'Sweet Tooth': [4] - April 6th

On the morning of April 6th, Walter Welles was forced awake by a crushing sensation along his ribcage. In the depth of his dreams, he was paralysed to the attack until much too late; several jabs danced upon his sternum until the culprit took it to his face, batting his nose from side-to-side. Tired blood saw an opportunity to ooze out through his nostrils as the attacker took a brief ceasefire, allowing Walter to open his now-swollen eyelids.
    In the blurred vicinity of his formerly safe office, he saw his enemy cloaked in a pale windbreaker jacket holding a bulbous white sack. As he winced a breath through beaten lungs, Walter wondered whether he had stepped on the wrong turn at some point in his life and, in response, some fictional mafia had sent a made-man to come ‘whack’ him with a pillowcase of doorknobs.
    If it weren’t for the lucidity of the situation, Walter probably wouldn’t have laughed at the concept, especially since the clearer the room around him became, the more it seemed like the truth. He scanned upwards but as his grey eyes locked onto the misshapen blob of a face, a second round was initiated. The attacked slammed the sack against his chest, forcing a guttural groan from Walter’s stomach as he felt all his internal organs shift around like disturbed carp.
    That time, they definitely broke a rib.
    Thank fuck for the NHS.
    The attacker dropped the bag after that hit where it fell to the hardwood floor like… a sack of doorknobs. Old school, the authors scattered around his mattress would’ve been impressed had they not died at least thirty-five years ago. Then, they went for his face again, wrapping cool hands around his throat and lifting Walter like he was paper thin.
    He was able to look down upon his attacker’s face, his eyes still only working at half-capacity; uneven silver hair, green eyes, a pointed collar poking up from beneath the coat’s neckline.
    It was the rival detective.
    “S— stop.”
    “How did you figure it out?” she growled at him, hurling flecks of spit towards his bloodied face. “How!? How did an amateur like you figure it out, huh? Is that why you were following me around?”
    With no effort at all, the rival detective threw Walter down to the ground where his limp neck missed the sack of collective weaponry by an inch or less. Another growl left her lips as she pressed the sole of her leather boot against his throat, “I need you to answer me, Walter. I understand if you did it for the money, but who put you up to this?”
    “I— I don’t know wha—,” she simply strengthened the pressure as he attempted to force out his words.
    “Don’t make me ask you again.”
    “How am I supposed to a— answer your questions like this?”
    “That’s not what I want to hear, Walter.” For a moment, she relieved pressure from his throat only to stomp the heel of her boot upwards against his nose, unleashing a dam’s worth of blood and mucus. With each word, she stomped again.
    “How.”
    “Did.”
    “You.”
    “Figure.”
    “It.”
    “Out?”
    As the final kick came, Walter had all but lost consciousness. His face felt as though it would soon split into two separate pieces, Easter Egg-style, and he was certain he’d lost a lot more blood than he originally had within his rigid, pasty body. “It—“ he attempted to speak but something fell back from his lips into his gullet. In his breathless stress, Walter managed to squirm away from the villain and cough up the shard of tooth which had been causing trouble in his throat.
    It had snapped off from the end of his right-most front tooth, very noticeable and not covered by the NHS. Until now, he had perfect dental records and it was a real shame in hindsight. He told the villain what he thought she wanted to hear, “it was just a lucky guess. I’m not even a real detective, I was just throwing ideas around and, apparently, I’ve solved the case.”
    She sent another kick his way but missed intentionally, planted her foot into the wall beside his face. “Not this case, Walter.”
    “Then what do you want?”
    “How did you figure out my identity?”
    “Eh?”
    “How did you figure out that I’m Sweet Tooth? What was it? I’ve had a perfect track record until now, what did you discover?”
    Walter’s expression dropped, although you wouldn’t be able to tell beneath the misaligned Jackson Pollock that was his face at that very moment. “Y— You’re Sweet Tooth?”
     There must’ve been an acute innocence in Walter’s voice because, almost immediately, the villain’s foot dropped and she stepped way back. Too far back, in fact, as she found herself bumping into one of the two desks in the vicinity. She looked afraid, even through the red filter Walter wore. In the simplest of terms: she’d fucked up, big time, and it was the fault of Walter and his dumb sense of humour.
    “You’re not joking around, are you?” Walter shook his head, “I have never, in all of my years, ruined myself like this before. What am I supposed to do now? I— I can’t just leave you, you know too much. But, it’s not your fault. I just— and I’ve never— I need—.”
    “If— if it helps, and I know it doesn’t, I’m not gonna tell anybody. I don’t actually care, y’know? Super apathetic, and all that. I just wanna solve the case and make some money.” Walter smiled beneath the blood, hoping his wilful ignorance would save his life. But the villain refused to even look at him, her eyes stuck dead on her own reflection in the wind. Walter was overcome with a new sensation which took over from the lingering panic, replacing it not with fear but with nerves. Not his own either, but the nerves which emanated from the villain like a venomous radiation.
    “I—,” she began, tossing a glance towards him for less than a heartbeat.  “I am so sorry.”
    “What?”
    She turned on her heel and scoured the area like a hawk, “there must be an office first-aid kit somewhere, right? Where is it? Is it in the bathroom?”
    “I dunno, I’ve never needed it. What’s going on here?”
    The villain scurried into the bathroom, rustling about before returning with a small green box. “I— I am trying to apologise to you, if you would let me.”
     “I think you shattered my ribcage, you nutter.” Walter’s burning stare burst from her eyes to the sack of doorknobs beside them, he was right to be furious. “Who even cares if you’re Sweet Tooth.”
    The villains stopped her attempt at opening the first-aid box, placed it to her side, and punched her patient in the chest. “Do not mention it again.”
    “All right,” he winced. “Is it that big of a deal? You’re just a detective.”
    “It’s a huge deal, okay? My life is c— constantly at risk, do you think I’d react like this over a pen name?”
    From the stupid metal lunch box she found in the bathroom, the medic produced a small bandage which she carefully unravelled in front of Walter with a rather quizzical look plastered onto her face. “I never got around to doing first aid so I don’t know what I am supposed to do with this, but here.”
    She tossed it at him.
    Walter clutched his possibly broken ribs instead, and let the bandage fall to the ground beside him.
    “You will be fine.”
    “That’s it!?”
    “I— I understand that I overreacted, but I was going easy on you! I just wanted information, I was not trying to hurt you.”
    “You repeatedly stepped on my face!”
     “I lightly stepped on your face!”
     “You beat me half to death with a sack of doorknobs! You’ve crushed my bloody lungs!”
    “They’re tangerines! And they were expensive, would you like one?”
    Walter shook his head in disbelief as she reached into the sack and produced one of many small oranges, peeling it in front of him, and offering him a wedge. When he refused again, she tossed it into her own mouth. “Your ribs and lungs will be fine, it’s mostly a nocebo effect. If you had just answered me to begin with, I wouldn’t have broken your nose.”
    “You wanted an answer I couldn’t even give you!”
    She dug back into the tin, from which Walter half expected her to produce a sandwich or a yoghurt, and handed him some packaged sterile wipes. “Here, I think you might want to stuff some of that gauze up your nose.”
    The medic’s eyes began to wander around the room as though seeking something but, when Walter asked if he could help, she shook her head. “It’s quite a nice little office, isn’t it?”
    “It’s fine, I guess. I’m not paying anything for it so, if they catch me, I’m back on the street.”
    “And that’s why you want to be on this case?”
    “I just wanna get back to the real world, y’know? I was just gonna paint the guy’s house and I slipped into this puddle of an opportunity.”
    “You’ve got a real way with words, Walter.”
    Once he’d finished plumping his deflated nose back up with bandages, he attempted to snap it back into place. One sickening click later, he said “so do you.”

There was a moment of silence between them as the awkward medic shifted her weight around in her loud anorak before she spoke again. “I—,” she began, stuffing her hands back into her pockets and swivelling on her heels. “I didn’t take the opportunity yesterday to thank you for helping me. I was too busy pretending to be intimidating, so thank you.”
    “You’re really bad around people, eh?”
    “I wasn’t around a lot of people as a child. I believe it ruined me for conversation. I just wanted to be the smartest, I was never told to care about interaction unless somebody needed something from me and, eventually, you get a little tired of that.”
    “That’s some heavy stuff, but doesn’t that affect your Sweet Too— I mean, detective work?” he paused for a moment, “I suppose not. That’s why you’re an armchair detective, you have your Envoys to do all that.”
    She shook her head, “that’s all a ruse. It’s just me: I’m the Envoy, I’m the messenger, I’m the detective.”
    “You’re very open all of a sudden.”
    She puffed out her cheeks, “what’s the use in hiding it now?”
    “I see,” said Walter. A grin began to form beneath the half-wiped bloodstain on his cheeks, “would you be interested in hiring an Envoy? Just for this case, of course.”
    The detective sighed, “after all of this?”
    He nodded, “you can’t beat enthusiasm out of me. I’ve taken tougher, y’know? I’m in this for the long run, Swe—. All right, this has to stop because it’s getting ridiculous. What’s your name?”
    She shook her head, “that’s still off limits.”
    “I can literally see the cogs in your head considering whether or not you want me as your partner, and you definitely don’t want me to call you Swee—.”
    “Poppy,” said the detective. “My name is Poppy North, please stop calling me that. And yes, I could use your help, if you insist.”
    Walter scoffed, “if I insist? What is that, a polite way of telling me that you need my help?” A coy smile sailed across his face as he purposely steered the conversation out of the comfortable boundaries Poppy had marked out. She appeared to have relaxed a little and her posture had returned to its previously hunched form.
    Poppy no longer held that strict, no nonsense aura of an unkind manager. Was it because she wasn’t ‘on the clock’ anymore? As Walter scanned her from top-to-bottom, silently repeating her name in his mind like a once-craved mantra of true piece, he realised that she certainly wasn’t in a suit anymore, but a pair of loose jogging bottoms tucked into a pair of beige fluffy socks.
    “What?” she scowled, untucking as she spoke. “Do you think I’d come to a beatdown in a suit?”
    “A beatdown? Hey, you ignored my question.”
    And she continued to do so, “don’t make me kick you again.”
    If I’m gonna help you, I’m gonna get half of your payment, right?” Walter’s mind ticked back to his original purpose, “and you’ll keep me on if I do a good job?”
    “I don’t want a partner, I’ve never wanted a partner,” she said. “But all of the money is yours, Walter, you need it more than I do.”
    “Thank you. When do we start?”
    “Today,” said Poppy. “Her office had been cleaned out before I arrived but I found a whole stash of letters pushed behind a desk drawer. They’re all addressed to a flat across the city. It’s her home address from before she married Anthony Todd.”
    “Why would she still have it?”
    “I imagine it is a stepping stone, considering you initially went to Todd’s home to repaint it. That home might not have been suitable for living until recently so we will likely find more evidence there.”
    “Gotcha.”
    “But first, take some painkillers and get some more rest. I’ll go work out a plan of action, pick you up a new shirt, and then I’ll meet you back here. Feel free to keep the tangerines.”
    “Gee Poppy,” said Walter, “you’re such a kind soul.”


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