Read Hardcore Twenty-Four Online

Authors: Janet Evanovich

Hardcore Twenty-Four (16 page)

“Then that's where I want to go.”


checked Lula in at the ER. Louise Burger was the admitting RN. I went to grade school with Louise, and one of my cousins was married to one of her cousins. I asked her to keep an eye on Lula while I ran an errand.

The office was several blocks from the hospital. I got there a little after four, just as Connie was shutting down for the day.

“I need an advance,” I said to Connie. “I'm dead broke, and my credit card got maxed out when I had to bring Grandma back from Florida.”

“What happened to Johnny Chucci?”

“Hawaii. I'm pretty sure he'll be back.”

Connie unlocked the cash drawer. “How much do you need?”

“A hundred would be great.”

She counted out a hundred and handed it over to me. “I got a new FTA an hour ago. The guy shouldn't be hard to find. First
arrest. Not a lot of money involved, but it'll help until Chucci returns.”

I took the file from her and paged through it. LeRoy Barker. Fifty years old. Looked all puffed up in his picture. Apple cheeks. Apple body. Wearing a three-button collared knit shirt that was two sizes too small. Self-employed electrician.

“Wow,” I said to Connie. “This guy was arrested at his own birthday party?”

“Charged with drunk and disorderly. He's lucky he wasn't charged with assault. The party was at Chez Thomas on Route 33. LeRoy had a few too many cocktails, took all his clothes off, and fell asleep on the banquet table. When they tried to get him off the table he punched out the maître d'. Broke the guy's nose. It took six cops to wrangle LeRoy out of the restaurant and into a squad car.”

“His address is listed as 25 Ferguson Avenue. That's right around the corner from Morelli.”

“He's married and has two adult children,” Connie said. “Both of the kids are out of the house, living on their own. The wife works at the button factory.”

I tucked the file into my messenger bag. “I'm on it.”

I chugged away in Big Blue, turned off Hamilton Avenue into Morelli's neighborhood, and parked behind LeRoy's truck on Cherry Street. His house was a small Cape Cod with two dormers in the front. No lights on in the house, but I could see the blue flicker of a television. I rang the bell, and LeRoy answered.

I introduced myself and explained to LeRoy that he'd missed his court date and needed to reschedule. I omitted the part that
court was no longer in session so if I brought him in to reschedule he'd most likely be spending the night in jail.

“I'm depressed,” LeRoy said. “I don't want to go to jail right now. I don't want to go out of the house. I don't
want to go out of the house. I don't know what came over me. I was having a real good time, and then next thing I was naked and in jail. And now there's all these pictures of me online. I look like a beached whale. And if that wasn't bad enough, I passed out on the cake. My kids aren't talking to me, and my wife moved out.”

“Jeez, that's horrible. I'm sure it's only temporary with your kids and wife.”

“I could use a drink,” LeRoy said.

“That might not be a good idea. How about a bucket of chicken? I have a friend in the ER. I have to go pick her up and buy her some chicken and biscuits. You could come along.”

“Chicken might be good.”

I looked at my watch. “I need to get back to her. Shut the television off and lock up your house.”

“Am I going to jail?”

“Yes, but we're going to get chicken first.”

Five minutes later I was once again double-parked in front of the ER entrance. I left LeRoy cuffed in the back seat, and I ran in to check on Lula.

“How's she doing?” I asked Louise.

“She's okay,” Louise said. “She's finally stopped asking for a Fudgsicle. She has a minor concussion. Nothing serious. She's ready to be discharged.”

I got Lula out of the building and buckled into the front seat.

“Hello, handsome,” she said to LeRoy. “What's your problem?”

“He's FTA,” I said. “I picked him up while you were in the ER. He's going for chicken with us.”

“What did he do?”

“Drunk and disorderly,” I said.

A loud sigh came out of the back seat.

Lula swiveled around and looked at him.

“I was stupid,” LeRoy said.

“I bet I got you beat,” Lula said. “I just got hit in the head by a drone.”

“I drank too much and passed out naked on my birthday cake,” LeRoy said.

“Did you face-plant?”

planted. It was a big sheet cake.”

“You win. Did you at least get to eat some of it?”

“I don't think so. I can't remember. They hosed me off before they locked me up.”

I swung into the drive-thru and ordered two buckets of chicken, two orders of biscuits with gravy, two extra-large sodas, and two apple pies.

“How come you're not eating?” LeRoy asked me.

“I have a date later,” I said. “We're going to the Mexican place by the hospital.”

Another sigh. “I ate there with my wife before she left me.”

“Why did your wife leave you?” Lula asked.

“I embarrassed her when I passed out on my cake.”

“That's it?”

“It was at Chez Thomas. And I was naked. And then I punched the maître d' in the face.”

“Sounds like a good time to me,” Lula said. “Any time you want to get naked and cover yourself with cake you just give me a call.”


“Hell, yeah.”

I parked in the Cluck-in-a-Bucket lot, unlocked LeRoy's cuffs, and distributed the food. By the time I reached the police station on the other side of town, Lula and LeRoy were working on their pie.

“I'll call you when I get out of jail,” LeRoy said to Lula. “I don't think I want to pass out on my cake anymore, but we could go bowling or something.”

“I'm up for that,” Lula said. “I'm all about throwing big balls around.”

I walked LeRoy into the station and turned him over to the cop at the desk.

“Sorry it's too late to bond you out today,” I said to LeRoy, “but Connie will do it as soon as you see the judge tomorrow.”

“Thanks for the chicken,” he said. “I'm not so depressed anymore. And I like your friend Lula.”

I got my body receipt and hustled across the street to Big Blue. I crawled along in rush-hour traffic, finally reached the office, and dropped Lula off at her car. I looked at my watch for the tenth time in fifteen minutes. I was late for Morelli. I circled a couple blocks, found a space, and attempted to parallel park the Buick. Impossible. I finally parked in the hospital garage and power-walked to the restaurant. Morelli was already seated.

“Sorry I'm late,” I said to Morelli. “One of those days.”

“Cupcake, all your days are ‘one of those days.'” He stood and gave me a hello sort of kiss. “That's why I love you.”

“You love me?”

“Yeah. You didn't know that?”

“It's nice to hear. I love you too.”

Morelli grinned. “How
do you love me?”

“A medium amount.”

“Really? Medium? Not a lot?”

“‘A lot' might indicate impending marriage plans.”

“We haven't got any of those.”


He looked me over. “Weren't you wearing those clothes yesterday?”

I glanced down at myself. “I didn't get a chance to change. I was worried about zombies in the morning, and then things got congested in the afternoon.”

“We could skip dinner and go straight to a shower and clean clothes. Or even better . . . no clothes.”

“Tempting, but no. I'm starving.”

“I ordered a pitcher of beer,” Morelli said. “Hope that's okay.”

“It's perfect. I need it

Morelli whistled through his teeth, and everyone jumped in the restaurant. He raised his hand and mouthed “Beer” to the waitress.

“Gee, that's smooth,” I said to Morelli.

“I'm a Jersey Italian, and my girl needs a drink.”

Both of these things were true.

The waitress brought our pitcher, we ordered off the menu, and I chugged my first glass.

“Okay, I feel better,” I said. “I'm starting to relax.”

“Your day was that bad?”

“Not bad. Hectic. Especially at the end. Lula got hit in the head by a drone, and I had to take her to the ER because she kept saying ‘Fudgsicle.' While she was there I picked up a new FTA. Then I went back and got Lula.”

“Is Lula okay?”

“Yes. Mostly she just needed a bucket of chicken.”

“Where did the drone come from?”

“Lula had an idea to use a drone to look for Slick. It was actually a pretty good idea. The drone was amazing . . . until Lula tried to catch it, and it hit her in the head. It belonged to a friend of hers. Stump.”

Morelli relaxed back in his chair. “Eugene Stump. The scourge of Trenton.”

“I thought you were the scourge of Trenton.”

“That was back in the day. Stump has a drone army. He uses the drones to move drugs and to help him move people.”

“He said there's a new street drug called Zombuzz, and it turns users into zombies.”

Morelli nodded. “The labs are still working, breaking it down, but we know the basics. It's a complicated synthetic mix that produces physical and psychological symptoms. Joints become stiff, making walking awkward. Chemical changes take place behind the eyes, and there's some bleeding involved. Users have no fear, feel no pain, have increased strength.”

“What about the brain-eating thing?”

“We haven't apprehended a user yet, but from the physical evidence we've been able to retrieve, we think they aren't eating the brains. We think they're using them to manufacture the drug. We've found three underground caves that contain crude labs.”

“So the dirty clothes and dirt-clogged hair, the red eyes, the classic zombie shuffle, all get explained by this drug and the way it's being manufactured?”

“In theory. We're still learning.”

“Stump said it's being distributed by one man. He said the guy was from out of town and weird.”

“It might have been the way it started, but I think it's moved beyond that now. Everything we've found points to multiple players producing product with widely varying degrees of purity.”

“I'm surprised you haven't been able to round up some of these users.”

“I can't arrest someone because his eyes are red and he shuffles. We have to wait for one of them to be caught committing a crime, or for one of them to overdose and end up dead or in the ER.”

“What about DNA found on some of the victims? Were you able to identify any persons of interest?”

“Yes. We've interviewed two, and they made no sense. We have them under surveillance, and we're looking for a third.”

I hated to ask the next question, but I couldn't help myself. “Were you able to identify anyone on the cemetery video?”

“It's disappeared. I had a tech working on it Friday. When
he came in today the camera was gone and his computer had been wiped clean.”

I went numb for a couple beats. Diesel.

“How could that happen?” I asked. “It's a police station.”

“That doesn't mean it's secure,” Morelli said. “A lot of people have access.”

The waitress brought corn chips and
, and I dug into the chips, hoping to hide the fact that my heart was skipping around in my chest. Who the heck was I harboring in my apartment? Some guy who was able to break into a police station and wipe out a computer. Okay, calm down, I told myself. Maybe it wasn't Diesel. Like Morelli said, lots of people had access.

“On another note,” Morelli said. “I saw the court docket for tomorrow, and Diggery was on it.”

“I'd love to see him skate and get sent home. I don't want to be the long-term godmother to a fifty-pound snake.”

“Evidence against him has been flimsy in the past. I'm not sure what they've got on him this time. And if he went to a jury trial I doubt there's anyone in Trenton who would convict him. He's like a folk legend.”

• • •

It was a little after nine when I parked in Rangeman's underground garage and took the elevator to Ranger's apartment. I stood in the dimly lit hallway for a moment and let the cool air wash over me. I took a few calming breaths, listened to the silence, and felt my heart rate drop to a Zen level. His apartment
had a sense of order that mine lacked. It was a good match with the man. They were both locked down in a way that gave the appearance of inner peace. I knew inner peace was an illusion for Ranger, but I also knew he believed if you practiced something long enough it became yours.

I went to the kitchen and said hello to Rex. He was on his wheel. Running, running, running. He paused, twitched his nose at me, and continued to run. I took my duffel bag into the bedroom and set it on a leather bench in Ranger's large walk-in closet. I had enough clothes for a couple days. Just the essentials. I knew from previous visits that Ranger was generous with his possessions. I could use his toiletries, raid his closet, eat his food, and drink his wine. And his housekeeper, Ella, was genius at providing forgotten essentials.

His bathroom was very masculine and spa-like. Carrara marble countertops. Pristine white tile on the floor and in the shower. Smoky gray paint on the walls. Endless steaming hot water. Bulgari Green shower gel that gave me a rush strong enough to buckle my knees when I soaped up because it smelled like Ranger.

I toweled dry and borrowed a black Rangeman T-shirt to use as a sleep shirt. I climbed into Ranger's bed and took a moment to enjoy the luxury. His sheets were soft and smooth, ironed by Ella. His pillow was perfect and lump free. His comforter was just right. If Ranger had been in the bed next to me I wouldn't have noticed any of these things. When you're in bed with Ranger, there's only Ranger.

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