Simon Diggery and Ethel, his pet boa constrictor, were up a tree about fifty feet from Simon’s rust bucket doublewide. 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 grey 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 home-made 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 over-sized 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 hotdogs,” Simon said. “I’ll leave a trail of hotdogs that goes straight to the kitchen. And then once she’s inside we’ll lock the door.”
Ten minutes later Simon had the hotdogs 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, loaded him into my SUV, and drove him to the police station. I handed Simon 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 doublewide. The snake wasn’t in the tree and the hotdogs 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, 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 doublewide, 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 had Simon’s key in my hand. I crept up the makeshift stairs to his 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 doublewide 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 hotdog. I backed out, turned, and hustled to my car.
“Was Ethel in there?” Lula asked. “How come you didn’t close the door?”
“It’s filled with raccoons. They were eating cereal and stuff and rearranging the furniture.”
“Did you see Ethel?”
“If Ethel was in the doublewide 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 bond’s office, and I 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 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?”
“Yes. She’s sort of escaped. Simon’s in the lock-up, and I think Ethel is slithering around the neighborhood.”
“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 mothers all over Trenton 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 doublewide. 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 doublewide. Maybe you could peek inside to see if Ethel came home.”
“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 road kill.”
Morelli did a grimace.
“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 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 before I came to your house, and I bought a couple packages of hotdogs. We can use them to lure Ethel back to Simon’s doublewide.”
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 the trail 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. I’m voting to bag the snake search for tonight.”
“That would be my vote too. I’m not crazy about running into Ethel in the dark.”
We walked out of the woods and stood staring at the rundown ranch house in front of us. It was about the size of a doublewide and looked like it was held together with duct tape and Elmer’s glue. The rusted out pickup truck in the front yard had double gun racks across the back window.
“Maybe we should ask if they’ve seen Ethel,” I said to Morelli.
“Not a good idea. If they’ve seen her I can guarantee they’re having her for dinner. If they haven’t seen her they’ll comb the woods with their dogs until they find her.”
“Okay then, how about if we creep up on them and peek in their kitchen window so we can see if they have the slow cooker going.”
“No. Another bad idea. The mayor frowns on cops moonlighting as peeping toms.”
“Understood. So you stay here and I’m going to take a quick look.”
Too late. I was halfway across the yard doing a tippy-toe jog. I got as far as the junker truck and dogs started barking inside the house. The front door opened and a man looked out. I held my breath and stood statue still. I was in shadow, behind the truck, and I was pretty sure he couldn’t see me. The door slammed shut and I could hear the man yelling at the dogs. The dogs kept barking, the door opened again, and the dogs charged out. Three of them. They were running straight for me and I had a double fear. The first was that they would tear me to shreds. The second was that Morelli would shoot them.
I had one of the packages of hotdogs in my sweatshirt pocket. I tore the package open with my teeth and threw the hotdogs at the lead dog. He snapped up a hotdog, and it turned into a feeding frenzy when the other dogs reached him and the remaining hotdogs.
Morelli ran across the yard, grabbed my sweatshirt sleeve, and yanked me toward the road. We reached the road and walked hand in hand back to the car.
“This was fun,” Morelli said. “We should do this more often.”
We were at the car, and we took a last look around. The sun had set and the doublewide was a black blob in the darkness. There was some rustling in the surrounding brush but aside from that it was quiet. No dogs barking. No cats howling. No one screaming that they were being eaten alive by a giant snake.
“Do you think we should look inside before we leave?” I asked Morelli.
“No,” Morelli said. We should definitely not look inside.”
Forty-five minutes later Morelli pulled to the curb in front of his house.
“Usually Simon gets re-bonded when he misses his date,” Morelli said. “What’s the deal with him staying in jail?”
“He’s being stalked by zombies. He figures he’s safer if he’s locked up.”
That got a smile out of Morelli. “One of the disadvantages to being a grave robber. I guess occasionally you dig up a zombie.”
“He said he dug into a portal.”
“That can’t be good.”
I cut my eyes to Morelli. “You don’t believe in zombies, do you?”
“No. Do you?”
“No, of course not.” And if I did believe in zombies I for sure wouldn’t admit to it.
Bob did his happy dance when we walked through the door. His happiness was enhanced by the fact that we were carrying hotdogs. I snagged a couple bottles of beer from Morelli’s fridge and we all went out to the backyard. Morelli fired up the grill and before long we were all stuffed full of hotdogs.
“So, what’s new?” I asked Morelli.
Morelli cracked open a second beer. “Someone was decapitated last night. Male Caucasian without identification. He was found in the alley behind the hardware store on Broad Street. Looks like he was dragged there. The ME puts the time of death around four a.m.”
“Is it your case?”
“Yeah, lucky me.”
“And I got nothing. I’m waiting for the lab reports to come back.”
“You didn’t recognize him?”
“No one recognized him. He didn’t have a head.”
“Are you serious?”
“Unfortunately, yes. No head. Gone without a trace. We checked all the Dumpsters in the area but nada.”
My job was bad enough. If I had Morelli’s job I’d be a raging alcoholic. Every day he was, figuratively speaking, ankle deep in blood. He was witness to horrible crimes committed by sick people. And despite this, for the most part he could sleep at night, and he hadn’t lost faith in the human-race. He’d become a master at compartmentalizing. I’m not so good at it. I frequently sleep with the bedroom light on.
Morelli shut the grill down and wrapped an arm around me. “You know what comes next?”
“I haven’t got any ice cream.”
“What do you have?”
Morelli grinned. “Something better than ice cream.”
“Hard to believe.”
“The key word is hard.”
Hardcore Twenty-Four Copyright © 2017 by Evanovich, Inc.
Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information address G. P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, 1745 Broadway, New York, New York 10019