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Plato's Beard

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Twenty-five years is pretty good. It's more than a lot of people get — it's fifteen years more than his own parents got and Wrench still doesn't know how the hell he managed that. Maybe twenty-five years off and on with occasional intermissions — most partnerships are about convenience and there's no reason to knock that. Doing time tends to make guys reconsider the business decisions they made that got them there; either that or they double down. Numbers was one of the guys who doubled down. It's still a long fucking time.

They've been partners 25 years and more, since they were a couple of scabby kids. Twenty-five years of being a pair of mean motherfuckers stealing and shooting anything that crossed their path. They can manage a couple more, make it an even number, make it to thirty before either of them bites it. But they won't die here, now, in fucking Duluth.

Just give him more fucking time, that's all. He's never needed more time on a job before.

Wrench got shot back there, but he doesn't really know it yet; the impact felt like a fist and not a bullet. He'll be feeling it an hour down the road, but not now. And Malvo is dead in the snow like a dog with his brains all over the ground. They can soak in the satisfaction of a job well done when Numbers isn't bleeding out.

There's blood matting his beard, and it makes him look a little like a cannibal, or a pirate. He'd fucking hate that. He used to carry around one of those little combs until in the face of merciless mockery he ditched it during a body dump. It's at the bottom of a lake somewhere. His expensive boots are a mess of blood and slush — they probably got the better part of some splatter, and the red rivers of melting snow down the dashboard would be a cause for concern under other circumstances. He kicks out a little when Wrench tries to pull his hands away, and leaves behind a crumpled palmprint in damp where he'd gripped Wrench's leg for support. Turns out that department store scarf came in handy for something after all, the application of pressure. They've both been hanging on like they can hold the blood in if they really try, and neither of them can say a damn thing.

When they're in the front seat Numbers finally lets him pry his fingers away to see — Wrench pets his beard with two fingers and prays he'll be able to stay still for what happens next. There's no immediate gush of blood, but a whimper of pain sends a sharp vibration through Numbers' throat and starts the blood bubbling up fresh and it's all Wrench can do not to smother him himself just to stop it.

Slitting a man's throat is final. He'd done it before, and it felt good, pulling back and feeling the vessels split and the trachea yield. He won't let Malvo have that satisfaction.

Wrench gets started on unwinding the wadded cloth from around Numbers' throat carefully carefully fucking carefully so the skin doesn't tear any more than it already has. No point in rescuing your partner from certain danger and immediate death only to rip off his scabs in the front seat of a boosted sedan and hose down the beige leather interior with arterial spray.

This part's all wrong. He's too fucked up, a shallow gash with pink lining showing through, slowly but stubbornly leaking blood. No arteries, but it's a near miss. Must have jerked back from the blade, kept his head up. Wrench has slit a couple throats and in his craftsman's opinion height's a considerable advantage. Malvo's a skinny old fuck, can't be more than 5'10''. Not his best work.

Wrench can't do this part here.

V-E-T, Numbers spells stiffly with the hand that isn't applying crushing pressure to his own throat. His hands are all red.

Wrench presses his mouth to the top of his partner's head and sucks in the first full breath he's taken since the hit went down. He tastes blood.

*

Wrench drives with the heater on full blast, with one hand on the wheel and the other thumbing across Numbers' knuckles, waiting for him to stop moving, waiting for him to go cold and get waxy under his touch, waiting.

They drive until they're in the woods and they hit the only pet hospital with a covered garage in Saint Louis County. It'd seemed a lot closer on the map, when they weren't struggling not to fishtail on ice and slam into a tree every ten feet. Wrench kicks a path clear to the back door, the snow sucks at his boots and scalds his face and stains scarlet whenever his partner's feet touch the ground — he fucking hates this place, this place is Satan's asshole and snow is only good for dying in.

Wrench ends up having to carry him in the door with a machine gun dangling from his shoulder by its strap, and he's heavy in his arms like a sack of cement, bleeding.

This place is like a fucking tomb. The receptionist's coffee cup is still at her desk, stone cold, like they got told in the middle of the day to clear out before the storm hit. If there's an alarm going there's no lights, and if Wrench sees another corn-fed Midwesterner in uniform he's shooting them in the gut.

He lugs him into the surgical suite by the light of the illuminated Exit signs, leaving a blood trail behind them that could be his or could be his partner's or some of both, and this must be one of those large-animal veterinarians because he has no trouble at all hoisting a grown man onto the table where people probably bring their German Shepherds to get neutered. It's just a matter of setting Numbers down without jostling him or letting his legs hang over too far. The wisps of snow settled on his hair and beard haven't melted yet. It's not fucking good.

The overhead lights flicker on by motion sensor, and Wrench smiles joylessly.

- Think they'll be coming in for work tomorrow?

Numbers doesn't laugh. His face is a skeleton grin of frustration and pain, bare teeth standing out against his bloody beard. Wrench can feel his wheezing breaths in the raw rise and fall of his chest, but his heartbeat is strong as it ever was — hammering in between his ribs like heavy machinery.

Wrench chafes at his arms gingerly like that'll spontaneously generate a pint and a half of extra blood, and it just makes him wince. His face is dead-white. Wrench slides his heavy coat off him as carefully as he can, wadding it up behind him for cushioning before making a survey of other injuries — there's a stab wound high in his side, probably from the same blade that did his throat. Should have taken it as a souvenir. When Wrench's fingers find it Numbers sucks a sharp breath.

(Pills? Numbers signs twice for emphasis. P-I-L-L-S. His eyes are shut with pain, and Wrench's jaw tightens.)

Swallowing won't do him any good right now, it'll be the needle or nothing. He slits his shirt up the side to the armpit and gets to work.

They're not a couple of amateurs. The only thing that distinguishes this from Burnett County is that there isn't a Syndicate doctor with a duffel bag full of scalpels trying to force Wrench out the door at gunpoint. The pair of them can handle this. There's sutures and gauze and big fucking needles, and Numbers has to sit there like a rock on the steel tabletop and watch him rampage through the shelves, throwing boxes of dog pills over his shoulder and looking for the shit that'll keep a grown man from dying.

Numbers isn't screaming and jerking around any more but his stiffness has its own terror. Only the ghostly huffs of white steam reassure Wrench his partner's even breathing; his nostrils flare and his tattooed chest continues to rise and fall. Downside of that visibility being, they're inside a building now and it's still cold enough to see your fucking breath. Wrench drags in a space heater from the storage closet in the hall and cranks up the little red dial.

Pharmacy, he signs, slinging the gun over his shoulder like a desperado, and hopes to hell Numbers will still be alive when he gets back.

*

They've done this part before, the whole song and dance with stitches and iodine, just not on the one part of the body that'll bleed a man out in sixty seconds flat. Wrench's bloody suede coat is spread out over his lap — he loved that damn coat, but he doesn't give a shit about it right now and there's a bullet hole in it the size of a nickel. If they get out of this alive he's going to burn it.

Wrench has steady hands, he always has, even with Numbers gripping his sleeve. There's nothing left now but taping bandages in place and keeping him high. Too high, he'll wake up screaming and split his stitches. Not enough, there's not much of a difference.

They're through the woods and he's giving the gauze one last wrap around and around, lifting Numbers' head carefully on one big palm to allow access. He's delirious, verging on dopey-looking, but there's still no color in his lips. His wet dark hair is plastered close to his head.

Black and white and red. Wrench pulls his hands free and shucks off his latex gloves.

- How is it? Numbers asks. He's always been vain about his appearance, so there's no such thing as good news, now that he's likely to have a five-inch scar across his throat like the smile on a jack o' lantern.

- You look like the girl with the green ribbon. Wrench can't keep from grinning himself a little, through his cramping jaw.

- Come again?

- The girl with the green ribbon around her neck. Her boyfriend untied it and her head fell off. Did you ever read those books? Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark. Freaky illustrations. Good shit.

Numbers' brow is furrowed; he's not hissing in pain this time, but his mouth opens and shuts a couple times anyway, at the inanity of it presumably.

- I thought it was a yellow ribbon.

- It's going to be a red ribbon if you don't quit moving your jaw. Keep your head back.

Numbers spent his childhood hoarding Wacky Packages and crashing his bike into things, he didn't camp out in the library reading ghost stories. It's Wrench who knows these things — and if the pair of them aren't monsters, they're ghosts.

*

Time slides by sideways, minutes and hours.

Wrench doesn't turn his back on him when he patches himself up, mostly out of habit and not the expectation that he'll try to make conversation. The bullet can stay where it is for now. He's got enough lead in him to rattle, and Numbers can pick it out whenever he's not hanging by a thread.

- You should have left me behind, he signs, when Wrench looks up from taping bandages. Wrench leans forward. Numbers is watching him. His dark eyes are ringed in red. Hard eyes, like an addict's eyes, barely keeping focus.

- Cut it out. Don't talk like that. We're partners, remember?

Again, emphatic. You should have left me behind. You need to leave me behind, right now, and get out of here.

- I said stop.

Wrench's fist hits the table. That's it. That's fucking final. He's not leaving him anywhere; the two of them don't work that way. Numbers leans back again on the steel countertop and laces his hands across his tattooed chest, the picture of bruised resignation.

This isn't how they should be spending the night after a hit. They should be celebrating. There should be cherry pie and tall cans of beer and fistfights, they should be in a fucking bar and not a fake hospital that smells like dead dogs and bleach. Wrench sits back with the gun across his lap and waits. There's a bottle of vodka in the cupboard of the surgical suite, real middle-grade vodka right alongside all the electrolyte solutions and swabs, but he's already dizzy enough and some nights he's not prepared to relive.

He tips Pedialyte into Numbers' mouth when his partner seems lucid enough to swallow without coughing, and watches a little of the color creep back into his skin. There's nothing to do but watch, with the clock on the wall and Numbers' bandages going from bright red to brown and his breath starting to come less grudgingly.

They're cutting it close, but they'll make it. Once the blizzard's died out they can try the burner phone again, even if the only speech Numbers is capable of is likely to sound pretty fucking awful, and relay the news to Tripoli. They can get out onto the interstate and make for a safehouse where the Syndicate will have hamburgers and magazines and iodine and real doctors. But if they don't work fast they'll have to dig their way out. Wrench loads up a black garbage bag full of gauze and pills and takes the bottle of vodka. Let them think some godforsaken cold-weather junkie made a heist on their stockroom during the worst blizzard in ten years.

When Numbers is well enough to hobble and Wrench is no longer bleeding freely he retraces their steps — the bloody smudges on the tile floor come up easy, and the busted locks all wipe clean. He gathers up all the gauze wipes and bandages in a metal trash can and douses them in rubbing alcohol to burn.

**

 

Two weeks later they're laid up in the kind of hotel room that has mediocre tribal prints hanging next to the thermostats and a fake stuffed bear's head hanging across from the bed to pour beady-eyed scorn at anyone who dares to try and fuck. As a matter of fact their suite has two beds, one of which is covered in guns and ziplock bags of gauze, the other is taken up by a few dozen stapled paper receipts and by Numbers doing everything possible to radiate indolent carelessness except smoking a joint. Today the pair of them are a couple of deaf Bible salesmen, which maybe explains the heavy suitcases a little better than other cover stories they've affected over the years, but not the neck brace. Very clumsy Bible salesmen who had (scribbling on a half-dozen different pads of front-desk stationery) a little fender-bender over in Sturgis. The premise doesn't seem to rankle Numbers as much as amuse him. Once they hit the Canadian border, he says, they can trade off and be rabbis.

The pair of them have been cut loose for now, compliments of a job well done. Tripoli didn't get the head in a bag he wanted so bad, but only because you'd have to use a shovel — that's still got to be worth something. Wrench has showered and shaved and changed his dressings — he smells like gas station aftershave and iodine, and his sweatshirt snags on the adhesive tape. Twenty-five years later he can still sneak up on him barefoot — at least on carpet, the likes of which decorating their suite is hideous.

He's already ditched the brace, but Numbers is wearing one of Wrench's turtlenecks over a pair of scarlet long underwear that look like they should have an escape hatch in the back. He thinks the turtleneck lends the long johns a little more dignity, and he's wrong — Numbers can't get that hair wax he likes out here, and has been complaining about it for days with his hair tucked back behind his ears. Flicking through a magazine with a gun on his lap and an ugly pink scar banding his throat like barbed wire, he looks like the picture in the dictionary next to 'murder for hire' and Wrench has never loved him more.

He catches Wrench looming at the edge of the hotel bed, and straightens up, one hand primly on his wool-clad knee.

- What are you making that face for? You bought me this getup.

- You never quit bitching about the weather. I thought you'd be warmer with more layers.

Numbers sets aside his gun and magazine, and smooths the covers. Wrench eases himself down, nudging him over with a bare shin.

- Hey, you are warm.

- You'd be warm too if you put on some fucking socks. Game's on tonight.

Wrench draws in close next to him on the pillow. The television is on, but the closed captioning is busted — the screen flashes a shitty computer-generated map of North Dakota overlaid with an equally shitty rendering of an FBI badge, some exterior shots of a Chinese restaurant lit by squad car lights. Yellow tape. Booking photos. The dread is heavy in his stomach, but he can't peel his eyes off the screen — faces he recognizes. He doesn't see Tripoli there, but there's a trio of long faces that all look like Jergen, with the flickering screen too shitty to lip-read whether the presenter is saying they're dead or just in custody, but either way, fucked—

All it would take was more pictures: a couple of mugshots pulled out of a filing cabinet somewhere, one big guy with a big black beard and another big guy without one. Some pimply gas station cashier would spot them hightailing it out of state and call the cops and there are plenty of ways Wrench has entertained the prospect of ending his career but a shootout in the potato chip aisle of a Kwik-Trip isn't high on the list.

But there are no more pictures, just a commercial for yogurt and a 15-second spot of the Minnesota Wild, and then it's one of those Humane Society ads with sad cats, and Wrench lets his head fall back against the headboard. Two big guys on one medium-size bed. Wrench stares at the bear's head on the wall and thinks about how far the two of them can run.

- What are you thinking about?

(Wrench grimace-smiles.) I think we're out of a job.

- Guess we're a couple of free agents. We can drive up into Canada, lay low for a while, see what there is to see. Take up winter sports, be… he spells it: L-U-M-B-E-R-J-A-C-K-S.

- I know a guy up there, you know. We could make it a working vacation.

(Wrench's straight face sends Numbers splitting into wheezes of actual painful laughter.) No fucking way. I never want to see another blizzard in my fucking life.

- Let's go sell coke to old people in Miami. We'll live longer.

Numbers then tries to make a shitty joke, something about snow probably, but it doesn't quite carry. His body radiates slightly scratchy warmth, all down to his legs; Wrench snakes an arm around him and lets his hands go quiet. He keeps waiting for something — for Numbers to wave him off and change the channel, maybe.

Numbers is holding on to his thigh as companionable as anything, and Wrench's right hand settles around his wrist — thumbing at his sleeve, brushing the backs of his scraped knuckles. His partner smells like the silk lining of his fur coat, dry and musty, and like pine trees. Wrench used to think that was his hair oil but now he's not sure, and he's content to be breathing it, without the smell of blood.

Wrench owes him an apology for a lot of things — most recently for Nygaard's taser and maybe for fucking up the ambush. But Malvo's dead, and this is as much peace as they're ever going to get. If the Syndicate goes down, there's a good chance of either or both of them going down with it, dragged under by whatever esoteric ties have kept them chained since they were kids. Somewhere there has to be real names on file and Social Security numbers and all the shit they've been paying in blood to keep down will bubble up again to drown them. But for now they're stuck in a pool of light and warmth and sufficiency — the pair of them are enough. Wrench holds on to him like an old grudge.

Numbers presses his face to Wrench's shoulder, and when they come apart again his hair is one dark tangle from Wrench's busy fingers.

- Want to go get pancakes? You can cut them up really small.

- I thought we were supposed to be laying low.

- Pancakes isn't laying low? I saw a place when we were coming in. You can wear your big fur coat.

Numbers looks peevish at the suggestion that the chance to wear his own clothing is supposed to sweeten the pot, but on some level it must. Maybe after all this the two of them can dig up a pair of old passports and move to Nova Scotia, farm minks. They're a couple of heavily armed fugitives living out of the trunk of a shitty car and always looking over their shoulders. It's just like old times.