Sleighed (Severton Search and Rescue Book 1)

Chapter 1

Zack Maynard rubbed at the thick stubble that had accumulated since that morning and debated which incompetence he should yell about first. He was spoilt for choice given that one of his staff had failed to lock a door that should be kept locked and bolted at all times, and a resident had gone exploring. His cousin, Jake, had delivered a truck full of alpacas to the field next to Severton Sunlight Care and Nursing Home and had neglected to tell his farmhand to ensure the gate was shut. And the world’s slowest builders had seemingly been employed to take as much time as possible to erect the extension to the dementia care unit and entertainment hall, and the words coming out of the site manager’s mouth were not the ones he wanted to hear.

“We’re looking at mid-January.”

Zack stuffed his hands in his coat pockets. “I’m sorry. Can you repeat that?”

“It’s unlikely to be finished before mid-Jan. I realise that’s a bit of a pain…”

His accent was broad, thickly Northern and Zack knew he needed to be careful not to mimic it.

“You realise there’s a clause in the contract if the building wasn’t fit for purpose on December twentieth so we can use it for Christmas dinner?” He managed to ignore an alpaca that was lingering nearby. He was going to kill his fucking cousin.

Jez Hammond, site manager non-extraordinaire, nodded and made a noise that could be interpreted as an agreement. “I realise that, as does the company. However, there was some issues with laying the foundations that’s slowed us down and we’ve encountered a problem with labour.”

Zack looked at the site, the half-finished shell of a building and the surrounding rubble. “What’s the issue with labour?” He could see maybe four men at work and even though he wasn’t an expert on construction, even he knew that this wasn’t enough.

“The usual shortage. Contractors, you know?”

The alpaca made an odd snorting noise and edged closer, its mouth slightly hung open, displaying large teeth.

Jake was going to die.

And then possibly be used as alpaca food.

“I don’t know. I manage a care home for the elderly. Working with builders, electricians, plasterers, plumbers—that isn’t my speciality. It’s what I’m paying you for. And right now, I can count the number of people working on this project on one hand.”

The alpaca came closer. It nudged Jez’s arm and made a strange sound again. A rather excited sound. One Zack was wary of. He was going to fucking kill Jake, even if it would upset his aunt.

“I’m doing what I can, son. We were running behind, but we should’ve been done in time for Christmas so you could use the hall for your do, but the lass at the hotel on the hill has paid over the odds for labourers so we’re down. If these bloody schools would stop encouraging kids to go to university to study bleeding Harry Potter and get them in proper work instead, we wouldn’t be so far behind.” Jez patted his shapely beer belly.

Zack’s words froze in his mouth. Not because the temperature was skating lower than normal for this time of year, but because the alpaca’s expression had turned to one of sheer delight as it started to sink its teeth into the thick fleece of the site manager’s coat. It was an action Zack could only attribute to fate.

“Holy fuck!” Jez yelled, yanking his arm away. But the alpaca’s teeth were firmly sunk into the material. “Get this bastard animal off my bleeding arm? I thought this was a care home, not a freaking petting zoo with sadistic fucking beasts.” He carried on pulling his arm away from the set jaws of the alpaca.

“I’m going to feed Jake limb by limb to his new fucking pets,” Zack muttered under his breath, trying to entice the alpaca away.

He saw Lee Barnes, Jake’s farmhand trying to round up the rest of the escaped animals and shouted him over. Lee strode over, taking his own sweet time. He was dressed in just a T-shirt and ripped jeans, oblivious to the cold.

“We have a situation.” Zack pointed at the animal. “Please let my cousin know he’s going to be in a situation later. Where the hell have these creatures come from? And why?”

Lee shrugged. He was a man of few words at the best of times, preferring to communicate through the set of drums he hit most weekends. He leaned over to the creature and blew at its nose. The alpaca gave a gentle snort and released its death chomp.

“Sorry about that.” Lee didn’t look that sorry. “I’ll get rounding them up.”

“Make sure you do.” Zack turned back towards Jez. “Why can’t you stop your contractors from working on the hotel and get them back down here?”

Jez rubbed at his arm. “We don’t have the budget to pay them what the lass up there has agreed to. And they’ll only be a couple of weeks, then they’ll come back down here and finish off. I’m sorry, Zack, but there ain’t much more I can do.”

“I’ll see about upping the budget.” Zack rubbed his face. He hadn’t slept well the night before, which wasn’t unusual, but he could do with climbing into bed in one of the unoccupied rooms—or hell, even May Pearson’s room because she didn’t move from her sofa in front of the TV—and collapsing for an hour or six. “Find out how much more she’s paying them and let me know.”

Jez shook his head. “But then you’ll be stuck paying that rate until the job’s done. It’s not just extra cash over two weeks, you’ll end up going right over. If I were you, I’d hang on till the lass has had her work done. It’s only an extension and from what I hear it’s pretty straightforward.” He looked to where Lee was herding the alpacas, apparently turning into the animal whisperer. “How do you think those animals taste?”

“Not as good as revenge will when I get hold of Jake.”

Zack felt the heat smother him as he entered the care home. It was always warmer than he liked but he wasn’t important here: the sixty-three residents were, and if you were elderly or not in the best of health then heat was important.

Unless you were Mr McNeild. In which case you had every window open, plus the door to your patio propped wide and a fan on. It was a room where Zack would find refuge on a warm summer’s day, and maybe at the end of a shift partake in something to take the edge off. Mr McNeild still had every one of his marbles, and possibly a few of someone else’s. The only thing he didn’t have was mobility, although Zack had seen him race across the bowling green to chase off the odd cat more than once before now. And he was pretty speedy then.

“I heard there’s a delay on the ballroom.”

He stopped in his tracks, not sure if the dulcet tones of Veronica Moore were welcome right now or not. He also wasn’t sure how she knew, given that he’d only just found out himself.

“Afternoon, Gran,” he said, spinning round to see the small but sturdy old lady he’d known pretty much all his life. He’d been in the same primary school class as her granddaughter, Vanessa, and had felt the power of Gran’s right hand on the back of his head when he’d tried sneaking out a dirty magazine from the post office that she’d always run.

“I notice you didn’t put the ‘good’ on the front of afternoon there, Zack Maynard,” Gran said. “I also notice you look like you developed a new way to murder someone and dispose of the body without being caught.”

He found himself smiling. “Jake. And his fu… flipping alpaca monsters. And that stupid site manager. Plus, the idiot woman who bought the old building and is trying to set up a boutique hotel in Severton.” His smile faded, knowing that the list could continue. His mood darkened to the same colour as the river during a nighttime storm.

Gran eyed him. “So where do you start? I’m not sure your dad would thank you if he lost Jake any time soon. Best let him live a little longer and maybe stuff his exhaust with manure like you did last time.”

“He’s still checking his exhaust every time he takes the Range Rover out. It didn’t help that Scott stuffed it full of mashed potatoes two weeks after the manure,” Zack said.

He truly loved his family. His two brothers, Scott and Alex and his cousins, Jake and Rayah, were the reason he’d come back to Severton after working in Manchester for three years once he’d graduated. They’d all drifted back to their hometown, even after swearing as teenagers that they were going to leave and never return, but the small town pulled them back home like a magnet.

Gran nodded sagely. “He never was as stupid as he made out. Have you met Sorrell?”

“Sorrell?” Zack squinted. “What’s sorrel? I thought it was a herb?”

“It is. But it’s also an unusual name. It’s the woman who’s turning the old care home into a boutique hotel. I’m having to start stocking up on more knick-knacks in the post office to cater for all the overnighters it’s going to bring in.”

Zack rolled his eyes and walked with Gran down to the main lounge. It was a brand-new purpose-built building with one wing dedicated to residents who had dementia. He was proud of it: three years of researching, planning and persuading the local council for permits had resulted in an environment he knew was the best it could be. And he was passionate about his job. As a social worker, he’d specialised in care for the elderly; now he got to be hands-on, making sure that the care they received was as good as it could be; as good as they deserved.

“I thought it was a man who bought it.” He hadn’t paid too much attention to the sale of the old building where the care home had previously been housed. His uncle, Jake’s dad, was the conglomerate, and he oversaw the larger financial operations.

“Hmmm.” Gran raised an eyebrow. “I think it was a man involved initially. Not sure of the finer details—Davey would have those.”

Gran, of course, knew his uncle, and his father. Hell, she knew everyone and probably had more information on them than they had on themselves. Rumour had it that she was the great-great granddaughter of a witch and she’d inherited those powers, but this was a rumour from when he’d been ten and contemplating pinching sweets from the post office and his mother had caught him.

“All I know is that they got it for a steal.” Zack did a quick check of what was going on around them and whether there were any more alpacas hovering. “And because of that, my budget got lowered. Whoever did the negotiating isn’t getting a drink bought from me.”

Gran shook her head. “You’ve done a good job, Zacky-boy. It’s a fine place to visit and I can see from how Glenda’s doing that it’s a fine place to live. I’ve had a really good chat with her today—she even asked about Vanessa. Mind you, next time she might be shouting at me for the time when I took Frankie Morrow round the back of the sheds when she liked him.”

Zack decided that by not asking, he wouldn’t have to bleach his brain later. Glenda Roberts was a childhood—and adulthood—friend of Gran’s who had started with dementia when she was in in her late fifties. For a few years, she managed to remain in her home, thanks to her friends and family and the people of Severton, but after she’d gone missing from home overnight, causing a mass search party to hunt for her, the decision had been made to move her somewhere she could get the support she was starting to need.

And that had led to the birth of the Sunlight Wing, a specialist part of the care home for people with dementia and it had grown to the extent that Severton Sunlight Care Home needed to grow physically as its reputation spread—hence the move to a purpose built campus where the dementia wing had specific rooms set up from various eras where people could find the familiar items from their living memories.

“That’s what keeps it entertaining here,” Zack said. “You never know what your day is going to bring: crockery being thrown at you, impromptu parties and your cousin walking down the corridor with an alpaca… What the fuck, Jake?” The volume of Zack’s voice increased so that old Peter Musgraves who used hearing aids and always had his TV sound on full put his hands over his ears.

The alpaca made a noise that sounded like a disgruntled cluck and shot Jake a look that could’ve killed him, which would’ve saved Zack the trouble.

“One of your staff left the door open again that leads on to the field. Apparently there’s another one roaming around the Netherwood wing.” Jake patted the alpaca on the back of its neck.

“Does that mean it’s shitting all over the corridors?” Zack folded his arms. “Where have these creatures come from, Jake? Why have thirty odd alpacas just landed in one of the fields? Shouldn’t they be in South America somewhere?”

Jake shook his head and gave the lopsided grin that had once persuaded several girls to go behind the same sheds where Gran had taken Frankie Morrow. “They don’t shit everywhere. They’re really clean animals—they all use the same spot in a field to do their business, which is more than you can say for a lot of humans. And I got them from a place in Halifax. The farmer was moving to France and needed to get rid of them in a hurry. I offered to take them off his hands.”

Zack groaned. “What’s Dad said?”

Jake shrugged. “Not much. Think he’s more concerned with Rayah.”

“What’s she done?”

“Spent a night in the cells. She’s in work today, so she’s fine.”

Zack shook his head. His only female relative apart from his mother had always been a wild child, despite now being the town’s nursery school teacher. She was great with little kids, mainly because she hadn’t mastered adulting yet.

Gran laughed. “She wasn’t arrested, so you needn’t worry.”

“I’m not worried about my sister.” Jake looked to the heavens as if praying for sanity. “She can take care of herself. I’m more concerned with the cop she persuaded to let her into the police station overnight and his gullibility.”

“Holy fuck,” Zack said. “Sorry for swearing, Gran.”

“What about apologising to me, young Zachariah? She’s heard it all before! My ears are sensitive!” May Pearson said as she doddered past on her walking frame, cursing quietly under her breath.

“Never changed, that woman.” Gran shook her head. “I’ll leave you to it. I’m going to see about taking the post down with me. Hopefully catch the van before he buggers off to the depot.” She strutted off, quicker than anticipated, leaving the cousins and an alpaca watching her and shaking their heads.

“Are you getting that thing out of here or are we finding it a room and a suitable health package?” Zack said, aware that the alpaca was making another snorting noise and now headbutting Jake’s shoulder.

“You could use him as a therapy pet,” Jake said. “But I’m not sure he could cope with continual reruns of Love Boat and Baywatch.”

Zack snorted. “Like you would ever turn off Baywatch. I remember when your Saturday evenings were spent studying those red swimsuits and what filled them.”

Jake nodded, not even attempting to deny it. “At least I moved on. I’m pretty sure Alex still spends most evenings doing that. Maybe he should save paying for the electricity and watch with Mr McNeild. Come with me while I put Emery here back in the field.”

Zack watched his cousin shift the pack of alpacas towards the shed that would be their night time quarters, away from the care home. He did it with ease and without any apprehension around the animals, which Zack understood. He’d grown up on his father’s farm and had worked the land and looked after the animals, but neither he nor his two brothers had been interested in carrying it on. Luckily for their father, Jake had. Stupidly bright and ridiculously charismatic, he’d only agreed to go to university because he’d been told he wouldn’t be allowed to get a job running the family farm without a degree, so he’d spent three years passing modules easily and sleeping his way around Sheffield.

Zack had been there too, studying social policy and planning to be a social worker in a big city where he could help children in crisis, but he’d ended up broken-hearted and working in adult social care instead, trying to avoid his ex who was with children’s social services. And then his uncle had needed a manager for Sunlight so he’d followed Jake home.

“It’s a shitter about the hotel manager nicking all your builders,” Jake said after he’d locked the shed and headed back to Zack. It was near to the end of October and dark already, even though it wasn’t yet dinner time. “I heard in the pub she’d asked around to find out how much they were getting per day from working on Sunlight and then offered fifty percent more.”

Zack felt his shoulders tense. “She offered them what?”

Jake shrugged. “I heard it was fifty percent per day more than what they were getting. It’s only for three weeks though and then they’re back on your job. It isn’t the end of the world.”

“No, it’s the end of fucking Christmas.” Zack started to walk away from Sunlight and the fields. He didn’t need to confirm with Jake where they were going, it was the same place they went most Fridays: the Buffer Stop for a beer, before going home to shower and head to Scott’s bar for food and drinks and, occasionally, a woman.

“That’s a bit Scrooge-like.”

Zack shook his head. “We needed the hall finished to be able to hold the Christmas dinners. There’s not another room big enough. When we were in Litton Manor, there was the ballroom.”

“So what’ll you do?”

“I don’t know. We’ve more residents than last year as it is. I could see about using one of the hotels towards Manchester or Sheffield, but I’m not sure some of the residents would cope with the travelling. Seriously, the only answer I’ve got at the moment is beer and tequila. Or having words with the hotel princess. Stupid idea anyway, setting up a boutique hotel in Severton. Who’s going to stay here?” Zack pushed his fingers through his thick hair. He knew it would be stuck up in every direction by now, due to alpacas, site managers, and open doors, plus an unknown hotel manager, but he didn’t care.

“I think it’s a good idea. In summer, the tourist season’s booming. Especially now the steam trains are running up here. Scott’s considering buying the property next door and expanding the bar and there’s talk of a festival being held next year. The town’s growing again, and not just the over seventy sector.” Jake shrugged strong shoulders. “I’m gutted we didn’t think of turning the Manor into a hotel.”

“Because you would’ve given up your sheep and cows to run it?” Zack knew full well the answer to that was no.

“Fuck off. It’s your round.”

Zack stopped, looking towards the road they’d just passed, the one that led to Litton Manor. “Actually, I’m going to have a word first about poaching my builders.”

Jake groaned. “Really? What’s it going to achieve? You’ll just piss her off. Leave it and let’s get to the pub. I’m dying for a beer.”

“It’s go now, or go when I’ve finished at Scott’s and I’m telling you, now is the better option. Doesn’t she realise that she’s alienating herself by blackmailing my builders to go to her? She’ll need the support of local businesses to be successful…” Zack carried on talking as he paced through the gates towards the imposing building, sheltered by old, tall oak trees and manicured shrubbery.

“This isn’t the best idea you’ve ever had,” Jake said. “You smell of disinfectant and I smell of alpacas and I’m pretty sure I have straw in my hair.”

“Jake, it’s some crony old woman who’s probably only ever close to a man when she’s trying to hex him. She’s not going to be the source of your next fucking blow job,” Zack said and banged heavily on the door.

There was no sign of life. If she had poached his builders, they were all packed up for the night, which given it was Friday, didn’t surprise him.

“Leave it, Zack. She’s probably out for the night. Or gone away for the weekend. Would you want to stay in this place on your own?” Jake said, turning back towards the road.

Zack knocked again, swearing under his breath. He was pissed and he needed someone to argue with. She—Sorrell, or whatever stupid name it was—would fill that need.

“She’s not in. Let’s leave it and go get that beer. Seriously, I’m parched and I want to go home and get ready. Amy Canning’s mate from Sheffield is meant to be out tonight,” Jake said.

Zack looked up to the heavens and prayed once more for the patience to not use his cousin for animal feed. “Stop thinking with your dick all the time.”

“Just because you’ve taken your vows to become a monk.”

Zack banged again and a light flicked on.

“Just a moment. The lock’s a bit stiff…” a light, tuneful voice called back.

“Push the door to when you turn,” he shouted back. He’d battled with that door for eight years.

“Oh.” There was a click and then a squeal as the door opened. “That’s helped. Thank you. How did you know?”

The woman in front of him was not an old crone but she did look like she could hex men, just not with spells. She was slight, just to his shoulder in bare feet, and had long straight red hair that fell down her back. Her face was dusted with white, probably from scraping plaster and there was a piece of wallpaper stuck to the side of her head that she was completely unaware of.

Zack was sure Jake had let out a low whistle behind him, probably because she was wearing a thin grey vest and the cold air was doing nothing to help the fact that she was braless.

“You’ve poached my builders.” He stepped forward over the threshold. “You’ve ruined Christmas for a hundred senior citizens and their families.”

She folded her arms, which did nothing to distract his eyes from her chest. He glanced down once and then caught her smiling viciously. “I have a hotel to get ready for a wedding in five weeks’ time, otherwise I’m screwed. I need builders.”

“Then find some. But not mine. I have an entire building that’s only half done. They’ve left their jobs because Miss-Flashy-Pants has flashed money at them.”

“It’s a bonus if they get the job down in three weeks. Then you can have them back! Nice to meet you by the way.”

“The pleasure’s all yours, sweetheart. You want to run a business in this town, you need to have some respect for your fellow residents. Poaching workers like you’ve done is not the way to do things. When your hotel’s out of food for your guests’ breakfasts and you want to serve local, don’t bother coming to my family’s farm to fill their plates.” Zack wanted to kick something. Forget the pub, after this he needed to go to the gym or something and lift heavy.

Sorrell’s arms dropped from her chest and her hands landed on her hips. “If I’d known how rude the people were who lived around here, I’d have found somewhere else for my hotel. Maybe I need signs up telling people to beware of the local residents, not to watch out for cows on the road!”

“Or alpacas,” Jake said quietly.

Sorrell frowned, looking confused.

“Shut up, Jake.” Zack glared. “Maybe you should think about stopping your pet project here and finding somewhere else for your fancy hotel.” He gave a look that would’ve murdered anything slightly timid. “And you have Mrs Gibbons’ wallpaper in your hair.”

She lifted a hand, small fingers searching for the offending item.

“Come on, Jake, let’s go.” Zack heard Jake mutter something and start to step away. “By the way, the key for the cellar door looks the same as the one for the small outhouse. I forgot to write it down in the pack.”

He turned around and walked off, refusing to think about long red hair and plump lips.