Stephen did, and winced inwardly, then instantly winced again, as a reaction to the initial wince. He was embarrassed at the suggestion that he might be mentally unwell, coming from a strangely authoritative orange. Jesus Christ.
Feeling that he should show, if not exactly, spirit (That damned word again) then at least some spark of autonomy, he swallowed another lungful of smoke, coughed amateurishly, and spoke.
“You said that there was work to do?”
The orange seemed pleased. “Oh yes. A big job. A dirty piece of work I’m afraid, but it needs to be done. None of the boys want anything to do with it, that’s why we need sombody like you.”
Stephen raised himself from the bench, causing the chains to jangle, an oddly jolly sound. “Well, I don’t suppose talking about it is going to get it done.”
Again he sensed approval from the fruit. The cell door swung open and he found himself walking slowly down a glum, grey corridor, the orange by his side. It wasn’t doing anything so obvious as floating along, it was just there, on a level with his head, and slightly in front of him.
Following its lead he turned down an even gloomier, greyer corridor, down half a dozen metal steps and found himself standing in front of a heavy, steel sheathed door labelled “Room Q3.”
“I glanced through your file,” offered the Orange, “and you’re the right man for this job. No doubt about it. Just one thing I want to know, what’s the Pr business about?”
Stephen did his best to explain, but felt that he hadn’t perhaps, been as successful as he might of liked.
“So it’s like Dr for Doctor, but with a P?”
“Well, in essence, yes.”
“How’d you say it? Poctor? That’s wild. Poc for short. If you’re gonna be working for me, I guess I’ll call you Poc. I like my boys to have a nickname. Fosters cameraderie, you know? Keeps things light.”
Again, the door was shut, and then it was open, the orange made a motion which clearly indicated “after you”.
Steeplton walked into the room. Originally painted a drab cream colour, now, inevitably, it was gray. Two heavy wooden tables stood at one end of the room beneath a ventilation grille garlanded with dusty cobwebs. Upon them were piled boxes and ringbound files, here too, a thick covering of dust was in evidence. A yellowish and dim light percolated through dusty lampshades which hung listlessly from the gray ceiling.
The Orange was beside him again. “Well there you go Poc. Brushes, mops, cloths and detergents are in that cupboard there, think there’s some stepladders , you can get hot water down the hall, second left. I’ll pop back in a few hours and see how you’re getting on, how’d you take your coffee?”
Stephen made a faint noise in the back of his throat. “You want me to clean up?” He asked incredulously, his voice tight with confusion and helplessness. “You brought me here, like this, to clean up?”
“Sure. And sort those files out too of course. I don’t know whether chronologically would be best, or by year and then alphabetically. Have a poke around and let me know what you think would be best.”
“But I thought, I mean, this is insane, you said a big job.”
“Looks like a big job to me Poc.”
“But, but, I get taken from my car by the Police, thrown in a cell, then, you, I mean…” He tailed off, feeling a certain delicacy, despite his mounting anger and yes, disappointment, in again broaching the fact that he was talking to an orange. “I mean I thought…”
The Orange laughed delightedly. “Oh I get it, you thought you were gonna identify the exotic alkaloid that offed the Duchess! Figure out who put the psilocybin in the ambassador’s cocoa? Oh Poc you boob. You’re adorable. Wait till I tell the boys.”
Stephen felt his throat tighten. He was hurt. And, yes, disappointed. He realised with a pang of guilt that he had actually been looking forward to some type of adventure. He began a bitter retort, then choked it back. The Orange’s expression, however it was conveyed, was one of such good nature that he felt that he did not want to upset it. And then, it had been a very, very long time since anyone had called him adorable.
He sighed. “Second left for hot water you say?”
“Attaboy Poc! I knew we could count on you! Didn’t I tell Krampus and Odd Legs that you were the man for us? Sure, second left. The tap’s a bit tricky, you have to kind of wiggle it.”
“What’s in the files?”
“Oh, the files? Well Poc, those are our miscellaneous and irritating files. Poltergeists in kebab shops. Inexplicable series of deaths by burning of lawnmower repairmen. Complaints about refractory milliners. Lost shoes. Haunted geese. You know the sort of thing. You must get stuff like that all the time in your day job?”
“Well, not really exactly like that, but yes, I suppose, hang on, haunted geese?”
“Happens all the time. Gap in the psychic world hedge or something. Very much prone to it. Not much we can do.”
“But should I see these files? I mean, I’m sure there must be some kind of data protection regulations or something.”
Stephen realised how absurd this was, but he was after all, a medical professional. The Orange however seemed to take it in his stride.
“Hell yeah, I forgot, I ain’t sworn you in. Raise your right hand and repeat after me, “I Poctor Stephen Steeplton” you ought to have an E in there by the way, “do solemnly swear to serve and protect, and uphold the law.”
Dazedly, Stephen did as he was told. The Orange beamed, “Here’s your badge Poc. Welcome aboard!”
This last was said with such human, well citric, warmth, that Stephen felt a glow of pride. He was in. Accepted. He felt that he should celebrate somehow.
“Do you think I could have another cigarette please, er, sorry, what should I call you?”
“Call me Chief. Sure Poc, here you go, I told you about the wetness already right?”
“That’s good. Did I tell you about the time we had a murder down in Chinatown? Back when I was a rookie? Well Old Leopardskin, he was the Chief back then, sent me and Bobbing Head McCarthy down there to see what we could shake loose out of the community. There was this old, and I mean old Chinese guy, hanging around the crime scene just a bit too persistently, so Bobbing Head says to me “Charley, why don’t you go see if you can get anything out of that guy?” So I looks over at the guy, then back at McCarthy and I says, “Why me Bobbing Head? Do I look like I speak Mandarin?”