Authors: Lily Harper Hart
The man was trying to form words, but the only thing coming out was a series of stuttered syllables and moans of pain.
“I’ll call for help,” Ally said, reaching her shaking hands into her purse. “Hold on. I’ll call for help.”
When the rasping sound in the man’s chest faded, Ally knew it was too late. She made the call anyway, and then she sat on the floor and held the dead man’s hand. She didn’t know what else to do.
Ally’s call had shaken James. He was used to his sister being many things, including bossy, snarky, and petulant. He was not used to her sounding weak and scared. Part of James was sure she’d come close to breaking a few weeks before when she and Mandy had been held at gunpoint by a deranged woman bent on revenge. Ally had held it together, though, and James had been proud.
This was different.
James parked in front of the small diner, the myriad of police cars and ambulances tipping him off that he was in the right place. Mandy jumped out of the passenger side of his Ford Explorer before he slammed it into park, causing him to curse under his breath. There she was, running headlong into trouble without looking both ways before she crossed the street. Again.
James followed her, forcing himself to keep an even pace. He knew Ally was okay. He’d talked to her on the phone. He didn’t want to make a big deal about what had happened – at least not until he was sure what the situation entailed. It wouldn’t be doing Ally any favors if he freaked out.
He scanned the crowd, catching sight of his sister. She was standing next to the side of the restaurant, her long brown hair disheveled. She’d been crying, although she seemed fairly put together now. The minute she saw Mandy, all of that changed. Her faced crumbled, and she threw herself into her friend’s open arms and sobbed openly.
James’ heart clenched at the picture. Two hours before, they’d been bickering like children. Now they were bolstering each other like family.
James pushed through the assembled crowd, joining Mandy and Ally as three police officers looked on in disapproval. Since the crime had occurred in Harrison Township, it was the Macomb County Sheriff’s Department that responded. James didn’t have a lot of respect for the department – especially since he’d been at odds with them more times than he could count over the past year – but he understood about procedure.
Macomb County is a northeastern suburb of Detroit, and while crime isn’t as rampant in the suburbs, it still creeps in. No place is truly safe, James reminded himself, although this seemed like the most unlikely spot for it to crop up.
“It was awful,” Ally said. “He looked like … he looked like someone beat him to death. There was so much blood.”
“But he was still alive?” Mandy asked, brushing Ally’s flyaway hair out of her face.
“He was trying to tell me something.”
“What?” One of the deputies moved forward. “What did he say?”
James frowned. He already didn’t like the man’s attitude, although he couldn’t put a finger on exactly why.
“He didn’t really say anything,” Ally said. “He was trying to form words, but it just came out as a mess of sounds.”
“Think hard, ma’am. What did he say?”
“She just told you she couldn’t understand him,” James said.
The deputy looked him up and down. “And you are?”
“Her brother, James Hardy.”
“Of Hardy Brothers Security?”
“Well, Mr. Hardy, I’m Detective Ben Carson. I’ll be the primary on this case.” He extended his hand, which James shook. “Can I ask who called you?”
“My sister called,” James said. “We were expecting her back at the house. She was just picking up dinner.”
“And what time was that?”
James glanced at his watch. “We expected her back about a half hour ago. We were starting to get worried.”
Carson nodded, making a notation in his notebook.
“Do we know who the dead man was?” Mandy asked.
“It was the owner,” Carson replied.
“No, his name is Michael Sawyer,” Carson replied. “He’s been the proprietor here for the past three years.”
Mandy knit her eyebrows together. “Then who is Pauly?”
“I don’t understand,” Carson said.
Mandy pointed at the sign. “It’s Pauly’s Diner. How does a guy named Michael own a restaurant named after a guy named Pauly?”
“Does that really matter?” Carson asked.
“I thought the same thing,” Ally said. “I remember teasing the owner about it. He said that Pauly was an uncle or something.”
“You said the owner didn’t talk to you,” Carson said, an edge to his voice.
“Not today,” Ally replied. “I’ve been in here before.”
“So, you knew the owner?”
“I just met him once,” Ally said. “I’ve been in here twice, but he wasn’t in here the second time. It was some woman behind the counter.”
“And you’re sure?”
“What are you insinuating?” James asked.
“Nothing,” Carson said. “You must understand, your sister is the one who found the body.”
“So?” Mandy said. “It’s not like she killed him.”
“The person who finds the body is always a suspect,” James said. “It’s standard operating procedure.”
“Well, I don’t like it,” Mandy said, straightening. “What would Ally’s motive for killing this man be?”
James sighed inwardly. She had
look. She was about to make a huge fuss.
“I’m not accusing her of anything, ma’am,” Carson said. “I do have an investigation to perform, and these questions are part of that investigation.”
“That’s not how it sounds to me,” Mandy said.
Carson’s face was pinched and tight. “Well, now that you mention it, can you all account for your whereabouts for the past three hours?”
“Wait, now we’re suspects, too?”
James reached out, grabbing Mandy by the arm and pulling her away from Carson before she completely flew off the handle. “Baby, he’s doing his job. We were at our new house,” James said. “We just bought it. It’s getting some work done on it right now, and we were over there watching some new appliances get installed and picking out paint colors. I can give you the name of the company that was there. They saw us – and I’m sure they heard these two bickering about paint colors even though they were out on the patio. I’m sure the whole neighborhood heard.”
Carson looked like he was fighting the urge to smile. “Ah, let me guess, they had one of those big paint wheels and they kept showing you pieces of paper with what they insisted were different colors, but it was really the same color?”
“I know how that goes,” Carson said. “My wife and her sister have been arguing over custard and lemon for five days. The baby isn’t due for six months, but the arguing feels like it’s been going on for a year. It’s a nightmare.”
James pursed his lips, liking Carson a little more after the admission. “Ally really has no reason to want to kill the owner of a diner.”
“I don’t disagree,” Carson said. “I have to rule her out to move on. Just give me the name of the workmen. Once the coroner gives us a better timeline, it shouldn’t be too difficult to clear Ms. Hardy.”
James nodded. “Do they know when it happened?”
“Not exactly,” Carson said. “My best guess is at least an hour before your sister showed up.”
“Well, my fiancée and I can definitely alibi her for that time period,” James replied.
“Even if you can’t, rest assured that I don’t believe your sister is a murderer,” Carson said. “I’m not so sure about the blonde, though. She looks like she would rip my head off my shoulders if she could.”
James glanced at Mandy, who was indeed scorching Carson with hateful glares as she rubbed Ally’s shoulders. “Don’t worry about her,” James said. “She’s just standing up for Ally. It’s what they do.”
“You’re a brave man,” Carson said.
“What do you mean?”
“You’re marrying your sister’s best friend,” he said. “They’ll take you on as a unit every chance they get.”
James smiled. “I can live with that. Can I take my sister home?”
“Yeah, go ahead. We just need a number to contact her at.”
“She’s going to stay with us tonight,” James said. “She looks shaky – and Mandy obviously needs someone to worry over.”
Carson cocked his head to the side, considering. “Yeah. Good luck with both of them tonight.”
sat in the backseat with Ally for the ride back to Hardy Brothers Security. Ally was touched by her concern, and secretly glad for the support. Ally put on a brave face – and most of the time it was sincere – but right now she was feeling uneasy. She was glad to have both her brother and her best friend to lean on, especially tonight.
James stopped at a local Thai place and picked up dinner, leaving Mandy and Ally in the Explorer. The rest of the drive back to the security office was completed in silence.
“Are you okay, Ally?” James asked once they’d entered the first-floor door of the business. Her features were pale, and even though Mandy had been doting on her, Ally seemed to be internalizing her worry.
“I’m fine,” she said, forcing a shaky smile on her face as she regarded her brother. “It was just a jarring experience.”
“You know, kid, you may drive me nuts, but I am your big brother,” James said. “I’m here to protect you.”
“I don’t need protection,” Ally said. “I just need a good night’s sleep. I’ll be fine tomorrow.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to talk about it?” James pressed.
“Ally … .”
“Just leave it alone, James,” Mandy said, moving between them and grabbing Ally’s arm. “She’ll talk when she’s ready.”
Ally shot Mandy a small smile. “Thanks.”
Mandy led Ally upstairs. “He’s just trying to help.”
“I know. It’s just … .”
“I know. Come on. We’ll have some dinner and watch a movie. You’ll feel better.”
“I don’t think a movie is going to wipe what I saw out of my mind,” Ally said.
“No,” Mandy agreed. “It can’t hurt, though.”
“We’re not watching a shark movie, are we? I don’t think I could take the blood and guts – or the screaming.”
“No,” Mandy said. “I thought I’d let you pick.”
Ally’s eyes brightened. “How about
Mandy smirked when she saw James frown. He hated that movie, and Ally knew it. “That sounds like a great idea.”
James handed the bag of food over to Mandy, resigned. “I’ll be up in a few minutes. I just want to check in with Jake and make sure everything is all right.”
Mandy nodded, taking the food. “Take your time. We’re going to make you dance later, so you might want to rest up.”
James groaned. “I can’t wait.”
“What’s going on?”
Jake Harrison was sitting behind the desk in James’ office, tallying spreadsheets, when he saw his boss enter. He’d seen Mandy and Ally head upstairs, their heads bent together, and something about the scene set his teeth on edge.
Jake had been hanging around Hardy Brothers Security long enough to know that Mandy and Ally were often joined at the hip. Their laughter was generally easy and infectious. One look at their faces – both vacant and sad – told him something else was going on tonight.
When he’d first met the Hardy family, Mandy was recovering from being injured in an explosion, and her smile hadn’t been easy or ready. In the following weeks, Jake learned that was the exception – not the rule. Ally, on the other hand, never had anything but a smile on her face. Usually some form of mischief at her brothers’ expense accompanied that smile. The only time Jake had seen Ally’s bravado falter was a few weeks before, when Mandy’s former stepmother had tried to kill her. That breakdown had been minor – and brief.
This felt somehow different.
James paused in the door, casting a look over his shoulder to make sure Mandy and Ally were out of earshot, and then filled Jake in on the afternoon’s events.
Jake didn’t know what he was expecting, but James’ story definitely wasn’t it. “Wow.”
“Do we know how this guy died?”
“Michael Sawyer,” James said. “That was his name. I was thinking we could try and run a background check on him. Ally didn’t say what kind of wounds she saw, just that she saw a lot of blood and he looked like he was beaten to death. I wanted to ask her more, but Mandy is acting as her protector right now – and there’s no way I’m getting past her.”
“Not that you really want to,” Jake finished for him. “She is your sister, after all.”
James sighed, sinking down into one of the open chairs across from the desk and rubbing his chin. “I don’t like seeing her like this,” he admitted. “She’s always so happy-go-lucky. She’s usually such a pain in the ass I forget she’s still a regular person. Sometimes I forget that she can be rattled just like anyone else.”
“It’s probably different with older sisters,” Jake said. “I know the feeling, though. One of my sisters got dumped on prom night. I was only ten, and yet she was crying so hard I went and picked a fight with the guy.”
“How did that go?”
“I got my ass kicked.”
“Eh, it wasn’t all bad,” Jake said. “My mom and dad were so proud, I got whatever I wanted – including a puppy – for a whole week.”
“And what about your sister?”
“Well, my sisters were so mad they vandalized the guy’s car. They put rotten eggs under the seat. The guy couldn’t drive his car for a month. I don’t think it was ever the same.”
James chuckled. “Your family sounds a lot like our family.”
“In some ways,” Jake agreed. “Do you think Ally will be okay?”
“I think Mandy is going to make sure she’s okay,” James said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up sleeping on the couch tonight. It will be like a slumber party all over again, except I won’t be invited to the party.”
Jake snorted. “Did they have slumber parties when they were kids?” Jake knew that Mandy and Ally had grown up together, and since he was well aware of what teenage girls did at slumber parties, the idea of James being stuck on the couch amused him.
“Yeah. They had them all the time. I missed the high school ones. I was already out of the house. The middle-school ones were bad enough,” James said. “I distinctly remember the sounds of infernal boy-band music, and the sight of them dancing around like morons.”
“That’s what teenage girls do,” Jake said. “It’s all boys, makeup, and nail polish.”
“Yeah, but it’s more fun to think of teenage girls doing that when you’re not related to one of them,” James replied. “I think all teenage boys have an idea of what a slumber party is. The reality is very different.”
Jake smirked. “Well, good luck. I hope Ally feels better.”
you sure you don’t want to sleep in the bed with me? James can sleep on the couch.”
For a second, Ally considered messing with her brother. His face was priceless at the thought of being kicked out of his own bed. He was also resigned. “I’ll be fine on the couch,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to tear my brother away from you. He might not survive the night.”
Mandy smirked. “I can sleep out here with you if you want. If you’re scared, I mean.”
James didn’t look any happier with that prospect.
“I don’t think we’ll fit very comfortably on the couch together,” Ally said. “Trust me. I’ll be out as soon as my head hits the pillow.”
Mandy gave Ally a quick hug. “Okay. Yell if you need something.”
James followed suit, pulling Ally against him and lending her a little bit of his warmth before releasing her. “We’ll leave the door open in case you need anything.”
“If I hear any sex noises in there, I’m out of here,” Ally said.
“We’ll try to refrain.”
True to her word, Ally drifted off to sleep almost instantaneously. Both her body and mind were exhausted. Unfortunately, her busy mind plunged her into a series of nightmares, each one bloodier than the next. In each installment, Michael Sawyer imparted some important message to Ally as he died, even though no words were ever uttered. She just seemed to know what he was trying to say:
You’re in danger
Ally bolted upright, gasping for air. Her heart was racing, Sawyer’s words echoing throughout her mind. She knew he hadn’t said anything of the sort before he died, but her subconscious obviously thought that was the message he was trying to impart.
Ally glanced over at the open bedroom door. Her brother had left the hallway light on, and Ally could see the outline of her brother’s body as he spooned himself around Mandy’s slighter frame. The sounds of their rhythmic breathing told Ally that both of them were asleep.
She got to her feet, wishing for a second that she hadn’t left her car in front of Pauly’s Diner. She knew that James and Mandy meant well when they dragged her home with them – but now the only thing she wanted was her own bed.
Ally let herself out of the apartment and descended the stairs, her mind too full of horrific images to let her fall back asleep. She was surprised to find a light on in her brother’s office, and even more surprised to see a familiar figure working behind the desk.
Jake was breathtaking, even in the wee hours of the morning when he should be sleeping. His dark hair had fallen over his forehead, and his face was focused on whatever he was working on.
Jake glanced up, his brown eyes expressing surprise when he saw her in the archway between the office and lobby. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” Ally said. “I just had a … I had a bad dream. I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you were still here working.”
“Do you want me to go up and get your brother?” Jake asked.
“If I wanted to wake up my brother, I would have done it up there,” Ally said. “I just needed to stretch my legs, and I didn’t want to bother him and Mandy. It’s not like they could do anything.”
Jake furrowed his brow. “What did you dream about?”
“A dead man,” Ally replied. “A dead man who tried to tell me something but couldn’t.”
Jake’s face flushed with sympathy. “That must have been horrible for you.”
“It wasn’t the highlight of my day,” Ally said, settling into one of the empty chairs. “I know this is going to sound weird, but I feel bad because I don’t think I’m feeling as bad as I should.”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“It was horrible to find him,” Ally said. “It was … terrible. I’ve never seen anything like that. I mean, it’s different from the movies. You know that’s fake. This was real, and even while I was there holding his hand, it didn’t feel real.”
“You were probably in shock,” Jake said. “It’s one thing when you see or hear about it on the news, it’s quite another to see it in person.”
“Oh, that’s right, you were in the military,” Ally said. “You’ve probably seen a lot worse things than what I saw today.”
“I think that putting labels on any tragedy is a mistake,” Jake said. “What you saw today was unique to you. It was terrible for you. What’s terrible for someone else can’t compare.”
“You have a way with words,” Ally said, smiling slightly. “What are you doing here so late?”
“Oh, well, your brother wanted me to run a name for him,” Jake said, averting his gaze.
“What is so important that my brother would have you working all night?” Ally pressed.
“He didn’t ask me to run it tonight,” Jake said. “I just thought I’d get a jump on it.”
Ally waited, feigning patience.
“He wanted me to run a search on Michael Sawyer,” Jake admitted. “Just to see if there was anything that jumped out.”
“Oh, I hadn’t thought of that,” Ally said. “Did you come up with anything?”
“Why didn’t you just leave the search until morning?”
“I don’t know,” Jake said, shrugging. “I just thought the faster we got answers, the faster you might be able to sleep again.”
Ally felt her cheeks warm, although she wasn’t sure why. The idea of Jake doing anything for her made her feel lightheaded and giddy, something she hadn’t felt since she discovered boys as a teenager.
“Well, um, thank you,” she said.
Jake shuffled in his chair, uncomfortable with the sudden tonal shift. “It was nothing.”
“It doesn’t feel like nothing to me,” Ally said, her words taking on a multitude of meanings.
Jake cleared his throat. “Um, well, it’s not.”
The sound of another set of feet on the stairs caused them both to shift their attention to the lobby outside of the office. Mandy appeared, her blonde hair tousled, her face confused.
“What are you doing down here?”
“I couldn’t sleep,” Ally said. “Did I wake you up?”
“No, I had to go to the bathroom,” Mandy said. “When I couldn’t find you on the couch, I got worried.”
“Sorry, I just needed to take a little walk,” Ally said. “I found Jake down here, and we just started talking.”
The look Mandy sent Ally was a knowing one. “I bet. What were you talking about?”
“James asked Jake to run Michael Sawyer’s name through a search,” Ally said.
“Of course he did,” Mandy said, rubbing her forehead. “Did he find anything?”
“I’m not done yet,” Jake said.
“Oh.” Mandy glanced at Ally, a silent conversation transpiring between the two women. Mandy suddenly straightened. “Okay. I’m going back up to bed. James wants to go out to the tent city and take them some supplies tomorrow. I’m assuming you’re going, too, Jake?”
“Okay. See you tomorrow. Night, Ally.”
“I’m coming back up,” Ally said, shooting an apologetic look in Jake’s direction.
“What’s going on?”
Ally stirred when she heard James’ voice. From the sound of it, he was still on the upstairs landing. If he came down here, Ally just knew she’d die of embarrassment. Mandy must have read the look on her face, because she was jogging up the stairs within seconds.
“Nothing. Don’t worry about it. Let’s go back to bed.”
“Where is Ally?”
“She’s surfing the net,” Mandy said. “She can’t sleep.”
“Maybe I should talk to her.”
“She’s fine. Leave her alone. The last thing she needs is you hovering over her. Come on.”
“Fine,” James grumbled.
Once Ally was sure they were gone, she got to her feet. “I should get back upstairs.”
“Um, yeah,” Jake said. “I should get going, too. We’re going to have a big day delivering supplies tomorrow.”
“I’m excited to see it,” Ally said. “Wait, is excited the right word? That probably sounds crass.”
“You’re going?” Jake’s eyes flashed with surprise.
“I’ve heard a lot about it,” Ally said. “An entire little city of homeless veterans who need help? Why wouldn’t I want to come and lend a hand?”
“Oh, well, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow then.”
Now Ally was convinced that Jake was uncomfortable, and she had a feeling she knew why. He was attracted to her, too. She could only hope that her brothers didn’t scare him away before she had a chance to find out if there was something really there or not.