Mulholland Books Popcorn Fiction Popcorn Fiction - Private Psychological Investigations by Naben Ruthnum
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A man sets up shop in a town with competition from one other person in this pulp fiction from author Naben Ruthnum.

Private Psychological Investigations

1.

Spall picked a small town, but not a tiny one. It was big enough for him to believe that putting out a "Counseling" shingle in a rented office space and arranging some nice certificates on the wall would get him a decent amount of walk-in custom from the citizens of Craster, Oregon. After a quiet week [the only people who came in were asking what had happened to the nice upholstery store that had previously been in this space, and that had left its leathery, gluey smell behind], Spall paid for a few medium-sized newspaper ads. "Gregory Spall Counseling - Couples, Teenagers, Everyone Welcome." Another month passed, and Spall hadn't come close to paying off the chaise-lounge he'd bought for the as yet non-existent patients.

The reason, unfortunately, was market saturation. Craster already had Della Winters, who had been dispensing advice, both for free and for pay, over the past twenty years. She had a romance novelist's name, a hairdo straight out of 80's sitcom Designing Women, and a degree in psychiatry. Spall had none of those: only a barbershop cut, a fake name that he'd chosen specifically because it was boring, and some unverifiable qualifications from a few different schools that had stopped existing in the years since Spall had printed out the certificates at a Kinko's in Chicago. He was a fake, but no one was giving him the chance to show how good of a fake he was.

He heard the town's citizens talking about Winters in the supermarket, discussing her oracular abilities, her tough love, her ability to just "be there." She was a local Oprah, the one-woman moral conscience of the city. Even her cigarette habit was part of her legend, a naughty edge of fearless pleasure-loving that made her advice seem all the more down-home and reasonable.

Spall put a can of artichokes into his shopping basket and went home. He was making pizza that night, and in order to do it right, he had to get his oven hotter than standard home ovens could be. Without a sufficiently crispy crust, Spall believed he might as well be eating toppings on sliced bread. He tricked the oven by disabling the locking mechanism on the self-cleaning latch, which sent the temperature around his pie rocketing above 500 Celsius.

Chewing the uneven slices, Spall thought of ways by which he could loosen Della Winters' grip on the psyches of the townspeople. In his old job, clients had always come to him. After a few years of working his way through the ranks doing petty crimes, he'd performed one excellent hit when he was twenty-five, a tricky job on a potential state's witness. After that, assignments were never a problem. He was turning jobs down in the final leg, before a few of his essential covers were blown and he was iced out of his own bank accounts. Finally, he'd decided to go with the false identity he'd liked best, and to build a life out of that. If Della Winters would let him, that is.

"One good job is all I need," Spall muttered to the fragments of sausage on his plate. "One satisfied client."

There was certainly a counseling market in the city that had never been effectively mined. This part of Oregon was "real man" country, with two rifles and three fishing rods per male resident. The guys that landed in Della Winters' office were invariably there as part of couples therapy, and they probably did their best to blame their wives for dragging them out of their caves.

Spall could listen, he could talk, he could advise. He had an inkling that he'd be better with men than with women, if he could land some in his chaise-lounge and get them talking. And he had an idea of how to get them in.

2.

Gregory Spall - Private Psychological Investigations. Problems Solved, Inside and Out. Discretion Guaranteed.

Spall had toiled over the wording of his new ad for hours. At the last moment he'd excised the "Rates Negotiable" that had ended the copy, because it made the whole thing look cheap. The switch to "Gregory" was more for the poetry of the thing than for any other reason. What he was left with was an ad that was hopefully intriguing and masculine in some indefinable way, and that would not get him in trouble with any licensing boards he hadn't applied to. As far as Spall knew, there were no Private Psychological Investigators, other than himself. Perhaps he could start a licensing board of his own.

First things first. Spall modified the sign outside his office to fall in line with the ad, and waited. Waiting was something he was good at, that and listening. Both skills had been indispensible in his last job, and he was eager to carry them over. After three hours, he got a walk-in, an elderly man wearing an almost-as-elderly trench coat and holding the newspaper in a nervous clench.

"You investigate stuff?" asked the old man, sitting on one of the waiting room chairs arranged across from the receptionist desk where Spall had been idling.

"Yes, inside and out. What's your issue?" Spall asked, gesturing toward the door of his examination room. The old man slouched in and took the chaise-lounge's virginity, flopping down loose and boneless and letting his newspaper drop. Spall let the man sigh a couple of times, and then the talking came.

"What isn't my issue, what isn't my problem, is what you would be asking me if you knew a little more about what's what in this world. And in this town, to be specific." The old man shrugged and wriggled out of the trench coat without getting out of the chaise. "It was that 'Problems Solved' part of your ad that really hooked me in, you know. Got me thinking that that's the way my family looks at me, like I have that slogan tattooed on my damn forehead. How much is this gonna cost me, anyway?"

"A fair rate that we both agree on," said Spall. "Go on."

"I would have gone to that Winters woman a long time ago, but everyone else in the family sees her. The wife, and Useless Daughters numbers 1 and 3. Useless Daughter 2 is in California doing godknowswhat and not calling home about it often enough, and guess whose problem that is to solve, right? Right. So here I am to dump on you, maybe see what you have to offer in the way of solutions."

This was just as Spall had hoped. The old man offloaded his problems verbally, at length, probably talking more in one hour that he normally did in a week. There was nothing for Spall to look into, no specific enigma to solve, just the sitting, nodding, supportive grunting that Spall had always been confident he could deliver effectively. Larry Carlin-the old man-was the ideal first patient, and he slipped a hundred-dollar bill onto Spall's desk as he got up and put his coat back on.

"This is about what the Winters woman charges, according to the checks I cut for the rest of the family. That okay by you?"

"Yes. Will I be seeing you again?"

"Don't know yet. I'll see if this did me any good, but I won't be able to tell until I've moved around in the real world a little, you know? I mean, now that I've said all that stuff out loud, it seems like the only real problem to solve is the entire way my life is, and I can't really lay that at your door, hm? It's a little too big of a puzzler."

"Yes."

"I like how you don't say 'yeah,' or 'yep,' nothing chummy. A professional."

Spall nodded and let him leave.

3.

There were more sessions with Mr. Carlin in the following weeks, and Spall's drop-in trade accelerated. Most clients were men with burdens similar to those of Mr. Carlin, but curious women came in as well. Spall had a feeling that at least a few of these women were emissaries of the great Mrs. Winters, and he was especially delicate with these clients. A Mrs. Sally Kiefer asked Spall to spy on her husband, who had recently moved out. He refused, saying that she hadn't quite understood what he meant by Private Psychological Investigations.

"Well, what do you mean, then?" asked Sally, who insisted on perching at the edge of her patient's chair instead of lounging properly.

"What do you think I mean?"

"You just told me I misunderstood what Private Psychological Investigations was, so why is it useful for me to tell you what I think it means?"

"Because what it means to you is equally as important within these walls, Sally."

"Oh," she said. She appeared to take Spall's point. Spall didn't know what his point was, but the silence between client and counselor was rich with an understanding of some sort.

Three weeks after Spall's effective ad appeared for the first time, he was visited by the client who would begin to uncover the wider definition of Spall's job description. The man pushed open Spall's office door on a Wednesday afternoon, tracking mud and pine needles onto the mat. His boots were as muddy as the treads of a monster truck in full rallying glory. Spall let the man unlace and shed his gear, then gestured toward the open examining room door.

"It's to do with my wife," the man said. "You know who my wife is?"

"No."

"That's good. I know you're pretty new in town, and even if you didn't do what you did for a living, I might have looked you up anyway. It's hard to find anyone to talk to around here that doesn't know and love my wife."

"Della Winters?" Spall guessed, and was disappointed in himself for doing so. Always let the client speak first.

"You got it in one. I'm Al Winters." The man didn't look like the type for Della. His features made him look like a background character in a medieval woodcut. Coarse and undefined, soft flesh over strong bones. His clothes seemed to be more familiar with the closet floor than with hangers.

"Are you having marital problems?"

"She's evil."

"That is a problem."

"Yeah." Al dropped himself into the full length of the chaise-lounge, then raised his head a little from its resting position, looking down the length of his body at Spall. "You're going to take this seriously?"

"Yes. Of course."

"All right. So. I'd been having an affair for about three years, a discreet one, because Della and I haven't been intimate on a physical, emotional, anything level for about six years. That's a long time. And of course a divorce is not going to happen, because she thinks that her practice would just spiral the bowl if her own relationship was to break up. No one would listen to a failure in love, is what she says. Failure in love is good, huh? That's exactly what she is."

Spall found this disquisition on emotional limitations to be a bit rich, coming from the mouth of an adulterer, but he wasn't in the business of judgment.

"Go on."

"Well, she found out about the girl. Town this size, of course she did, right? I don't want to give her real name, because that's her own business, so we'll, I'll, just call her Julie."

"Julie," Spall said.

"Yeah. So, Julie was one of Della's patients to begin with. Came to the Winters office after a rough breakup, and listened to my wife recite a dozen Ann Landers columns to her over the space of an hour. I was in the waiting room after Julie's session, and we got to talking while I waited for Della to spray her hair into place for the ride home. I don't know if it was just the shellshock of listening to pop-psych nonsense for an hour, or the thrill of doing something bad, but she took my cell phone right out of my chest pocket and punched her number in, then showed me the screen where she'd put the digits in under the contact name 'Linoleum Guy.' I tried to think if there was a double meaning to that, but I never have been able to figure if there is one. Can you think of one?"

"No."

"Yeah. She was just being clever, covering up. I'd ask her, I really should have asked her before, but it's too late now."

"It's never too late."

"It definitely is here. You'll see. So I call 'Linoleum Guy' a couple of days later and we meet twenty clicks east, up in Marilla. You ever been there? Pretty busy tourist trade in the summer, so we didn't get noticed at all. We spent a couple of hours at a café, and then a couple at a motel."

"Yes."

"We kept to that pattern for a while, changing locations, of course. Thing is-this is the weird part-Julie wouldn't stop her appointments with Della. She was convinced that my wife would all of sudden realize everything if Julie stopped coming to see her. Being a patient was a perfect cover, she thought, because Della thought she had a window into Julie's entire life. Of course, I don't need to tell you that's not how psychiatry works."

"No."

"Della found out anyway. Someone spotted us in my car together at what must be the longest stoplight in the Western world. The one right before the highway turnoff, just off Bernard. Yeah?"

"I know it."

"One of Della's book club friends, Marnie. She pulled up to the right of my car, nodded at Julie, then spotted me and started waving her wrist off. I waved back and then stared straight ahead. Julie and I both knew that we were blown, in a bad way. Three years of problem-free cheating got me lazy. We should have never been in the same car, still in city limits."

"I see."

"Oh, there's more. Because Della never let on to me that she knew. She kept everything normal, and I started to believe that Marnie had actually been able to keep her mouth shut. I mean, normal married life with Della was pretty horrible anyway, but I thought that the change would be obvious if she found out I was cheating."

"May I ask something? Why don't you just divorce her, if there's really no sympathy left between you two?"

"I used to be a carpenter, but I got early arthritis. Bad. I can't work at all."

"Ah."

"So, yeah, either I live off her, or disability. I'm fifty years old. I don't want to live off a pathetic disability pension." Spall wondered whether it wasn't more pathetic to financially depend on someone you hated, but again, judgment was not included in his newspaper ad. Mr. Winters cracked his knuckles one at a time, and went on with his story.

"Julie kept up her appointments, of course. Can't give the game away, especially after our miracle escape from Marnie's gossiping tongue. And that's when Della started in on her."

"Meaning what?"

"She just started whittling her down. You know, Della's full of it, but she does have some genuine skills buried deep down, and it makes sense that spite would activate them. She started using the sessions to trouble Julie."

"Trouble."

Al got up and did a caged bear pace around the room, orbiting his counselor a couple of times while Spall stared straight ahead. Al sat down on the desk behind Spall and talked from there.

"Julie wasn't totally right in the head when she first went in there. Bipolar, history of eating disorders. A lot of sad stuff, all piled up. She had it under control, though. The right pills, and maybe some happiness courtesy of me. But Della started to change that. For one, she monkeyed with Julie's prescriptions. Not in a suspicious way, but she messed with the dosage that had been working. And then she talked her into some ideas."

"Ideas?" Spall asked, still not looking at the big man behind him. He could hear tears in the voice, and didn't want to break the intimacy that the lack of eye contact made possible.

"Julie started dwelling on nasty stuff. Looking at herself odd in the mirror, asking me what I thought of what we were really doing with our lives, just strange things. I clued in to the fact that it was Della filling her with this garbage, but it was too late."

"Oh."

"Yeah. She committed suicide. Pill O.D. In a bathtub, so she had water in the lungs as an insurance policy if the poison wasn't enough."

"That's terrible," Spall said.

"I know. Like I said, evil. Della's evil." Al circled around to the patient's chair and sat. His eyes were dry, but red. "Anyway, it feels good to talk about it, to someone totally unconnected. No one else really knows this."

"I'm glad I was able to listen," Spall said.

"Yeah. I admit, there's something pretty calming about you, I can see why you're in this business." Al looked at Spall in a way that made him uncomfortable, and held his gaze until Spall had to look away. "There's something else, too. Not so calming, but you know, reassuring. That must be the problem-solving part, right?"

"Hm?"

"You know, your ad. 'Problems Solved, Inside and Out.' Talking solves the inside parts of the problems, I guess, but what solves the outside parts? I came here, just, hoping. Talking was good, but if you think of anything else you can do, I'd thank you."

Slightly confused, Spall said goodbye to Al and reflected on the story, before remembering that they hadn't discussed payment. He turned to his desk and saw a wad of green bills about the size of a standard red brick; mostly twenties and fifties. Dirty, wadded, pulled out of some hiding place. Spall put the money into his briefcase and thought some more.

4.

Thanks to a couple of lucky factors, Spall was able to solve the problem quite easily. He spent the day after Al's visit scoping out the Winters home. It was an isolated three-story with plenty of camouflaging trees that made watching the house easy. When he was sure that the place was empty, Spall jimmied the side door and walked around in his plastic booties and latex gloves, paying special attention to the bathrooms and kitchen, which were typically the most useful rooms when addressing a problem like this one.

The bathrooms were not very promising, but the kitchen was. All granite and tile, with a door leading out to the patio dining room. The stove was what Spall was interested in, and it was exactly what he was hoping for. A gas range that looked to be from the late nineties. An efficient and reliable model, with a quirk that Spall had exploited on a couple of past jobs. He brought a pair of needle nose pliers out of his blazer pocket and made the necessary, invisible modification, using the rubber handles and some burnt-on gunk from the oven to make the adjustment look like the natural result of wear and tear. It took less time and was less noticeable than the lock-tampering that made Spall's perfect-crust home pizzas possible. Before he left the house, Spall took all the matches from the kitchen, and pocketed the lighter that was lying next to the barbeque on the patio. He left, and drove over to Della Winters's office.

Her office was certainly a lot prettier than Spall's, and the certificates on the wall looked real. "Can I make an appointment?" Spall asked the receptionist, hoping he'd have one of his own soon.

"Sure, like for this week?"

"I was thinking of a lunch, maybe. On me. I wanted to pick Dr. Winters's brain, you know."

"Of course," the receptionist said, smiling. "You're the new guy, aren't you? Her competition?"

"Don't be ridiculous," Spall said, smiling. "We're not even in the same skill-set, thankfully, or I'd be in a lot of trouble!" He went to recover his coat from the rack near the wall, and in doing so, achieved his real objective in visiting the office: plucking the monogrammed Zippo from the ghastly fur coat that he'd spotted Della wearing around town.

Della's lovable affectation, smoking, brought about her death after all. Al found her dead body in the drained pool that lay one floor below the railing of the patio, and the police managed to assemble a reasonable version of her last moments on earth. Seeking a light for her cigarette, and unable to find any conventional sparking apparatuses at hand, Della had leaned over the gas stove and turned on the jets. A faulty line had caused a huge, high jet of flame to leap up and engulf her dry, chemically rich wall of hair. Instantly engulfed and panicking, Dr. Winters had taken a long dive into the nearest big water source at hand. She couldn't be blamed for forgetting what season it was. Her goddamn head was on fire.

Spall knew that the story would pass as reasonable, because he'd pulled a very similar job in Chicago a few years prior. However, things were not as simple as the police had deduced. When Della had caught the flames in her hair, she had gone straight for the kitchen sink, quick-witted lady that she was. Spall had been ready for this eventuality, and emerged from his hiding place in the pantry to grab her by the shoulders and usher her, screaming, toward the pool. Her face was burnt, bubbling around the forehead, and it was a relief to send her sailing off the patio railing, out of Spall's sight.

Spall drove by the Winters office before dawn and dropped Della's Zippo by the curb, near the late woman's parking space. Her weepy receptionist would recover it in a few hours. "The lighter that could have saved a life," she would call it in the next day's paper. By some ghoulish coincidence, Gregory Spall's ad ran next to the story covering the aftermath of Della's death. The phone started ringing soon after that, at a rate that made Spall think that he'd need a secretary sooner than later.

Spall ran into Al in the grocery store a couple of weeks after his client had become a widower. Al ignored Spall at first, as he was in deep conversation with the recently divorced Angela Whittaker, but shot him a huge smile when Angela turned to investigate the granola bars. Spall squeezed the fat appointment book in his pocket. Problems solved.

About the Author

Naben Ruthnum is a Vancouver-based writer of crime and literary fiction.