Read Hardcore Twenty-Four Online

Authors: Janet Evanovich

Hardcore Twenty-Four (7 page)

TEN

GRANDMA WAS WAITING
at the door when I drove up to my parents' house. She called goodbye to my mom and trotted out to my Lexus.

“This is going to be something,” she said, buckling in. “I heard they did a real good job at the funeral home, and you can't hardly see where they attached the head. That's sort of disappointing, but I guess it's comforting to the family of the deceased.”

“Mom said no selfies with Emily.”

“Your mom is a wet blanket. How did she get to be so old?”

“I think it was living with us.”

“I guess someone has to be the adult,” Grandma said. “I'm glad it's not me. Been there. Done that.”

The lot next to the funeral home was already full when I pulled in, and cars were lined up at the curb for blocks. People
were milling around on the sidewalk, waiting for the doors to open.

“This is worse than I thought,” Grandma said. “It's like the whole state of New Jersey showed up.”

I dropped Grandma in front of the funeral home and went off in search of a place to park. By the time I parked and walked back, the doors were open and everyone was filing into the building. I didn't see Grandma. No surprise. She would have fought her way to the front of the line and been one of the first inside.

I was content to be one of the last. I hated the crush of mourners, the smell of funeral flowers, and the claustrophobic “Slumber Room” without windows where the recently passed resided and people spoke in hushed voices.

I got a text from Grandma that said she was saving a seat for me in the second row, and I texted back that I preferred to stand.

I maneuvered myself through the lobby and into the Slumber Room, where I plastered myself against the back wall, not far from the door. I could see everyone coming and going, and I was within striking distance if Johnny showed up.

I was dividing my attention between the line that was very slowly moving past Emily, the mob that was trying to squeeze into the room, and Grandma. If Grandma caused a scene and it got back to my mom, I'd be cut off from pineapple upside-down cake for the rest of my life.

The viewing hours were seven o'clock to nine o'clock. At eight o'clock I saw Diesel enter the room. He nodded to me, looked around, and left. He didn't seem to be interested in Emily, and
he didn't wander over to say hello to me, so I supposed the drop-in might be work related.

My understanding is that Diesel has a job that is a little like mine. He works for a mysterious private organization, and he tracks down organization members who abuse their power. I know nothing beyond this, but I'm pretty sure he doesn't kill people.

Johnny Chucci's mother was sitting in the middle of the viewing room. Chucci's sister, Penny, was with her. I didn't see any of the Chucci men. Johnny's brother Earl was my age. We went through school together, but he was never in any of my classes, and we never hung out. The second brother, Little Pinkie, I only knew in passing. His given name is George but everyone calls him Little Pinkie because he has a stump for a little finger on his left hand.

A woman approached the casket, looked down at Emily, and fainted. She was the third woman to faint so far. My guess is that the head hadn't gone on perfectly.

Grandma abandoned her seat at eight-thirty and made her way to the lobby. This was standard procedure for her at this point in time. Her lady friends would be collecting around the refreshment table. They'd exchange gossip, critique the appearance of the deceased, and stuff cookies into their purses.

I joined Grandma a couple minutes before closing.

“You should have come out earlier,” Grandma said. “All the good cookies are gone.”

“Did you learn anything interesting?”

“A couple people have seen Johnny. Myrna Zuck ran into
him at the Italian bakery. He was buying a rye bread. And Florence Minkowski saw him at Cluck-in-a-Bucket. No one knows where he's staying. I asked the mother and sister about him, and they grabbed the last two Oreos and rushed off.”

Lights dimmed as a signal that the viewing was over.

“It was a good viewing but not great,” Grandma said. “It would have been better if the zombie had taken Harold Kucher's brain. Harold's the exalted ruler of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks. There would have been a big ceremony for him. All the Elks would have been here wearing their sashes and hats and medals. As it was, we just had some fainters.”

Grandma and I followed the crowd to the door, where the funeral director was wishing everyone a good night.

“It was pretty good work, considering the problem you must have had fixing the head back on,” Grandma told the funeral director.

The funeral director nodded in agreement. “We try our best.”

“I couldn't help notice it was screwed on a little crooked,” Grandma said.

The funeral director squelched a grimace, and I moved Grandma through the door and down the stairs.

“You must have had a hard time finding a place to park,” Grandma said. “There's cars all up and down the street.”

“I cheated and parked in the driveway for the funeral home garages. We can take a shortcut through the parking lot.”

The parking lot ran the length of one side of the funeral home. The garages were to the rear, shielded from view by a hedge and some chunky shrubs. We walked through the lot and
skirted around the hedge. The funeral director's car was parked by the building's rear exit. The hearses and flower cars were out of sight in the garage. The area was lit by an overhead flood. The Lexus was discreetly parked in a shaded area on the edge of the drive.

We approached the car and something rustled in the bushes. My first thought was animal. My second thought was funeral director.

Grandma hauled her gun out of her purse and two-handed it in front of her. “Who's there?” she said. “I've got a gun so you better be careful.”

There was more rustling. Something gave a guttural grunt, and for a split second I thought I saw the outline of a man. He was in dark shadow. He was there, and then he was gone.

“Do you smell that?” Grandma asked. “That's the stink of a zombie.”

“Are you sure it's not the dumpster?”

“Two entirely different stinks,” Grandma said. “There was a zombie prowling around out here. No doubt he was looking for a brain to eat, and I scared him away.”

“No doubt.”

“We should tell the funeral director,” Grandma said.

“That might not be a good idea,” I said, opening the car door for Grandma. “We're not supposed to be parked back here.” Not to mention, most sane people don't entirely believe in zombies.

“I forgot about that. I guess we should keep quiet, but I'm going to feel real bad if he comes back and eats someone's brain.”

• • •

I turned Grandma over to my mom and went home to a quiet apartment. Rex was running on his wheel. Diesel was off, doing his Diesel thing. No zombies lurking in my kitchen. Ranger's car was safely parked in the lot behind my building. It was all good.

I poured myself a glass of wine, tucked a box of Froot Loops under my arm, and settled in front of the television. I watched three recorded episodes of
The Mind of a Chef
and one episode of
Barnwood Builders
. I don't cook and I don't have any plans to build a barn, but I'm hooked on the shows.

Before heading to bed, I threw the deadbolt and put the security chain in place on my apartment door. I knew it wouldn't stop Diesel from getting in, but it might make it more of a challenge.

I was dragged out of sleep by a warm body moving next to me. I looked at my bedside clock. Four in the morning. An arm curled around me and drew me closer to the body. Diesel was back.

“Are you asleep?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Any chance you'll wake up?”

“Not any time soon.”

His hand strayed toward my breast. “Let me know if you change your mind.”

I rolled over onto my stomach. “You'll be the first to know. And don't even think about what you're thinking about.”

I was doing my best to sound authoritative and off-limits, but I was thinking he felt good next to me. And then I was thinking that was horrible and wrong. And that was followed by the possibility that I might not care if it was wrong. And then I realized he'd fallen asleep.

Men!
Ugh
.

ELEVEN

I WOKE UP
in a vicious mood. Ignoring my black eye, I stomped off to the bathroom, took a shower, pulled my hair into a ponytail, swiped on some mascara, got dressed in my usual uniform, and stomped back to the bed where Diesel was sleeping.

“Hey!” I yelled.

“What?” Diesel asked without opening his eyes.

“I'm leaving.”

“Are you naked?”

“No.”

“Did you make breakfast for me?”

“No.”

Silence. Even breathing. Eyes closed.

“Hey!” I yelled again. “Are you sleeping?”

He opened his eyes. “Not anymore. And the ‘Hey' thing is getting old.”

“Just checking.”

“You have a mean streak,” Diesel said. “You ever think about meditation? Chamomile tea?”

“You ever think about leaving?”

“Not in the last ten minutes.”

I was doomed. If he stayed long enough, my hormones would eventually disconnect my brain, and I'd be on him like white on rice. Bad enough I was in jeopardy of having an
arrangement
with Ranger, I now had Mr. Big, Hot, and Blond tempting me toward total slutdom.

“Here's the thing,” I said. “I'm in a relationship and . . .”

His eyes were closed again. Damn! He was asleep.

I blew out a sigh and took one last look. He was beyond annoying when he was awake, and deliciously adorable when he was asleep.

• • •

I called Morelli on my way to the office and got his voicemail. “Just checking in,” I told him. “Hope everything's good.”

That got a grimace out of me. How good could it be? The man was collecting heads without brains.

I stopped at Dunkin' Donuts and got coffee, a breakfast sandwich, and a dozen donuts. Probably overkill, but I was looking to seriously increase my endorphin production.

Connie looked up when I walked in. I dumped my messenger bag on the couch, set the box of donuts on her desk, and tucked into the breakfast sandwich.

“What's new?” I asked.

“Vinnie phoned in and was on a rant about Zero Slick. Apparently, you made national news. Vinnie said he was watching television, and he saw Slick hit you with a sign. He wants to know why you didn't bring him in.”

I pointed to my eye, which was now a dark green with touches of navy and magenta. “Hit and run. By the time my head cleared Slick was gone. Where is Vinnie?”

“He's at a conference in Atlanta.”

Lula shuffled into the office. She looked like someone set off a bomb in her head and her hair exploded. She was wearing red sneakers, gray sweatpants, and a pink T-shirt with a coffee stain down the front of it.

“God bless someone, on account of I see a box of donuts on the desk,” Lula said. “Tell me there's still donuts left in that box.”

“Tough night?” Connie asked.

“The worst. Dogs barking and cats howling. Then there was people yelling at the dogs and cats to shut up. Then there were sirens and flashy lights in my window. Not that any of this is unusual in my neighborhood. I've grown skills that help me to ignore these distractions. It's that none of my skills helped last night. I finally gave up trying to sleep somewhere around five in the morning. I got dressed and went out to see what the fuss was about. I thought maybe I would take a jog around the block. I've been planning on taking up exercise.”

Lula crammed a donut into her mouth and selected a second. “Healthy body, healthy mind. That's what I'm all about. Who
picked these donuts out? There's only two of them Boston Kreme. I mean, I'm in a donut emergency. I need at least four Boston Kremes. And I need coffee.”

“Looks like you already had coffee,” Connie said.

Lula looked down at herself. “This isn't my coffee. I was out in front of my house, and I was thinking about going for a walk or a run or something, and I bumped into a cop. The place was crawling with them. This is his coffee.”

“What was the problem?” I asked. “Why were the police there?”

“I don't know,” Lula said. “After I got the coffee spilled on me I went back inside and fell asleep on the couch. I woke up a couple hours later and there were still dogs barking and cop cars with their stupid radios squawking, so I came here to get some quiet.” She ate two more donuts and went to the coffee machine at the back of the room. “I should move out of that neighborhood, but I like my apartment. It's got a big closet.” She returned with coffee and ate another donut.

“I just got off the phone with Maureen Segal,” Connie said to Lula. “She was on police dispatch last night. She said your next-door neighbor let his dog out to do his business around midnight, and the dog found a body in the bushes.”

“Nothing new about that,” Lula said.

“Yes, but the body didn't have a head.”

I suppose this explained why I hadn't heard back from Morelli.

Lula's eyes opened wide. “Get the heck out! I should have known. It's the zombies. That's why I couldn't sleep. I got ESP
for zombies. I got zombie radar. I thought I smelled something too. It was like carnations and outhouse.” She looked into the donut box. “What do you think this is with the pink icing? Strawberry? Cherry? Anybody mind if I eat it?”

Connie and I shook our heads. We didn't mind. After the carnation and outhouse sensory message the pink donut wasn't doing it for me.

“I need to roll,” I said to Lula and Connie. “I have a plan.”

It wasn't a good plan, but it was the best I could come up with, and it would look like I was working.

“What's your plan?” Lula asked. “I might need to join you.”

“I'm going to check on Ethel, then I'm going to cruise around Slick's burned-out building and maybe pay another visit to his parents. Then I'm going to have lunch with Grandma to see if she's got any more information on Johnny Chucci.”

“I like that plan,” Lula said. “I especially like the lunch part.”

We went to my car, and Lula looked in the back seat.

“Do you have food for Ethel?” Lula asked. “I don't see no food.”

I ran back into the office and returned with the donut box. I handed it to Lula and got behind the wheel.

“I might need to eat one more of these before we give them to Ethel,” Lula said.

By the time we got to Ethel there were only two donuts left in the box. I unlocked the door to the double-wide and looked in. Ethel was curled on the dinette table. I said hello and told her hopefully Diggery would be home soon. I left the box on the floor just inside the door, locked up, and went back to my car.

“How'd that go?” Lula asked.

“Okay. Ethel was on the table. Nothing looked out of the ordinary.”

I drove to the building Slick burned down and made a slow pass around the block. The crime scene tape had been taken down, and it looked like the neighborhood had normalized. There were some street people sitting out in the morning sun. I glanced at Lula and decided she would have more luck talking to the street people than I would. She sort of looked like one of them today.

“I'm going to drop you off,” I told Lula. “Ask the locals about Slick. I'll continue to drive and explore the area, and I'll pick you up in a half hour.”

“No problemo. Now that I'm all sugared up I'm ready to go. Lula is my name, and undercover is my game.”

I gave her double thumbs-up and rolled away. I methodically worked a nine-block grid, driving the streets. I looked for Slick, and I looked for abandoned buildings.

Lula was waiting on the corner for me when I circled back to her.

“This was an unsatisfying experience,” she said. “Those street people are rude. They said I was a disgrace to street people on account of I have a coffee stain.”

“Did you get any information on Slick?”

“Yeah. He stops around to get lunch sometimes. No one's seen him lately. They all think he's a genius. Like he has ideas about how to be a billionaire. One of them was to be a drug lord. So how did that turn out?”

“You have a new stain on your shirt.”

Lula looked down at herself. “One of the volunteers gave me some soup. It was in a Styrofoam cup with a plastic spoon, and it wasn't all that easy to get at.”

“Not like eating a donut.”

“Not nearly. Did you get anything on your drive-around?”

“No. Not a lot of people out at this time of the morning, and I didn't see any vacant buildings that could be used to cook drugs.”

“From what I heard today, Slick probably gave up on the drug empire. Sounded to me like he has a short attention span. Like he jumps around from one scheme to the next.”

“Do we have a clue about his new scheme?”

“They said he was talking about being a movie star. And he was also thinking about going to Tuscany and starting a vineyard.”

“Oh boy.”

“Yeah, it's a little out there, but you gotta respect a man who dreams big.”

“You smell like minestrone,” I said to Lula.

“It's my shirt. The minestrone was the homeless soup of the day. I wouldn't mind a short stop at my apartment, so I could beautify myself.”

I thought that was an excellent idea, and there was a chance that Morelli would still be at the crime scene.

Lula lived in a lavender and pink two-story frame house that had been converted into four apartments. The owner of the house lived on the ground floor. Lula lived on the second floor. And a crazy woman lived in the attic. The street was narrow
and lined with trees. The residents were ethnically mixed and uniformly straddling the poverty line. It was a nice street that was too close to some very bad, gang-infested streets.

I left downtown, drove to Lula's neighborhood, and took the alley that ran past the back of Lula's apartment. Lula had a dedicated parking spot that I was able to slide into. The rest of the street and alley space was clogged with police vehicles, satellite TV trucks, and clumps of curious bystanders. Some of the bystanders were dressed like zombies.

Lula disappeared inside her house, and I went in search of Morelli. I found him on the sidewalk, in front of the CSI van, standing back on his heels, looking lost in thought.

“What's going on?” I asked him.

“This is turning into a freak show.”

“Are you still in charge?”

“No one's in charge,” Morelli said. “The state is here. The feds are here. Zombie National Chapter 103 is here.”

“Those are the guys in rags?”

“Yeah, they're waiting for the apocalypse.”

“Nice. What are
you
waiting for?”

“Inspiration,” Morelli said. “The headless bodies are stacking up like cordwood, and I'm not making any progress.”

“Have you identified the guy in the bushes?”

“Yes. He was stolen from the funeral home on Stark Street.”

“Do you have . . .
all
of him?”

“No. The state guys are talking about bringing in a clairvoyant.”

“Do you think that will help?”

“I stopped thinking a couple hours ago.”

The zombie chapter had a boom box going. They were playing the “Monster Mash” and marching around stiff-legged with their arms stretched out in front of them.

“This is a little carny,” I said to Morelli.

“This is nothing. There are food trucks and T-shirt vendors on the next block.”

Lula approached us. She had changed into a short purple metallic wig, a black low-cut sweater that barely contained
the girls,
and black Pilates pants that fit her like skin.

“Just look at this,” Lula said, spreading her arms wide, taking the scene in. “This is what I'm talking about. Here's people changing something bad into something rad. It's like a wake with a lot of liquor and meatballs. This could set Trenton back on the map. Not everywhere you got a zombie fest going on.”

“This is a murder scene,” I said.

“Technically it's not a murder scene,” Morelli said.

“Yeah, and technically these aren't real zombies,” Lula said. “These here are
fun
zombies.”

I didn't think they looked all that much fun. I thought they were creepy.

“Maybe these
fun
zombies are all actually nuts and like to eat brains,” I said.

Morelli looked over at them. “We thought of that. We have them all on record. Names, addresses, photos and video.”

I followed Morelli's line of sight and studied the zombies. “I don't suppose Zero Slick happens to be with them?”

“No. For what it's worth we don't have him in the zombie registry.”

“You got a zombie registry?” Lula asked. “That sounds wrong. You better be careful or you'll get accused of zombie harassment.”

“Been there, done that,” Morelli said.

“Gotta go,” I said. “Stuff to do.”

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