“The Mysterious Stranger”
Outside Fargo, North Dakota, 1987
Grady fishes a pack of Marlboros from the pocket of his jacket, glancing around in the hopes that no one will notice as he produces a cigarette and discreetly lights it, his teeth clenched around its unlit end. He still doesn’t particularly like the taste, never has, but it makes him look cool and not-smoking gives him headaches. It seems his body doesn’t much care for his pride, betraying him even as he continues to insist he doesn’t have a problem.
And he doesn’t.
Not really .
But he can feel Wes watching him, judging him--or worse, worrying over him--and so he bristles irritably and stuffs the pack back in his pocket, dropping the freshly-lit cigarette to the ground and grinding it beneath his shoe. Grady turns slightly, raising an eyebrow at his partner where he looms behind him, arms crossed over his chest.
Wes doesn’t respond, his expression blank as he glances back to where the deal is going on. Something big is coming, that much is obvious; beyond their pay grade, that’s for sure. Tripoli hasn’t said anything to them about it, but they’re smarter than he gives them credit for, and it isn’t hard to figure out.
The boss man’s been pulling in favors left and right from arms dealers, lesser gangs, trucking concerns; trading for weapons, mostly. In some cases manpower. Over the course of the past few weeks the property on which Tripoli runs the fledgling syndicate and the majority of his human assets--including Wes and Grady--live has grown increasingly crowded as he pools his resources, bulking up their numbers.
Something big is coming, indeed.
“Hey.” Grady looks up to see one of Tripoli’s men jerking his head towards him, a metal briefcase in his hand. “Get him.”
He nods and relays the message to Wes, and the pair stalk over to the parked car a few yards back, at the edge of the vacant lot. They share a brief look before Wes pops the trunk and Grady grabs the bleeding man gagged and tied up inside, hauling him from the trunk of the car and slamming him onto the asphalt.
Grady doesn’t know his name. It doesn’t matter.
He’s some lowlife biker who only worked as leverage because he grew up with the men they’re making the deal with. His life, for a couple hundred dollar’s worth of ammunition. Grady would call it pathetic, but he knows his own life likely isn’t worth much more. He knows better by now than to think he’s of any real value to Tripoli. Sure, their boss does seem to favor him and Wes over some of the other assets at his disposal--likely from both how long he’s known them, their proven loyalty, and their effectiveness as a team.
It’s been four years since first they killed for him.
Since then, what was once a last resort; the sloppy, desperate act committed by two boys in far over their heads has become fine tuned into an art. Together they are brutally efficient at what they do. A well-oiled machine, putting bodies in lakes like clockwork, like it’s nothing.
At this point in their partnership they still think they’re invincible. Hot shit. Like it’s a game, it’s still fun for them--the hopelessness of their reality set in a long time ago, but for the first few years of the twenty three they will spend as Tripoli’s right hand until someone far worse puts an end to it, they are elated enough at their freedom from school, from the shitholes they grew up in, that they are almost able to fool themselves into thinking that in joining up with the syndicate they’ve done anything but assure that they will die violently.
And oh, they will.
But Bemidji is still two decades away, and although this feeling of invincibility will eventually fade as they grow to realize and accept the brutal lives they’ve carved out for themselves, they won’t ever really believe that there isn’t some hope for a happy ending, some chance they could get away from the syndicate and raise goats in Canada, some fucking lotto win that will grant them a slice of redemption that they’ll actually deserve, until the day Lorne Malvo slices Grady’s throat open and lets in the cold. Until the day Wes wakes up in a hospital bed with two holes in his side and another in his life where his partner should have been.
Until the lonely day when Wes accepts a gift he never wanted, watches as the only person he’s cared about at all since the blizzard swallowed up his partner walks away, takes the suitcase full of money and sits in his car and can’t help but laugh. He’ll laugh even though he wants to cry, even though the heat will prick behind his eyes and the emptiness inside him will feel more gaping than ever, because he’s literally been handed his fucking happy ending only now that it’s forever out of his reach.
When that day comes, then it will feel real. Then he will know the true sting of regret, of missed opportunities, when he holds in his hands more money than he’s ever seen in real life, with decades and decades of relative comfort and opportunity stretching before him. When it hits him again, maybe for the first time, that Grady is never coming back.
That he is alone.
The ache never healed, only faded into the background of his everyday life, its presence always there like a phantom limb. A phantom partner.
And he will learn that there is nothing crueller than the finality of knowing the person you most want to see, most want to talk to, is forever out of your reach.
But that’s a long way away yet.
Miles away, in the town where they will lose everything, the future players in the game of cat and mouse that will ultimately kill Grady are coming into adulthood just as the two budding hitmen are. They have no idea what’s waiting for them.
But then again, neither do they.
For now they are boys more than men, keeping afloat of the tide of violence that slowly drowns them by telling themselves it’s just them against the world. Partners. They’re far too young and dumb and full of themselves to realize just how fucked they truly are, just how fucked they’ve always been. Like a trap slowly closing in on them, the danger only revealed once it’s far too late to save themselves.
Grady grabs their man beneath the armpit and hauls him to his feet, practically dragging him over to where the others are. The older man leans on him, dead weight, in a vain attempt to get the upper hand somehow. Wes promptly punches him in the back of the head hard enough to send his jarred brain swimming, taking control as Grady sulks behind him.
The tall, bald man Tripoli sent to make the deal with the bikers on his behalf sneers, exposing yellow teeth, and Grady clenches his fists. “Fuckin’ kid.”
He bristles immediately but, with a pointed glance from Wes, holds his tongue.
They can’t afford to get into shit with guys like him. Not ones who are on Tripoli’s payroll, anyways. The boss may like them, but Grady isn’t about to bet on his support.
Not when they have secrets of their own, the kind they know better than to risk getting out.
Squinting against the bright light streaming in through the holes in the threadbare bedsheet stapled to the window frame, Grady lets out a low groan and nuzzles his face into the pillow, and, by virtue of its proximity, Wes’ armpit. His nose scrunches up in disgust and he turns over onto his other side, rubbing at his eyes before glancing at the alarm clock. It’s early, but not as early as he’d hoped. He sits up, running a hand through his dark curls as he exhales sharply through his nose, glancing over to his sleeping partner with a slight grin.
Wes is sprawled on his stomach, face buried in the pillow and a small puddle of drool forming by his half-open mouth.
Sometimes, Grady still can’t believe they actually got together.
In a way it feels like the inevitable result of their years of friendship; they never did have much of a concept of boundaries, physical or otherwise, no matter what the dark and looping words adorning his collarbone might say. From the beginning they shared a bed--not like this, sure, not naked but they did . But in spite of the arguable inevitability of their ending up together, there’s a part of him--a weak and cruel part, not one he’s proud of--that has been waiting for the other shoe to drop these last four years.
Theirs isn’t a thing that lasts, that much he knows to be true. It can’t. Not with the life they lead, not with the ever-growing mountain of wrongs they’ve committed against the world; if there’s any sense of justice to the universe they’ll get what they deserve in the end, and a happy ending sure as shit isn’t it.
Best not to dwell on it, he thinks.
And so he doesn’t.
(Much like a shark, if Grady stops moving he’ll die; if he takes a moment to consider the wrong he’s done he’ll surely drown in it.)
He notices then that he’s playing with his partner’s hair, curling it gently between his fingers, and stops. Wes makes a needy noise in his sleep that makes Grady grin, pleased with himself, before he leans over to wake him up.
His partner swats him away, grumbling irritably as if he isn’t grinning, before rolling over to go get dressed, and Grady takes the opportunity to slip back into his clothes from the night before and sneak across the hall to his own room before the others get up.
The silence settling over the house is brought to an abrupt end, as it is every morning, by the inevitable boyish ruckus of the two fledgling hitmen as they push and shove their way down the stairs, grinning at some private joke as always, hands a flurry of motion
( Come on, man, at least have some eggs or something.
You know I don’t eat breakfast.
until they’ve reached the kitchen, where they too come to an abrupt halt.
“Job for you.”
Grady grimaces, looking nervously to his partner before glancing back to where Tripoli sits at the kitchen table, staring at them as if he were searching for signs of weakness, his expression deliberately stony and unreadable. A shotgun rests on the table in front of him.
And just the same as every other time their boss has so much as glanced their way since they moved onto the compound, Grady is struck with the intense, sickening, guilty feeling that the bastard knows. Somehow he has to. There’s no way he doesn’t know about them, no way he doesn’t have some idea of what they’re doing. They aren’t as careful as they should be; fuck, he thinks, it was stupid of him to have slept in Wes’ room last night--sure he snuck back to his own to get dressed after waking his partner, but what if he saw? What if he knew?
Grady thinks of horrible things, awful things, a shallow grave alongside some lonely stretch of road somewhere no one will ever find them.
But if Tripoli does know, he says nothing, as always.
So he does what he always does and tries to find the words, to play along, and comes up short.
Tripoli exhales sharply through his nose, visibly annoyed, and it takes everything in Grady not to flinch.
“You’re picking up the hired help.” For a fraction of a second Tripoli’s mouth twitches upward in something that could vaguely be described as amusement, and Grady finds himself even more confused than before.
Wes frowns at him, clearly not getting it any more than he is.
“Hm. Guy’s coming up from Reno. Should be in Lincoln by the time you get there--seven hours each way, no stopping, no detours.”
Grady visibly wilts, sighing heavily. “So much for breakfast, then.”
Tripoli ignores him. Instead, he looks to Wes, where the larger man is lurking in the background.
“Sit down,” he says, and Grady starts to relay the message before Wes puts up a hand to stop him, taking a seat across the table from their boss. Grady moves to do the same and Tripoli says, without looking, “Not you. Wash the dishes.”
“Right,” he grumbles warily, heading over to the sink to grab a half-dirty rag from where it lays crumpled by the old and threadbare sponge.
Wes shifts uncomfortably under Tripoli’s gaze but squares his jaw nonetheless--he doesn’t know what his boss wants, but he does know better than to show weakness in front of the older man.
If he didn’t know any better he’d think Tripoli looks almost approving.
“Don’t fuck it up,” he says, and there’s a certain level of familiarity in it--fondness, even, coming from him --that neither Wes nor Grady knows what to do with.
It only takes about half an hour on the road before Grady starts bitching, and then he keeps at it on and off for the next six and a half hours.
Look, all I’m saying is, if he’s gonna have us drive seven fucking hours to go pick this guy up, the least he could do is tell us why we’re doing it.
Does he really have to spell it out for you?
Fuck you, Wes.
You’d think he’d want us to know what we’re getting ourselves into, if nothing else.
What the fuck are you talking about?
What if things go tits up?
Tits up how?
I don’t know.
We’re just giving the fucker a ride. What do you think is gonna happen?
He could have people tailing him.
All the way from Reno?
Could be a set-up.
Come on, man.
Fine, whatever. But if he turns out to be a psycho and gives us both Colombian Neckties, don’t come crying to me.
You really aren’t the least bit worried about this?
Calm down, G-R-A-D-Y. I wouldn’t let him slit your throat.
Big tough guy, huh? My fucking hero. What a mensch.
If you don’t shut the fuck up I’ll do it myself, though.
Yeah, fair enough.
As they come to find out when the car pulls into an otherwise vacant parking lot in Lincoln--after twenty minutes of bickering over the written instructions Tripoli gave them--the man they are meant to escort back to Fargo is far more normal-looking than one would think.
Average height, average build; probably in his thirties or early forties if Grady had to hazard a guess, with the sort of face one likely wouldn’t recall upon a second meeting without much effort at disguising on his part. He speaks evenly and flatly, voice pleasant if not reassuring.
Grady dislikes him immediately.
“Fargo sent us,” he says from the passenger seat, opening the window only a fourth of the way as his hand rests inside the glove compartment, inches from the butt of his revolver..
The man smiles. It doesn’t reach his eyes. Grady feels the hairs on the back of his neck stand up at the sight of it.
“Who else would you be?”
Grady’s eyebrows furrow in confusion. “Excuse me?”
“Look around. If you weren’t from Fargo, why else would you be here?”
“...Right. Come on, get in back.”
There’s that smile again, and then the man’s headed around to the trunk to stow away his briefcase. Wes frowns, clearly noticing his partner’s tension, but Grady waves him off, saying nothing about it.
Everyone in the business is fucking weird, it doesn’t mean anything.
Fucking weird doesn’t even begin to cover it, Grady thinks miserably, glancing at the man haunting the backseat of their car through the rear-view mirror.
He’s good at talking, always has been. As abrasive as Grady knows himself to be, he’s developed his abilities as a bullshitter enough to come off as reasonably pleasant when he wants to, when the job calls for it. But there’s nothing worse than a chatterbox; he doesn’t know how to deal with them, doesn’t have the stamina for it, the energy needed to keep the illusion going.
Unfortunately for him, their passenger is a major fucking chatterbox.
Not a thing he says makes any fucking sense either, is the thing. Like it’s some sort of private joke with himself, with the way his eyes crinkle at the edges with what would resemble amusement, laughter even, on the face of a normal fucking person.
But with him it doesn’t feel like that.
Grady doesn’t have the words to make sense of it, but there’s something distinctly off in the older man, that much is obvious. Like he were some sort of predator, playing at being human and not quite getting it right. Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
He finds himself envying Wes.
Finally, as the road sign welcoming visitors to Fargo passes by his window, the end is in sight.
“A scorpion asks a frog to carry him across a river.”
Grady blinks, pulled from his thoughts. “Sorry, what?”
“The frog says no, afraid that the scorpion will sting him.”
“I know this one.”
“Do you?” A smile plays at the corner of the older man’s mouth, his eyebrows raised: an implication, but not one Grady cares to decipher. A baring of teeth more than anything.
“The scorpion tells him they’d both drown if he did, so the frog carries him on his back, and halfway across the scorpion stings him anyways.”
The stranger nods slowly before raising his eyes to meet Grady’s in the mirror. “It was in his nature, he says. And so sure enough, they both drown. The end.” His eyes are laughing, but there’s something cruel in the lines of his face.
Grady nods, uncomfortably chewing at the inside of his mouth, and looks away, back at the endless stretch of road before them, nearly swallowed up by darkness if not for the car’s headlights. “Yeah.”
“Nature’s a funny thing, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” he repeats dumbly, feeling heat rise to his cheeks.
“All these rules , all these roles ...but in the end all we are is animals.”
“The whole thing’s all a lot simpler than we tell ourselves it is, friend. A whole lot simpler.”
Grady taps Wes on the shoulder, raising an eyebrow.
Wes’ lips turn up at the side a little and Grady feels grounded for the first time in hours, like everything’s okay again.
“Your buddy there...he doesn’t talk much, does he?”
“Hm. Funny, what you just did there...deaf or mute?”
“I said, is the big guy deaf or mute?” His voice is smooth, disturbingly even. There’s a predatory glint in his eye that makes the younger man’s stomach clench with anxiety.
“Mute,” Grady lies. He doesn’t know why he does it, knows it’s a stupid thing to do and the jig is up as soon as the creepy fucker tries to talk to Wes, but he sure as shit doesn’t want him to think he can get some sort of edge over his partner--not that he could, not that his plan makes any fucking sense to him even moments after he says it, but then it’s said and he can’t take it back, so.
The man in the back seat hums in acknowledgement, nodding slowly with an expression on his face that makes Grady wince at his own stupidity. Of course he didn’t fall for it.
“So is it you or him?”
He sighs heavily. “What the fuck are you talking about, man?”
“Out of your little….dynamic duo. Are you his translator or is he your muscle?”
When he doesn’t reply, the older man gets bolder.
“Speaking of nature , you two make quite the pair. How’s your boss feel about your little work romance?”
“Fuck off,” Grady scowls, eyeing the glove compartment. He digs his fingernails into the soft flesh on his palm, reminding himself that the asshole doesn’t know a goddamned thing, he’s just trying to get a rise out of him and worst of all it’s fucking working . Sensing he’s struck a nerve, the freelancer puts on that cautious, empty smile again that makes Grady’s skin crawl, and finally stops talking.
Grady is both grateful and deeply unnerved that the man in the back seat says nothing else the rest of the way to the compound, instead choosing to alternate between rifling through some manilla file he pulled from his briefcase and staring blankly into the rearview mirror, presumably just to fuck with him.
When they pull onto the property at long last, he is suddenly aware of just how hungry he really is--stomach feels like it’s trying to eat itself, he has no fucking idea how Wes makes it through jobs without eating. Nerves, probably. He can’t help but feel guilty at how tightly wound his partner is when they’re working, knowing he probably isn’t much help with that.
The freelancer gets out of the car without a word, heads around to the trunk again to retrieve his things, before walking up and tapping on the passenger side window. Grady lowers it a crack, gritting his teeth at the overly saccharine way the other man smiles at him, a parody of the Midwestern cheerfulness he’s grown up around.
“You boys have a good night,” he says, and walks away, stiffly and slowly, stalking up towards the house.
Wes punches Grady gently on the arm to get his attention. What was up with him?
Neckties, man. Fucking nutjob.