Ruben Lurke was a happy man. Well, as happy as a man shuffling further into his sixties with a dodgy prostate could be. He had his beautiful wife, he had his wonderful home, and he had his beloved model shop. It never occurred to the man that it was a miracle that his shop, which sold only model toys, could exist in either the twenty-first century, or in a village of less than hundred people.

The miracle in question was this: once a month, on the online version of his shop that Millicent had insisted he set up, someone bought a bulk order of his most expensive models, paid for them to be gift-wrapped, and then had them shipped abroad. Ruben never questioned this. He didn’t even question the fact that the same thing happened on the same day each month. To him the answer was obvious: Someone, somewhere, loved models just as much as he did, and was willing to pay to indulge that love. If Ruben ever found out the truth of the matter, his little heart may well have shattered. But that was the sort of man he was. He never thought to question things. He was happy with his lot in life. He didn’t even feel compelled to ask why his wife was having a secret meeting with Oswald Albray and Sidney Sinclair in his living room. Ruben, after being banished to his study by Millicent, had simply nodded and accepted it as the way things had to be. Besides, it gave him more time to focus on his pet project.

For years now Ruben had dreamt of twinning his humble village with one in Europe. He wanted to know that, thanks to his tireless efforts, Little Apnin would be forever marked on the international map. Besides, if it was good enough for Greater Chuffer, it was good enough for his village. At first, surfing a great wave of optimism, Ruben had applied for Little Apnin to be twinned with Berlin, Rome, Versailles, and even Barcelona. When he didn’t hear back from any of these choices, he decided to lower his standards. Then, as the years wore on, Ruben realised he had to lower his standards still further. And again. And then again.

 After he had been rejected by a small village in Sweden, known only for producing three cartloads of goat’s wool a year, Ruben began to think he would never be successful. He knew for a fact that Millicent felt the same. She never failed to vocalise her derision of the idea; and, usually, Ruben would heed his wife’s opinions. But in this matter, he was not to be denied. That was why, staring at the new email in his inbox, Ruben Lurke felt an unfamiliar swell of excitement and accomplishment.

Dear Mr Lurke,

Following your latest petition to have your town ‘Little Apnin’ twinned, we have successfully found a village that shares the values and aspirations of your own home town, as detailed in your application. The village in question is named Lizxcovolcik. We have attached to this email the contact details for the village representative; he looks forward to hearing from you, and equally looks forward to planning the twinning ceremony.

Ruben savoured the fizz in his stomach, and felt his cheeks ache from the grin. This joy he felt wasn’t even dampened when, after tracking the village down in his European atlas, he discovered it was an inconsequential fishing village, barely bigger than Little Apnin’s cricket grounds. None of that mattered; His mission was finally complete! Little Apnin was now only one step away from international renown. Mr Lurke decided it was time to celebrate. The only thing that would do, he felt, was his favourite snack: A ham and marmite sandwich.

He was halfway out of his study when he remembered: his wife was busy with Misters Albray and Sinclair. Then again, he thought, in a rare bout of defiance, this was a special occasion. He was sure she wouldn’t mind. But, because he still didn’t want to risk facing his wife’s wrath, he made sure to tiptoe down the stairs. Ruben noted that the door to the living room was shut. Usually, he would simply creep on past; but the excitement of the twinning news stoked the fires of rebellion inside. He sidled up to the door, curious as to what could be so important.

“Was there anything besides the map?” Unmistakably the delectably husky tones of his glorious wife.

“Nothing. Not even the keys.” That was Mr Albray; a thoroughly unpleasant man, Ruben thought.

“What would a man driving a Mustang –?”

“And with a nice watch!”

“Shut up. What would a man, driving a Mustang . . . and wearing a nice watch, be doing heading to our dreadful little village?”

Ruben felt his heart weaken. Surely that couldn’t be his beloved Millie? She loved Litte Apnin, didn’t she?

“What’s our next move?” That was Mr Sinclair. A bit of a dark horse, Ruben always thought. Not that Millicent ever agreed.

“You two try and find Ozzie’s brat,” Millicent demanded. “Knowing what he’s like, he probably went looking for the car to help himself to any valuables.”

Ah, so that’s what it was all about. Ruben felt his sense of ease return. Gavin Albray was the village menace, and up until now his father had made no attempt to fix his unruly behaviour. It seemed, finally, Millicent was laying down the law. Ruben just dreaded to think a member of his internationally renowned village might have stolen from the victim of a car crash!

Suddenly the door swung open and Ruben was face-to-face with the parent in question. Millicent glowered at her husband over Oswald’s shoulder.

“Ruben!” she shouted. “What are you doing out of your study?”

“Erm – just getting a ham and marmite sandwich, my love.”

“A ham and marmite sandwich?” she sneered. “What do you have to celebrate?”

“I’ve just got the news that we’re going to be twinned –”

Mrs Lurke waved him into silence. “Never mind,” she said. “You can tell me later. I need to get to the church.”

“Would you like me to walk with you, darling?” Ruben said, backing away as Millicent barrelled out of the room.

“No, no,” she commanded. “Just go and have your horrible sandwich. I’ll be back in a few hours.” She then looked over her husband’s head and gave the other two men a withering glare. “Phone me if there are any updates.”

“Will do, boss,” Oswald said. “I – I mean, Mrs Lurke,” he hastily added, flinching beneath Millicent’s stare.

With his wife marching out the back door, and Mr Sinclair and Mr Albray slinking out the front, Ruben was left alone. He stood there, fiddling absently with the buttons of his cardigan for a moment, then heaved a sigh. “Well, that sandwich won’t make itself.”

He was partway through scraping the marmite across the bread, when there was a rat-tat-tat on the front door. “Wonder who that could be,” he murmured, licking a glob of butter from his thumb.

On his doorstep stood two smartly-dressed, but utterly unfamiliar men. They were almost entirely identical, from the messy auburn hair, the sparkling blue eyes, and the pointed, beak-like nose. The only differentiating characteristic, was that one of the men had a large scar under his left eye. Both of them gave him an unsettling leer as he opened the door.

“Erm . . . hello?” Ruben said.

“’Afternoon,” the man on the right said, tipping his head slightly.

Ruben couldn’t say he entirely liked the look of the men. They didn’t often get strangers in the village, and so the sight of anyone unknown was always settling. Then again, at least these two had the decency to arrive on his doorstep fully conscious.

“Can I help you?” he asked, making sure the tone said: ‘I certainly hope I can’t help, and that you swiftly leave my premises.’

Both men flashed him an identical, toothy grin. “Why yes, I think you can,” the one of the left cooed. “You see, we’re the Grieks . . .”

The Greeks?

Understanding hit Ruben like a lead weight. Of course! They must be from the twinning committee. Strange, he thought. When he looked it up, he could have sworn Lizxcovolcik was somewhere on the outskirts of Lithuania. Brushing this to the back of his mind, Ruben offered the pair a welcoming smile. “Wonderful!” he exclaimed. “Please, please, come in!”

The two men, their grins becoming slightly glazed, swapped a confused glance. “Thank you,” one of them said. Then, together, they stepped over the threshold.

Mr Lurke positively bubbled with excitement. At this rate, he thought, I might even have two ham and marmite sandwiches to celebrate.

*

Colin extracted a wayward fifty-pound note from between his buttocks and flicked it back into the briefcase. Dallulah wrapped her legs tighter around his own.

“We’d . . . we’d better tidy up,” Colin said, too exhausted to fight his way out of her hold.

“What’s the rush?” she asked sleepily.

“Well, it’s going to take a while to pack all this back into the briefcase!” Colin said.

She suddenly pushed herself up on her elbows, shooting him a questioning glance.

“Why would we need to do that?” she asked.

“We have to give it back!”

“Are you completely mad!” Dallulah exclaimed. “Why did you tell me about this money in the first place?”

Colin squirmed slightly under her glower. “Well . . . I thought . . .”

“You told me,” Dallulah said, cutting him off, “because you knew I’d have an idea much, much better than giving it back!” She placed a palm on his bare chest, pinning him to the bed.

“What happened to Bora Bora, hmm? Do you not want to spend the rest of your life in paradise with me?”

“I do! You know I do!” Colin exclaimed, placing his hand over Dallulah’s. “But this money doesn’t belong to us! It wouldn’t be right!”

“We can’t give it back now, Colin,” she said. “Not after what we’ve just done to it!”

“If we pack it all in neat and tidy, he won’t notice anything!”

Dallulah glanced at the heap of crumpled up notes scattered over the bed and the floor.

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” she murmured.

With the force of a whale breaching out of the sea, Colin rose up, almost knocking Dallulah to the ground. “I need to give the money back!” he declared. “It’s the moral thing to do!”

“Wait! Just wait a minute!” Dallulah said, throwing her arms around Colin’s neck, hoping her feeble weight would be enough to stop him. “Think about it, baby. Do you want to be stuck in this village the rest of your life? Hmm?”

“My contract only lasts for another eight months –”

“And then what? Huh? Playing masseuse to another old bat who’s only considered alive by a technicality? Or do you want to be Someone, Colin? Do you want to achieve Something?!”

“But . . . Dallulah, it’s stealing!”

“Oh, come off it! You said yourself the guy was in a car crash! He’s probably already dead! And, if that’s the case, who’s going to miss a small pile of cash? Hmm?”

“I mean, he wasn’t even close to being dead when I checked over him –”

“What do you know, Colin? You’re not a doctor.”

He bristled at this comment, but decided to let it pass. He’d long ago given up trying to convince her that a physical therapist was far different to being a personal trainer. Instead, he rounded on her. “So, are you saying, if I kept this money, you’d leave your husband?”

Dallulah considered for a moment, chewing on her bottom lip. “Well . . . sure,” she finally said. “We could make a new life for ourselves! You and me!”

“But, if I give this money back to the man, he might decide to hire me! And, if he can afford to have this much cash in a briefcase, imagine what my salary would be like!”

“Is that really what you want to be doing? Looking after another invalid?”

“You shouldn’t talk like that, Dallulah. What I do . . . it’s good work.”

“And with this cash you could do even greater work!”

“On a beach on a Caribbean Island?”

“Exactly!”

“I don’t know,” Colin said, throwing a t-shirt over his head. “I – I need some time to think about this.”

“Okay,” Dallulah said, sinking back onto the bed. “I might just take a nap. Sid won’t miss me until way later.”

Colin’s eyes darted to the money strewn across the room. “Erm . . . actually, I think I’d better tidy all this up first.” His tongue darted nervously across his lips. “If you don’t mind . . .”

Dallulah’s eyes snapped back open, shooting him a glare. “You want me to go?” she asked. “What’s wrong? Do you not trust me?”

The physical therapist squirmed, not sure how to answer. Dallulah took his silence for a positive. Her cheeks flushed red and lightning flashed in her eyes. “Well,” she said, bouncing to her feet. “I see how it is.” She rammed her legs into her trousers, and then thrust the blouse onto her torso. “If this money is already driving a wedge between us,” she announced, her hand on the door knob, “maybe it’s best you do give it back!”

“Babe!” Colin said, resting a hand on her shoulder. “It’s not driving a wedge between us! Honest!”

She looked back at him, her eyelashes batting and her lips puckering. “So . . . I can stay then?” she cooed.

“Erm . . . no, I – I do still need you to leave.”

For a long, tense second, Colin feared she would erupt. But, with nothing worse than an angry snort, Dallulah flung herself out the room and down the stairs. He winced as he heard the front door slam shut. After a moment, Colin started to frantically pack the strewn notes back into the briefcase. He acted like a man already feeling the heat of the police on his trail. Eventually he felt sure all the money was accounted for; though he did have to sit on the lid in order to get it closed again. Why did nothing ever fit back into the box?

As he sat there, on the briefcase on his bed, he began to wrack his brain for solutions. Running away with Dallulah was the most attractive one, of course. But he knew how that would all work out; he’d seen the films. But, then again, handing over this amount of cash didn’t exactly seem appealing; after all, this was real life. The most he could hope for was a pat on the back for a being such a good citizen. This was a conundrum he wasn’t clever enough to solve. Think, Colin, think! What did everyone else do in this sort of situation?

Seek advice, that was the answer.

But from whom? Mrs Cleaver? When she wasn’t slowly doing her exercises, all the while insisting his name was Dennis, the old woman was sat staring vacantly out the window. Colin wasn’t sure she was even aware what year it currently was.

He didn’t have any friends in the village; in fact, the only person he regularly spoke to was Dallulah, and even then, talking was kept to a minimum; they had other activities to enjoy. An idea flashed into Colin’s head. It wasn’t a regular occurrence, and at first, he mistook it for the beginning of a headache. But, once he realised what it was, he started to mull it over.

People often took their quandaries to their local priests, didn’t they? Colin wasn’t exactly the most religious person around. In Colin’s opinion, so long as God minded His business, Colin would mind his. But a priest was beholden to a client confidentiality, or something like that, wasn’t he? Nodding in agreement with himself, he decided that was the best course of action. The vicar would know what he should do.

Colin shot up, and then placed the briefcase at the top of the wardrobe. It would be safer up there, he thought. And, for added safety, he threw a large pair of gym shorts over the top of it. Then, locking his bedroom door behind him, Colin made his way out.

*

Wallace Demoines, formerly known as Harvey Armstrong, formerly known as The Falcon, but most usually known by his parents as Gavin Albray, stared with joy at his haul. He had woken up that morning thinking it would be just a usual, boring Thursday. His only plans had been to wind up the vicar in the morning, go to each of his friends’ house for a total of five lunches, and then get the bus into town to see who could shoplift the most expensive item. That agenda, however, had been torn up almost first thing. He, Kate, and Pete the Knob had all met outside the church; but rather than finding Father Wimpleton, collapsed on the church steps had been a complete stranger.

After rifling through the man’s pockets to discover nothing of interest, Wallace had immediately passed the problem onto his dad. “Who do you reckon he was?” Pete had asked, rubbing his nose as he watched Mr Albray drive away.

Wallace gave an uninterested shrug. “Some prick who can’t drive,” he announced.

“Must be rich,” Kate said.

Both boys glanced at her.

“Why’d you think?”

“He had a nice watch.”

“What’s a rich prick doing in our village?” Pete asked. “And why’s he all beaten up?”

“Could be on the run,” Wallace had suggested. “Maybe he was left here for dead.”

His two companions cheered up at the thought of that. In all their short lives nothing exciting had ever occurred in their village. The idea of someone in mortal danger landing practically on their doorstep sent a thrill through their bodies.

“I don’t think he was dumped,” Kate offered. Her eyes had shot to the ground and adopted a steely, inquisitive edge. “See, look at the ground; there’s spots of blood leading into the bushes.”

“He could’ve crashed,” Wallace mused, stroking his chin. “Everybody crashes near Perky Lane.”

The trio had shared a gleeful exchange. Little Apnin was finally an interesting place. Unlike Colin, the three children knew the best and quickest way to the crash site, and within twenty minutes they were crowded around the wreckage. Wallace (formerly Gavin), let out a low whistle of appreciation. “When I grow up,” he declared, “this is going to be my car.”

“No, it’s not,” Pete declared. “This one’s all beaten up.”

“I don’t mean this car, you knob. Just this type of car.”

“I doubt it,” Kate said. “You’ll be lucky if you get your dad’s old Volvo.”

The young boy shot his two companions a vicious glare. “Come on,” he commanded. “Let’s see if there’s anything good.”

Like little vultures, the trio scrabbled over the Mustang, inspecting every corner. In a matter of ten minutes anything that caught the kids’ attention was snatched and squirrelled away. For one second Wallace’s eyes landed on the briefcase. Everything connected to such an item ran through the young mind: business, work, old men, paper. Boring. The briefcase was forgotten before Wallace even looked away.

Now, several hours later, and after a hefty lunch, the trio were sat in Kate’s back garden and comparing their wares. “I got his keys!” Pete declared, cheerfully jingling his trophy. Neither Kate nor Wallace was impressed.

“And?” she asked. “The thing’s wrecked!”

“Yeah, but it’s not just the car keys, is it?”

“What are the other keys for?”

Pete gave a shrug. “Dunno,” he said. “His house?”

“Where’s that then?”

There was another, more annoyed shrug. “I’ll find it.”

Wallace and Kate both rolled their eyes. “Well, I got his wallet,” the boy said smugly. “And there’s cash!”

“How much?”

“A hundred quid!”

The other two gave an appreciative gasp. “Anything else?” Pete asked, watching him tear out card after card.

“A coupon for Nando’s,” Wallace said eagerly, “and a Tesco Club Card.”

“Not bad,” Kate said with an approving nod, “but I think I’ve got you both beat!” She then reached behind her and pulled out her own excavated treasure.

“Fuck me!”

“Jesus, Kate!”

Both boys stared in awe. “Is . . . is it real?” Pete the Knob asked, reaching out for a touch. Kate pulled the gun away, a devious grin on her lips. “It feels real!” she declared.

“Wanna swap?” Pete asked, offering out the ring of keys.

Wallace continued to stare at the pistol with an insatiable hunger. Somehow, seeing it in person, the weapon looked less real than when it was on TV. It was a solid black that seemed to suck at the eyeballs. The young Albray lad had always had a penchant for chaos – there was little else to stimulate him in this stifling village – and seeing the gun in his friend’s hands was setting a whole fireworks’ display of ideas in his head. With that in his possession, the name of Wallace Demoines would live on in infamy!

He paused for a moment. Actually, Wallace Demoines was a crap name. For the second time that week, he decided a change was needed. His eyes naturally drifted down to the drivers’ license ejected from the wallet. “Guys,” he said, “from now on, you can call me Enrico Valluza.”

*

In spite of his nature, Carlo had never considered himself to have anger issues. The issues, he always felt, lay with other people. They had a unique talent for getting on his nerves. However, in all his years, he had never met anyone, not a single person, who made him as furious as the little man sat before him. The Griek brothers, as well as being renowned assassins, were also highly capable interrogators. It was often an essential part of the job. The plan had been simple: they had followed Albray and Sinclair to this house, so it clearly had something to do with The Matron. Once they saw the two men leave, the brothers decided to either break into the house, or interrogate whatever goon they found inside. The first red flag should have arrived when this pompous little prick had failed to piss himself upon hearing their name.

Things then proceeded at a pace the Griek brothers couldn’t contend with. They were whisked off the doorstep, deposited onto the living room sofa, and then plied with cups of weak tea. Then, with no coaxing from either twin, the information poured out. It wasn’t information they wanted, nor was it what they asked for, nor did they have a chance to stop it. Like sailors trapped in a monsoon, they simply had to hold on and hope to survive the worst. The man was talking at such speed it was difficult to catch everything; but, from what Carlo could gather, the man seemed to think he and his brother represented some fishing village in the arse-end of Europe, and that, for some reason, their two villages were going to end up twinned.

Carlo felt his fingernails bite through the fabric of his trousers and into the flesh of his thighs. Just who the Hell was this guy? Was this some sort of sick double bluff? Who did he think he was? More importantly, who did he think Carlo was? His was the most feared name in the world of international assassination. He’d bested Barry the Bloodhound. He was the one who buried Anton the Mole. He’d caused the Vampire of Monte Carlo’s breakdown! His eyes sought out his brother. Ivo was doing no better. There was a glazed expression over his face; beads of sweat were peppered over his forehead, and his eyes were wide, bright, and pleading for the mercy of a quick death. But, still, the man in front of them prattled on, tugging excitedly at his moustache.

Enough was enough. Carlo leapt out of his seat, panting like a wild animal. Finally, the man stopped his jabbering; he looked up at the Griek brother with concern. “Erm – everything all right?” he asked. “The bathroom’s just down the hall, if that’s what you’re looking for.”

Carlo turned to his brother. To anyone else, Ivo would have appeared to be sitting perfectly still; not a muscle twitching, not a hair fluttering. It was only Carlo who was able to see the ever so slight nod of his brother’s head. With his hands in the inner pocket of his blazer, he stepped behind the man. As if the interruption had never occurred, the old man carried on. “Oh! I forgot to mention, every year the village hosts a fruit and vegetable competition; do you have anything like that? All year locals will try and grow the largest cucumber, strawberries, potatoes, all sorts! It’s very amusing, actually, because two years ago Mrs Flack grew a pumpkin that looked exactly like a pair of – ghak!”

The elder Griek tightened the piano wire around Ruben Lurke’s neck, finally cutting the monologue short. Carlo released a long sigh of relief. “Now it’s our turn to talk,” he whispered into Ruben’s ear.

“You don’t think you’re starting a bit strong?” Ivo said, noting the way the old man’s face was already turning a shade of purple.

“Hurry up and tape his legs and arms to the chair.”

The younger twin gave his brother a blank look. “Didn’t you grab the tape?”

“What? No, you said you’d grab it!”

“No, I said don’t you forget to grab it. Remember what happened last time?”

Carlo rolled his eyes, then readjusted his grip, pulling the wire taut as Ruben gave a weak jolt towards freedom. “Go and see what’s in the kitchen,” Carlo instructed. “Maybe he’s got a hammer, and some scissors.”

“What about a hot needle?”

“Yeah, go on then; haven’t done that in a while.”

Grinning like a school boy, Ivo skipped out of the room. As he was waiting, Carlo let his eyes drift around the living room. He’d been in many in his line of work, and this was by far one of the worst decorated. The walls were covered in a tacky zig-zag paper; China pigs wearing lederhosen sat on every available surface; and there was a gallery’s worth of badly-taken pictures. Most of them featured the man currently struggling in vain to pull the piano wire from around his throat, and in them he was stood next to a bullet-faced woman who towered over him.

As Carlo studied these photos, the gears started to turn in his head. That woman had to be The Matron, no question. Which meant this man was . . . His head snapped up just as Ivo sauntered back into the room, his arm full of would-be tools. “What are you eating?” he barked, watching the crumbs tumble from his brother’s mouth.

“A Jaffa Cake,” Ivo said. He held the box out. “Want one?”

Carlo gave an angry snort. “Can you not at least try to be professional?!” he snarled. “We are on the biggest hunt of our careers! We can’t have you ruining it all by having a snack!”

“Don’t worry, I’ll make sure to wipe away any prints.”

“I’m not worried about the prints! I’m talking about this shit-stain right here! How is he supposed to be terrified of us, if we’re scoffing down some cakes!”

“Hmm, is Jaffa Cake a cake, or is it a biscuit?”

“It’s a cake! Of course, it’s a cake! It has the word cake in its fucking name, Ivo!” Why, oh why, did he have to be saddled with such a brother? “Forget the cakes; just use those towels to tie him up. Hurry!”

“No point,” Ivo said, extracting another cake. “He’s dead already.”

He stared at his brother, then down at the body. “Oh, shit!” He peeled the wire from around the throat, and then studied his work. The eyes were bulging and bloodshot, the tongue was lolling over the lips like a beached seal, and the chest was decidedly not moving up and down. “Shit,” Carlo again declared.

“What now?” Ivo asked, discarding the empty packet onto the sofa.

Carlo gave the dead man one final glance, then snatched up one of the picture frames. He held it out to his brother. “That’s The Matron,” he said. “I’m sure of it.”

“Yeah, but how do you know? Could be any random old woman.”

The elder Griek shook his head angrily. “We know Sinclair and Albray work for The Matron; we saw them both come into this house. It only makes sense that this woman is Her!”

Ivo screwed his nose up. “And what about this guy? Who was he?”

“Husband, by the looks of it.”

“Huh,” Ivo said. “Reckon he knew anything?”

“Better hope not,” Carlo said.

“So . . . what now?”

That was a very good question. Currently, Carlo had no answer. “Maybe we can get what we want out of Albray, or Sinclair.”

“Might be tricky getting them alone,” Ivo said. “The pair are pretty much always together.”

“We’ll find a way,” Carlo said with a nod. He looked again at his brother. “I can’t believe you ate his Jaffa Cakes.”

“What? It was either that, or a ham and marmite sandwich.”

“Ham and marmite? What sort of person eats a ham and marmite sandwich?”

Ivo glanced briefly at Ruben Lurke. “A dead one.”

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