Read Hardcore Twenty-Four Online

Authors: Janet Evanovich

Hardcore Twenty-Four (5 page)

SIX

I WOKE UP
a little after midnight and realized I was in bed alone, and there were no television sounds drifting under my door. I got out of bed and walked through my apartment. No Diesel. Lights were off. The front door was locked. Rex was running on his wheel. On my way back to bed I caught sight of Diesel's beat-up knapsack resting against the side of the couch. He was gone but not forever.

The next time I awoke it was morning. The sun was shining, and Diesel was sleeping peacefully beside me. His arm was draped across my chest. The clothes he'd been wearing were on the floor. All of them.

Best to sneak out of bed before he wakes up and gets amorous, I thought. I maneuvered out from under the arm and tiptoed into the bathroom. When I emerged a half hour later I was dressed and ready to start my day, and Diesel was still asleep. I
made coffee, and ate a peanut butter and banana sandwich. I returned to the bathroom to brush my teeth and take another look at my eye. The swelling was down but the bruise was worse. Diesel was still sleeping.

“Hey!” I shouted, standing over him.

He rolled over onto his back and opened his eyes. “What?”

“Just wanted to make sure you weren't dead.”

“Late night,” he said. “I smell coffee.”

“Where were you?”

“Working.”

“Night watchman?”

“More or less.” He threw the covers off, stood, and stretched.

“God's sake!” I said. “Don't you have
any
modesty
?”

“None. You just noticed?”

I noticed lots of things. Actually,
everything
. The man was stupefyingly gorgeous.

“I'm going to work,” I said. “Will you still be here when I return?”

“Probably. You might want to pick up more mac and cheese.”

He padded off to the bathroom, and I left the apartment. I walked out into the parking lot and realized I didn't have a car. A moment later a black Mercedes SUV pulled up in front of me and stopped. A Rangeman guy got out and handed me a key fob.

“From Ranger,” he said. “Registration is in the glove compartment, and it's equipped with the usual.”

That meant it had a GPS tracker stuck somewhere, and a loaded gun in a lockbox under the driver's seat.

A black Ford Explorer drove up, the Rangeman guy got in, and the SUV left the parking lot.

• • •

Lula was already at the office when I arrived.

“Whoa,” she said. “You got a hideous eye.”

“The swelling is down and my nose doesn't feel broken.”

“Yeah, your nose looks okay. Good thing too because you have an excellent nose. People pay big money to get a nose like that.”

“Anything new?” I asked Connie.

Connie looked up from her computer. “No new FTAs, but my cousin Miriam told me that the funeral home on Liberty Street lost two heads last night. Miriam works there as a cosmetologist. She came to work this morning to get Mrs. Werner and Mr. Shantz ready for their viewings and when they pulled them out of the drawer they didn't have their heads.”

“I don't like this,” Lula said. “This is creeping me out. Who goes around taking dead people's heads? It's just not right. Hold on, do you think it's terrorists?”

“Unlikely,” Connie said. “These people were already dead.”

“Maybe they were practicing,” Lula said. “Like the way medical students do on cadavers.”

I took a donut from the box on Connie's desk. “I have my own problems. I need to find Diggery's snake.”

“I'd rather look for the missing heads,” Lula said. “I don't like snakes. And I especially don't like
big
snakes.”

“You can stay in the car,” I said.

“Whose car we talking about?”

“My car. The one that's parked at the curb.”

Lula looked out the large plate glass window. “There's a Mercedes out there.”

“It's from Ranger.”

“That's one of them little GLE SUVs. That car's the bomb. And it's all new and shiny. It's almost as good as my Firebird.”

“Remember Johnny Chucci?” Connie asked me.

I nodded yes. “He robbed the jewelry store on State. The one by the porn store.”

“He's the dude who wears underpants on his head,” Lula said. “He didn't just rob the jewelry store. He robbed the porn store too. Except we're not supposed to call it a ‘porn store' nowadays. The politically correct name is ‘adult entertainment emporium.' They even got that on a new sign. Anyways, they caught him with his pockets full of cock rings. Not that I know why any man would want more than one cock ring, but what the heck.”

“He skipped out and stuck us with his bail bond,” Connie said. “Left the area, and we had no luck tracing him. It's been almost a year, but there are rumors that he's back in town. We might be able to collect some of the bond if you could bring him in. It was armed robbery, so he's worth money.”

“I'm sure I have his file at home,” I said.

Connie tapped “C-h-u-c-c-i” into her computer. “I'll print out a new one for you.”

“He should be easy to spot if he's still wearing his Fruit of the Looms like a ski mask,” Lula said.

“He only did that when he was robbing something,” I said. “It was his signature statement.”

“It was his nutcase statement,” Lula said. “He couldn't see with them on. He got caught on account of he fell off the curb when he ran out of the adult emporium.”

I took the file from Connie, and Lula and I headed out in the Mercedes. First stop would be Diggeryville. Get the snake responsibility over first.

“That snake could be anywhere by now,” Lula said. “It could be in Delaware.”

“Usually a pet will stay close to home,” I said.

“It might be different if there's zombies around. Ethel might be worried about her brain. Okay, so it's about as big as a walnut, but it might still make a good zombie snack.”

I crept down the rutted dirt road, looking side to side. I parked in Diggery's yard, got out, and looked around. No boa in a tree. No boa sunning herself in front of the double-wide stoop. I cautiously walked to the makeshift steps and peeked through the open door. No boa in sight.

BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!

Lula was blowing the horn and waving at me. Frantic. I could see her mouth working, and knew she was yelling something at me, but I couldn't hear over the horn beeping.

I ran back to the SUV and got in.

“Get me out of here,” Lula said. “Go
now
! I saw them. They were coming to get me.”

“Who?”

“The zombies. I saw them. Two of them. All raggedy and
dead looking. Their eyes were red and glowing and sunken in, and the one had a big hole in his forehead. That's probably where some other zombie sucked out his brain.”

I looked around. “I don't see any zombies.”

“They went back into the woods when I started blowing the horn. They were horrible! I could even smell them. They smelled like dirt and mold and rotting carnations.”

“Carnations?”

“Yeah. I'm thinking they were the funeral home head robbers, and they picked up the carnation stench while they were there.”

I put the SUV in gear and drove back to the main road, being careful not to run over any zombies.

“Maybe you nodded off and
dreamed
there were zombies,” I said to Lula.

“I wasn't nodded off. I know what I saw, and I saw zombies. And I didn't like the way they were looking at me. Like I was lunch or something. Like they wanted to suck out my brain. You know how when men get scared, their gonads shrink up inside their body? That's how my brain was feeling. If my brain was a gonad it'd be all sneaked up behind my kidneys.”

“Good thing it's not a gonad then.”

“You bet your ass,” Lula said.

I turned onto State Street. “Johnny Chucci and Zero Slick are in the wind. Pick your poison,” I said. “Who's first on our list?”

“I got a real interest in Zero Slick. He looks like an unpleasant chubby little nerd, but he picked himself an excellent name. He's like an enigma, right?”

I thought he was more loser than enigma but hell, who am I to judge.

“We haven't got much to go on with him,” I said. “He doesn't have an address, but he seems to have a neighborhood. I guess we could ride around the building he blew up and see if we get lucky.”

I was a block away when Connie called me.

“I'm listening to the police band, and a call just came in about a boa spotted on the three hundred block of Pilkman Street,” Connie said. “Pilkman backs up to the patch of woods by Diggery's double-wide. If you hurry you could get there ahead of animal control.”

I made an instant U-turn. “I'm on it.”

“I'm not on it,” Lula said. “I'm not in favor of this. Suppose it's Ethel? Then what? You gonna escort her into your Mercedes and put a seatbelt on her? You gonna talk her into turning around and following you through zombie country, back to Diggery's place?”

“I'll think of something.”

“We don't even have any snake-catching equipment with us. We don't have one of those loop things you see on the nature channel. We don't have no rats or chickens or roadkill to feed it. We don't got a snake cage. I don't even know what a snake cage looks like. The snakes at the zoo are behind glass.”

“I'll stun-gun her.”

“Say what?”

“I'll zap Ethel with my stun gun, load her into the back of the SUV, and take her home to Diggery's double-wide.”

“Are you nuts?”

“It could work.”

“What about salmonella?” Lula said. “You could get salmonella from touching a snake.”

“I have hand sanitizer in my messenger bag.”

SEVEN

LULA WAS ON
the alert when I turned onto Pilkman.

“There's three women standing on the sidewalk on the next block,” she said. “I'm guessing they're snake watching.”

I parked near the women, and Lula and I got out. A huge snake was curled up on a patch of grass that served as front yard to a modest bungalow.

“What do you think?” I asked Lula. “Is that Ethel?”

“Hard to tell,” Lula said. “Last I saw her she was draped in a tree.”

“It's a boa,” one of the women said. “We looked it up.”

“Have you ever seen this snake around here before?” I asked her. “Does anyone in this neighborhood own a snake?”

Everyone shook their head. No one had seen the snake before today.

“Hey! Ethel!” Lula shouted at the snake.

We all took a step closer and looked to see if there was any response.

“It opened an eye,” Lula said. “That's Ethel all right.”

“Is Ethel your snake?” the woman asked.

“She belongs to someone we know,” Lula said. “And Stephanie here is responsible for bringing her home.”

“It's an awfully big snake,” one of the other women said.

“Yeah, but Stephanie's got a plan,” Lula said. “She's gonna load Ethel into the back of her car. I know that Mercedes looks like a luxury vehicle, but it's got some muscle, and if we keep Ethel all curled up, we're pretty sure she'll fit.”

My heart was beating with a sickening
thud
. I was terrified of Ethel. And I was repulsed at the thought of touching her.

Okay, I told myself. Attitude adjustment needed. She's a pet. She's had a big adventure, and she'll be happy to go home. And she doesn't look hungry, so that's a good thing. Most likely she's just eaten a beagle, and she's feeling sleepy. No reason to be afraid. And probably she feels good to the touch. You wouldn't have a problem if she was a pair of cowboy boots, right?

I inched closer, telling myself to stay calm. I circled around to Ethel's tail and took a deep breath. I reached down to touch her, and she tensed, raised her head, and looked at me. I stumbled back and paused for a moment, relieved that I hadn't soiled myself.

“Maybe you shouldn't get so close,” one of the women said. “Maybe you should wait for animal control.”

“No worries,” Lula said. “Stephanie knows what she's doing. Besides, Ethel's just saying hello.”

Ethel was uncurling and moving toward me, eyes wide open, forked tongue out. I didn't see any lumps in her body that would indicate the presence of an undigested beagle, and I was thinking I might be wrong about her not being hungry. I had pepper spray in one hand and my stun gun in my other hand, and I had no idea if either would have any effect on a boa.

“You grab her, and I'll go open the back door,” Lula said.

“Here's the deal,” I said to Ethel. “I promised Diggery I'd sort of take care of you while he was locked up. So I have to get you back to the double-wide. And that means I have to get you into my car. And that means I have to immobilize you a little. I swear to God, it'll be okay, and after I get you home I'll bring you a pizza. It's the best I can do because the rats got all eaten.”

Ethel lunged at me, and I gave her a bunch of jolts with the stun gun. She shuddered and twitched, her head hit the ground, and she didn't move.

“What did you do?” one of the women said. “Is she dead?”

“She's stunned,” I said.

I wrapped my hands around Ethel's tail and tried to pull her toward the car, but it was like moving a fifty-pound sandbag.

“I need help,” I said. “I can't move her all by myself.”

No one came forward.

“She's currently on someone's front lawn,” I said.

A woman with short brown hair raised her hand.

“If you want her off your lawn you're going to have to help me move her.”

“What the heck?” the woman said. “I have three out-of-control
kids and a three-hundred-pound husband who snores like a yeti. I guess I can move a snake.”

Everyone but Lula grabbed a piece of Ethel. We wrestled her into the back of the Mercedes and closed the door on her.

“Appreciate the help, ladies,” I said. “I'm sure Ethel will be happy to get home.”

I jumped behind the wheel, and Lula got in beside me.

“That went off easy-peasy,” Lula said. “Bing bang bam. Are we a team, or what? Now all we got to do is get Ethel into the double-wide. I bet you got a plan for that too.”

“I have hot dogs. And I promised her pizza.”

“That would do it for me.”

I turned onto State, drove for ten minutes, and turned onto Diggery's road.

“This could be a new profession for us,” Lula said. “We could be snake wranglers. I bet there's good money in it.”

“I think I hear some rustling in the back. Check on Ethel for me. See if she's okay.”

“It's just this bumpy, crap-ass road,” Lula said. “Ethel's sleeping like a baby.”

“Still, just turn around and make sure.”

“No problem.
YOW! She's awake. Lordy, she's coming to get me. She's going to eat me alive!”

“Don't panic. Take my stun gun and give her another shot of electric.”

“Let me out. Stop the car.”

In my peripheral vision, I saw a snake head slither over Lula's shoulder.

“YOW!”
Lula shrieked, flailing her arms.
“Let me out of here!”

Lula jumped out of the moving car. The snake slid onto the floor and over my foot. I went into a freak-out, the SUV veered off the road, and I crashed into an outhouse that belonged to one of the yurt people. I fought my way free of the inflated airbag, opened my door, tumbled out, and the snake zigzagged over me and disappeared into the woods.

I lay there for a full minute, struggling to breathe, before Lula gave me a hand-up and pulled me to my feet.

“This stinks,” Lula said.

“I know. The snake got away.”

“No. I mean it
really stinks
. You trashed an outhouse.”

The entire front end of the Mercedes was bashed in, and the SUV was resting on the outhouse remains. Both the outhouse and the SUV were leaking. I rescued my messenger bag from the car and called Ranger.

“It wasn't my fault,” I said. “There was a snake in the car.”

“Babe, you've had the car for less than two hours.”

Lula was backing away, holding her nose and fanning the air.

“If you're sending someone to take care of this you'll want to send him in a hazmat suit,” I said to Ranger. “I sort of ran over an outhouse.”

There was silence on the other end.

“Hello?” I said. “Are you still there? Do I hear you laughing?”

“You never disappoint,” Ranger said.

An hour later, Lula was loaded into a Rangeman SUV and shuttled off to the office. The Mercedes was winched onto a flatbed tow truck. And Ranger and I were in his Cayenne,
watching Ethel follow the newly laid out trail of hot dogs that led into Diggery's double-wide. When all of Ethel was inside, I ran to the door, told her I'd be back with her pizza, and locked her in.

“Finally,” I said to Ranger. “Success.”

“I was thinking the same thing. You owe me a night.”

“Maybe not. The car might not be totaled.”

“Babe, you rolled it over an outhouse.”

“I don't suppose you'd want to give me another chance?”

Ranger smiled. “Double or nothing.”

“Deal.”

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