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Authors: Janet Evanovich

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BOOK: Hardcore Twenty-Four
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I recognized one of the cops and sidled up to him. “Will you make any arrests?”

He shook his head no. “This is the Camden group. They're okay. They're just out here making some pizza money. We'll load them onto the buses, they'll stop at White Castle for burgers, and they'll be home before the ten o'clock news comes on.”

“What about the man who was speaking?”

“He'll get elected,” the cop said. “He's the only one running.”

“I was hoping Zero Slick would be here. He's FTA, and I know he's an activist.”

“He's probably protesting the Korean grocery on Madison and State. I heard that gig was assigned to the locals. We'll be heading over there as soon as we get these folks settled into their buses.”

“Aren't you afraid there'll be trouble before you get there?”

“The television guy is still here. No one's going to act out on Madison until the television guy gets over there.” He made a small grimace. “You know you've got egg on you, right?”

FIVE

LULA AND I
took Grandma home and then we went to the Korean grocery on Madison. A handful of people were standing in front of the store, blocking the entrance. They were holding signs that called for
DIVERSITY NOW
.

I parked and approached one of the sign holders. “What's the problem?” I asked.

“Discriminatory hiring practices,” he said.

“This store is owned by the Park family,” Lula said. “I shop here all the time. They're real nice people. The whole family works here.”

“Their hiring practices aren't sympathetic to diversity,” the man said.

“That's because they're all Korean, you moron,” Lula said. “This here's a family-run store. You see the sign over the door? It says ‘Park Korean Grocery.' You know how many Parks there
are? About forty. And they all live in two rooms over the store. What are all those people supposed to do if they can't dribble down into the store to stack vegetables?”

“They're fascists,” the man said.

“You don't even know what that means,” Lula said. “Go ahead and tell me what makes up a fascist.”

I pulled Lula away. “We're supposed to be looking for Zero Slick, not inciting another riot.”

“Well, I don't see no chubby short guy with a brown ponytail here. The only short person I see with a brown ponytail is an unattractive woman wearing a dress that's totally wrong for her. And she's wearing it with sneakers.”

I located the woman. “That's Slick,” I said.

“Well, he got no fashion sense. It's like he's giving women a bad name being dressed like that.”

I had cuffs in the back pocket of my jeans and pepper spray hooked to my waistband. I also had a stun gun in my bag, but it was illegal so I preferred not to use it when there were witnesses. I walked around the group of protesters and came up behind Slick.

“Zero Slick?” I asked.

He turned and looked at me. “Yes?”

“I represent your bail bonds agent. You need to come with me to reschedule your court date.”

“Sure,” Slick said. “I'll have my social secretary get in touch with you.”

I clapped a bracelet onto his wrist. “We need to do this now.”

He yanked his arm away, but I held firm to the second cuff.

“Are you freaking nuts?” he said. “Can't you see I'm working? Get this thing off me.”

I reached around to secure his other wrist, and he smacked me with his sign.

“Help!” he yelled. “Police brutality.”

“I'm not a police officer,” I said to him.

He waved his sign.
“Pig! Pig!”

“You stop that,” Lula said to him. “I don't like your attitude. And on top of that I'm offended by your accessorizing.”

Word went out that the television guy had arrived, and in seconds we were surrounded by protesters demanding that I release Slick. Voices were raised. Someone shoved Lula, and she took him out with an elbow to the gut. After that it was bloody chaos. There was a flash and a
BANG!
And everyone stopped punching and eye gouging and stepped back.

“This is getting old,” Lula said. “My ears are ringing. I better not have permanent damage.”

I thought if the sound system in her car hadn't permanently damaged her ears, the flash grenades weren't going to have an effect.

Lula put her hands to her head. “Where's my Farrah Fawcett wig? Someone took my wig. I'm pressing charges. Don't anybody leave the scene.”

There were a bunch of signs scattered around, but not many protesters. Slick was gone and so were my handcuffs. The police and some Parks were cleaning up the litter. No blond wig in sight.

“It was splattered with tomato, anyway,” I said.

“Yeah, you got some on you too. And egg. And your shirt got a big rip in it. I'm sayin' that all in all this here was a depressing day. I need a donut.”

A donut sounded like a good idea. A dozen donuts sounded even better. It was almost nine o'clock, and the sun had set. I wasn't sure if I was up for the late dinner with Morelli. I was hungry, but I wasn't feeling like a sex goddess. I was feeling like I'd gotten punched in the face, and my eye was swelling.

“Do I have a black eye?” I asked Lula.

“I can't tell,” Lula said. “It's too dark here.”

We walked for two blocks and stopped.

“Where's your car?” Lula asked. “I could swear we parked it here.”

We looked around. No car.

“I think someone stole your car,” Lula said.

“I think you're right.”

“This is doodie,” Lula said. “Just when I need a donut someone goes and steals your car. Some people have no consideration.”

I reviewed my choices. I could call Morelli. I could call my dad. I could call Uber. Or I could call Ranger.

“Hold on,” Lula said. “What's that laying in the gutter? Looks to me like your license plates.”

I went to the curb and retrieved the plates.

“This is looking up,” Lula said. “At least you got your plates. All we need now is a car. How about the one across the street. It looks like a Lexus.”

“We aren't going to steal a car.”

“I don't see why not. Someone took ours, so we should be able to help ourself to a new one. Tit for tat.”

My cellphone buzzed, and the screen told me it was Ranger. Ricardo Carlos Manoso, aka Ranger, is former Special Forces. He's smart. He's sexy. He's Cuban American. He grew up street tough. He has his own moral code. And he has secrets. He wears only black unless he's undercover. He sits with his back to the wall when he's in a public place.

When we first met, Ranger was working as a bounty hunter. Since then he's become a successful businessman, owning and operating Rangeman, a high-tech security firm housed in a stealth building in downtown Trenton. We've been intimate in the past, but much like with Diesel, there's no possibility of marriage or even a long-term, stable relationship. Ranger has complicated life goals. He also has an overly protective attitude, and he puts trackers on my cars so he can keep tabs on me. I've given up trying to remove them.

“My control room tells me your car just went for a swim in the Delaware River,” Ranger said.

“It was just stolen. You should probably send the police to see if there's anyone in it.”

“Do you need a ride?”

I blew out a sigh. “Yes. And I have Lula with me. Do you know where I am?”

“State and Lincoln.”

I narrowed my eyes. “Do you have my messenger bag bugged again?”

“No. I can ping your cellphone.”

“Is Mr. Tall, Dark, and Hot coming to get us?” Lula asked after I put my phone back into my pocket.

“Yep.”

“Even better than stealing a car. That man is fine.”

• • •

Lula and I were sitting on the curb when Ranger eased to a stop in front of us in his black Porsche Cayenne turbo. I slid into the seat next to him, he studied me in the dark car, and he almost smiled.

“Babe,” Ranger said.

Babe
covered a lot of ground with Ranger. I was guessing tonight it meant I was a mess.

“We got involved in a demonstration,” I said.

When Ranger was working as a bounty hunter he'd had a diamond stud in his ear and his hair pulled back into a ponytail. He's a businessman now, and he's always perfectly groomed and tailored. No more diamond stud and no more ponytail. Today he was wearing the Rangeman uniform of black fatigues.

“And some loser took my Farrah wig right off my head,” Lula said. “That's why I don't look completely put together.”

Ranger flicked his eyes to the rearview mirror and returned his attention to the road. Twenty minutes later he dropped Lula at her house. He waited until she walked inside and closed her door before turning to me.

“You have the beginnings of a black eye, your shirt is ripped,
and you look hungry,” Ranger said. “Where do we go from here? Would you like to come home with me, or do you have other plans?”

I leaned back in the seat and closed my eyes. “I suppose I have other plans. I should go back to my apartment.”

Ranger drove in silence. Never a man of many words. More of an action kind of guy. He pulled into the parking lot to my apartment building and looked up at my windows on the second floor.

“Did you leave your lights on?” he asked.

I gave up a sigh. “Diesel showed up today.”

“And?”

“And I'm guessing he's still here.”

“Would you like me to remove him?”

“No. I'll take care of it.”

“Babe,” Ranger said. “You don't want to get involved with Diesel.”

“No problem. Not a chance.”

He looked down at the license plates that were resting on my lap. “They left the plates behind?”

“Yep.”

“Thoughtful.” He leaned in and kissed me, being careful of the eye. “I'll have one of my men drop a car off for you.”

“Thanks. I'll try not to lose it.”

“If you can manage to keep it intact for a week, it's yours. If it gets stolen, blown up, crushed by a garbage truck, set on fire, filled with cement, or dies an untimely death by any other means, I'll expect you to spend the night with me.”

I got out of his Cayenne and watched him drive away. It would be tempting to blow the car up myself.

• • •

Diesel was slouched on my couch, watching television, when I let myself into my apartment. He stood and stretched, his shirt rode up exposing his perfect abs, and I sucked in some air. I had too many men in my life. And none of them were doing me any good.

I put the plates on the kitchen counter, tapped on Rex's cage, and said hello. Diesel strolled in and did a head-to-toe body scan.

“What's the other guy look like?” he asked.

“There were multiple other guys. I'm not sure what they looked like. It was dark and chaotic.”

“Was it fun?”

“Not especially.”

He opened some kitchen drawers until he found a tea towel. He loaded it with ice, smashed the ice with a fry pan, and gently put the towel to my swollen black eye.

“Are you hungry?”

“Yes!”

He poured me a glass of red wine, took two mac and cheese boxes out of the freezer, and popped them into the microwave. He sliced the hot dogs, put them in the defrosted mac and cheese, and nuked it all for another minute. He dumped one box onto a plate for me and the other onto a plate for him.

“Instant happiness,” he said, draping an arm around me,
shepherding me into the living room. “The Yankees are losing. It's all good.”

“You're not a Yankees fan?”

“Red Sox.”

I forked into my frank and cheese. “Who would have thought you could cook?”

“Just the tip of the iceberg.”

“No doubt.”

I ate my dinner, drank my wine, and put the ice pack back on my eye.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Diesel asked.

“No. It's not that interesting.”

“You've got something on your forehead and in your hair. It's either raw egg or else someone got happy on you.”

“It's egg. I guess I should take a shower and wash it out.”

“Let me know if you need help,” Diesel said. “I'm good in the shower.”

I shuffled off to the bathroom and cringed when I saw myself in the mirror. My eye was swollen and ringed with deep purple. My T-shirt was ripped at the neck. My hair was spiked with egg goo.

This is no way to live, I told myself. There must be a better way to pay the rent. When my face stopped throbbing I was going to think about it.

I called Morelli and told him I was going to pass on the dinner thing. For starters, I didn't have a car.

“Rekko said he saw you at the Korean grocery protest. He said you started a riot.”

“I wasn't the one who started the riot. I tried to make an
apprehension and it went south, and then one thing led to another. How's the head count going?”

“It's going freaky. Bad enough we've got these heads in cold storage, it turns out they haven't got brains.”

“Say what?”

“I'm not going to repeat it. I shouldn't have told you because it hasn't been released, but I'm creeped out, and I've had two whiskeys straight up. No fucking brains.”

“Do you think it's the zombies?”

“No. I think it's some sick psychotic asshole. Or maybe a bunch of assholes. Or hell, I guess it could be zombies.”

“I still haven't found Ethel.”

“I'd like to help, but I haven't got time. I'm pulling double shifts, running down decapitation leads.”

“Grandma will be happy when you find the head thief. Leonard Friedman had to have a closed casket. And you know how Grandma hates a closed casket.”

“I knew Leonard. A closed casket would have been a good idea even if his head was attached. He wasn't an attractive man.”

I said good night to Morelli and stepped into the shower. I have an ugly 1970s-era bathroom. I tell myself the avocado wallpaper and baby-diarrhea yellow fixtures are retro, but truth is they were a bad idea in the '70s and they're a worse idea now. I scrubbed the egg away and stood under the hot water until it started to go cold. I toweled off, blasted my hair with the dryer, got into my pajamas, and went out to see if Diesel was still in my living room.

“Yeah, I'm still here,” he said. “Come cuddle.”

“Gonna pass on the cuddling and go straight to bed.”

“Is that an invitation?”

“No. It's a declaration. I'm beat.” I put my finger to my eye and tested it for puffiness. “How does my eye look?”

“It looks like you smashed it into someone's fist.”

BOOK: Hardcore Twenty-Four
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