so you'll be able to get bonded out again, and you'll be free to come back to this cemetery in a couple hours.”

“No way. I'm not leaving the cemetery. I have important work to do here.”

I reached for him, and he jumped away. I pulled my cuffs and stun gun out, and he took off, running for the gate. I yelled “Stop him!” and a couple seconds later I heard
ooof
and
wump
. By the time I got to Lula, she was sitting on Slick, and he was struggling to breathe.

I cuffed him, and Lula and I hauled him to his feet.

“Another minute and I would have been dead,” Slick said, sucking air. “How much do you weigh? Three hundred pounds? You need some serious portion control. You probably eat enough every day to feed half of the people who are starving in Burundi.”

“Look who's talking,” Lula said. “Mr. Pudgy Wudgy.”

“I'll make a deal,” Slick said. “If you let me stay here, I'll let you buy in to my project.”

“No,” I said.

“You have to let me stay!” Slick said. “This could be my big break.”

“You'll only be gone for a couple hours,” I told him.

“I'll be gone forever. No one's going to bond me out this time. My parents aren't going to bond me out again. And I have no one else.”

“Not my problem,” I said.

“He's got my curiosity,” Lula said. “I want to know about the big break. I'm always on the lookout for a big break.”

“It's the zombies,” Slick said. “I found the portal. There's only one place in this whole cemetery where the earth has been disturbed.”

“You aren't gonna turn into a zombie, are you?” Lula asked. “I have to tell you that's not a big break. Those zombies are unattractive.”

“I'm going to film them,” Slick said. “I'm going to make a zombie documentary. It's genius, right? Nobody's done it.”

“Because there really aren't zombies?” I asked.

“Don't pay attention to her,” Lula said to Slick. “She's one of them disbelievers. I think this has potential. How are you gonna do this?”

“I'm going to sit here and wait until the zombies show up. I figure they might be coming and going. Like this is home base. And then when they show up I'm going to film them.”

“You got equipment?” Lula asked.

“I have a GoPro that has infrared filming, and I have my cellphone.”

“I might know where you can get some professional stuff,” Lula said. “As I see it, your big problem is stopping the zombies from eating your brain.”

“So far, they're only taking brains from people who are already dead, so I think I'm safe as long as I'm alive.”

Lula nodded. “I can see you thought this through.”

“It's a chance of a lifetime,” Slick said. “I'd be willing to give you a credit if you could get me better equipment. I could list you as an assistant or a grip or something.”

“My name would have to be in a prominent place,” Lula said. “I'd need to get a producer credit. And what about the filming? Would we get to be seen with the zombies?”

“I hadn't thought about it, but sure, we could do that.”

“It would enhance our prospects for future film roles,” Lula said. “It could lead to us being movie stars.”

Slick was visibly excited. His eyes were wide and his face was flushed. “Exactly! That's been my plan all along.”

“Okay, it's decided,” Lula said. “Let's do it.”

I raised my hand. “Hello? Have we forgotten something? This man is a felon. We're supposed to be apprehending him.”

“Yeah, but I don't see where there's such a rush,” Lula said. “We got a mission. It could be critical that we document the zombies.”

I rolled my eyes and thunked the heel of my hand against my forehead.
“Unh!”

“I gotta get back to my post,” Slick said. “I don't want any zombies sneaking into the portal without getting their picture taken.”

“And I gotta go to the projects and find my camera friend,” Lula said.

Lula hustled off to the parking lot, and I followed after her.

“We have to find Cheap Slim,” Lula said. “He's my electronics source these days.”

I knew about Cheap Slim. He sold cameras, smartphones, watches, and laptops out of the trunk of his 1998 Cadillac Eldorado. Best not to ask about the source of his goods.

“You're going to buy a camera to film something that doesn't exist,” I said to Lula.

“Well,
something
came out of the cemetery and followed Diggery home,” Lula said. “And
something'
s collecting brains.”

She had a point. So maybe putting Slick in the cemetery with a camera wasn't such a bad idea.

“It's almost noon,” I said. “I called my mom a while ago and told her we'd be around for lunch. After lunch we can look for Cheap Slim.”

“Sounds good. Now that I think about it, I might even have a camera at my apartment. It was left over from when I did the bungee jumping demo.”

THIRTEEN

“YOU PICKED A
good day to come for lunch,” Grandma told Lula. “We got leftover meatloaf, fresh bakery bread, and coleslaw. And I got a new picture of my honey.”

“Is this the guy who looks like George Hamilton?” Lula asked.

“Yep. This is a picture of him on his scooter.”

Lula and I looked at the photo on Grandma's cellphone.

“He's almost as dark as me,” Lula said. “He spends some serious time in the sun.”

“Well, he's in Florida and that's the way it is. I'm told everyone looks like this in Florida,” Grandma said. “I might have to go to a tanning salon before I visit him.”

“You are
not
visiting him,” my mother said.

Lula and I took a seat at the kitchen table. I made a meatloaf sandwich and helped myself to the coleslaw.

“Have you heard anything new about Johnny Chucci?” I asked Grandma.

“I got a load of information about Johnny,” Grandma said. “He came back because he had a dream about his ex-wife, and he decided he was still in love with her. He tried to go visit her, and she hit him on the head with a fry pan, and he had to go to the emergency room. Twelve stitches. Went home and had another dream. This time God told him he had to try again. He's afraid to go back, so he's been sending her stuff. Flowers and pizza and love notes. So far as I know, the ex-wife wants nothing to do with him.”

“That's pathetic,” Lula said. “If someone sent me pizza I'd have to reconsider my feelings for him.”

Grandma forked in some meatloaf. “Word is that he even forgives her for killing his dog with the chicken bone.”

“He sounds like a nice man,” Lula said. “A real romantic. It's a shame we gotta haul his ass back to jail, but I guess that's life, right?”

“Do you know where he's staying?” I asked Grandma. “Where's home these days?”

“He was staying with his brother Earl, but that got old for Earl's wife,” Grandma said. “Then he moved in with his brother Little Pinkie, and he might still be there. And that's all I know except that Johnny doesn't look so good these days, and he might be a zombie.”

Lula sat forward in her seat. “Get out! Is that for real?”

“Well, he's not raggedy, but his eyes are sort of sunken in like zombie eyes. I guess he could just be anemic, but people are talking.”

“What's he smell like?” Lula asked. “Did anybody smell him?”

“I haven't heard anything about his smell,” Grandma said.

My mother brought half a chocolate cake to the table. “For goodness' sakes, the man got hit in the head with a fry pan. He's probably got a headache.” She knifed into the cake and put a slab onto a plate. “Who wants dessert?”

We all wanted dessert.

• • •

We finished lunch and pushed back from the table.

“I'd offer to help you take down Johnny,” Grandma said, “but I got an appointment at the hair salon. I have to keep up appearances in case my honey decides to visit me or vice versa.”

My mother still had the cake knife on the table. She was looking like she wanted to plunge it into her heart and end it all, so I removed the knife from the table, washed it, dried it, and put it back in the knife drawer.

“Great lunch, Mrs. P.,” Lula said. “You sure know how to put out a spread.”

I gave my mom a hug. “Thanks for the lunch. Don't worry about Grandma.”

“I'll never forgive your grandfather for dying,” my mother said. “God bless his soul.”

• • •

Lula and I drove four blocks and parked across the street from Little Pinkie Chucci's house.

“It doesn't say anything about him in the file,” Lula said. “Is he married?”

“He's married to a guy named Butch. They both work at the gym on Center Street. Butch is a physical therapist, and Little Pinkie is a trainer.”

We crossed the street, and I rang Little Pinkie's doorbell. No one answered, but there was a lot of barking on the other side of the door. I rang the bell a second time, and the barking continued.

“I'm guessing that Little Pinkie and Butch are at work, and Johnny isn't here either,” I said. “If someone was home they would have attempted to stop the barking.”

Lula was already creeping around the house, looking in the windows.

“The dog that's making all that noise is about three pounds. It's one of those Chihuahua dogs,” Lula said. “I can see the little ankle biter looking up at me.”

I moved next to Lula, checked out the dog, and continued walking. I was able to see the kitchen from the back door window. Everything was neat and clean. Two cereal bowls and two juice glasses in the dish drain. No indication that a third person was living in the house.

“No sign of Mr. Underpants,” Lula said. “Now what?”

“Now we go to the gym to talk to Little Pinkie.”

“Okay, but don't forget about Slick. I promised him a camera.”

“It's on my list.”

Ethel was also on my list. I didn't think two donuts was going to hold her, and the last thing I wanted was for her to be ravenously hungry when I opened Diggery's door.

The Center Street gym was a large, blocky freestanding building with statues of Greek gods by the front door. We found Little Pinkie in the free-weights area. I hadn't seen him in years, but he was as I remembered. Over-muscled and over-tattooed. Dark hair slicked back. Missing a finger.

He recognized me too, and he guessed why I was there.

“Johnny was crashing at my house, but it didn't work,” Little Pinkie said. “Killer hated him.”

“Killer?” I asked.

“My dog.”

“The Chihuahua?”

“Yeah. It was unpleasant, so Johnny moved out.”

“Do you know where he went?”

“Sure, but I'm not telling you. That would be ratting on my brother.”

“Yeah, but he's a felon,” Lula said. “And besides that, he's a goofball. He robbed a jewelry store wearing a pair of tighty-whities on his head.”

“He might have been 'shroomed up, but he's clean now,” Little Pinkie said. “He's trying to get his life together.”

“He could get it together in prison,” Lula said. “They got dumbbells there. He could come out looking like you.”

“Something to think about,” Little Pinkie said, “but I'm not telling you where he is.”

We left the gym and went to Lula's apartment to get the camera. I drove her to the cemetery, but she wouldn't go beyond the gate.

“You've got to take the camera to him,” Lula said. “I don't like cemeteries, and I don't like zombies. And the thing is, I've
got the feeling that I'm one of those people who attracts zombies. And now that we're here I'm going creepy-crawly.”

“I thought you were all into this. You wanted to be filmed with the zombies.”

“I'm rethinking that part of it. I could be interviewed at some other location, and they could edit me in. They do that stuff all the time.”

I rolled my eyes and blew out a sigh. It wasn't a spectacular eye roll. I didn't really have my heart in it. Truth is, I was getting weary of the zombie routine. I took the camera and walked it back to Slick. He was sitting with his back to a tree, and he was writing in a journal.

“What are you writing?” I asked him.

“A book. I'm going to send it to Oprah when I'm done.”

“You have big plans.”

“I'm short. I have to think tall.”

I nodded acknowledgment. It was an admirable philosophy. It would be even better if he threw some common sense into the tall thinking.

“I don't suppose you've spotted any zombies,” I said.

“Not yet. I'm hoping for some good activity tonight.”

I handed the camera to him. “This is from Lula. It didn't come with an instruction book, but hopefully you can figure it out.” I gave him my card. “Call me if you see any zombies, or if you get tired of sitting here and want to get carted off to jail.”

“I don't suppose you have any weed on you?”

“Nope. No weed.”

I left him sitting under the tree, and I returned to Lula.

“How's he doing?” she asked.

“He's okay.”

“He see any zombies yet?”

“Nope. No zombies.”

“Well, they're out there, sneaking around. I can feel them watching me. And I think they might be sending me mental messages.”

“What are they saying?”

“They're saying . . . brains, brains, brains.”

I did a 360-degree scan. I didn't see any zombies, and I wasn't getting any mental messages.

“I need to get more food for Ethel,” I said to Lula. “Something inexpensive.”

“How inexpensive are you thinking? Roadkill? Dumpster pickings?”

“More like almost expired rotisserie chicken.”

“That's still going to add up to money. If you could find a woodchuck on the side of the road it would last Ethel a couple days.”

“Are you going to pick it up?”

“Hell, no. You're the one who promised to take care of Ethel. I'm not picking up no dead woodchuck.”

I pulled into a Shop and Bag and got six rotisserie chickens. Four for Ethel, one for me, and one for Lula.

“Those chickens smell delicious,” Lula said. “I'm having a feast tonight. I'm going to stop at the deli on my way home and get some potato salad and a banana cream pie.”

After buying all those chickens, banana cream pie would not
fit into my budget. Roadkill for Ethel was looking more attractive.

I turned onto Broad, and saw Johnny Chucci come out of the hardware store and walk down the street.

“That's him!” I said. “That's Johnny Chucci in the blue shirt and jeans.”

I pulled to the side of the road and parked at a bus stop. Lula and I got out of the car, crossed the street, and ran after Chucci. He got into a silver Honda and drove away before we got to him. Lula and I ran back to my car and took off after him. He was in sight, with two cars between us. He turned off Broad and onto Liberty. He was heading into the Burg.

“When I get close enough I want you to get his plate,” I said to Lula. “Just in case we lose him.”

“I'm on it.”

I closed the distance between us, and Chucci suddenly turned into an alley and sped up.

“He's onto us,” Lula said.

I was on his bumper. Chucci clipped a garbage can, and it flipped up and smashed into the side of the Lexus.

“Keep going,” Lula said. “That didn't hardly do any damage.” She had her gun out and her window rolled down. “You want me to shoot him?” she asked. “I could shoot out his tires.”

Lula couldn't hit the broad side of a barn if she was two feet away. She is the worst shot of anyone I know.

“No!” I said. “No shooting.”

Chucci made a hard left onto Myrtle Street and an immediate right into another alley. I stayed with him until he suddenly
turned left into a backyard, raced between two houses, and came out on Clifton. I didn't react fast enough to follow him through the yard. By the time I got to Clifton he was gone.

I drove around the Burg, looking for the silver Honda, while Lula called the plate in to Connie.

“Connie says the car belongs to Little Pinkie.”

I drove past Little Pinkie's house. Car wasn't there. I drove past the gym. Car wasn't there either.

I gave up searching for Johnny and went to feed Ethel. The sky was overcast, and by the time we reached Diggery's road, the sun was hidden behind the trees.

“It's not nighttime,” Lula said, “but it's dark enough back here in the woods that it's spooky.”

I thought it was spooky in full daylight. It was like being in a second-rate goblin forest. It wouldn't surprise me to find flying demon monkeys living in one of the yurts.

I parked in Diggery's front yard, let myself into the double-wide, and arranged the chickens on the small kitchen table. I heard the whisper of a sound from the bedroom, and a chill ran down my spine. Ethel was on the move. Her head poked into the hallway, and at the same time Lula barreled through the front door and slammed it shut.

“They're out there. The zombies are coming to get me. I got out of the car for a minute to stretch my legs, and I saw them. They were heading for the car, so I ran in here.”

I looked out the window. I didn't see any zombies.

“I don't even have my gun,” Lula said. “I left my purse in the car.”

“I don't see them,” I said. “You must have scared them away.”

“Maybe they went invisible. Crack the window and see if you can smell them.”

“I can't smell anything but rotisserie chicken,” I said.

Lula caught sight of Ethel oozing closer, hunting down dinner.

“Holy hell!” Lula said. “I'm caught between a giant snake and the zombies. I gotta get out of here. Give me one of those chickens.”

“What are you going to do with it?”

“I'm gonna give it to the zombies. They can have chicken brain.”

“These are supermarket chickens,” I said. “They don't have heads.”

“Say what?”

“Look at them. No head. No brain. Didn't you ever notice that supermarket chickens don't have a head?”

“I never thought about it. Maybe the zombies won't notice.”

“Of course, they'll notice,” I said. “These are rotisserie chickens.”

Ethel was almost entirely in the hall, looking bigger in the small space than when she was curled in the tree.

“That's the biggest freaking snake I've ever seen,” Lula said. “I'm gonna get diarrhea.”

“That would be bad,” I told her. “The bathroom is on the other side of Ethel.”

Lula was dancing around, waving her arms in the air. “I got to get out of here. I got to get out of here.”

I opened the front door, and Lula rushed through it and down the makeshift stairs. I stepped out of the double-wide, locked the door, and came up behind her. She was standing dead still in the middle of the yard. Her eyes were wide, and her mouth was open. No sounds were coming out of Lula, but there were low, guttural moans coming out of the woods surrounding us.

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