Read Hardcore Twenty-Four Online

Authors: Janet Evanovich

Hardcore Twenty-Four

BY JANET EVANOVICH

THE STEPHANIE PLUM NOVELS

One for the Money

Two for the Dough

Three to Get Deadly

Four to Score

High Five

Hot Six

Seven Up

Hard Eight

To the Nines

Ten Big Ones

Eleven on Top

Twelve Sharp

Lean Mean Thirteen

Fearless Fourteen

Finger Lickin' Fifteen

Sizzling Sixteen

Smokin' Seventeen

Explosive Eighteen

Notorious Nineteen

Takedown Twenty

Top Secret Twenty-One

Tricky Twenty-Two

Turbo Twenty-Three

Hardcore Twenty-Four

THE FOX AND O'HARE NOVELS WITH LEE GOLDBERG

The Heist

The Chase

The Job

The Scam

The Pursuit

KNIGHT AND MOON

Curious Minds
(with Phoef Sutton)

Dangerous Minds

THE LIZZY AND DIESEL NOVELS

Wicked Appetite

Wicked Business

Wicked Charms
(with Phoef Sutton)

THE BETWEEN THE NUMBERS STORIES

Visions of Sugar Plums

Plum Lovin'

Plum Lucky

Plum Spooky

THE ALEXANDRA BARNABY NOVELS

Metro Girl

Motor Mouth

Troublemaker
(graphic novel)

NONFICTION

How I
Write

G. P. P
UTNAM
'
S
S
ONS

Publishers Since 1838

An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

375 Hudson Street

New York, New York 10014

Copyright © 2017 by Evanovich, Inc.

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

ISBN 9780399179198 (hardcover)

ISBN 9780399179204 (ebook)

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Version_1

ONE

SIMON DIGGERY AND
Ethel, his pet boa constrictor, were about fifty feet from Simon's rust bucket double-wide. Ethel looked comfy draped over a branch halfway up the tree. Simon looked like death warmed over. He was scrunched into a crook a couple feet below Ethel. He was barefoot, wearing striped pajamas, and his gray hair was even more of a mess than usual.

My name is Stephanie Plum. I work as a bond enforcement officer in Trenton, New Jersey, and Simon was in violation of his bond.

Simon is a professional grave robber. When he gets caught robbing a grave, my cousin Vinnie is his bail bondsman of choice. Vinnie posts a cash bond guaranteeing the court that if Simon is released he will return when scheduled. If Simon doesn't show up on time, I'm sent out to fetch him.

I was presently standing a respectable distance from the tree,
looking up at Simon, keeping a watch on Ethel. I was with my sidekick, Lula.

If Lula was a pastry she'd be a big chocolate cupcake with a lot of frosting. I'd be more of a croissant with a ponytail. I have curly shoulder-length brown hair, blue eyes, and some people think I look like Julia Roberts on her day off.

“Simon,” Lula yelled. “What the heck are you and Ethel doing in the tree?”

“I been up here since last night,” Simon said. “I'm afraid to come down on account of the zombies.”

“You gotta stop drinking that homemade grain liquor,” Lula said.

“I wasn't drinking,” Simon said. “I was working my trade at that cemetery on Morley Street last night, and I accidentally dug into a zombie portal.”

“Say what?” Lula said. “I never heard of no zombie portal.”

“It's not widely publicized that they exist. Mostly people in my profession know about it. It's an occupational hazard. I only dug into a portal once before, and I was able to beat the zombies back with my shovel, but this time was a whole other deal. There was too many of them, so I ran for my truck and took off. Only thing is they tracked me down. They got a real good sense of smell. They're like raggedy bloodhounds. They come at me when I was sleeping. They wanted my brain. That's what they kept saying.
‘Brains, brains, brains.'
I'd be a goner if it wasn't for Ethel. She don't like getting woke up, and I guess zombies don't like snakes. Anyways, I was able to get away, and Ethel and me climbed this tree.”

“Because zombies can't climb trees?” I asked Simon.

“You got it,” Simon said. “Zombies only walk straight ahead. They can't back up neither.”

“You were supposed to be in court first thing this morning,” I told him.

“Well, excuse me,” Simon said, “but I had bigger problems. Suppose I was able to get to court, and the zombies followed me there, and they ate all the people's brains who were in the court?”

“This is Trenton,” Lula said. “You might not notice.”

I cut my eyes to Lula. “There are
no
zombies
.”

“How can you be sure?” Lula said.

I blew out a sigh and looked back at Simon. “Here's the deal. You come down, and we'll protect you from the zombies.”

“You gotta either chop off their head or shoot them in the brain,” Simon said. “That's the only way.”

“I got a gun,” Lula said, shoving her hand into her oversized imitation Jimmy Choo bag. “It's in here somewhere.”

“What about Ethel?” Simon said. “If I stay in jail awhile until the zombies forget about me, who's gonna take care of Ethel?”

“You'll have to make arrangements,” I said.

“I don't got no one,” Simon said. “My cousin Snacker is in West Virginia, and my neighbors would chop her up and fry her in bacon fat. You gotta promise to take care of Ethel.”

“No way,” I said.

“Me neither,” Lula said.

“She's no bother,” Simon said. “You just gotta feed her once a week. Just come in and leave her a groundhog or something.”

“They don't usually sell groundhog in the supermarket,” Lula said.

“I get them from the side of the road,” Simon said. “Ethel don't care if they're swelled up or anything. She likes fried chicken too. And she wouldn't stick her nose up at a pizza. And if worse comes to worse I keep a bag of rats in the freezer.”

“You got electric?” Lula asked.

“'Course I got electric,” Simon said. “This here's a civilized neighborhood.”

“How are you going to get Ethel out of the tree?”

“I got some hot dogs,” Simon said. “I'll leave a trail of hot dogs that goes straight to the kitchen. And then once she's inside we'll lock the door.”

Ten minutes later Simon had the hot dogs all laid out.

“She don't look interested,” Lula said, staring up at Ethel.

“It could take a while,” Simon said. “She don't move so fast. I guess we could just leave the door open for her.”

“You could get robbed if you do that,” Lula said.

“I got a fifty-pound snake for a pet,” Simon said. “Nobody comes near here excepting the zombies.”

I cuffed Simon, promised him I'd look in on Ethel, loaded him into my SUV, and drove him to the police station. I handed him over to the cop in charge, and Simon explained that should a zombie show up, the cop needed to shoot the zombie in the brain. The cop assured Simon it was a done deal.

• • •

It was almost four o'clock when Lula and I got back to Simon's double-wide. The snake wasn't in the tree, and the hot dogs were all gone.

“I'll stand here and keep watch that no one steals your car while you check up on Ethel,” Lula said.

“No one's going to steal my car out here,” I said. “And I'll take the key.”

“Okay then, how about I'm not going anywhere near that snake pit. It got snakes living under it, and it got a giant snake living
in
it. And I don't like snakes. Plus I'm wearing my favorite Via Spigas, and Simon don't keep his walkway up to Via Spiga level.”

Lula is a couple inches shorter than me and has about twice as much flesh. Much of the flesh is boob. This week her hair was straightened to the texture of boar bristle, was colored a metallic royal blue, and had been pulled up into a ponytail that stuck out of the top of her head. Between the hair and the heels, she was about seven feet tall. She was wearing a shiny silver tank top with a matching cardigan sweater and a short black skirt. The skirt barely covered her hoo-ha and was stretched out to maximum capacity over her ass. Her spike-heeled Via Spigas matched her hair.

I was in my usual work uniform of running shoes, jeans, sweatshirt, and a fitted V-neck T-shirt. I had a canvas messenger bag slung over my shoulder, and I was wearing La Perla lace bikini panties under my jeans. Not an entirely glamorous outfit, but I was pretty much ready for any emergency.

I carefully approached the double-wide, keeping watch for yard snakes.

“At least you don't have to worry about rats,” Lula said. “Nothing a snake likes better than a nice fat rat.”

I crept up the makeshift stairs to Simon's door, and said a
small prayer before looking inside. I hoped Ethel was in full view, because I really didn't want to go inside and search for her. I sucked in some air, stepped into the doorway, and froze. The double-wide was filled with raccoons. The raccoon closest to me was working on a jar of peanut butter. He opened his mouth and something fell out. It looked like a finger, but I'm going with hot dog. I backed out, turned, and hustled to my car.

“Was Ethel in there?” Lula asked. “How come you didn't close the door?”

“Raccoons.”

“Say what?”

“It's filled with raccoons. They were eating cereal and stuff and rearranging the furniture.”

“Did you see Ethel?”

“If Ethel was in the double-wide the raccoons wouldn't be there. Ethel would have those raccoons for lunch.”

“You should get those raccoons to leave,” Lula said. “They're gonna make a mess.”

“They already made a mess, and I have no clue how to get them out. Stick a fork in me. I'm done here.”

• • •

I dropped Lula off at the bonds office and called Joe Morelli. Morelli is a plainclothes cop in Trenton. He works crimes against persons. Mostly pulls homicides. And he's pretty much my boyfriend.

I've known Morelli just about all my life. Some of our times
together have been good, and some have been not so good. Lately they've been comfortable. Past experience tells me that the comfort level could change in a heartbeat. He's six feet tall and slim with hard-toned muscle. His hair is black and wavy, and because he's on cop salary he always needs a cut. You put him in a suit and he looks like an Atlantic City casino pit boss. In jeans and a T-shirt he's totally hot. He has a big orange shaggy-haired dog named Bob, a serviceable green SUV, and a small house that he inherited from his Aunt Rose.

“Yo,” Morelli said on the first ring.

“I have a problem.”

“Me too,” Morelli said. “I'm thinking about you naked, and you aren't here.”

“You know Simon Diggery's snake, right?”

“Ethel.”

“Yes. She's sort of escaped. Simon's in the lockup, and I think Ethel is slithering around the neighborhood.”

“And?”

“And she's a fifty-pound boa! She might eat things that don't want to get eaten. Like cats and dogs and little people. She might even eat
big
people.”

“I know that neighborhood. Ethel could only improve it.”

“What if Ethel gets out of the neighborhood?”

“Cupcake, she's not going to get out of the neighborhood. Someone will spot her, and she'll be snake stew.”

“I promised Simon I would take care of her.”

I heard Morelli blow out a sigh, and I knew he was staring down at his shoe. Probably thinking he could have any woman
he wanted and wondering why he wanted me. I often wondered the same thing.

“Is this heading somewhere?” he asked.

“Yes, but I don't know where. In the interest of public safety, should people be notified that there's a boa wandering around looking for a snack?”

“The morally correct answer is
yes
, but the practical answer is
no
. Simon's neighborhood would be filled with snake hunters, four or five government agencies would want to take the snake away from him, and my sister-in-law, who hates snakes, would panic.”

“I don't suppose you'd want to help me look for Ethel.”

“Thought you'd never ask.”

“I'll be at your house in ten minutes.”

• • •

The sun was low in the sky when Morelli and I got to the dirt road leading to Simon's double-wide. Morelli drove at a crawl, and we peered out, looking for Ethel in the scrubby front yards of the locals. The road was about two miles long, partially wooded and partially cleared by squatters living in shacks, trailers, patched-together bungalows, and an occasional yurt. Abandoned cars served as chicken coops and guesthouses. Simon's place was at the end of the road.

Morelli parked in what served as Simon's driveway, and we got out and stood, hands on hips, taking it all in.

“Now what?” Morelli asked.

“I guess we should start with the double-wide. Maybe you could peek inside to see if Ethel came home.”

“Me?”

“Yeah.”

“Why me?”

“You're the big, strong cop. You've got a gun and muscles and stuff.”

“What about you?”

“I'm the cupcake.”

Morelli crossed the yard and looked inside the mobile home. “Whoa!”

“Raccoons?” I asked him.

Morelli backed out. “Cats. Everywhere. I swear there must be a hundred of them. And they don't look friendly. I think they're eating rats.”

“So Ethel wasn't in there?”

“Just the cats and the rats.”

“The cats must have gotten into the freezer. Simon kept a bag of frozen rats in case he couldn't find roadkill.”

“More likely it was the raccoons that opened the freezer.”

“Ethel can't have gone far,” I said. “She doesn't move fast. Last I saw her she was halfway up the big oak tree on the edge of the property. Maybe you could track her. You could use your Boy Scout skills.”

“I was never a Boy Scout,” Morelli said. “I was the scourge of the neighborhood.”

This was true. Morelli and his brothers bullied Boy Scouts and romanced Girl Scouts. Mothers all over Trenton warned
their kids to stay far away from the Morelli boys. Not that the kids paid any attention. The Morelli boys were irresistible charmers.

“Huey, Dewey, and Louie were Junior Woodchucks,” I said. “I always thought that was odd since they were actually ducks.”

Morelli stared at me for a long moment. Probably wondering what the heck I was talking about since he'd only read superhero comics when he was a kid.

“She's a big fat snake,” I said. “She has to have left some sort of trail.”

“Suppose we find her. Then what?”

“I stopped at Giovichinni's before I came to your house, and I bought a couple packages of hot dogs. We can use them to lure Ethel back to Simon's double-wide.”

That didn't exactly work when Simon tried it, but I couldn't come up with anything better. We crossed the yard and found some matted-down scrub grass that might have been a snake trail. We followed it into a patch of woods and pretended we knew what we were doing. The sun was setting, and it was increasingly dark in the woods. I had the flashlight app working on my cellphone, but visibility wasn't perfect, and I was terrified that I might inadvertently trip over Ethel.

“I can see light shining through the trees in front of us,” Morelli said. “We must have crossed through the woods to Simon's neighbor's. I'm voting to bag the snake search for tonight.”

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