The New Arrival

“Careful! Careful!”

“Lift his legs higher! Bloody Hell!”

“Mind his head!”

“Mind the carpet!”

“Just dump him down already!”

The man was dropped onto the bed like an overfilled bag of groceries. Ozzie wiped the sweat from his forehead, whilst Ruben leaned against the wall, fighting to get his breath back. Millicent glowered at the floor. “I see blood spatters,” she declared.

“Sorry, dear,” Ruben obediently mumbled.

“If you’re so sorry, why don’t you clean it up? Hmm?”

“Vinegar works a treat for that, Mrs L,” Ozzie declared.

Both Lurkes looked at him questioningly.

“Apparently,” he added.

Ruben, once his pulse returned to its natural treacle-slow pace, peered down at the man collapsed on the bed. “Who do you reckon he is?”

“Probably some sightseer from the city,” Millicent said with a poisonous sniff. She had the same attitude towards city folk as gardeners did to slugs. “What I want to know is how he got here?!”

“Car accident, judging by the injuries,” Ozzie said, scratching his scabbed nose.

Mrs Lurke gave him another narrow-eyed stare. “I can see that,” she said. “I meant, why is he in my guest bedroom?”

“Now, dear, where else were we supposed to put him?”

“You could have called an ambulance!”

“Oh, oh yes, I suppose you’re right.”

“That was my fault, Mrs L,” Ozzie Albray announced. “Gavin – you know my boy, Gavin, right? Well, him and his friends came across him just outside the church, and they ran to find me, and, well, what with me not knowing what to do, I came and found your husband, Mr L here, and he suggested we bring him here.”

Once the marathon of an explanation was done, Millicent folded her arms over her narrow chest. “If he was outside the church,” she said coldly, “why didn’t you dump him on the vicar’s bed?”

“He wasn’t in.”

Millicent sighed angrily. “Fine,” she declared. “He can stay here until the ambulance arrives. In the meantime,” she went on, fixing them both an icy stare, “don’t you think you ought to have Doctor Ulster have a look at him?”

“No can do, I’m afraid, dear,” Ruben said, fearfully treading into the territory that might be read as ‘arguing with her’. “Ulster’s in London seeing Mamma Mia.”

 “Mamma Mia? What’s he doing seeing Mamma Mia? Eugenia hates ABBA!”

“I never said he was seeing it with her,” Ruben said. “I believe he’s taking Wendy, his receptionist.”

A reptilian smile spread over Mrs Lurke’s face. “Is he really?”

“He’s going to need someone, I reckon,” Ozzie said.

“Oswald, you don’t have the cranial capacity to reckon anything,” Millicent said with off-hand glee. “But in this case, you’re right. Call Mr McHolland.”

“Widow Cleaver’s physical therapist?”

“He’s the closest thing to a medical man we have for twenty miles. Get him.”

*

Colin McHolland towered at six-foot-six, was as broad as the doorway, and his thick, wavy blond hair made any warm-blooded woman fall instantly. Mrs Lurke was entirely unaffected by his presence.

“Is anything the matter?” he asked, his voice sheepishly quiet. Despite the man’s Herculean appearance, he was as intellectually gifted as a walnut tree.

“We have an injured man,” Ruben said, tugging anxiously at the edges of his moustache. “We were wondering if you might have a look?”

“Look at what?”

Millicent rolled her eyes. “At his injuries!”

“Erm . . . you know I’m a physical therapist, right?” Colin said.

“We know that, but you’re the only person in this village with something similar to a medical degree!”

“What about Doctor Ulster?”

“In London seeing Mamma Mia.”

“I thought his wife hated ABBA?”

“He’s not gone with his wife.”

“Oh!”

“Do you mind?!” Millicent suddenly raged. “I have an unconscious stranger in my guest bed, bleeding over the sheets! Can someone tell me if he is going to be well enough to be moved in the next twenty minutes?!”

Ruben and Colin swapped fearful glances. “Erm . . . yep, sure, will do,” Colin yammered.

“Maybe we should leave him to it, dear?” Ruben said.

“Don’t tell me what to do,” Millicent commanded.

“I – I didn’t . . .”

“Then don’t suggest what I should do.”

“Yes, dear, sorry, dear.”

“Let’s leave Colin to it,” Millicent said.

“Yes, Millie.”

Colin watched the couple leave the room and, when the door clicked shut, he breathed a sigh of relief. The Lurkes always made him feel uncomfortable. They made everyone feel uncomfortable. It wasn’t just that the pair ran the village, it wasn’t just that they had a hugely dysfunctional relationship, it wasn’t even the fact that Ruben was a good foot-and-a-half shorter than his wife. It was the fact that, whenever you interacted with both of them at the same time, you felt as if Millicent was using Ruben as a human shield, and any moment she was going to throw him at you. Or maybe Colin was being too paranoid.

It was this village, he thought. He’d been here eight months, and having the closest gym thirty-five miles away was really starting to wear on his nerves. He tried to shake the gloom out of his head before turning to his patient. Colin felt the sweat begin to prickle on the back of his neck. This wasn’t what he was paid for! His job was to make sure an elderly woman did her hamstring curls and her isometric knee flexes. Tending to people mangled by a car crash was so far out of his comfort zone it was sending him postcards telling him to stay away!

But the idea of telling Millicent Lurke that he couldn’t help was too terrifying a concept. Slowly, he approached the man. Upon closer inspection, the damage didn’t look to bad. Sure, the left arm was twisted in an unnatural way, and the thigh bone was jutting out beneath the trouser leg, and there was a dark stain of dried blood covering most the man’s face. But, other than that, he looked pretty good. A nice expensive suit; shoes that, apart from the caking of mud and blood, looked fairly new; and the watch? That was a very nice-looking watch. “Vacheron Constantin,” Colin mumbled to himself. Not that there was anything wrong with the watch Dallulah had gotten him for his birthday. That one was waterproof and glowed in the dark.

The physical therapist looked the stricken man up and down, wondering what, if anything, he could do. To begin with, he guessed, he should probably find out if the man was dead or alive. He placed his fingers just beneath the man’s jaw, pressing firmly to feel – yes, it was faint, but there was definitely a pulse. Colin breathed out a sigh of relief. At least he didn’t have to annoy Mrs Lurke with news that she had a corpse in her guest room. The man’s right eyelid suddenly flickered open. Colin recoiled. Realising that this, probably, wasn’t the best response, he leaned back in close. The man’s cracked lips were opening and closing ever so slightly. He was trying to speak.

“What is it?” Colin asked, getting closer.

“bf…cs…”

The physical therapist frowned. The what? He got even closer, his ear almost brushing against the man’s mouth.

“. . . Briefcase . . .”

Briefcase? Colin looked around. There was no briefcase in the small room. He looked back to the man, but his eye was back closed and his mouth was slack. Colin’s fingers found the pulse again. Only unconscious, that was good. But what did he mean by briefcase? He felt the rusty cogs in his head begin to turn, and an idea started to form . . .

*

Ozzie looked up to see the Lurkes in the doorway.

“Are those my Jaffa Cakes?” Ruben asked.

The man looked down at the half-demolished box in his hand, then guiltily held it out.

“Want one?”

Millicent rolled her eyes wearily. “Ruben, go and play with your toys.”

“I know you’re only teasing,” her husband said with a smile, “but it’s very important that I test all the new models before I start selling them! How else will I –?”

His wife shot him a silent look that made him visibly wilt. “Right, yes, guess I should,” he mumbled.

When he was gone, Millicent Lurke rounded on Oswald. “Well?” she demanded.

“I had about three,” Oswald said, placing the box down on the kitchen table. “But I was starving!”

“Not the bloody Jaffa Cakes! I mean this stranger upstairs!”

“Oh. What?”

“Who is he?”

“I dunno,” Ozzie said with a shrug. “Like I said, Gavin and his mates found him collapsed outside the church, and I thought it best to bring him back to you.”

Millicent pinched the bridge of her nose and counted to ten. She had long since given up on any chance of Ozzie improving his intellect, but his lack of it still managed to astound her. “Did you not notice the way the man was dressed? His shoes? His watch?!”

“Nice?”

“Expensive!” Millicent quietly raged. “What is a man with that sort of money doing in this village?”

“Sightseeing?”

The woman gave an exhausted sigh. “Where is Sidney?” she suddenly asked.

“Err . . . out on a job, I think.”

She glanced at her watch. “Still? He should have made that delivery hours ago.”

“You know Sid,” Ozzie said cheerfully. “The slowest driver in the world!” Millicent frowned. Cautious, that was the word she used to describe Sidney Sinclair. Yes, still a mile away from being considered intelligent, but he didn’t make mistakes. That was why he could be trusted to work alone. Ozzie Albray on the other hand . . .

“Call him,” Millicent commanded. “Get him back here as soon as possible, and when he is back –”

“Um . . .”

The pair rounded on Colin, causing him to take a hurried step back. There was silence for a second. “Yes?” Millicent finally said.

“He’s – he’s alive,” Colin declared. When this didn’t seem enough, he went on: “A few broken bones, maybe some ribs as well, and he’s got a nasty head wound, but I don’t think it’s anything serious. He should probably get to a hospital pretty quickly though.”

“How long until the ambulance gets here?” Millicent asked, turning to Oswald. He looked at her nonplussed. “Erm . . . I haven’t rung ‘em yet.”

Mrs Lurke uttered a thousand curses in her head, and then took on a tone that at least appeared to be calm. “Well, why don’t you do that now?”

“You don’t want me to ring Sid then?”

“Ring Sid after!”

“Right, right, yep, will do!” The man instantly yanked out his mobile and started dialling.

“Erm . . .”

Millicent turned back to Colin with an uninterested glower. “Was there anything else?” she asked.

“Yeah, I – I was just wondering,” he stammered, “where abouts this crash happened? I – I mean, there hasn’t been anything in the news, has there?”

“We don’t know where he crashed,” Millicent said. “Mr Albray’s son found him collapsed outside the church, apparently.”

“Gosh,” Colin said.

“And I don’t expect the poor man wants his accident broadcast all over the news,” she added. “Some people still appreciate a little privacy.”

Feeling the woman’s cold eyes drilling into him, Colin nodded nervously. “Right, yes, got you.” He cleared his throat. “Well, I’d best be getting back to Mrs Cleaver.”

“You do that. And thank you for your help.”

Colin nodded, and then he was gone.

As the front door clicked shut, Millicent turned back to Oswald, mobile still pressed against his ear, and half a Jaffa Cake clenched between his teeth. “Well?” Millicent asked, pulling from the nearest drawer a packet of nicotine gum.

“I’m on hold,” Ozzie said, spraying crumbs across the room.

“For an ambulance?!” Millicent asked, her jaw chomping on the strip of gum like a jackhammer.

“That’s the Tories for you!”

Millicent’s eyes narrowed. “I’m one of your Conservative councillors, remember?”

Terror flashed in the small man’s eyes. “I – I didn’t mean anything by it, boss! I – I just –”

“Never mind that!” Millicent said, sinking into a chair at the table. “Once you’ve got hold of an ambulance, I want you and Sidney to comb every inch of this village. I want to find out who this stranger is, and why he’s in Little Apnin. Understood?”

“Err . . .”

It was like speaking to a child. “If any unwanted attention is paid to this village, then my entire operation is in danger. Got it?”

“Oh! Oh, right. You think this guy might be . . . you know, competition, or something?”

“I don’t know what he might be,” Millicent said, staring into the distance as she calculated all the possibilities, and the risks they each posed. She suddenly stood. “Oh, and Oswald?”

“Yes, boss?”

“If you call me ‘Mrs L’ once more, I’ll take up smoking again and stub the cigarette out on your eyelids.”

*

“We’re lost.”

“We are not lost.”

“Yes, we are.”

“You can’t be lost when you don’t have a destination.”

“Our destination is wherever our mark is.”

“We don’t know where our mark is.”

“That means we’re lost!”

The older of the pair tightened his grip around the wheel, imagining it was his brother’s throat. This brought him a little comfort. That is, until his brother spoke again.

“Haven’t we been down this road already?”

“Probably.”

“Do you think we should ask for directions?”

The older brother gave an angry snort, pulled the car over beneath some trees, then rounded on his sibling. “Who? Who in the middle of fucking nowhere am I supposed to ask for directions?!”

Ivo stared silently at his brother, then pointed towards the sign that was half-hidden in the bushes. “There’s a village two miles from here,” he said, smirking at the small vein throbbing in Carlo’s temple.

“Oh, yes,” Carlo said, his voice poisoned with sarcasm. “Let’s just pull into a sweet little tea shop and say: ‘Hi, we’re looking for a man, about yay-heigh, who we’d like to kill. Have you seen him?’”

“Couldn’t hurt?”

 Carlo stared at his younger twin for what felt like a year. He sometimes wondered if Ivo had been dropped while they were in the hospital as babies. “Fine,” he said. “But only because we haven’t had breakfast, and I am starving.”

“You know, I could eat as well.”

Having finally agreed on something, Carlo pulled the car back into the road, and followed the directions. His icy blue eyes continuing to scan either side, just in case the man they were looking for had hidden himself away. “I wonder if they do zartbitter heisse schokolade,” Ivo quietly mused.

“Why would a village in the middle of rural England do that?”

Ivo shrugged. “I just fancy it, that’s all.”

“I’m sure they can make you an ordinary hot chocolate.”

“It’s not the same.”

Maybe now, Carlo thought. Maybe now was the time. He’d been putting it off for nearly thirty years, but maybe now it was finally time to go solo. But how would he do it? Drive him into the middle of nowhere and put a bullet in his brain? No. He was his brother, it had to be special. Strychnine in his hot cocoa? Maybe. Or maybe pushing him into the path of an oncoming combine harvester! That could be fun. With these cheerful thoughts in mind, Carlo continued the drive into Little Apnin. Maybe this job would be more enjoyable than he thought.

*

Desperately wishing he had taken the time to change out of his cycling shorts, Colin hopped over a thistle bush, then sidestepped a particularly vicious looking wild gooseberry bush. He had only been walking twenty minutes and he was already building up quite the sweat.

He had started at the church and, using all the detective skills he had gained watching NCIS and Midsummer Murders, he had managed to track down a trail of blood leading into the wilds. Now he was deep in the woods and he hadn’t seen a drop of anything other than sap for quarter-of-an-hour.

Pausing by a tree to catch his breath, Colin wondered why he was doing this in the first place. He didn’t need to think for long. The stranger surely had money and, with injuries like that, he was going to need months of rehabilitation. If Colin could find and return that briefcase – which was obviously very important to the man – then he would be so overcome with gratitude that he would instantly hire Colin to be his personal physical therapist. Finally Colin would be whisked out of this dead-end village. Imagining the size of his future pay packet brought a wide, goofy grin to his face.

Now, he thought, I just have to find where this bloody car was. The village was tiny; wouldn’t someone have heard an accident like that happen? Then again, Little Apnin was the poster child for minding your own business. No matter what happened around them, the most these villagers would do to help was gossip about it later in the post office.

He was wandering for another thirty minutes before he found what he was looking for. Crumpled in a babbling stream, its driver’s side door dangling open, was a vintage Mustang convertible. Colin let out a low whistle, appreciating both the car, and the damage it had taken. He climbed around the car, then followed up to where it came through. He gave a little nod. It was the corner of Perky Lane. It was notorious in the village. If some of the old timers were here, they would have stood around the wreckage, most probably with their thumbs in their waistband, and proclaim that the driver was a damned fool and it wasn’t the first time they’d seen an accident on this patch of road. Then they would devolve into vicious arguments about which route the driver should have taken, arguments that would last the entire evening in the pub and, for some of them, turn into a blood feud that would endure for generations.

The bushes, so used to years of accidents, had adapted to a point where they whipped back into shape, even after the most damaging of crashes. That at least explained how no one had noticed the car. Approaching it again, Colin appreciated the extent of the damage. The front bonnet was caved in, the deflated flesh of the airbag trailed out of the door, the windshield was a spiderweb of cracks, and the boot had popped open. Carefully, trying not to get his new trainers too wet, Colin got closer to peer inside. There was blood on the wheel and on the driver’s seat, but, other than that, it didn’t seem too bad.

And there it was, thrown onto the back seat. Colin was grateful the roof hadn’t been down, otherwise the briefcase could have been thrown God knows where.

He reached over and grabbed it, surprised at its heft. Placing it onto the driver’s seat, he gave a look around. He was alone. Of course. Why was he checking? His tongue darted nervously over his lips. What was one little peek? After all, if anything inside was broken, Colin should find out. He didn’t want his employer discovering the breakages as soon as he opened the briefcase, what if that shock affected his recovery? No, Colin had to do it, for the man’s health.

Luckily, and amazingly, the briefcase was not the sort with a combination. Instead, Colin was able to simply slide the locks along and then lift open the lid. Seeing what was inside, however, caused his eyes to widen and his mouth to drop open. The only sound for almost a full minute was the wind rustling through branches and the gurgling of the stream.

“Well,” Colin McHolland murmured. “This . . . changes . . . a lot.”

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