Read Hardcore Twenty-Four Online

Authors: Janet Evanovich

Hardcore Twenty-Four (17 page)

TWENTY-FIVE

I WOKE UP
at seven. It was dark in Ranger's bedroom, but light was streaming into the rest of his apartment. I padded barefoot into the kitchen and pressed the button on the coffee maker. Rex was burrowed deep in his soup can, sleeping off a hard night on the wheel. When Ranger is in residence Ella brings his breakfast at six
A.M.
House-smoked salmon from Tasmania, whole-grain toast, fresh fruit, yogurt. Sometimes he'll go nutty and put strawberry jam on his toast.

Ella knows that I sleep later and usually prefer to forage for my own breakfast. This morning I chose granola with fresh blueberries and strawberries.

I was at the kitchen counter, brewing a second cup of coffee, when I heard the apartment door open. A beat later, I heard keys get placed in the silver tray Ella kept on the hall table. Ranger was home.

He walked into the kitchen and kissed me. “Babe.”

“I thought you weren't supposed to come home until later in the week.”

“The job wrapped up early, and I was able to get a plane out this morning.”

Ranger was dressed in black Rangeman fatigues. He was wearing a sidearm and a sheathed knife. All standard for men on duty. He almost always flew private, eliminating the hassle of airport security.

“Would you like me to call Ella for breakfast?” I asked him.

“I ate on the plane.” The corners of his mouth tipped into a smile. “I like the way you look in my shirt.”

I tugged at the hem. “It's a little short.”

“I'd like it shorter.”

My turn to smile. “It's nice of you to let me stay here. Rex and I appreciate it.”

“Fill me in on the situation.”

“You know about the zombies?”

“Yes.”

“One or more seems to be stalking me,” I said. “I thought it was a good idea to put myself in a safe place. And I didn't want to endanger anyone else . . . like the people in my building or my family.”

“Tell me about the stalking.”

I showed him the photos I'd taken of my door and Morelli's door.

“I think it might be Slick,” I said. “There was discarded supermarket packaging left on Morelli's sidewalk along with a
plastic fork. The label said ‘calf brains,' and it had been doused with Tabasco. I know Slick is a Tabasco fan.”

“I've been briefed on the drug the police believe is producing the zombie-like creatures. The chemistry of the drug alters brain function. Probably permanently. And it's highly addictive. A component of human brain is needed to produce the drug, so addicted users might be sent out to harvest brain. But from what I've read, there's no indication that a user would want to actually eat brain.”

“So?”

“So, it's unlikely that your stalker would be a brain eater. I think it feels staged.”

“No zombie?”

“Doubtful,” Ranger said.

“Then who?”

Ranger's attention went back to the T-shirt. “I've missed you,” he said. “You owe me some time.”

Oh boy.

The smile returned. “Don't panic. It's just a game. You're the one who decides when we play.”

That did me no good at all. Ranger was totally desirable. Being in a semi-committed relationship wasn't enough for me not to want Ranger. I would have to be dead. And even dead might not do it.

“Why isn't Diesel protecting you?” Ranger asked. “He's still in town.”

“I never see him. He's looking for someone.”

And that was the way I liked it. My biggest fear was that
Diesel would drag Slick into my apartment by the scruff of his neck, and I'd have to pay up on our deal and strip down.

“Diesel works for a little-known international organization that attempts to control exceptional people who go rogue,” Ranger said. “Chances are good that he's looking for someone associated with the zombie drug. Maybe the chemist or biologist who developed it.”

“What happens if
Diesel
goes rogue?”

“That would be a problem.” Ranger took a bottle of water from the fridge. “I have to go downstairs. What are your plans for the day?”

“Simon Diggery is going before the judge today. I want to be there.”

“Take a fleet car. I'll have Tank park it next to mine. He'll leave the key on the dash.”

“Is this double or nothing again?”

“This one's on the house.”

“Thanks. I'll try not to destroy it.”

I took a shower, got dressed, and headed out. Tank had positioned a shiny black Honda CR-V next to Ranger's Porsche 911 Turbo. It was pretty and new, and just looking at it had my stomach in a knot. With me at the wheel, the poor thing was doomed to have an ugly end. It was only a matter of days. Maybe a matter of minutes!

I carefully eased the car out of the garage and drove to the office. Lula was at Connie's desk, shopping QVC on Connie's computer.

“Connie went to the courthouse to bond out LeRoy,” Lula
said. “After he gets sprung, me and LeRoy are gonna meet for lunch.”

“Diggery is in court today too. I called on my way here, and they said he's up for eleven o'clock. I thought I'd go over and see if he needs a ride home.”

“You think he's gonna get off?”

“I'm hoping. I don't know why they keep arresting him. They can never make any of the charges stick.”

“Yeah, but it slows him down,” Lula said. “He stays clear of the cemetery for a while after he's been harassed.”

• • •

Diggery saw me when he was led into the courtroom. It wasn't hard for him to spot me. There were only a few people scattered around. Judge Judy wasn't presiding, Bernie Madoff wasn't on trial, and no zombies were in attendance.

The sad sack before Diggery got thirty days for destruction of personal property while under the influence. He looked like he was under the influence a lot. The sad sack left, head down, and Diggery was called.

Diggery approached the bench, pleaded not guilty to the charges, and the judge looked like he wanted to hit himself in the head with his gavel. Probably this wasn't his first rodeo with Diggery.

Diggery went on to explain how he was doing volunteer gardening at the cemetery as part of a civic beautification campaign. And while he was digging so he could plant some geraniums he came upon a ring.

The judge gave up a sigh and told Diggery to speed things up.

“So anyways,” Diggery said, “I put the ring in my pocket and forgot about it, what with the geranium planting and all. It didn't occur to me that it belonged to the lady resting in the grave. If it had been buried with her, how in holy heck did it get out of her slumber chamber?” Diggery leaned forward a little. “That's what they call the casket now,” he told the judge. “Slumber chamber.”

The judge did a small grimace. “Go on.”

“I was leaving after my planting and one of our fine men in uniform, one of our wonderful first responders, mistook me for a miscreant. And that's how I came to be arrested.”

“According to the arrest report, you were doing your gardening at two in the morning.”

“That's right, your honor. That's when I do all my gardening. I got a touch of the skin cancer, so I garden at night.”

The judge gave his head a small shake and looked at his watch. It was lunchtime. He looked at the prosecutor and the court-appointed public defender.

“Anybody? Anything?” the judge asked.

Nobody had anything.

“I'm fining you fifty dollars for trespass after cemetery hours,” the judge said. “Do your gardening during the day and use sunscreen.”

Diggery paid his fine, collected his belongings, and followed me across the street to the CR-V.

“Nice of you to give me a ride,” he said. “Uber never wants to go down my street.”

“There are some things you need to know,” I said, pulling into traffic.

“I hope it's not bad news about Ethel.”

“I haven't been to your double-wide today, but as far as I know, Ethel is fine.”

“Then how bad can it be?”

“You know how we left the door open so Ethel could follow the hot-dog trail?”

“Yep.”

“Well, a lot of raccoons got inside instead of Ethel.”

“Again? Dang it. They keep doing that. Did they eat my peanut butter?”

“They ate everything. And then when they left, about a hundred cats went in.”

Diggery nodded. “We got a mean pack of ferals in that neighborhood. Anything else?”

“One of the zombies smashed your window, but Ethel scared it off, and the police patched it up.”

“Damn zombies.”

“Turns out they aren't really zombies.”

“I heard about it while I was in jail. You hear about everything in jail. They're drug zombies, and the only way they can get more of the drug is to pay for it with some human brain.”

“That's sick.”

“Doesn't seem to me like a good business plan. Why would you do it if you're not making any money on it?”

Diggery's street was blocked by a police cruiser, but we were waved through. There were more cruisers parked along the road, and Diggery's yard was being used as a staging area. Morelli's
SUV was there, as well as a police transport van. Diggery went straight to his double-wide to check on Ethel, and I went looking for Morelli. I found him behind the van, talking to a uniform.

“How's it going?” I asked him.

“So far we've rounded up three zombies.”

“Are they in the van?”

“No. We've already transported them to the lockup at St. Francis for evaluation. When they're released from there, a bunch of three-letter agencies will take over.”

“I brought Diggery home. He got fined for trespass, and he was told to do his gardening during the day from now on.” I looked around. “Will you be here much longer?”

“The rest of the day. There's a lot of ground to cover. We have dogs in the woods and an eye in the sky.”

I looked up at the helicopter hovering overhead.

“This is a big deal,” I said.

“Yeah. Decapitation is unpopular. People don't like it. Using human brains to make mind-destroying drugs doesn't sit well either.”

“Remember the deli container that was left on your sidewalk? Do you think that was a setup?”

“Yes. These druggies don't care about eating brains.”

“Diggery says he heard in jail that the only way you can buy more of the drug is to pay with human brain.”

“We've heard that, too. The first vial is free. After that you pay with brain.”

“What's the point?”

“My guess is that someone thinks this is fun.”

It was a chilling thought. It took insanity to a whole new level.

Diggery joined us.

“I want to thank you for taking such good care of Ethel,” he said to me. “I know she can be a handful sometimes, but she's mostly a sweet old girl.”

“I think your freezer supply of rats got eaten,” I said.

“That's okay,” Diggery said. “Plenty more where they came from.”

I left Morelli and Diggery and drove to my parents' house to see how Grandma was doing with the new dog.

• • •

Grandma and Henry greeted me at the door.

“I came to check on Henry,” I said.

“He's a joy,” Grandma said. “He's got perfect manners.”

“He's got no manners,” my mother yelled from the kitchen. “He barks at everything, and he pooped on the floor.”

“He was nervous,” Grandma said. “He only did that once.”

Henry was wagging his tail and looking up at me with big brown eyes. I bent down to pet him, and he vibrated with happiness.

“He's a nice dog,” I said to Grandma.

“We should take him for a walk,” Grandma said. “I keep his leash right here on the sideboard, so it's always handy.”

She hooked Henry up, and we walked him down the street.

“He's good on the leash,” Grandma said. “He trots right along. And when he poops, it's little poops.”

I love Bob, but Bob doesn't poop little poops.

We walked for several blocks and turned onto Judy Chucci's street. Judy was on her front steps, waving her arms and screaming. Johnny Chucci was in the front yard, smashing the gnomes with a hammer.

“You're killing them,” Judy was screaming. “You're going to burn in hell.”

“They're lumps of plaster,” Johnny yelled back at her. “They aren't even interesting lumps. You suck at this. You need a new hobby. Try knitting. Try quilting. Try cleaning your house. It's a pigpen.”

“I hate you. I hate you. I hate you,” Judy shrieked.

“You're a fruitcake,” Johnny said. “You're nuts. These stupid things aren't real.”
SMASH
. Another gnome turned into plaster dust.

He went after the gnome with the blind eye, and even I had to cringe. It seemed excessive to attack Mr. Murphy.

SMASH.
Mr. Murphy was sent to gnome heaven.

Judy disappeared into her house and returned with a chef's knife. “An eye for an eye,” she said, charging after Johnny.

“He runs pretty good, considering that big bandage on his foot,” Grandma said.

They ran past us, and I tackled Judy and took the knife away from her.

“Take Judy inside and make her a cup of tea or something,” I said to Grandma. “I'm going to drive Johnny to the police station.”

“I don't know if I want to go in that house with all them gnomes,” Grandma said. “They kind of creep me out.”

“They're house gnomes,” Judy said. “They're very polite.”

Grandma and Henry went inside with Judy, and I called Lula to pick me up. The bonds office was only minutes away.

“I thought you went to Hawaii on a pre-re-wedding honeymoon,” I said to Johnny.

“I had plane tickets and hotel reservations, and we weren't on the plane more than fifteen minutes before it started about the gnomes. Mr. Murphy and little Susie and Grumpy. All the way to L.A. And then she wouldn't get on the connecting flight. She called her neighbor forty-five times. How were the gnomes? Was Mr. Murphy depressed? Who the hell is Mr. Murphy anyway?”

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