Read Hardcore Twenty-Four Online

Authors: Janet Evanovich

Hardcore Twenty-Four (14 page)

“Morelli might like to see this measuring cup,” Diesel said.

I took a tissue from my messenger bag and used it to pick the cup up.

“What do you think was in this?” I asked.

“Probably a street drug. Difficult to see in the dark, but I've been through here before, and there are discarded syringes in this area.”

“A street drug that turns people into zombies? Something similar to bath salts?”

Diesel stared at me for a beat, and moved toward the path. “Time to head out.”

I stayed close to him on the way back to the car. There were some far-off, eerie moaning sounds, but I didn't suggest that we investigate. I didn't know how many secret weapons Diesel carried, and I didn't want to risk another knife in the eye episode. I was barely holding on to my cheese fries.

Diesel was wearing a long-sleeved black T-shirt untucked with the sleeves pushed up to his elbow. We got into the car, and I realized his right sleeve had a tear in it and was soaked with blood.

“You're bleeding!” I said.

“It isn't serious. The bullet grazed my arm. Hard to believe he could be such a bad shot at such close range.”

“We should get you to a doctor.”

“Not necessary. I'm a good healer. I'm going to drop you at Morelli's, and then I'll stop off at your place to get a clean shirt. I still have work to do tonight.”

“Would you like some help?”

“Thanks for the offer, but I have to do this alone.”

Diesel was silent for the rest of the drive. I had the measuring cup on the floor by my feet, and I was trying to think of something other than the knife in the guy's eye and the blood on Diesel's shirt. I conjured up the sand and surf of Long Beach Island, my mom's pineapple upside-down cake, and Ranger naked. I thought about kittens and puppies and grilled cheese sandwiches. I was cycling back to Ranger naked when Diesel pulled to the curb in front of Morelli's house.

He walked me to the door, leaned in, and kissed me. Friendly. No tongue. No groping. A little disappointing.

“I'll catch up with you tomorrow,” he said. “Keep your doors locked.”

I nodded yes, stepped back, closed and locked the door. Bob galloped into the foyer, slamming into me, almost taking me to the floor. I told him he was a good boy, and we danced into the kitchen. I set the cup on a paper towel in the kitchen, and let him out to tinkle or do whatever in the backyard. I kept a watch for red eyes.

I filled Bob's bowl with dog kibble and gave him fresh water.
Two hours later we were both asleep on the couch, in front of the television, when Morelli came home.

Bob awoke first. He was off the couch when the door opened. I was slower to come out of the sleep fog. Morelli hugged Bob and ruffled his ears. He leaned down and kissed me. Friendly. No tongue. No groping. What the hell?

Morelli shuffled into the kitchen and got a beer out of the fridge. “I'm beat,” he said. “I'm getting too old for this overtime crap. I'm ready to go back to being a uniform.”

I followed after him. “You don't mean that.”

“No. But I'm flat-out done.”

“Did you catch any zombies?”

“We came close, but no. They were there. We could smell them. Carnations and rot. They must have another den somewhere in the woods. We'll go back tomorrow when it's light.” He spotted the measuring cup on the counter. “What's this?”

“I went to the cemetery on Morley Street to look for Slick, and stumbled across two guys who were cooking something in this cup. They tossed the cup when they saw me and ran away. Whatever was in the cup glowed iridescent green and evaporated. Poof. There were a bunch of syringes lying around. I think this is some new street drug. And it occurred to me that it might be like the drug bath salts. Maybe something that makes people think they're zombies.”

“Flakka?” he asked.

“Maybe a derivative of flakka,” I said.

“I'll have CSI take a look at it. As it is, they're working
overtime. You can't imagine what we found in the hole in Diggery's woods.”

“Bones? Brains?”

“No brains. Everything else.” Morelli got a bag of chips out of the cupboard. “Talk to me about the cemetery. You went there alone?”

“Do you remember Diesel?”

“Big guy. Blond hair. Makes Ranger look normal.”

“Yeah. He was with me.”

“Do I want to know about this?”

“Nothing to tell. I'm letting him stay in my apartment since I'm here with you. He's never in town for long.”

Morelli looked at the measuring cup. “So these guys just ran away?”

“Yep.”

“And whatever was in this evaporated?”

“Yes. It went
hissss
and evaporated. Okay, actually the one pulled a gun and shot Diesel. But it was just a nick. And then Diesel threw a knife that got stuck in the guy's eye. And then they ran away.”

“Are you kidding me?”

“No. That's the way it happened. I almost threw up. The knife was sticking out of his eye.”

“You could have a nice safe job stacking oranges at the grocery store. You could get a job at the button factory. Is it really necessary that you continue to be a bounty hunter?”

“You sound like my mother.”

Morelli put the chips back. “I'm too tired to eat these.”

We trudged upstairs, and Morelli headed for the bathroom.

“I'm going to take a fast shower,” he said. “Feel free to get started without me.”

“I thought you were tired.”

“Cupcake, I'm never
that
tired.”

TWENTY-ONE

I WAS IN
the kitchen, waiting for the coffee maker to dispense my coffee, when Morelli and Bob came in from their Sunday morning run. Hard to say which looked worse. Bob with his tongue hanging out of his mouth or Morelli dripping sweat.

“Looks like you guys had fun,” I said.

“Yeah, I love these Sunday morning runs,” Morelli said.

“What's the plan for the day?”

“I promised Anthony I'd help him put in a new tub. He's renovating his bathroom.”

Anthony is Morelli's brother. He's been married a couple times to the same woman. They have a pack of kids. And if I had to give an honest description of him I'd say he's a likable asshole. The tub will probably take an hour to install, but Morelli will be gone all day. Anthony's house is a black hole. Morelli will get sucked into playing ball with his nephews, drinking
beer with his brother, and by afternoon the house will be filled with guys from the neighborhood watching the game on Anthony's big flat-screen.

Bob flopped onto the floor, panting and drooling, and Morelli went upstairs to change. When Morelli returned to the kitchen, Bob had stopped panting and I was on my second coffee. Morelli's hair was still damp from his shower. He was wearing a T-shirt and jeans, and it was Sunday, so he hadn't shaved. Morelli with a day-old beard looked sexy and sinister.

Bob went with Morelli, and I went back to my apartment to feed Rex and get clean clothes. I didn't see Diesel's Ferrari in my parking lot when I drove in. Probably out looking for his man.

I entered the building, stepped into the elevator, and pressed the button for the second floor. I got a chill when the doors closed, and I caught the lingering odor of dirt and carnations. The elevator doors opened, and I looked out at the hall. Empty. No zombies. Just the same sickening stench. A flash of panic ripped through me when I got to my apartment. Someone or something had scratched
brains
and
die
into the paint on my door. And there was a red smear across the door and on the knob. I suspected it was blood.

The door was still locked, so at least they hadn't been able to get inside. I opened it, stepped in, and called, “Hello?” No one answered. I had a gun in my cookie jar, but I didn't have any bullets. I had a couple steak knives in my kitchen, but I couldn't see myself sticking one in someone's eye. And I was all out of
brave. I grabbed Rex's cage off the kitchen counter, locked my apartment, and used my phone to take a picture of the mess.

I hustled down the stairs and out to Big Blue. I had a dilemma now. Where should I go? I didn't want to go to my parents' house if I was being stalked by a brain eater. They had enough problems managing Grandma. No reason to add some pseudo-zombie sneaking around, trying to get into their house.

I needed to show the picture to Morelli, but I didn't want to ruin his Sunday. I was afraid he'd feel compelled to abandon Anthony and go over every square inch of my hall with CSI. I also didn't want to hang out in Morelli's house all by myself. I supposed I could spend the day at Anthony's, watching the bathtub get installed, but, honestly, I'd rather have my brain sucked out by one of the zombies.

I had no idea how to get in touch with Diesel. He came and went like the wind. He gave me cellphone numbers that never worked. His cars had phony license plates. And I wasn't sure what he could do for me anyway.

That left the Holiday Inn or Ranger's. I didn't have money for the Holiday Inn, so it was going to be Ranger's. He lived in a one-bedroom apartment on the seventh floor of his high-security office building. I've stayed there before when I needed a safe haven.

I called Ranger, and he answered with his usual “Babe.”

“I've got a situation here,” I said. “I was wondering if Rex and I could hang out at Rangeman for a short time.”

“How short?”

“Anywhere from a couple hours to a couple days.”

“I'm in North Carolina with a client. I probably won't be back in town until midweek or later, but I'll notify the control room that you're on your way. You know the drill.”

“I do. Thanks.”

I drove into the center of the city and turned onto a side street that was mostly residential. Ranger's building is a discreet redbrick midrise that blends in with the rest of the neighborhood. The underground parking is gated and patrolled.

I flashed my card at the gate, watched it roll away, and drove through. Ranger's reserved parking is at the back, next to the elevator. The rest of the garage houses employee vehicles and the Rangeman fleet. I parked in one of Ranger's spaces, hauled Rex out of the back seat, and stepped into the elevator. I looked up at the security camera and smiled hello. I slid my card into a slot by the door, and the elevator took me to Ranger's private floor.

His apartment is professionally decorated in blacks and browns. Walls are white. It's uncluttered to the point of being impersonal. The furniture is sleek and comfortable. His sheets are two hundred thread count. His bathroom has fluffy white towels and Bulgari shower gel. His kitchen is small but well stocked. His housekeeper sees to it all.

I let myself in and walked down the short hall to the kitchen. I put Rex on a section of countertop and gave him fresh water, a shelled walnut from a bag in the cupboard, and fruit salad from the fridge. Ranger eats healthy.

I felt comfortable knowing everyone was safe. Rex was safe. Morelli and Bob were safe. My parents and Grandma were safe.
I'd removed myself from all those places. If a zombie was out there looking for me and my brain, he'd have no reason to disturb anyone I loved.

I watched Rex take his food out of his food cup and put it into his soup-can nest. After he had all his food stored away, he burrowed into his bedding material and disappeared. Okay, that was fun, but now I had nothing to do. I could go to the mall. I could go to the shore. I could take a nap.

I was leaning toward the nap when my mom called.

“Your grandmother is missing,” she said. “I came home from church, and no one was home.”

“Where's Dad?”

“He's at the lodge working a pancake breakfast. The man won't butter his own bread at home, but he's all about making pancakes at the lodge.”

“Grandma goes out all the time.”

“She left me a note. She said she was going to see her honey. And her suitcase isn't in the attic with the rest of the suitcases. I think she's going to Florida. I tried calling her, but she won't answer.”

Oh boy. Grandma and the swingers.

“I was only gone for an hour and a half,” my mother said. “You might be able to catch her at the airport.”

“Which airport? What airline?”

“The one that goes to Florida,” my mother said.

“The Trenton airport has flights to Florida, but they're limited. If Grandma is trying to get to Florida, she'll probably fly out of Newark. So how will she get to Newark?”

“Myra Rulach or Ester Nelley. All her other friends have had their licenses confiscated.”

“Call them and see if they took Grandma to the airport.”

Ten minutes later my mom called back. “Ester Nelley took her to Newark Airport and dropped her off at United. You have to go get her.”

“Why me?”

“If I send your father he'll personally put her on the plane. And I can't go because I already took two Valium and had a calming cocktail.”

“It's not even noon! And no one's died.”

“Special circumstances,” my mother said. “I felt a migraine coming on. Anyway, you don't have to live with this woman. You don't know what it's like. Last month she ran up a seventy-five-dollar bill on adult television. She said she was doing research on monkeys spanking fraternity men.”

Sick and yet disturbingly intriguing.

“Okeydokey then,” I said, “I'll see if I can find Grandma.”

I drove Big Blue out of Ranger's garage and took Route 1 to the turnpike. There wasn't a lot of traffic at this time on a Sunday, but even with light traffic it wasn't a great drive. Needless to say, I was the only one on the road in a powder blue and white Buick Roadmaster. I took the turnoff to the airport and parked in short-term parking. I ran into the United terminal and didn't see Grandma.

I called my mom. “I'm at the airport, and I don't see her,” I said. “A plane left for Miami twenty minutes ago. Call Ester back and see if Grandma was planning on taking that plane.”

I sat in one of the waiting areas and cringed when my mom called back.

“Ester said your grandmother was hoping to make the plane that just left. And then she was making connections for Key West.”

Great. Key West. It might as well be the moon.

I went to the ticket counter and got a ticket on the next flight out. It left at four-thirty and got into Miami at seven-thirty. The connecting Key West flight was at eight o'clock. Personally, I felt like Grandma was capable of taking care of herself, and if she wanted to go to Key West she should go to Key West. On the other hand, my mom was popping Valium and swilling down whiskey. And the spanking monkeys were troublesome. There was a small fear that Grandma would be romping around on a nude beach doing nooners with the swingers. I was no one to judge, but there were diseases to worry about.

I walked around the airport, ate a turkey wrap for lunch, and called Morelli.

“Did you get the bathtub in?” I asked him.

“Yeah. It looks good. Rooney came over and hooked up the plumbing.”

“And now?”

“Now we're grilling burgers and sausages. You should come over.”

“Rain check. I'm in Newark Airport. Grandma decided to go to Florida to hook up with Mr. Wrong, so I've been dispatched to bring her back. I'm one flight behind her.”

“How do you know it's Mr. Wrong?”

“I ran a background on him. He's married, and he belongs to a swingers club.”

“There are still swingers clubs? I thought they went the way of the phone booth.”

“This one is in Key West.”

“I guess that explains some of it,” Morelli said. “How long do you expect to be in Florida?”

“No longer than necessary. My hope is that I'll catch up with Grandma at the connecting flight. If I get to her in time we might be able to make a nine o'clock plane back to Newark. If I don't get to her in time, I'll have to hunt her down in Key West.”

“What if Grandma doesn't want to come home?”

“I'll bribe her with a puppy.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Morelli said. “Good luck.”

I checked my email and Facebook page, ate a bag of M&M's, and dozed in the waiting area until my plane boarded. There were a lot of strange people in the airport, but none that looked like a zombie. So it was all good.

The flight was uneventful, and we landed on time. I went to the gate for the Key West connection and found Grandma on a bench in the lounge.

“For goodness' sakes,” she said when she saw me. “This is a surprise. Are you going to Key West? I didn't know you were planning a trip.”

“Mom was worried about you and sent me to make sure you were okay.”

“Of course, I'm okay. I'm just dandy. My Key West boyfriend invited me to a party at his seniors club.”

Eeeek.
“I need to talk to you about that club.”

“He said they had some fun activities, and I figured since Willie Kuber turned out to be a dud I might as well see what Roger Murf is about.”

“I got the background check on Murf. He's married. And the seniors club is for swingers.”

“The married part is a disappointment,” Grandma said. “Did you get a picture?”

I pulled the photo out of my messenger bag and handed it over to her. “The woman is his wife, Miriam.”

Grandma studied the photo. “He's no George Hamilton.”

“Only George Hamilton is George Hamilton.”

Grandma nodded. “George Hamilton is a good-looking man. This Roger Murf isn't doing it for me. And since Roger Murf is one of those swingers, I'm thinking he only wanted me for my body,” Grandma said.

“He wanted you for Mom's body.”

“Technically that's true, but a senior citizens' swingers club might not be too picky. I bet I could pull it off. I might have to get one of them Brazilian wax jobs. I hear they're painful. And when they're done with you, you're bald down there.”

“How about a puppy? Why don't we go home and get a puppy?”

“That would beat the heck out of a swingers party,” Grandma said.

“Okay, it's settled. If we hurry, we can get back to United in
time for a flight to Newark and then we can get the puppy first thing in the morning.”

“I'm going to name him Henry,” Grandma said.

• • •

It was after midnight when we deplaned in Newark. The airport shops and restaurants were closed, and the corridors were mostly empty. Grandma had a small carry-on bag, and I had nothing other than my messenger bag. We bypassed the checked baggage carousels and walked through the terminal directly to short-term parking. I found Big Blue and was confronted with the reality that I'd parked in short-term all day. Between the airfare and the parking, it had been a costly night. And tomorrow I was going to have to buy Grandma a puppy!

It was a long, quiet drive in the dark back to Trenton. I'd texted my mom and told her I was bringing Grandma home. I didn't tell her about the puppy.

Lights were still on in my parents' house when I pulled to the curb. My mom was waiting up for Grandma.

“Thanks for going all that ways to tell me about the Murfs,” Grandma said. “It's probably just as well I didn't go to the party. I don't know if I want to look at a bunch of naked old people. It would be different if it was those Chippendales men.”

I waited until Grandma was safely inside, and then I headed over to Morelli's neighborhood. I drove down his street and idled in front of his house. It was dark. I hadn't called him, and he wasn't expecting me. Not that it mattered. I had a key.
I parked Big Blue at the curb, let myself in, and started to tiptoe up the stairs when Bob came bounding down and slammed into me. So much for my stealth entrance.

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