Winter’s never shown him any mercy. In that respect, it’s no different than anything else.
Numbers doesn’t see Malvo coming, fuck, how can he in all this shit, doesn’t even feel the knife until it twists sharp and unforgiving in his back and he realizes he’s fucked up and fucked up good. The cold is biting, his toes numb in his boots, and the blade opens him up to admit the chill, invites the death right into him. Malvo cradles him in a grotesque parody of intimacy, as close as a lover ever held him, and the last word that ever froths out from his frozen lips is, “Fargo.”
The cut across his throat is a relief, spilling liquid warmth down his chest, and Malvo lowers him into the deep snow like he’s putting a child to bed, and Numbers sinks into it gratefully. He’s done with it now, dying like a slaughtered lamb, like a fucking putz at the hand of this maniac, done in by a force more savage and ruthless than himself, but done nonetheless. Even the pain will be over soon, exiting his body as his soul does, in little white wisps of breath.
Malvo’s long gone into the storm before he hears, “He’s dead, I think.” There, you called it asshole, you’d know more than me. And then the second man is gone too. Curtains. Nothing to do now but lie there in the reddening blanket and close his eyes.
Somewhere that’s not distant at all he hears gunshots, semiautomatic fire and then two sharp reports that end it.
Numbers groans. He’s not done yet after all.
Bleeding out into the snow like a punctured, over-ripened fruit, he has two synchronous thoughts: One, that he needs to survive long enough to know which end of that gunfire Wrench was on, and the other, that there is no fucking way he is going to die in goddamn Duluth.
Feebly, his body resisting the last impulses of his dying brain, he manages to reach a shaking hand to his throat, pushes the glove tight into the gaping slash. He drags himself forward with his other arm, twin stabs of agony through his back with every tortured inch he gains. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see the thick trail of red behind him, already filling in with white.
It’s hell, it’s the worst pain he’s ever known—and he’s endured a lot of pain—and all through it he tells himself that Wrench is somewhere in that blank, swirling sea, surrounded by people who want him dead. Hold on, you big dumb shit, he thinks, I’m coming for you.
Fifteen years ago, in a motel room with a tobacco-stained carpet and a busted heater, he’d told Wrench that he wasn’t going to rescue him. It’s only fitting that he should spend the last few minutes of his life doing exactly what he swore he wouldn’t.
There’s nothing, not even death, that God loves more than fucking irony.
He crawls for a thousand years, sliding on his belly through the snow as the life leaks out of him, blinking snowflakes out of his eyelashes, and it’s all for nothing, almost nothing, because the dark heap before him is unmistakable, and completely motionless. He almost doesn’t make the last few feet, but he forces himself forward, choking on his own blood. Wrench is on his side, facing away from him, and Numbers doesn’t have the strength to turn him around or even to reach over and check his breathing; instead, he slumps into his partner’s back and shuts his eyes.
Fucking romantic. Bet you’d love this.
Wrench’s body is still warm, or at least less cold than everything else, solid and silent amid the myriad daggers of the storm, and, his consciousness floating just above the ocean of pain, he tells himself that they’re together, like they’ve been so many times before, in the last flickering seconds before sleep overtakes them both. Just a few more harsh moments of waking and then the release of darkness. He is falling, and falling, and won’t ever remember hitting the ground.
They lose him twice in the ambulance. It doesn’t stick. He’s a hard man, and he’s faced worse. Both times, he tells the white light to go fuck itself.
“Tell ‘im his partner’s dead and he’s gonna spend the rest of his life in jail.”
That’s Schmitt, the old lieutenant who Gus had mentioned was a bit of a prick. Molly smiles at him brightly, even bats her long eyelashes a little. Neither of the statements he’s just made are, speaking for this very moment, exactly true, though from what she hears it’s just a matter of time. There’d been mutters in the OR—so she’s heard—about why they were wasting valuable hospital resources to revive someone who, at best, is facing a life sentence in prison. But he’s still breathing, for now.
“Right, yeah, but—”
“He ain’t gonna talk. I’ve met his type before.”
Molly seriously doubts that. She’s met Schmitt’s type before, another old man who sees a lady and all at once becomes an expert in everything.
“But if he does,” Schmitt continues, “it’ll be because he doesn’t see another way out, y’know?”
“So that’s what you tell him, right?”
Molly shuffles down the hospital hallway. She’s favoring her left leg, every step sending bright aftershocks of pain up her side. The IV pole, her constant companion, jangles down the polished floor, echoing her ungainly limp. She wonders if she’ll have it for the rest of her life, like her dad. The surgeon said you can live a perfectly normal life without a spleen, but she feels raw, gutted open like a fish, her insides about to gush forth if she pulls too hard on the stitches.
She pauses a moment by the door, looking through the glass. The officer outside lets her in. “Get yourself a coffee,” she tells him.
There’s two of her bullets still inside of him but they’ve got the fella handcuffed to a gurney, just in case. He’s awake, eyes fixed on the ceiling, still as death but for the slight rise and fall of his chest and the ripple over his Adam’s apple when he swallows. Schmitt tells her he hasn’t said a word. They can’t get a statement out of him. Hard case, professional, like. Maybe they’ll have better luck with a woman; he’ll think she’s not a threat. Molly shrugs at the suggestion; that’s worked before. Her grey bathrobe draped over a hospital gown, greasy hair tied back in a ponytail, she hardly looks the part of a tough-as-nails deputy.
The fella on the bed doesn’t even acknowledge her presence until she crosses his field of vision. He’s so coolly detached that it’s like he’s deaf and dumb or something. “Remember me?” she asks.
He rattles the handcuffs. He’s so massive that for a giddy moment she thinks he’s going to break free of them altogether, spring off the bed, and strangle her like some monster in a horror movie. But it’s just a gesture. He mimes writing, and she turns to see the whiteboard hanging on the wall behind her.
Molly’s confused for a split second, and then it all clicks together—his silence in the insurance office and his utter lack of reaction now. She grabs the whiteboard and hands it to him.
Partner?, he scrawls, which is the point at which she’s supposed to be a good girl and do as she’s told. She’s practiced it all, the head shake and the slight frown and even the sympathetic note in her voice, not that it would do any good where this fella’s concerned.
Thing is, she’s been right about everything else so far, so.
“Still in ICU,” she says, and he grimaces, gestures at his own ear. She says it again, slower. He nods. The look of relief on his face is palpable. She sits down in the chair beside his bed, shifting her body around the pain. The place where her spleen used to be, presumably, reminds her of its absence. Funny, she’d never thought of it being there before.
He writes: I need to see him, as though he were actually in a position to make that kind of demand.
Molly shakes her head, and his face crumples. For all his size, he might be an orphan child, bereft and frightened. “Jeez,” she says, half turned away so as she can’t tell if he can tell what she’s saying. “What the heck kind of a hit man are you?”
He underlines the word “need.” Twice. He attacks the second line with enough violence that it dents the nib of the dry erase marker and leaves him wincing in pain.
“Hurts, huh?” she says, before she can remember that he can’t hear the softness in her words, before she can remember that she’s the reason he’s handcuffed to a bed with two bullets in him. He jerks his head away from her. “Mine too.”
There’s not a soft bone in her body, morphine haze or not, but she feels an odd form of kinship with the man, laid up like he is with no one but the person who shot him for company. Their positions weren’t so different, really, except for how he was a killer for hire—presumably, she doesn’t know what else he’d be doing out there in the snowstorm with an assault rifle—and her an officer of the law. He probably does deserve to rot in jail for the rest of his life, he’s probably killed loads of people, but there’s also something vulnerable in his silence and those big green eyes.
She tilts his chin back towards her, which is a stupid thing to do, with his other arm still free. He could crush her windpipe with just one of those huge hands—but he doesn’t. She writes, Lorne Malvo on the whiteboard.
“Is that who you were after?”
There’s expression even in his silence. His brow furrows; a closing-up of a drawbridge, the tightening of muscles hidden beneath his hospital gown. She makes one last play.
“He cut up your partner pretty bad. Slashed his throat. Doctor said he might not make it.”
He sucks in a breath, his eyes bulging out of his head. She can’t tell if it’s from the pain or her words.
“It’ll go easier on you if you cooperate. Y’know. At trial.”
It’s her first misstep, but it’s enough. His head whips back to face away from her. Okay, conversation over, I get it, but she doesn’t leave, not right away. There’s a crack there in his walls, somewhere, if she can only find it. And of all the mysteries she’s uncovered, this one’s hardly the most cryptic.
Back in her own hospital room, she picks up the beige phone and dials out.
“Hey Gus,” she says, striding with confidence through his torrent of stammered apologies. “Got a favor to ask.”
He’s still falling. He tells himself that as long as he’s falling, he hasn’t hit bottom.
Somewhere there is a flurry of movement. It’s not a good thing for a hit man to be the center of attention. There’s nothing he can do but ride it out, let others fight off the Angel of Death for him while he sinks deeper into memory, retreats from the bright torture of the present.
It starts off with the job. It is always the job.
The syndicate threw the deaf kid at him as a joke, yeah, maybe you’ll manage to not piss this one off with all your bullshit since he can’t hear you, hah hah hah, plus he’s a fag too, and Numbers had pictured something different, someone harder, not fucking Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy. The kid’s not more than 19 and he’s scared shitless, even though the story the Aussie tells him of how the syndicate found him paints him as anything but a dew-eyed innocent.
“Nice,” Numbers says. “How’m I supposed to fucking talk to him?”
The Aussie raises up his hands in an exaggerated shrug and slams the door, leaving them to it.
Their first job together goes badly. Which is to say that it goes right in the sense that their target winds up dead, but so do half a dozen other people, and it’s all Wrench’s fault. In fairness, Wrench ends up saving both their asses too, in a furious orgy of violence that leaves an Olympic-sized swimming pool of blood sinking into the concrete floor of the warehouse, but that hardly redeems him. It isn’t planned and it isn’t clean. Numbers glares and seethes at him and brushes bits of skull and hair off his brand new fucking suit, all the time Wrench just watches him, mute, his hands moving in a language Numbers doesn’t understand.
What a fucking moron.
After the bodies get dumped and phone calls get made, they hole up for the night in a motel room. Wrench sits on the bed, cheerfully oblivious to Numbers berating him. Numbers slips off his suit jacket, which is ruined anyway, and sees that the sting in his upper arm isn’t a strained muscle but a bullet graze.
Wrench looks immediately contrite and he stands up to guide Numbers into the bathroom. This goes badly as well. Numbers tries to get away—the last thing he wants is this idiot touching him—but the idiot is built like a brick shithouse, and struggling is only going to make his arm worse. So he lets the dumb hick manhandle him so he’s sitting on the toilet seat, and then the kid is cleaning his wound with a washcloth so carefully that it barely even hurts and winding gauze around it and somewhere in the middle of it all they make eye contact and he’s fucked.
Wrench brings one of those huge hands up to his face. He strokes the side of Numbers’ face. Once, then again, like he’s fascinated, like he’s apologizing, who the fuck knows? Then he leans in and of course presses his lips to Numbers’.
“You gonna beat me to death?” Which—by the way—is what happened to the last guy who fucked him, a syndicate member whose extracurricular predilections were not exactly a secret to anyone. Word was he’d gotten rough with a hustler and said hustler had brained him with a wrench. That was more than enough to justify disposing of the chump and being done with it, but the guy sent to collect the kid was impressed with his propensity for violence and decided to give him a shot at compensating them for their loss.
Wrench frowns; obviously something Numbers said or did irritates him, which is not unusual for people who spend any amount of time around Numbers. Not you, he mouths, and leans in again.
“You’re the shittiest hit man I’ve ever met,” Numbers declares, and kisses him back.
It’s awkward; they can’t actually communicate beyond exaggerated pronunciations and several explicit hand gestures to determine what goes where and in whom, but it’s—Numbers grudgingly admits—well worth it. Wrench fucks like he kills, like a force of nature. He lifts Numbers up against the bathroom door and buries himself to the hilt, and Numbers is actually glad the kid can’t hear because he’s pretty sure that the noises he makes are undignified as all shit. He gives back as good as he gets—he’s queer as fuck but he’s no pansy—and they’re both left sweaty and bruised and aching in the best possible way and that whole bit is great.
It’s what follows that’s the problem, and continues to be the problem for the next fifteen years.
After, lying on the motel bed, spent and sticky, Wrench drapes one of those big arms over Numbers and spoons around him, breath soft against the back of his ear.
Numbers does his best to bolt.
“Oh no. No, no, no.” He gets free, kind of, though his injured arm protests at the sudden movement. Wrench drags him back down and holds him more securely. Nuzzles—look, there’s no other word for it—the back of his neck. And it’s good, it’s really good, but it’s not fucking professional.
He gets where the kid is coming from. Even without Wrench telling him the no doubt tragic story about how he’s all alone in the world without anyone to look after him—which is more than obvious from the way he dresses—it’s not that hard to figure out. He’s just a kid. Numbers has never been responsible for anyone else before; he doesn’t want to be responsible for anyone, least of all a deaf mute with atrocious fashion sense and zero sense of self-preservation. He’s seen that dreamy look in the kid’s eyes before. It’s the look that guys get when they’re tired of the job and start fantasizing about what happens after the killing’s done, how they’re going to save their money and get out and settle down somewhere and go clean.
Numbers was born into it; his entire family’s with the syndicate, the ones who are still alive, anyway, and he knows there isn’t any other life. There is no after.
But even now, he knows he’s going to tolerate this. For one thing, if you are somehow under the impression that the North Dakota criminal underworld is teeming with a surplus of handsome, well-hung gay men, well, you’re in for an unpleasant surprise. There’s an inevitability to it all, and if it means that the spaces between killings get filled with the best sex of his life, well, he’ll deal with the cuddling. That’s what he tells himself.
What he tells Wrench is, “I’m not gonna rescue you.”
Wrench reaches over to the nightstand for the pad of paper he carries around. He studies it carefully, then writes something down. He tears off the page and thrusts it at Numbers.
What the fuck makes you think I need rescuing, asshole?
“You’re the asshole,” Numbers says, and Wrench grins. Just like that, they’re friends, and until Malvo's knife puts an end to the whole thing, they gleefully murder their way across the American heartland.