Wyte. The story.
He’d gone to investigate a death. By himself. No one else in the station. Call sounded simple. A man. Found dead beneath a tree. Beginning to smell. Most days, not worth bothering with. But it was slow. Wyte took the job seriously. Woman seemed upset.
It was down near the bay. Beside a cracked stone sign that used to welcome visitors to Ambergris. No one was around. Not even the woman who had called it in. The man lay on his back. Connected to the “tree,” which was a huge mushroom. Connected by odd tendrils. The smell, vile. The man’s eyes open and flickering.
Wyte should have left. Wyte should have known better. But maybe Wyte had been bored. Or wanted a change. Or didn’t care.
He leaned over the body. Because he thought he saw something floating in those eyes. Something moving. Movement equals life?
Who knows? Just know: it’s a dumb move.
That’s what they always said in the bar. The other detectives. When they told the story.
“Point is,” Albin would say, because Albin always told the story, “He leaned over and the man’s head exploded into spores. And those spores got into Wyte’s head.”
White spores for Wyte. Through the nose. Through any exposed cuts. Through the ears. Through the eyes.
Although he fought it. Twisted furiously. Jumped up and down. Cursed like the end of the world. So at least he didn’t just stand there and let it happen.
“But by that time, it was too late. A few minutes later and he’s just somebody’s puppet.”
Wyte became someone else. The “dead” man. Someone who didn’t understand what had happened. Wyte ran down the street. Taken over. Screaming.
“Screaming a name over and over. Ã¢â‚¬ËœOtto! Otto!’ because that was the dead man’s name. Wyte thought he was Otto.”
Or most of him did. Wyte, deep inside, still knew who he was, and that was worse.
Sometimes, out of a casual cruelty, one of the other detectives, usually Blakey, would call Wyte “Otto.”
“Well, they found him eventually. Once they figured out who the dead body was. Cowering in a closet. Saying Ã¢â‚¬ËœOtto’ over and over again.”
In the dead man’s apartment.
“A caution to us all. Cheers.”
Clink of pints brought together.
Truth was, they told the story not to humiliate Wyte but to keep reminding themselves not to take any chances.
The gray caps got Otto out of Wyte’s head. Eventually. But not the fungus. If anything, it got worse after Otto died again.
And no one knew who had lured Wyte there. Or why.
Finch was thinking about this as he and Wyte walked slowly up the stairs toward Ethan Bliss’ last known address. Guns drawn. And leaking. Silence. A green sweat darkening the armpits of Wyte’s shirt.
Wyte always went first now. He’d accepted that role voluntarily. It only made sense.
But would Wyte hold up? Was he reliable?
One reason Finch had them at Bliss’ apartment, not down in the shanty town. Another being Finch didn’t want too many people knowing about his investigation. Third reason: hated going down into the shanty town. Least controlled part of the city. Too many people who hated detectives as traitors. Had that luxury since the gray caps left them alone for the most part.
At the green-gold door, fungus providing the color, Wyte signaled his intent. The door didn’t look that strong. Wyte would batter it down. Finch would storm through behind him.
A strange mewling whine came from inside. Bad sign?
Finch mimed, Wait.
Took out his handkerchief, turned the knob.
The door opened.
Finch looked at Wyte for a second. Then Wyte was through the door before Finch could stop him, yelling, “Detectives! Hands up! Weapons down!” Finch followed, heart like a hammer, gun squirting out a little between his hands in his hard double grip.
But inside, the first four rooms: empty. And trashed. Someone had destroyed or ransacked everything. Tables, couches overturned. Books shredded. Torn pages everywhere. A smell of shit or rot or both.
In the back bedroom they found the source of the mewling.
“Oh fuck,” said Finch.
“Is that him?” Wyte asked.
Ethan Bliss had been crucified alive against the far wall, above his bed. His face crusted with blood. Blood welled from his punctured extremities, but slowly, seeping. His hands and feet still reflexively twitching. Trying to pull free of the green nails that looked like hard mushrooms. Bliss was whimpering and trying to look down at hem through eyes that had been colonized by something purple and brittle. A bright red mushroom had been rammed into his mouth. But he’d managed to get most of it out.
The eyes through the crust registered Finch, Wyte.
“Get me down!” Ethan Bliss roared. “Why are you just standing there?!”
And began to weep.
It took twenty minutes–Finch had to hold onto Bliss’ torso while Wyte worked at the hands and feet. But then they had Bliss curled up on the couch. Wiping the crust from his eyes. Found towels to use for his wounds, which he angrily shook off.
“No–not yet,” he said.
He seemed better off than Finch would have thought.
I’d be unconscious. At the least.
“Give me the red fungus,” Bliss said. “The one they stuffed into my mouth.”
Wyte handed it to them. Bliss smeared it, cottage cheese consistency, all over his hands and feet. Glistening. Already he had stopped bleeding.
“Now the towels,” he said, taking them from Wyte. Bliss glared darkly at Finch. “What are you doing here, anyway? I told you to come down to the shanty town if you wanted to talk.”
Finch laughed. “We just saved your life. Want us to hang you back up there?”
“I wasn’t dying. Someone would have come along. Eventually.”
“Who did this?” Wyte asked.
Bliss registered Wyte as if for the first time. “You’re in worse shape than me. What do you care? Why don’t you find who did that to you, instead?’
“Shut up,” Finch said. And slapped Bliss. Across the face. Hard. Leaving a mark. Bliss breathing hard, staring down at the floor.
Finch hadn’t known he was going to do it. Didn’t know why he had done it. It wasn’t like him.
Wyte just looked at Finch like he was stranger in that moment than Bliss.
“You need to focus,” Finch said to Bliss, fighting the urge to apologize. “Who did this to you?”
“New man. Out of Stockton. Don’t know what he’s after. Asked a lot of questions. About gray caps. About a place out in the desert. Not enough, though, for me to understand why.”
“Like in my dream?” Finch almost asked.
Was Bliss telling the truth? The desert?
“What’s his name?”
Bliss laughed. “Kept telling it to me over and over. So I wouldn’t forget. Sharp. Jonathan Sharp.”
“Take a guess about what he wanted, Bliss.”
“Part of what he wanted was to hurt me. Enjoyed that, he did. I think he would’ve done it even if he hadn’t wanted information.”
“Anyone with him?”
Bliss laughed, a little shakily. “Just his god-awful muscle. Goes by the name of Bosun. You know, like on a ship. He’s the one lifted me to the wall with one hand and drove the nails in with the other while Sharp held the nails. Before they asked me any questions.”
“We should take him in to the station,” Wyte said. “Interrogate him there.”
Bliss turned pale. “No.”
Finch knew why. “Wyte. Heretic would probably kill him or send him to the camps. Do you want to have to eat his memory bulb?”
“I don’t want anyone getting a memory bulb out of me,” Bliss muttered.
“So what?” Wyte said. Wyte looked at Bliss with undisguised loathing.
“He’s a source,” Finch said. “Without him, I wouldn’t know what’s going on in the shanty town.”
Wyte shrugged, stood up, and went into the next room. Finch knew he’d have to deal with him later.
“Listen, Bliss, do you need a doctor?” Finch actually liked Bliss. Bliss had an intensity, a passion, an energy. A black flame seemed to burn within him–it lit up his eyes and lent his speech a subdued yet incandescent fury. Each word came out burned around the edges.
With Wyte gone, Bliss relaxed a bit. He let himself sound a little tired now.
“Don’t hit me again,” Bliss said.
“I won’t. I didn’t mean to the first time.” Again he asked Bliss if he needed a doctor.
“No, John. But thanks. I’m sure I’ll feel it later. Right now I’m just in shock.”
“You’ll go to ground?”
“I’ll make myself safe. And then I’ll get to Sharp. Eventually. Someone needs to. Someone needs to watch him. I don’t know what he wants.”
“Seriously, Bliss. No ideas from what he asked you?”
Was Bliss holding something back? Hard to tell.
In truth, Finch was still not one hundred percent. Seeing Bliss on the wall had shaken him.
“I came here to ask you a question. Do you know this man?”
He took the picture out, the one the Partial had made.
Bliss stared at it for a moment.
“This man is dead.”
“Yes, but do you know him?”
Bliss shook his head. “Never seen him before.”
“Maybe…in a desert fortress?”
“Desert fortress?” Bliss looked at Finch. “Are you on the gray caps’ drugs? Desert fortress? Me and a dead man?”
Finch sighed. “Forget I mentioned it.” Bliss seemed genuine. “What about a word?”
Bliss’ look turned to alarm. He sat back against the couch.
“That’s what Sharp kept asking me about. That word.”