Read Hardcore Twenty-Four Online

Authors: Janet Evanovich

Hardcore Twenty-Four (15 page)

Morelli was at the head of the stairs. He was naked, and he had a gun.

“I wasn't expecting you,” Morelli said.

“I see you're armed and dangerous.”

He looked down at himself. “It's going to get a lot more dangerous now that you're here.”

TWENTY-TWO

I HEARD MORELLI
calling me through the fog of sleep. His hand was on my bare shoulder. I think he kissed me on the forehead. Or maybe I was dreaming.

“Steph!”

I opened my eyes. “Again?”

“No,” Morelli said. “I have to go to work, but I need to show you something first.”

“What time is it?”

“Six o'clock.”

“In the morning?” I sat up and swung my legs over the side of the bed. “This better be good. I hope you're not going to show me the same stuff you showed me last night.”

Morelli grinned. “You liked it last night.”

“Yes, but that was last night. I'm not a morning person.” I looked around for my clothes. “Should I get dressed?”

Morelli grabbed a robe from the closet, stuffed me into it, and tied the belt. “This will only take a minute,” he said. “And then you can go back to bed.”

I followed him down the stairs to the front door and stared at the words scratched into it:
NEED BRAIN.
Below it was the stick figure of a woman with curly hair. A half-empty take-out container and plastic fork had been left in the middle of Morelli's sidewalk.

“What's with the trash?” I asked.

“Zombie late-night snack,” Morelli said. “The deli label says ‘calf brains,' and I'm not sure, but it looks like it was doused with hot sauce.”

He took a plastic evidence bag from his pocket and gingerly dropped the take-out container and fork into it.

“How could the zombie have known I was here?” I asked.

“Maybe it didn't. Maybe this was random.”

“I don't think it was random. When I went back to my apartment yesterday, ‘brains' and ‘die' had been scratched into my door. There was a smear of something that looked like blood. And the elevator smelled like carnations.”

“You didn't tell me.”

“I didn't want to ruin your day.”

“Nice of you, but misguided.”

“It would be good if you could figure this out and get rid of the zombies.”

“I should start to get the lab reports back today. Plus, I'm going back to Diggery's woods with a search team. In the meantime, you need to be careful. Keep the doors locked. And I can't believe I'm saying this, but put some bullets in your gun.”

“Did the zombie write anything on my car?”

“It looks like it tried but couldn't scratch through the paint.”

“If you're going back to Diggery's woods, I'd appreciate it if you'd feed Ethel. She'll eat almost anything. Pizza, burgers, rotisserie chicken, roadkill.”

Morelli grimaced, kissed me goodbye, and waited for me to go inside and lock the door. I watched him drive away, and I looked down at Bob.

“No way am I going back to bed,” I said. “I'm not taking a shower here, either. I'm moving out.”

I picked my clothes up off the bedroom floor and put them on. I made the bed. And I made a fast stop in the kitchen for a bag of dog food.

“Don't worry,” I said to Bob, hooking him up to his leash. “I'm not leaving you here. Bob brain isn't going to be on the zombie menu.”

We piled into Big Blue, and I drove to the office. It was a little after seven o'clock, and no one was there. The office didn't open until eight o'clock.

“No problem,” I said to Bob. “We need breakfast anyway.”

I drove past the office to the Cluck-in-a-Bucket drive-thru. I ordered two Clucky Lucky Breakfast Meals and a large coffee. I picked up the food and parked in the lot. The breakfast meal included an egg and cheese sandwich on an English muffin, home fries that had been compressed into something resembling a deck of cards, and a mystery pastry.

Bob snarfed his food down in about fifteen seconds. I ate at a slightly more leisurely pace, but even at that, I still had some
time to kill. I returned to the bonds office, parked the car, and walked Bob until Connie showed up and unlocked the front door. Lula was minutes behind her.

“What's with Bob?” Lula asked. “You don't usually hang with him.”

“It's complicated,” I said. “The short version is that I don't feel comfortable leaving him in Morelli's house alone.”

“What about your house?” Connie asked. “What about your parents' house?”

“Even worse.”

“Is this about the zombies?” Lula asked. “Are they eating dog brains now? I've been doing research, and zombies can't see real good with their red eyes, but they got a class A nose . . . unless it's been rotted away. I don't know what zombies do when their nose rots away. Anyway, if they have a nose, they can track you down by your scent, so all you have to do is smell different. I'm thinking about going into business making anti-zombie stink spray. It would be a combination of smells to confuse a zombie. Like cucumber and cat pee. Or maybe cow sweat and licorice. Stuff like that, you see what I'm saying? I bet I could clean up on stink spray.”

“No one is going to want to smell like cucumber and cat pee,” I said.

“Well, I guess people gotta make up their mind if they want their brains sucked out by a zombie, or if they want to smell like one of my designer stink sprays,” Lula said. “I'm going into production as soon as I can find the right spray nozzle. I already got a source for cucumbers and cat pee.”

“If you come into the office smelling like cucumber and cat pee you're out of a job,” Connie said.

“I don't need to personally wear it right now anyway,” Lula said, “because I'm not being pursued by a zombie, but there's others probably be happy to pay top dollar for it. Especially those individuals who are zombiephobics. Like if you have a business and you don't want to sell your product to a zombie, all you have to do is douse your shop in my stink spray. Zombies will be going someplace else to shop, and no one's going to protest your establishment, and the government isn't going to come near you and force you to sell to zombies. It's genius, right?”

Connie and I nodded. Lula was a lunatic. And yet, she could be on to something.

“I need to go to my apartment to get some things,” I said to Lula. “How about riding shotgun?”

“Sure, I could do that,” Lula said. “I imagine you want me to shoot any zombies who might pop up.”

“Only if they try to get my brain,” I said.

• • •

Lula and Bob trooped into my apartment building with me, and we all took the elevator to the second floor. The elevator no longer smelled like carnations. The hall was empty. My door was still vandalized.

“Look at here,” Lula said. “Some zombie has no sense of respecting personal property. These are deep scratches. Someone's going to have to sand this down and repaint it. You
should find the zombie that did this and make him pay for the repairs.”

“I'm working on it,” I said, unlocking my door.

Bob pushed past me and ran around, jumping on furniture and snuffling rugs. Lula stayed in the small foyer.

“Where's Rex?” she asked. “I don't see his cage in the kitchen.”

“He's having a sleepover at Rangeman.”

“Lucky him,” Lula said.

I went to my bedroom and stuffed some clothes into a medium-sized duffel bag. I added my laptop. It took me two minutes max, and I was ready to vacate. Truth is, I was much more frightened of a human pseudo-zombie than I would be of a real zombie. A Hollywood zombie would have to live by zombie rules. A pseudo-zombie would be unpredictable and have human emotions and obsessions . . . like needing a specific brain, as opposed to any old brain. Like maybe needing
my
brain.

On my way out, I checked for Diesel's knapsack. Still there. My bed had been slept in and a towel was damp in the bathroom. I felt a sense of relief, because it meant Diesel was okay.

“What are we doing now?” Lula asked.

“We're going to check on Johnny Chucci, and then I'm taking Grandma shopping.”

“What kind of shopping?”

“Grandma's getting a puppy.”

“Say what?”

“It's complicated.”

“You say that a lot. Am I going along to get this puppy?”

“No. You're going to babysit Bob at the office.”

Lula turned in her seat and looked at Bob.

“I guess I could do that, as long as I don't have to take him for a walk and pick up his poop.”

“No problem,” I said. “He's already been for a walk. He'll be happy to take a nap.”

I turned off Hamilton, wound around the maze of streets in the Burg, and parked in front of Johnny's parents' house. I left Lula and Bob in the car, and I went to the small front porch and rang the bell. Mrs. Chucci answered.

“I came to see how Johnny is doing,” I said to Mrs. Chucci.

“He's doing much better,” she said. “He moved out yesterday.”

“Moved out? Where did he go?”

“He had a reconciliation with his ex-wife.”

“She had a restraining order against him.”

Mrs. Chucci nodded. “Life is strange, isn't it? I suppose she realized she still had feelings for him when he got shot.”

I thanked Mrs. Chucci and went back to Big Blue.

“Well?” Lula asked. “How's he doing?”

“He's doing great. He's back with his ex-wife.”

“You mean he's standing on the street with a sign again?”

“I don't know.”

• • •

I cut across the Burg and parked in front of Judy Chucci's house. I didn't see Johnny hobbling around on the sidewalk, so I assumed he was inside. I went to the door and rang the bell. No
answer. I looked in the window. The house was dark. Wall to wall gnomes. No one walking around. I went to the back door. I knocked. I looked in the window. Lots of gnomes. No people. Door locked. I went back to the car.

“No one home,” I said to Lula.

“Maybe they killed each other, and they're dead. You should bust in and take a look,” Lula said.

I had authority as a bail bonds agent to break into a house if I felt my felon was inside. I used this privilege only under extreme circumstances. It was dangerous, and I wasn't especially talented at kicking a door down. In this case, I also couldn't get excited about finding two dead people. Or, for that matter, destroying a window or a door only to discover that Judy and Johnny were out grocery shopping.

“Hang for a little while longer,” I said to Lula. “I'm going to talk to the neighbor.”

Houses on either side of Judy Chucci's were normal. Small patches of grass that served as front yards. Neatly maintained. No gnomes.

I rang the bell on the house to the left of Judy's, and a young woman came to the door with a baby under her arm.

“I'm looking for Judy,” I said. “She's not answering her door, and the house looks deserted. Have you seen her lately?”

“She left early this morning,” the woman said. “She got back together with her fruitcake ex-husband, and they went on a pre-re-wedding honeymoon. She came over and asked me to take care of her gnomes. She said the one with the bad eye was feeling anxious about the fruitcake moving back in.”

“Do you know where they went?”

“Hawaii.”

I went back to Lula and Bob and took a deep breath. I was in financial doo-doo. I'd maxed out my credit card on the Florida trip. I had five dollars left in my pocket. And Big Blue guzzles gas faster than I can pump it in. I needed the capture money from Johnny.

“Good news and bad news,” I said to Lula. “The good news is that they aren't dead. The bad news is that they're in Hawaii.”

“That's what happens when you be a Good Samaritan,” Lula said. “It's like ordering food at the drive-thru. You never know when they're going to short you on the fries.”

TWENTY-THREE

I DROPPED LULA
and Bob at the office and drove to my parents' house. Grandma was waiting at the door. I waved to her and she was off the porch and down the sidewalk before I had a chance to shut the engine off.

“I know where I want to go,” Grandma said. “I went to one of them rescue websites, and I found a dog. The website said he was going to be up for adoption at the Petco store on Route 33. We gotta get there before someone else nabs him. I got my checkbook, my credit card, and $235 in mad money I've been hiding from your mother. I had more, but I spent it on the Florida trip.”

“Is it a puppy?”

“Almost. He's four years old, but he looks like a puppy. He's white and brown spotted, and he has floppy ears. It said his name is Duffy, but I'm going to call him Henry. I always wanted a dog named Henry.”

We walked into the store a couple minutes after it opened, and Grandma went straight to the adoption area in the front. There were several cats in cages and two small dogs. One of them was Duffy.

“What kind of dog is this?” I asked the attendant.

“He's a mix,” she said. “He belonged to an elderly man who had to give him up when he went into a nursing home. If I had to make a guess I'd say he was part Maltese or Havanese.”

“He's the one I want,” Grandma said. “I saw him on your website, and I knew right away that he was the one.”

“He's had all his shots and he's neutered,” the woman said.

“How much does he weigh?” I asked her.

“Nine pounds.”

“My pocketbook weighs more than that,” Grandma said.

An hour later we were out of the store and back in Big Blue. Henry had a new red collar and leash, a dog bed, dog bowls, dog food, a bunch of dog toys, a dog toothbrush and toothpaste, a brush and comb, and a tag shaped like a dog bone with his name and Grandma's cellphone number on it.

“Does Mom know about this?” I asked Grandma.

“I might have forgot to tell her,” Grandma said.

Henry was happy, sitting on Grandma's lap, and Grandma was looking out the window.

“There's another one of those protests up ahead,” Grandma said. “I can't make out what they're protesting, but one of them looks like a zombie.”

The protesters were in front of a new bakery, and one of the sign carriers looked like it might be the zombie version of Zero Slick. Under any other circumstances, I would have stopped,
but I had Grandma and her new dog with me. And to further complicate things, Grandma was probably carrying and would like the chance to shoot a zombie.

I cruised past the protesters, and Grandma swiveled in her seat. “Do you think that was a real zombie?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “I think it was someone made up to look like a zombie to get attention.”

I parked in my parents' driveway, and I carried the bags of dog paraphernalia into the kitchen while Grandma walked Henry around the front yard, trying to get him to tinkle.

“What's all this?” my mom asked.

“Grandma has a surprise to show you,” I said. “This is part of it.”

Grandma brought Henry into the house. “Here he is,” she said to my mom. “Isn't he a pip? His name is Henry, and he's not going to be any trouble. I'm going to walk him and feed him and he's going to sleep with me.”

My mom's eyes glazed over for a beat, and I knew she was thinking Why me? “What on earth?” she finally said. “How. Why?”

I took the dog bed out of a bag and put it on the floor. “Because she was going to sleep with either Roger Murf and his wife, or else she was going to sleep with Henry.”

My mom knelt down to get a better look at Henry. “He
is
cute,” she said.

“I have to run,” I said. “Things to do.”

I wanted to get back to the protesters. I wanted to see the zombie up close. Hard to believe it could be Slick, but no stone unturned.

I hustled out of the Burg to the new bakery in Hamilton, and arrived just as the protesters were filing onto a bus. I parked and rushed over to a guy who looked like he was the handler.

“Is the zombie on the bus?” I asked him.

“Zombie?”

“Short guy with messy brown hair, wrinkled dirt-smudged clothes, red eyes. Smells like carnations.”

“Ah,
that
guy. No, he took off on foot as soon as he got paid. We have another gig, but he wasn't interested.”

“How much did he get paid?”

“Standard protester wage. Twenty dollars an hour for carrying a sign, and a twenty-dollar bonus if you heckle enough to start a riot. Why? Are you interested? I could use another body at the next stop.”

“I could use the money. What will you be protesting?”

“I don't know exactly. I don't have the details on my work order. All I know is, it's a political fundraiser at a private residence.”

“What were you protesting at this bakery?”

“They refuse to do gluten-free wedding cakes. It's blatantly discriminatory.”

“I never thought of gluten in those terms.”

“So, what's the word?” he asked. “Are you getting on the bus?”

“No, but thanks for the offer.”

I returned to the Buick and drove a grid, looking for Slick. He was on foot. I thought he couldn't have gone far. After twenty minutes of searching I decided I needed another pair of eyes, so I went back to the office and got Lula.

“These zombies are sneaky,” Lula said. She had her window down, hoping to catch a whiff of carnation. “One minute they're here and the next thing . . . poof.”

I looked at my gas gauge. It was a smidgen from empty. By the time I dropped Lula at the bonds office, I'd be running on fumes. I drifted into a gas station and called Morelli while I pumped in my last twenty dollars.

“Have you gotten any forensics back?” I asked him.

“Yes. It's pretty interesting. I can't tell you everything over the phone, but we've been able to identify some of the DNA. The sample we got from the double-wide broken window was especially helpful. And the hot sauce on the take-out calf brains on my sidewalk was instantly identified as Tabasco. The red smear on your door also appears to be Tabasco.”

Slick, I thought.

“Where are you now?” I asked.

“We're finishing up at Diggery's. We didn't find any zombies, but we found a second underground cave. And we made a good drug haul. That's all I can say.”

“Bob is at the bonds office. I didn't want to leave him alone in your house.”

“Thanks. I'm getting ready to head out. I'll pick him up on my way home.”

“I think Slick is the Tabasco zombie. And for whatever reason he seems to be targeting me. I drove past a bakery in Hamilton Township this afternoon, and I thought I saw him with a bunch of protesters. By the time I got back to the bakery he was gone.”

“We have a list of persons of interest, and he's on it. Tomorrow or Wednesday we'll have the lab report back on items we found today, and it should complete the picture. In the meantime, I'm thinking Mexican tonight. What's your pleasure? Burrito grande? Chicken fajita?”

“None of the above. I'm a zombie magnet. I don't want Slick coming back to your house. I'm going to stay at Rangeman. Ranger is out of town until midweek, and I can use his apartment. I've stayed there before and it's safe.”

“I can handle Slick.”

“Yes, but what happens when you aren't home? What happens when you get called out in the middle of the night because a headless corpse has been found at the multiplex?”

“Slick isn't a zombie.”

“He's worse. He's a human who's acting and looking like a zombie. He's unpredictable.”

“You're right,” Morelli said. “I can't predict what he might do. I can't predict what any of these crazies might do. And you probably are safer at Rangeman for the next couple days. I can't guarantee that I'll always be here for you.”

I was done pumping gas. It didn't take long to pump twenty dollars' worth. And Lula was gesturing to me from inside the car.

“I have to go,” I said to Morelli. “Why don't I meet you for dinner?”

“There's a new place by the hospital. El Cheapo Pollo. Bad name but decent food. I ate there last week.”

“Sounds good. I'll see you at six o'clock.”

“I got the answer to our surveillance search problem,” Lula said while I buckled myself in behind the wheel. “It's drones. What we need are drones, and I got a source. My friend Stump got a bunch of them that have cameras built in, and he's got one that's a heat seeker. He's on his way to meet us on the street behind the bakery.”

Drones sounded like an okay idea. Sourcing them from a guy named Stump felt sketchy.

“Is this going to cost money?” I asked.

“No, but Stump says if we find a zombie he wants a selfie.”

I drove to the bakery, circled the block, and parked. The bakery was on a busy street, lined with small businesses. The neighborhood behind the bakery was one of modest, neatly maintained single-family houses. The houses had small backyards and single-car garages. The buildings were bordered by mature shrubs and hedges. Lots of places for a short zombie to hide.

A jacked-up crew cab pickup truck pulled in behind me, and a middle-age balding guy swung out. His remaining hair was black and kinky curly. His skin was swarthy. He had a lot of tattoos, a thick Hispanic accent, and a body like a beer keg with legs.

“So, we hunting zombies today,” he said to Lula.

“We know there's one sneaking around the neighborhood,” Lula said. “We just can't find him, what with all the bushes and stuff.”

“He gonna have no place to hide when I get my birds in the air. I'm putting my quadcopter up for you first. It'll stay up
for almost a half hour and can cover four miles. I got a touch-control screen here so you can see what the bird sees and you can send it where you want it to go.”

“I'd like it to search a grid, two blocks at a time,” I said.

“No problem,” Stump said. “She'll be up in a minute.”

The picture came up on the screen, the four propellers started to whirl, and the drone lifted off the ground and rose to just above rooftop level.

“This is amazing,” Lula said. “I need to get one of these. You could see everything. It's like I can fly.”

“I'm cruising at a slow speed right now,” Stump said, “but she can do forty miles an hour if I need to make a fast delivery.”

“What do you deliver?” I asked him.

He looked at me like I had corn growing out of my ears. “Money. Drugs,” he finally said. “And we use this in various locations to assess the movement of people.”

“Stump's in the illegal immigration business,” Lula said. “He's real good at it too. Nobody's ever died in any of his trucks.”

“Everybody gets water, a blanket, and a granola bar,” Stump said. “I run a first-class operation.”

“I'm not seeing no zombie so far,” Lula said. “Maybe Slick's already moved out of the area.”

“I'll jump two blocks and make another sweep,” Stump said. “Do you know what direction he's moving in?”

I shook my head. I didn't know.

“He's a zombie,” Lula said. “He might want to get underground. He might be heading for a cemetery or a storm sewer.”

“If he's one of them drug zombies he could be going to Morley Street,” Stump said. “There's a guy distributes on Morley.”

Whoa! “‘Drug zombie'?”

“Yeah, there's some new street drug that turns people into zombies. Just popped up last week. At least that's when I heard about it. Goes by the name Zombuzz. Nasty stuff. I tried to get a piece of it, but it's a closed franchise.”

“Do you know the distributor?” I asked.

“No. He's from out of town. I hear he's weird. They say he comes and goes like smoke. I don't even know what that means. Nobody knows much. Word is, he gives the stuff away. How do you compete with that?”

Stump's cellphone buzzed, and he read the text message.

“Sorry, ladies, gotta go,” Stump said. “Business.”

He tapped instructions to the drone and, in less than a minute, we could hear the high-pitched whine and see the quadcopter coming at us like a giant mosquito.

“I got it. I got it,” Lula said, rushing toward the drone, arms outstretched.

The drone ticked off her fingertips and hit her on the forehead.
BONK!
Lula went still for a beat and then sat down hard on the ground.

“Ow,”
she said.

I went to one knee beside her. “Are you okay?”

“Butterfly. Don't let them eat all the Fudgsicles.”

Stump was packing his equipment. “You want me to put her in the back of the truck and drive her to the ER?”

Lula blinked at me and put her hand to her forehead. “What happened?”

“You tried to catch the drone, and it hit you in the head.”

“Fucking drone.”

“She's okay,” I said to Stump. “I'll get her a bucket of chicken, and she'll be fine.”

Stump drove away, and I helped Lula get into Big Blue.

“Did you know about the zombie drug?” I asked her.

“No. That's the first I heard. And usually I hear everything. What do you suppose happens to a zombie if he takes the zombie drug? Do you think he turns into a Fudgsicle?”

“Hang in there,” I said to Lula. “I'm going to get you some chicken.”

“Yeah, chicken would be good. And biscuits with gravy. And a Fudgsicle.” Lula looked over at me. “Why do I keep saying ‘Fudgsicle'?”

“Maybe you have a concussion. Do you want to go to the ER and get checked out?”

“No. I want to go to Cluck-in-a-Bucket and get some Fudgsicles.”

“They don't have Fudgsicles at Cluck-in-a-Bucket,” I said, “but I'm pretty sure they have them at the hospital.”

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