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Torchland & Co.

Spike had a new partner, and he wasn’t fucking happy about it.

It was some chick. Some dumbass, mousy-featured thing called Doherty. He was supposed to ride around trying to fight crime in a car smelling of Oil of Ulay and bad perfume? No fucking way.

The chief’s door was shut, and he could hear him on the phone, but Spike walked in anyway and sat in one of the empty plastic chairs opposite him, looking unhappy. The chief looked angry, but he always looked angry. When he hung up, he looked pretty goddamn furious.

– Not now, Spike. I got eighty four things to do today, and you’re not one of them.

– What the fuck am I supposed to do with this chick, Chief? When did she get out of the academy, last week?

– You drew her. She’s yours. Do your job, asshole.

Goddamn chief. Never gives a motherfucking inch.

Five minutes later, Spike got in the car, giving off bad vibes like they were going out of season.

– Alright. Let’s roll.

Doherty set off, looking at him warily out of the corner of her eye. Finally, she took a deep breath, and spoke.

– I know you’re not happy about this, Spike. But you’re living in the past if you think just cos you’re a man you’re any better than me. So I’m just putting that out there.

Here we go. This is my life now. At least a year before I can get transferred. Or get out altogether. Open a goddamn bakery or something.

– I want to get along with you, Spike. Really. I don’t want another transfer if I can help it. Let’s try and make this work.

Spike stared out at all the passing potential criminals, ignoring her.

– What kind of a name is Torchland, anyway?

– It’s Greek. It means mind your own fucking business.

She sighed, and gripped the wheel a little tighter. Many silent minutes passed, and Spike’s temper began to cool. He snuck a look at her when he thought she wasn’t looking. She’d heard about his reputation, no doubt. It took balls to take him to task like that. Maybe they could get married and have babies. Why the fuck not? She was pretty attractive. And he could do with the action. Torchland ain’t no monk, you know. But he had been going through a bad patch recently. He decided he needed to impress her.

Their first call was pretty routine, they had to break up a domestic, but the second call was interesting. Some punk was holding up the local 7-Eleven armed with a pair of scissors and some leaky triple-A batteries.

– Sweet, said Spike. Let’s take it.

There were lots of people outside the joint, hoping for a bit of random carnage to brighten up the day. Spike ignored the potential hazards by simply entering the 7-Eleven, and shouting at the punk.

– Hey, punk.

The punk looks around, and Spike just toasts him. Like a piece of bread. Grapples him to the floor. Cuffs him. He’s a hero. The place goes nuts. Back in the car, on the way to the station with the punk semi-unconscious in the back seat, Spike was a little happier.

– You did good, Torchland.

– Thanks, Doherty. You too.

– I didn’t do anything.

– That’s right. You didn’t. And I liked that.

He looked at her, then leaned in and kissed her for what seemed like a minute, even though it was more like five seconds in real time. Doherty slapped his face and told him if he thought she was going to be that easy he was living in a fantasy world where people never lie and always do what’s right. Spike turned to stare sulkily out the window, and thought about the bakery again, until that began to depress him as well. He didn’t even like yeast. The only option was to win her heart by wearing her down, little by little, until she had no other option.

He broke up some drug cartels and several illegal stained-glass window operations in Lucan, of all places. Doherty was duly impressed, but still gave no indication that she was even mildly interested. So he kept going. Slowly and carefully. Busting the scene. Playing a blinder. Jails, overflowing.

Finally, after three months, and over fourteen hundred arrests, Spike popped the question.

– So what do you say, Doherty? You want to do this, or what?

– I guess I have no other option, she said. I do.

* * *

After the honeymoon, they decided to leave the force and go into business together as a crime-fighting duo, a sort of downmarket version of Dempsey and Makepeace. They placed an advertisement in the local Gazette announcing that the Torchland & Co. detective agency was open and eager for business. Doherty would have liked a little more recognition in the title, seeing as she was a full fifty percent of the team, but had to agree her name lacked a certain zing. So Torchland & Co. it was.

They rented an office high above a meat market in Harmley and waited for the phone to ring. They didn’t have to wait long. An hour into their first game of Cluedo, a Mrs. Hubblescope placed a call asking them to visit her at her flat in Parsnip Grove, regarding her husband’s alleged philandering. Spike put down the receiver and smiled.

– We’re in business.

Mrs. Hubblescope was a tiny, terrifying woman. After showing them into her cramped, one-room apartment on the 86th floor of Greystroke House, she informed them that she suspected her husband was having with an affair with an elderly woman from the 34th floor.

– What makes you think he’s doing the dirt, Mrs. H?

– He always goes out for groceries late at night, and returns empty handed and exhausted. I also can smell barley water on his breath. Do you need me to draw you a map? He’s playing around!

– We can follow him, check out his movements, monitor his phone calls, anything you want, said Doherty. Our rates our very reasonable. 100 clams a day plus expenses.

– The money doesn’t matter. I am incredibly wealthy, but choose to live below my means. Harry hasn’t two marbles to click together. My great grandmother was a relative of St. Paul, you know.

– That’s great, said Spike. He was one of my favourites.

They followed Harry for two weeks, during which time they observed him visiting the post office, going to the track, buying a lot of expensive presents, and regularly visiting a stooped, elderly woman on the 34th floor who always looked very pleased to see him. Mrs. Hubblescope was understandably distraught when confronted with the news, as well as the vivid and unnecessarily explicit photographs.

– I’ll never talk to him again. He’s broken my heart.

– You’re too good for him, said Doherty. Why don’t you sell up and buy a mansion? He can have the crummy 34th floor.

So that’s what she did. Mrs. Hubblescope moved to Monte Carlo and became romantically linked with the elderly father of David Coulthard, the celebrated Grand Prix winner. Spike and Doherty resumed their game of Cluedo with a renewed sense of accomplishment. Doherty won by correctly guessing that none of the assembled guests were guilty because Professor Plum had faked his own death to claim on some insurance money. Spike laughed a crazy laugh, and poured themselves another round of Moonshine Mysteries.

* * *

Two years passed, and little changed in Spike and Doherty’s world, except for the twins she kindly produced, and the buyout of Torchland & Co. by a multinational conglomerate too powerful to be named here for fear of ugly incrimination. Spike climbed a lot of mountains to keep grounded after the checks cashed. He hit the miles hard. Sometimes he took the kids with him. Doherty had named the two girls Sophie and Jo. They couldn’t talk yet, but damn they could listen well. Chips off the Torchland block.

Doherty was in the porch, on the phone to her hilarious stockbroker Kevin Lithe, when she saw a car drive up outside and park near her Honda. A tall, wiry man emerged from the car and knocked on the screen door. It was their old boss, the chief, whose name she never did catch, and he wanted to talk to Spike. Someone seemed to be making a lot of noise back east, and they wanted him to hear all about it.

– It’s Coots, Spike.

– That old bastard.

Spike’s former partner had retired at 65. They had a party and everything. He wore a stupid hat.

– He’s dead, Spike, and it wasn’t pretty.

– Killing’s never pretty, said Spike.

Spike stirred his mint tea, thinking about all the crazy stuff Coots had done over the years. Headgraters, cleaver monkeys, the whole nine yards. To Coots, it was theatre. He was psychotically inventive with that shit. Spike hadn’t been all that fond of him, but they’d ridden the same bumper for ten years, and hell, that had to count for something.

– They found some burning pumpkins near his body. We thought you might know what that meant.

Spike put his cup down, and sighed. He knew who it was. He couldn’t tell the chief a goddamn thing, or he’d be next on the list. After the chief left, Spike booked the family into a chalet in Switzerland for a year, and began reading up on hypnosis. He had a hunch he was going to need it.

***

The first thing Spike noticed was the sweet, sickly smell of burning. He checked his watch. It was 5.18am local time. He rose quickly, kissed the still sleeping Doherty on the cheek, checked on the kids, and walked slowly downstairs carrying the fully loaded AK-47 he had picked up cheap in Zurich. He could see a small, angry man through the chalet windows, standing on the front lawn beside two burning pumpkins. He was unarmed. Spike opened the front door, came out onto the lawn and nodded.

It had only been a matter of time. This guy was no doubt being paid by one of the many asshole criminals Spike and Coots had put away. Specifically, Spike had a pretty strong suspicion it was one Sanford Singleton, a wealthy ratfucker from Wainstaring they had caught peddling junk to addled pensioners. He was locked up for good, but that didn’t stop him making orders on the outside. Sanford liked his assassins to add a personal touch, to really rub it in, so an enemy’s corpse was usually found with some burnt-out pumpkins nearby to symbolise the deed. Pumpkins were burned in ancient times to signify vengeance, Sanford had once explained to Spike under interrogation, which Spike found out later was total horseshit.

– I’ve got children upstairs. I don’t want any trouble.

The man nodded.

– These are just a warning. A certain person wishes you to know that you are not safe. Not here. Not anywhere. And when he orders it, you will be eliminated for good. He wants you to sweat it out a little first.

– That’s it?

– That’s pretty much it.

– Tell Sanford I think he’s a gutless fruitcake, and he has terrible hair. Now kindly get these things off my lawn.

The man nodded, turned away and walked slowly down the driveway until he was gone. The pumpkins lay there, smoking. Spike kicked one straight through, and soiled one of his brand new suede-based shoes irrevocably.

***

Spike left Doherty and the kids in Switzerland and travelled to Wainstaring, where he visited Sanford Singleton in the state penitentiary. He accused Sanford of ordering Coots’ death, and promised to make his life even worse than it already was if the threats didn’t stop.

– Enough with the pumpkins. I get it.

Sanford thought about this.

– I’ll leave you alone. If you do me a favour.

– That depends on what it is.

They talked over prison sushi, away from the others.

– My brother has become…delusional.

– Wasabi, said Spike to the guard. A good glunk of it.

– He has become convinced that a woman he once spurned is out to seek revenge. She has helicopters following him around, agents on his trail, you name it. He believes it all relates to a fortune teller he visited some years ago, who told him he would be screwed over by a red-haired woman. This woman is now controlling his life. Voices are warning him to watch out. He can’t sleep. Ever.

Spike dunked a gyoza.

– Sounds to me like a classic paranoid schizophrenic. Where does he live, and how much can you pay me?

– Stocktown. And as much as it takes.

Spike found a yellow pages, and called a reputable looking Stocktown soothsayer.

– My friend is a paranoid schizophrenic. If he comes to see you, will you tell him exactly what I tell you to say?

– Of course. Anything you want.

– Sensational.

Spike visited the soothsayer two days later, and brought Sanford’s brother, whose name was Kenneth.

– You believe you are being persecuted, said the soothsayer.

Kenneth looked unnerved, but said nothing.

– A woman is seeking your destruction.

Kenneth looked suspicious. The soothsayer had a large purple turban on his head, and seemed to be a little drunk.

– She is not to be feared.

– How do you know?

– Because I can see the future.

Kenneth furrowed his brow.

– Oh yeah? Then what are the winning lottery numbers for tomorrow night?

– I don’t use my powers for monetary gain. That would be unethical.

– Bollocks. You’re a fraud.

They could hear the sound of helicopters in the distance.

– All will be well if you wish it.

The helicopters touched down right outside the tent, crushing some deckchairs beyond repair. Five men got out and grabbed Kenneth, handcuffed him, threw him into one of the choppers where a red-haired woman was sitting, then took off again in a cloud of dust.

The soothsayer was taken aback.

– I should have seen that coming, really.

Spike never got paid.

***

The kids were in school now, and times were good, if a little poopy. Doherty had started going to night school, and became a fully fledged psychiatrist. It made her feel good at the end of the day, she told Spike. An achievement. He was proud of her, and shut the gates at night knowing that his home was a little fortress, and he was guarding something precious.

Spike was learning the clarinet, but it wasn’t going so well. He kept practicing to Pee Wee Russell records, and the guy kept playing so goddamn fast. He couldn’t keep up. Finally he had hurled the instrument out the window, and damaged the mouthpiece beyond repair. It had been a costly musical lesson, but at least, he reasoned, he had learnt ‘New Orleans Rag’ before jacking the whole thing in, and could still play it at parties if fortified with enough alcohol and naked self-delusion.

It had been three years since they’d taken a case, and Doherty told Spike over dinner that she missed the good old days. The adrenaline pump. The sense of ridiculous danger. The paychecks. All that jazz. Spike had to agree with her. Maybe it was time they put a little advertisement out, like they had all those years ago. Doherty wiped the table down, and looked at Spike, in a way he liked quite deeply.

Once again, and despite the legal complications that would inevitably arise, Torchland & Co. was open for business.

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A Sorry Episode

The phone had been ringing for some time in the spacious, immaculately designed riverside offices of Edgar James Johnston Esq. The silver-haired, self-proclaimed prophet of modern conceptual architecture was himself nowhere to be seen, and the receptionist, a young woman with a serious face hidden behind thick prescription glasses, was finishing her cigarette out on the balcony. She quickly ran back inside to answer it.

– Edgar James Johnson’s, Ellen speaking.

Ellen was a little overqualified for her position, having recently completed her PhD in structural engineering, but she had turned down more prestigious, better paid offers to work there. Her apprenticeship at E.J’s was all part of a carefully conceived master plan, an invisible blueprint of a life she had already mapped out for herself in perfect detail. Like everyone around her, she had arrived hoping that some of E.J’s talent would rub off on her, and even if that meant he bawled her out occasionally, it would be worth it. That, at least, had been the plan. The reality was proving depressingly different.

– Ellen? Give me E.J. And don’t dick me around. I want to talk to him, okay?

The voice was angry, impatient, and American. She recognised it immediately.

– He’s in a meeting at present. Who may I say is calling?

– You know who it is, Ellen. It’s me. Larry. Fox. I’m at the airport. Tell him I’m coming over. That oughta shake him up a bit.

– Hold please.

– That’s right.

Ellen punched a button, took a deep breath, and held it, unsure of what to do next. She had brushed Larry off many times before, but now it seemed things were coming to a head. In a way, it was inevitable. Everyone working there knew that Larry was waiting for designs E.J. was supposed to have finished months ago, and everyone also knew that E.J. hadn’t even started them yet. They were under strict orders to keep silent about the whole affair in the vain hope that it would, miraculously, just go away.

The whispers had spread through the office like wildfire. E.J. was finished. Lost in the throes of an ugly divorce, he hadn’t produced a workable design in months. Privately he told friends he believed his most treasured gift from the great funky Lord, his creativity, to be irrevocably shattered. He had fallen hard into a black funk, and there seemed to be no coming back. Although he still reported for work, he refused to take part in any business, wouldn’t take phone calls, and spent most of his time locked in his office, drinking beer and watching the Discovery channel, reeking of indignant defeat.

And now Larry had had enough. Ellen was already thinking about writing back to some of the companies she had so flippantly disregarded only a few months earlier, as she dialled through to E.J. and nervously waited for him to pick up. After several rings he was at her ear, growling in a voice of leavened granite, bored and irritated.

– Yeah? What’s the problem?

– You might want to take this, E.J. It’s Larry. Fox. I –

– Jesus Christ. Are you out of your mind? Why the hell would I want talk to that bastard?

– He’s at the airport, E.J. He says he’s coming over.

E.J. was silent for a moment, measuring his response to this new piece of information. Again, Ellen held her breath. Now E.J. spoke with an eerie calmness.

– Well what are you waiting for? Put him through.

She couldn’t help herself. With her hand covering the mouthpiece, she listened in on the conversation, fascinated to hear how he was going to get out of this one.

– Larry, she heard E.J. say, with badly affected jollity. So I hear you’re in town.

– Yeah, thought that might get your attention. I’m going to make this very simple, E.J. I’ll be there in one hour. I want my designs, or I want my money back. You hear me, you asshat?

There was a long pause, as E.J. decided the fate of the whole sorry episode.

– Sure thing, Larry. You know how to get here now don’t you?

Ellen had to admire E.J’s bluffing technique. Still razor sharp.

– Yeah, I know.

– Great. See you soon.

Ellen replaced the receiver. A moment later she heard E.J. smash something expensive. Nothing in E.J’s office was cheap.

The internal phone rang, and she picked it up.

– Ellen? Get in here. Now.

Gingerly, she stepped into his office. There was a whiff of sulphur in the air. E.J. was sitting behind his desk, a bunch of empty beer cans before him. For some reason he was wearing a kaftan. He looked like he hadn’t slept in days.

– Alright. I need some work done and it needs to be done fast. Who have we got? Is Jerome here?

– Jerome quit, E.J, remember?

– Shit. Right. He was dead weight anyway. What about Phil?

– You fired Phil three weeks ago.

– Jesus. I wasn’t serious. Can’t he take a joke? Okay. How about Greggy Mohawk? Nigel Breem?

She shook her head, sadly. She’d liked Nigel Breem.

– Fat Sally?

– She’s suing you for defamation. I’m the only one here today, E.J.

Everyone else has given up on you, she almost said.

– Shit. Right. This requires some thought. Take a seat, will you? You’re making me nervous standing there, hovering. I need to think.

She sat down. He looked at her for a few moments, sizing her up.

– How’s your draughtsmanship, Ellen?

– Pretty good, E.J.

– Okay. Good. That’s a start. What we need to do, Ellen, you and me, is we’ve got to pull the fucking bunny out of the hat here, or we’re in serious, serious trouble. Are you with me?

– I think so, E.J.

– Good. So here’s the deal.

He rifled through his desk, finally finding a pad with some crazed, jumbled drawings which he tentatively pushed before her.

– Larry is expecting me to have designed a house for his ridiculously young new wife. I think her name is Barbara. He has paid me fifty thousand pounds, all of which I have spent on Coronas and painkillers, both of which I am now immune to, the fuckers. All I’ve got to show for it is this. What do you think?

He held up the pad. Drawn in biro was a design for a house that while probably brilliant in design, concept and draughtsmanship, very much resembled the work of a crazed four year old child.

She looked him directly in the eye.

– I think if we don’t come up with something right now, we’re both out of a job.

– Right. Good thinking.

Ellen opened the windows, letting in some badly needed fresh air, found a pen, some fresh paper, and sat down again. This was it, she thought. Her big break. Despite his badly careening mental state, E.J. still remained a well-respected pillar of the community, and now here he was, asking her to collaborate with him on a design. This was what she had been waiting for all her life. Her friends from college would be so jealous.

– It doesn’t have to be perfect. But it has got to look like…something. Something expensive. You may not have noticed, but I’ve been going through kind of a dry patch lately, so I’d appreciate your input. Beer?

– No thanks, E.J.

– Mm.

He cracked a fresh one for himself.

Ellen thought about it, and slowly she began to draw. Elevations. Balconies. Oblongs. Rooms with extended corridors. Anything she could think of. Expansions on her college thesis. Stuff she had noodled with.

Half an hour passed.

Finally she stopped, exhausted, and passed over the paper to him. He took a long, hard look at it.

– Okay, that’s a start. Actually, it’s not bad. You’ve done this before.

Ellen beamed. She had passed the first test.

– Now all we have to do is give it the E.J. touch.

He grabbed a pen and started scribbling. Ellen’s heart fluttered. She was collaborating with the master. This was what it felt like to really be involved.

She risked a look over his shoulder. Her heart stopped fluttering, and began to sink. Her careful design, a version of which she had used for her master’s, was now covered in random lines, arrows, measurements and elevations which didn’t make a lick of sense. She looked up at E.J., who was smiling back at her, ecstatically.

– Well? What do you think?

She had no choice. She lied beautifully.

– It’s great, E.J.

– Well, what do you know? We did it! I mean, sure, it’ll need some work, but fuck it, Larry won’t know the difference! The man’s an asshat. I knew we could pull it out of the bag if we put our minds to it. Ellen nodded, politely excused herself, walked down the corridor to the toilet, and threw up into the cool lavender air.

The doorbell rang five minutes later. Ellen showed Larry into E.J.’s office, and he sank into a sofa opposite the desk. He looked upset. She had managed to get rid of all the beer cans and sprayed the room with an industrial strength disinfectant.

– Smells like a hospital in here, said Larry. Where is he?

– He’s just freshening up.

The toilet flushed and E.J appeared. He was still wearing the kaftan, but otherwise he looked remarkably normal.

– You old bastard, he said. Let me look at you.

Larry remained quiet. Another moment passed. E.J tapped the desk.

– I bet you want to see the designs.

– I paid for ’em, didn’t I?

– That you did. That you did.

E.J paused and cracked a beer.

– Corona?

– Not before five.

– It’s five o’clock somewhere, Larry.

E.J. downed the bottle in one, and threw it into the waste paper basket. Then he took the designs and passed them over with a regal flourish.

– I hope you like them.

Larry took the pages and looked through them slowly. He made no immediate visible reaction. Ellen tried to focus on the hummingbirds hovering on the television as Larry rifled through the pages.

Finally he sat back. He lit a cigar, and looked at E.J.

– What are you trying to do? Bankrupt me?

E.J didn’t blink.

– What do you mean, Larry?

– It looks fucking expensive. How much is it going to cost?

E.J was immediately effusive.

– I know a guy who knows a guy. He’s just had some legal troubles so he’ll roll over pretty easily. Ellen, get us some Bloody Marys will you? We have to celebrate.

E.J. was back in business.

Five minutes later, on her way to the store for Tabasco sauce which E.J. insisted on being part of the package, Ellen thought about the year of her life she’d wasted. Next time would be different. Next time, she wouldn’t aim so high. Something was sure to come up sometime. Something small, and something unimpressive that she could really underperform in.

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A friend of mine believes life goes in cycles. As one period comes to an end, another begins. It isn’t a good or bad thing, it just happens. Life goes on, smashing your face against the wall until you slump forward and pass out. That’s his theory, anyway.

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