Read Hardcore Twenty-Four Online

Authors: Janet Evanovich

Hardcore Twenty-Four (10 page)

SIXTEEN

LULA WAS WAITING
in the cemetery parking lot.

“What's going on in there?” she asked.

“Not much. They're doing their cop thing.”

“Any sign of Slick?”

“No, but the police are just starting to look.”

“What about us?”

“We're going to look for Johnny Chucci.”

“I think his brother was telling us a fib, and Johnny's with him. Johnny was driving his car. And I'd talk to the ex-wife. I bet he's creeping around her house, looking in her windows. We should go there at night. That's when obsessed lunatics go creeping. Only thing is I don't know if I want to go out at night, what with the zombies roaming everywhere. Have you noticed they're all over Trenton? I'd think they'd stay close to their cemetery. I mean, how did they get to the hardware store? Do
they drive? Do they have zombie cars? Do they cart their decapitated heads around in cabs or Uber cars?”

I hadn't thought about it. It was a good question.

Ranger called on my cellphone. “Babe, your car is at the police station, but your messenger bag is at the cemetery on Morley Street.”

“I kind of punted a zombie off the right front quarter panel yesterday. The police are looking at the car for DNA and stuff.”

There was silence on Ranger's end, and I thought I caught a single burst of muffled laughter.

“Are you laughing?” I asked him.

“Yes. What happened to the zombie?”

“He disappeared.”

“Hard to take down a zombie,” Ranger said. “Was the car totaled?”

“No. I'm still working on that.”

“Counting down the days,” Ranger said.

• • •

I drove past Little Pinkie's gym on my way to the Burg.

“I don't see a silver Honda in the lot,” Lula said. “Are we going to stop in again?”

“No. Johnny isn't going to be at the gym, and Little Pinkie isn't going to help me find him. I'm going to take another look at Little Pinkie's house, and then I'm going to talk to the ex-wife.”

“I like that plan. I'm interested in the ex-wife. What would possess a woman to take up painting gnomes? It's sick, but in a
good way, you see what I'm saying? I think she must be a unique individual.”

It was almost eleven o'clock by the time I cruised past Little Pinkie's house. A driveway led to a detached single-car garage that sat at the back of the property. There were no cars in front of the house and no cars in the driveway. I circled the block and parked one house down from Little Pinkie on the same side of the road.

Lula and I went to the door and rang the bell. No one answered, but the dog repeated his barking, snarling routine. Lula walked around and looked in the first-floor windows. I walked back to the garage and looked in the single grimy side-door window. We met back at the front of the house.

“Well?” Lula asked.

“The garage is empty. No car.”

“And I didn't see any people. I guess someone could be upstairs, but there was nothing that said a freeloading guest was hanging out.”

I cut across the Burg to the ex-wife's, and we picked our way through the gnomes to the front door.

“The advantage to this is you don't have to cut the grass, being that there isn't any,” Lula said. “This lady got wall-to-wall gnomes.”

I rang the bell, and Judy Chucci opened the door. She was a couple inches shorter than me and pleasantly plump. That's an outdated expression, but it fit Judy Chucci perfectly. She had brown hair tucked back behind her ears, and she was wearing jeans and a gray sweatshirt. The sweatshirt looked like someone had dripped red paint on it or maybe had a massive nosebleed.

“Omigod,” she said. “Stephanie Plum, right? You used to hang out with my little sister, Joanie. Joanie Beam.”

“Wow,” I said. “I didn't know you were Joanie's sister.”

“Yeah, I get that a lot. We don't look alike, right? She's all blond and thin, and I'm, you know, round.”

“What's she doing now? I haven't seen her in years.”

“She works at the tattoo parlor on State Street, downtown. She's real good. I saw her tattoo Madonna on a guy once.”

“It's gotta be hard to do Madonna,” Lula said. “I guess being artistic runs in the family. Looks like your thing is gnomes.”

“A lot of people don't understand the finer points of gnome painting,” Judy said. “At first glance, they might all look the same, but it's the details that count. Charlie, over in the corner, has a little pink in his red coat. And Harry, by the mailbox, has a crooked smile. And poor Mr. Murphy has a cataract. It was an accident. I added too much white to his eyes and next thing he was blind.” Judy bit into her lower lip. “I'm so sorry,” she whispered to Mr. Murphy.

“Can't you just paint over it?” Lula asked.

Judy shook her head. “No. He's blind. It's irreversible.”

“That's too bad,” Lula said. “Seems like something could be done to help him.”

“I'm told there's a paint specialist in Denver who does wonderful work,” Judy said. “I've started a GoFundMe page for Mr. Murphy.”

“That's a excellent idea,” Lula said. “I hear those pages rake in big bucks. And they got a good variety of weed in Denver, too.”

Judy nodded. “Mr. Murphy would like that. And he deserves it. He's suffered so much.”

“About Johnny,” I said.

Judy stiffened and looked around. “He better not be here. I have a restraining order.”

“He missed his court date,” I said. “I work for his bond agent, and I need to bring him in to get rescheduled. I was hoping you'd help me find him.”

“In other words, you want to take him to jail?”

“Yes.”

“I'm in. What do you want to know? What do I have to do?”

“Boy, you must really dislike him,” Lula said.

“He's a douchebag,” Judy said, “but I don't want to get into that in front of the gnomes.” Judy stepped back. “Would you like to come in? I have coffee cake.”

We followed Judy along a narrow path through the living room. There were gnomes on every surface. They were on the floor, on the tables, on the couch, and on all the chairs. Ditto the dining room and kitchen. She had a gnome-painting workstation set up on the kitchen table.

“You ever watch that television show about hoarders?” Lula asked Judy.

“Yeah, those poor people get buried alive with their stuff. I don't know why they don't get help.”

“You ever see any hoarder shows about gnomes?”

Judy was searching through her kitchen. “I know I have a coffee cake here somewhere.”

“That's okay,” I said. “We don't really have time for coffee cake. I was hoping you could give me some information on Johnny. Do you know where he's staying?”

“From what I hear, he moves around. Nobody can tolerate him for more than two days. He's
so annoying
. He has an opinion about everything. Talk, talk, talk. And he's constantly cracking his knuckles, and there's no polite way to say this . . . he farts. A lot.”

“Maybe he's got gluten issues,” Lula said.

“Maybe he should double up on his underwear in the place that counts, instead of wearing a pair on his head,” Judy said.

“Does he have a favorite bar or fast-food place?” I asked. “Is there any place he regularly hangs out?”

“Yes,” Judy said. “Here! I have a restraining order against him because he skulks around my house every night and breaks my gnomes, but that doesn't stop him. He leaves stupid presents on my doorstep.”

“What kind of presents?” Lula asked.

“Flowers and bottles of wine and pizza and jewelry.”

“They sound like nice presents,” Lula said.

“I guess so, but he's such an oaf he's always knocking over the gnomes. He broke Henry's arm last night. I call the police and by the time they get here he's gone.”

“Where does he get the money to buy these presents?” I asked. “Does he have a job?”

“He steals them,” Judy said. “The moron puts his underpants on his head and steals stuff.”

“Does he have a routine?” I asked. “When does he leave these presents?”

“Usually between nine and eleven. He knows I go to bed at eleven.”

“I'm going to stake out your house between nine and eleven for a couple days,” I said. “Don't call the police. Maybe I can catch Johnny.”

Lula and I tiptoed our way through the gnomes to Morelli's car.

“If you ask me, they're both whackadoodle,” Lula said, buckling her seatbelt.

I was about to drive to the office when my mother called.

“You have to come see this,” she said. “You have to talk to your grandmother. And I've got kielbasa for lunch.”

“We're having lunch at my parents' house,” I said to Lula.

• • •

Grandma met us at the door. Her hair was cut, styled, and colored to look exactly like my mom's. And Grandma was spray-tanned. Head to toe with the exception of white circles around her eyes.

“What do you think?” she asked.

“I think you rock,” Lula said. “Us girls gotta mix it up once in a while.”

“I'm taking it for a test-drive,” Grandma said.

My mom was in the kitchen.

“I heard that,” she said. “As long as you don't test-drive it to Florida.”

I led the way and hung my bag on a kitchen chair. The small table was set for four, and the bread and butter were already out.

“Hey, Mrs. P.,” Lula said. “It smells good in here.”

“Kielbasa and sauerkraut,” my mom said. “It's lunch, so everyone helps themselves from the pot on the stove.”

We all filled our plates and sat at the table.

“Look at her,” my mother said, cutting her eyes to Grandma. “She's going to Florida. I'm going to come back from mass someday and she'll be gone. And who knows about this man. He could be a serial killer, a white slaver. He could be one of those men who steals Social Security from old women.”

“He has a good job working in a bar,” Grandma said. “He's a family man. He can't help if he looks hot. And my Social Security isn't worth crap. I wouldn't be living here if I got any kind of money from Social Security.”

“I want you to do a background check on him,” my mom said to me. “I know you have all those programs that you use to track down criminals. I want you to find out about this
person
.”

“That's reasonable,” Lula said. “I always check up on the men I go out with. There's some freaks out there.”

“I guess that's okay,” Grandma said. “I'm sure he has nothing to hide.”

I took down all the information on Roger Murf
,
and promised I'd get right to it. Truth is, I agreed with my mom and Lula. It was a good idea. Hard to have a lot of trust in a guy who looks like George Hamilton.

Lula and I laid waste to the kielbasa, insincerely offered to help with cleanup, and left.

“I'm somewhat of an expert on sausage,” Lula said when we
were in the car, “and that was about the best sausage ever. I wouldn't mind knowing how to cook a sausage like that, but probably I'd need a stove.”

Lula had half a fridge, a Keurig, and a single-induction burner. At least she had an excuse for not cooking. I had zip.

I drove past all the real estate associated with Johnny Chucci and didn't see the silver Honda. I called Morelli and asked about Slick. He said they'd searched the entire cemetery and its surroundings and didn't find Slick or any of his body parts.

“I'm at a temporary dead end,” I said to Lula. “I'm going to drop you at the office and head home to research Grandma's boyfriend. Do you want to stake out the gnome house with me tonight?”

“Wouldn't miss it. With any luck, Chucci will show up, and he'll still have his underpants on his head.”

SEVENTEEN

I LET MYSELF
into my apartment and paused. No television sounds. No men's shoes kicked off in the living room. No one singing in the shower.

“Hello?” I called.

Silence.

I hung my bag on a hook in the foyer and walked through the apartment. No Diesel. Good deal. I was happy to delay the confrontation. I sat at the dining room table, opened my laptop, and ran Roger Murf through a couple search programs. Nothing derogatory turned up. He had good credit. His work history checked out. He had two adult children living in New Jersey. And he had a wife in Key West. Whoops.

I ran the wife, Miriam Murf, through the search programs, and she showed the same residence and credit history as Roger. Files indicated that they'd been married for forty years, and that she was still alive.

I couldn't find any photos, so I called Connie. She has more advanced search programs than I do, and she has Florida connections. I fed her my information, and she said she'd get back to me. I suppose I didn't really need a photo, but I wanted to see if he actually looked like George Hamilton.

• • •

Morelli called at four o'clock.

“What's new?” I asked.

“Are you sure you want to know?”

“Is it bad?”

“I got the autopsy report back on the homeless victim.”

“The one with the hole in his head?”

“Yeah. He had blunt force trauma to the back of his head. It appears that he was knocked unconscious, and then had his brain removed. This is the first victim who seems to have been killed by the brain snatcher. All others were already deceased.”

“I don't get it. How do the zombies remove the brain?”

“Big straw?”

“That's not funny.”

“I was being serious.”

Ugh!

“What about Slick?” I asked.

“No sign of him. I'm on my way to talk to his parents.”

“Would you like me to pick something up for dinner and bring it to your house?”

“That would be great. Bring something that can be reheated in case I'm late.”

“How late?”

There was a beat of silence. “Does it matter?” Morelli asked.

“I'm staking out Judy Chucci's house tonight from nine to eleven.”

“I'm pretty sure I'll be home by eleven.”

“If you come home later than that I'll be the woman in your bed.”

“I like it.”

I disconnected, went to the foyer, and pulled Slick's notebook out of my messenger bag. I returned to the table and started reading. I drifted into a coma on page five. Oprah might love it. Me not so much. It was about a person named Zero who was a lost soul. Zero had given up his humanoid and sexual identity and was wandering naked in the woods. The idea was interesting but the writing was atrocious. Zero explained on page one that he was inventing a new writing form called stream of unconsciousness, and that he didn't believe in the use of punctuation.

I skimmed from page five on. Not a lot happened to Zero. Mostly Zero was thinking about food and having sex with itself. These were complicated issues for Zero because, having no identity, he didn't know what he was supposed to eat. The sex came easier, and was explained in great detail, but was difficult to follow without punctuation. On page twenty-two, Zero wrote about coming across another
thing
. It didn't have a name, but it was also having sex with itself. Fortunately, the writing ended
on page twenty-three, shortly after ejaculation. Hard to tell which of them was ejaculating. Maybe both.

• • •

I got baked beans and pulled pork from the deli and fresh-made rolls from the bakery. Morelli wasn't home when I arrived at his house, so I stowed the beans and the pork in the fridge, and I put the rolls in the cupboard where Bob couldn't get at them. Bob and I went for a walk around a bunch of blocks, and when we returned to the house, it was still empty. I fed Bob and made myself a pulled pork sandwich. I called Morelli, but he didn't pick up.

It was eight-thirty when I fetched Lula.

“Did you notice how I'm all dressed in black for night surveillance?” Lula said, buckling herself in. “Between my black clothes and my chocolate skin, I'm a total shadow. I'm like invisible. I'm the black bomb.”

I was dressed in the same clothes I'd worn all day, and my skin did me no favors when it came to the shadow-blending thing. Fortunately, I was average enough that I almost never attracted attention.

I parked Morelli's car on the opposite side of the street from Judy Chucci's house, and Lula and I settled in to wait. Lights were on in her house but curtains were drawn. It was an overcast night. No moon. By nine o'clock I realized I was going to have to leave the car and get closer to the house. It would be too easy for Johnny to sneak around in the dark, drop a package on Judy's porch, and run off into the night.

Lula and I crossed the street and hid behind a car belonging to the neighbor next door. There was no street traffic. Residents were inside watching television, putting kids to bed, and Facebooking.

“I can't wait to see what present Judy's getting tonight,” Lula said. “It's like she got Christmas every day.”

I checked my watch at nine-thirty. “Not a creature is stirring, not even a mouse,” I said to Lula.

“Tell me about it,” Lula said. “This is tedious. I'm tired of standing here. I can't even do anything on my phone on account of the screen would light up.”

“I think I just saw movement on the far side of Judy's house,” I whispered.

We froze and squinted into the darkness.

“I see it,” Lula said. “It's him. I can see his raggedy undies on his head.”

I didn't see any undies. I saw a shadowy figure move in front of a tree and disappear. I thought I heard the rustle of cloth, or maybe it was something brushing against the tree.

“Wait until he goes to the door,” I whispered. “We don't want to have to chase him through everyone's backyard in the dark.”

“Sure, I get that,” Lula said, “but what if he doesn't go to her front door? What if he's going to her back door? I'm gonna sneak between these two houses, and see if he's at the back door.”

“No!”

Too late. She was off and tippy-toe running to the back of the house. And then she was out of sight, around the corner of the building.

“Stop!” she shouted. “You're under arrest, sort of. Actually, we can't arrest you, but we can apprehend you.”

I took off at a dead run. It was pitch-black between the houses, and there wasn't much light at the back. I heard something crash. I heard Lula cussing. More crashing.

“Damn fucking gnomes,” Lula said.

I turned into the backyard and ran into a gnome.

“I got him!” Lula yelled. “I got Mr. Underpants! I got . . .
YOW!”

She was on the other side of the yard, by the back door, and there were about a hundred gnomes between us.

“Help!” Lula yelled. “Holy crap!”

I kicked a bunch of gnomes out of the way and crossed the yard. I saw Lula but no Johnny.

“Did he get away?” I asked.

Lula was dancing around. “It was a zombie. I touched a zombie. I got zombie cooties. It was awful. He smelled like doodie and carnations. I can't get it out of my nose. I gotta cut off my nose. Get me a knife.”

“Are you sure it was a zombie?”

“I got cooties. I got cooties. They're on my clothes. He grabbed me, and he touched my clothes.”

Lula ripped her black spandex tank top off and peeled her black spandex tights off. She was left wearing a black thong.

“Good God,” I said. “If you take any more off you're not getting in Morelli's car.”

“It's the cooties. I can feel them on me. They're zombie cooties. They're the worst kind.”

“Are you sure they aren't Johnny Chucci cooties?”

“He had bad breath, too. His breath smelled like dirt and worms.”

“He breathed on you?”

“It was awful.”

The back-porch light flashed on, and Judy stepped out. “What's happening? Did you catch Johnny?”

“You got any bleach?” Lula asked. “I gotta pour bleach on myself.”

Judy looked at the backyard. “My gnomes! What happened to my gnomes? Where's Mr. Sunshine Sparkle?”

“We just got here,” I said. “It looks like someone tried to run through your yard.”

“Yeah,” Lula said. “It might have been a pack of wild dogs. Or maybe the zombies.”

Judy blinked. “Zombies?”

“They're all over town,” Lula said. “Trenton's lousy with them. They were probably here looking for gnome brains.”

“That's horrible,” Judy said.

“No shit,” Lula said. “You might want to take your gnomes in the house . . . what's left of them anyways.”

“You haven't got any clothes on,” Judy said to Lula.

“My clothes got the cooties,” Lula said.

Judy grimaced, stepped into her house, and closed and locked the door.

“I should have shot him in the head,” Lula said. “It's that he caught me by surprise.”

“Next time,” I told her.

“Yeah, I'll be ready next time.”

I looked at her clothes lying on the ground. “What are you going to do about your clothes?”

“I'm not touching them. They can rot there. They been tarnished with zombie juju.”

“You're only wearing a thong.”

“And?”

“I'm feeling uncomfortable.”

“Maybe because you've never been a 'ho. You get used to this when you're a 'ho. You get comfortable with naked shit.”

“So, you're going home like that?”

“Is it a problem?”

I blew out a sigh. “No, but if we get stopped by the police you have to hold me at gunpoint and say you forced me to drive you like this.”

“Sure. I could do that.”

I drove Lula across town without incident, and dropped her at her house. I waited until she was safe inside, and then I drove to my apartment. I idled in the lot and looked up at my windows. No lights were on. No flicker from a television screen. Probably no Diesel. I parked, walked into the building, and took the stairs to my apartment. We have an elevator, but it's unreliable and frequently smells like take-out burrito.

I flipped the kitchen light on and said hello to Rex. I gave him fresh water, filled his cup with hamster food, and gave him a Ritz cracker. I shoved some clean clothes into a tote bag, and debated giving Morelli the notebook I'd lifted from the cemetery. In the end, I decided against it. There was nothing to be gained from the journal, and it would only complicate things.

Diesel's leather knapsack was still stashed in a corner, so I assumed he'd be back. It didn't look to me like the bed had been slept in since I departed it, and there were no dirty dishes in the kitchen. I had a squishy feeling in my stomach that something bad might have happened to Diesel. I hoped this wasn't the case. I hoped he wasn't a zombie. And I hoped he wasn't married.

I ignored the squishy stomach, said good night to Rex, and left my apartment.

• • •

I parked in front of Morelli's house, and he pulled in behind me in Ranger's Lexus NX. He wrapped an arm around me, hugged me close, and kissed me.

“I'm beat,” he said. “And I'm starving, but I think if I could get something to eat I could muster enough energy to get you naked.”

“I brought pulled pork.”

“That'll do it,” Morelli said.

We sat at the little kitchen table, and Morelli dug in.

“I'm guessing you still haven't found Slick,” I said.

“No. No head. No brain. No body. I talked to his parents, but they weren't helpful. I'm waiting for the tech to isolate the zombie frames for me.”

“Did anything interesting turn up at the cemetery?”

“We exhumed the second grave, and everything seemed to be untouched.”

“And the first one?”

“Empty.”

“Excuse me?”

“Not for common knowledge, but it was empty. No casket. Nothing but dirt.”

“Do you think Diggery took it on one of his earlier digs?”

“Diggery doesn't usually do that. He robs everything on the scene and covers his tracks.”

“Maybe the zombies got rid of the casket, so it was easier to escape through their portal.”

“That would be one theory.”

“Do you have any others?”

“No.” He made himself a second sandwich. “How was your night? Did you catch Johnny?”

“Lula had a run-in with a zombie in Judy Chucci's backyard. The zombie got away, but Lula was convinced she was contaminated with zombie cooties, and she stripped down to her thong.”

“Whoa! That had to be frightening.”

“The zombie?”

“Yeah, that too.”

“I didn't see the zombie.”

“How did Lula know it was a zombie?”

“It sounded like they were up close and personal. She said it breathed on her.”

“Okay. That's close. Did she get any pieces of zombie rag? Was there an exchange of zombie fluid?”

“It wasn't
that
personal.”

Morelli got a beer out of the fridge. “Worth asking.”

“What about
my
zombie rag?”

“I haven't got the report back yet. Not sure what they got off the car other than a look at state-of-the-art tracking technology and a legal Glock that refused to hold a fingerprint. Unfortunately, it's a Friday so I might not know anything until Monday.”

“Are you working tomorrow?”

“I'm on call. Are you working?”

“The office is open for a half day. I need to check on Ethel, and Connie is doing some research for me.”

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