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The Game Has Gone (To Other Spots)

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They meet like any men in their business meet - one pointing a gun at the other. He doesn’t know what the bearded guy holding a ladies’ pistol and yelling something at him is saying, but he gets the gist of it, and drops the hunting knife he’d been about to put into the guy’s partner.

It turns out to be a big misunderstanding. Some asshole at the Syndicate called not one but two teams - not that Wrench is really a team, working alone - to track shipments gone missing. Wrench hadn’t asked what the shipments were when he’d accepted the job; he’d learned to keep his mouth shut, so to speak. It helped, in his line of work, not to scrawl every thought that crossed his brain onto the notepad he used to communicate with the Syndicate.

whats in them he writes when the bearded guy holds up a bag of what appears to be milk.

“Milk,” the guy says, expression incredulous.

just milk?

The guy says something that Wrench can’t make out, then shakes his head, frustrated, before he takes the pad and pencil. big $$ in milk.

Wrench shrugs a ‘whatever.’

The guy’s partner is still feeling a little pissed off about Wrench nearly stabbing him, and things don’t exactly get better when he gets shot holding a box of milk-bags, which burst like arterial spray when he takes the bullet.

Wrench is about to go get the guy - or possibly his body - when he feels an arm around him, dragging him down behind a set of crates for cover. The bearded guy is close enough Wrench can feel him saying something, spit spraying wet against the back of his neck, but he can’t see him from this angle, especially when he clamps a hand over Wrench’s mouth. Like Wrench is gonna fuck this up even more by talking.

Fortunately, the guy’s kind of little, or at least littler than Wrench, and he breaks his grasp pretty easily, rolling so he can get a visual on whoever shot the guy’s partner, a puddle of milk and blood spreading on the warehouse floor.

The guy pokes Wrench in the arm, and holds a finger over his mouth, like Wrench needs to be told to shut up. Wrench does it back, mocking, and the guy says something in response, and there’s more gunfire coming, enough that there’s the smell of it, the way the other guy flinches just a little every time Wrench thinks a shot’s been fired.

Beard holds up the ladies’ pistol he’d been brandishing earlier, like that’ll have enough rounds to protect them, and Wrench hazards a glance over the crates to see his hunting knife lying useless on the floor.

There’s no way they can take on these fuckers, so he scopes around for an exit. Nothing behind them, of course, but one on the far side of the warehouse, just needing to get through the hot zone and out.

It’s loud enough now that Beard has his hands over his ears, which makes it easier for Wrench to communicate his plan. Get behind crates. Belly crawl. Run. As plans go, it’s not his best work, but he’s been shot enough times - once - to know he doesn’t care to be again, and the guy’s answering nod seems to agree with this sentiment.

Beard makes a few hand motions. On my count, he mimes, bringing down his ring, then middle, then index fingers on his opposing palm. He forks two fingers at his eyes, then out at the room.

No shit, Wrench mimes back, eyebrows up and hands out and perpendicular to the ground. Keep your head down and eyes open: organized crime 101.

There’s another set of shots, close enough that Wrench can feel their impact vibrating off of whatever they hit in the warehouse. Beard counts again, three, two, one, real this time, and they’re off, crawling around a set of crates, Wrench’s vision taken up mostly by Beard’s ass. He’s wearing what looks like designer pants to what is rapidly becoming a massacre, of milk, if not people, and they pull tight as he crawls.

Wrench feels grateful for his jeans and his jacket, even if the motion of its fringe might get them noticed. It feels like an extra layer of protection, though the patched hole in the left sleeve says that it won’t stop a knife, much less a bullet.

It feels like it takes them forever to get to the other side, stopping when Beard holds up a fist, starting again at his ‘c’mon’ gesture, a sideways scoop of his hand. Sweat soaks Wrench’s back by the end of it, shirt sticking to his armpits, even though it’s cold in the warehouse, colder still when they get within ten yards of the entrance, wind blowing through the door like it always does up on these plains. Still, he feels hot. Fear-sweat, probably, especially since he has no idea how much shooting is going on. He’s more of a hand-to-hand guy, muscle, or sometimes surveillance, depending.

Beard holds up his fist again, and they stop crawling. It’s a clear path to the door, no obstacles, but also no cover, and they’ll have to make a run for it. Wrench makes a big target, he knows, and Beard’s all-black ensemble might be good for lurking in shadows, but it makes him stand out like a roach on a TV in this warehouse.

What they need is a distraction.

Beard mimes Wrench taking off his coat, and does it again when Wrench shakes his head no. He bugs his eyes out, and does the gesture with enough force that Wrench accedes, pulling the coat off. A few bags of milk and an ungraceful, but effective, toss across the floor - fringe arcing - and they’re off, running the thirty feet or so to the door while Wrench’s jacket presumably takes one for the team.

Outside, it’s fucking freezing - it’s North Da-fucking-kota, so that’s more of a statement of location than any comment about the weather. Wind cuts through his shirt, freezing his sweat to him, and he’s about to make for his car when Beard yanks him by the wrist and pulls him into a shitty-looking sedan.

He can feel the engine struggle as it turns over, vibration shaking the car, and the thunk of the parking brake as it disengages and the car lurches forward. But it’s a vehicle, and they’re moving, Beard hunched over the wheel, gripping it like he’s trying to strangle it.

It’s a good ten miles - covered in about eight minutes - before Wrench’s breathing returns to normal.

where are we going? he writes, and shoves the notepad under Beard’s face.

He gets it slapped away for his trouble, and Beard just turns and says, once, slow, “Fargo.”

But they don’t go directly, instead stopping at a motel long enough for Beard to toss all his stuff in a beat-up looking suitcase. He offers Wrench a change of clothing, and all his shirts are way too tight, though it’s better to get a few layers between his body and the wind, as anemic as the car’s heater is. Wrench pulls on a sweater, black, unsurprisingly, and loops a similarly black scarf around his head and neck.

They don’t bother doing anything more than leaving the key on the bed and the room open before hitting the road again. They’re as far north as they can get before Canada, and it’s a long, mostly dull trip back, miles and miles of miles and miles.

Beard - who writes that his name is Mr. Numbers - drives and doesn’t try to communicate much, just hunching over the wheel and miming that if Wrench needs to pull over to take a piss or whatever, he should just ask. He doesn’t try to say much else, not trying to fake-sign or write with the notebook perched on his knees, and only motions once, really, at a truck that might be tailing them, though it turns off at the next exit, so is probably a false alarm.

Wrench wishes for a book or something. He doesn’t mind driving, finds it relaxing in the way that Numbers doesn’t seem to, tense as he is, gloves tight over his knuckles, but being a passenger is pretty dull. He tries to sleep, but he’s too tall for the seat, and his head knocks against the window.

They stop at a drive-through for food, Numbers snapping his fingers for Wrench to write down his order, then paying without asking Wrench for money. They eat parked in the lot, heater finally warming the car adequately enough that Wrench’s feet finally feel unfrozen in his boots.

Numbers also gives Wrench his extra ketchup packets, dipping his fries instead into sweet and sour sauce and laughing when Wrench pulls a face.

we should get our story straight for fargo Numbers writes, after they’ve shoved their trash into the greasy paper bags and then into the junk-pile of a back seat.

went to investigate. shooting. left ur partner. whats to straighten out?

not my partner. just met the guy. mr. smith. stupid name.

stupid to get shot over milk. but no use crying i guess Wrench writes, then watches when Number reads it and rolls his eyes and laughs at the same time. owe me a jacket

did you a favor. ugly fucking jacket.

Wrench puts a hand to his chest and mimes offense at that. need a new one anyway. its cold.

Numbers fiddles with the dials some more, putting the heat on full blast, and shaking his head in disbelief when Wrench puts his nose almost to the vents.

we’ll buy one when we get to fargo Numbers writes.

Wrench puts his hand to his mouth, fingers against his lips briefly, then hand outward, the sign for ‘thank you.’ He writes tx on the pad, in case Numbers missed his meaning.

Numbers mimics the sign, mouthing or saying the words along with it, Wrench can’t tell, eyes flicking up and to the side like he’s actively thinking about remembering it.

N.p. he writes.

 

It’s inevitable, then, that the Syndicate sends them out together on their next job.

we have to come up w/ something better Numbers writes, while they sit in a diner hashing over the logistics. It’s really more an excuse to hash over excellent pancakes - the kind with bananas in them and candied walnuts on them - and too much bacon.

The job is really nothing more complicated than go, freeze their nuts off in the car for a few days, watch, report back. The target’ll probably get whacked, depending on how Fargo is feeling. It’s above his paygrade, anyway.

Wrench nods in agreement. The pad is tiring, but it is what it is. u sure u should eat all that? he writes, motioning to the side order of bacon Numbers is consuming with lip-smacking gusto. His mouth is shiny with maple syrup and he has some in his beard, too, clumping the hair together.

cold burns calories he writes, with an eye-roll, though he’s moaning and clutching his side two hours later in the car when they’re staked outside the target’s house.

told u Wrench writes, but he leans back in his seat so that Numbers can lean across him and retrieve a tube of Rolaids from the messy glove compartment. They’re in a new car - new to them, anyway - but it’s no less messy than the previous one, like Numbers has some sort of blast zone of fast food wrappers, maps, cigarette packs, and other road detritus that seems to accumulate around him, despite his tight-ass appearance.

stfu is written response. Wrench rolls his eyes. As good a place to start as any. He thwaps Numbers on the shoulder until he’s looking Wrench in the eye, then brings a hand up to his mouth, four fingers tightly together and clapping against his thumb. He repeats the motion a few more times, then pokes the paper until Numbers seems to get it, trying it a few times on his own.

great, I know thank you and shut up. v. handy he writes back after a minute.

From there, it’s easy enough to teach him ‘please,’ and ‘what do’ and a few other things. He’s too tight with his hands, too slow, but he watches Wrench intently, repeating his gestures, making a questioning face and letting Wrench manipulate his hands into the right positions. It’s more than the last guy they stuck Wrench with did, or the guy before that, so he takes it as a positive.

The target they’re supposed to be watching takes his sweet fucking time, too, so they continue on like that until Numbers throws up his hands when Wrench tries to teach him to put a simple sentence together, and writes tired on the pad, and that’s enough for the day.

Numbers continues to hold his side and pop Rolaids in his mouth, though. He fidgets enough in his seat that it makes it hard to concentrate on the house they’re watching, a constant distraction in Wrench’s field of vision.

Wrench adjusts himself in the too-small seat, then spends some time combing out the fringe on his new coat - bought at the same surplus store as the first one, the last remaining of its kind on the rack - and more time watching the front door of the target’s house not move. The Rolaids Numbers eats are the mint kind, sickly-sweet smelling in the blasting heat of the car, and it’s enough that Wrench volunteers to go down the street to get him a cup of tea and just get away from him.

He holds up his hand in an O, stirring with the other hand, then just writing tea at Numbers’ confused look. sugar? he writes, then does the motion, a double-swipe with his hand against his chin.

Numbers holds up two fingers. Figures.

When he gets back holding two Styrofoam cups of tea, both with two sugars so he doesn’t have to remember which is which, Numbers actually offers a crumpled dollar from his wallet for it.

Wrench holds up his hand, a refusal.

is that why ur numbers? he writes.

ha ha is the response, though Numbers settles and stops shifting around as he drinks his tea.

The target shows an hour later, and they trail him to the auto shop he works at, to his sister’s house, to his mistress’ house, to a boxing gym. It’s boring, and Wrench’s ass hurts, and he signs as much to Numbers, who must pick up on at least some of his meaning, since he laughs.

From there, the target goes home again, and they head back to the fleabag that the Syndicate put them in to call it in, or for Numbers to call it and for Wrench to stretch out his aching legs and cycle through the channels on the shitty, blinking hotel TV until he finds a sufficiently terrible horror movie, one with enough gore and spraying blood that he doesn’t need the captions to follow the plot.

Dinner is a pizza Numbers gets from the takeout place up the street, and they eat watching the movie, which it turns out is in Italian, so Numbers isn’t really following, either, other than looking greener than a hired thug should at some of the scenes.

weak stomach? Wrench writes. He mimes puking just to watch Numbers roll his eyes.

No, Number signs, double tapping his fingers and inclining his head. dumb movie he writes.

dont need to hear words he writes.

Numbers shrugs. go watch something better. with captions.

OK, Wrench signs.

The next day is more of the same, surveillance, lessons, shooting the shit as much as is possible given that Numbers can only sign slowly and the pad gets tiring after a while.

It’s three days before Halloween. There are decorations everywhere, including on the house they’re parked outside of, and it’s strange to think of whacking some guy with a bunch of plastic pumpkins in his yard.

best halloween costume? Numbers writes after a while.

ghost. He follows it with the sign.

boring Numbers mimes someone going to sleep, but then does the sign for ‘bored,’ grinding his finger against his nose, when Wrench shows him.

ghosts dont talk Wrench writes back eventually. what was urs?

didn’t do halloween. too jewish. not allowed.

Wrench doesn’t really know what to do with that piece of information, but it doesn’t matter anyway, since the target comes out, finally, and they’re off.

Later, when they’re done logging this guy’s mundane comings and goings for the day, Wrench tries to sign a question. Why’re we killing this guy?

Numbers gives the sign for ‘again,’ then mirrors what Wrench is doing: He flicks a hand between them, indicating them both, then draws a finger across his throat, then points out to the target’s house. Finally, he touches his hand to the side of his forehead, inclining his head in a deliberate question, and shakes his extended thumb and pinky - a ‘why.’

He leans back, seems to process it, and then shrugs. why do you need to know? he writes.

He shrugs. It seems weird to drop someone through a hole in the Minnesota pond ice without even an inkling of what’s going on.

Don’t care, Numbers says, after a minute, more smoothly than he’d signed most things thus far. Kill him. Get money.

Good, Wrench signs back, belatedly, because it had been a good attempt, even if the sign for kill isn’t that. It is now, or at least between them, it is.

why are you thanking me? Numbers writes.

im saying good. same sign as tx. sort of., Wrench writes, then makes a hand motion, not a sign, for more or less.

On Halloween, they take the night off - Syndicate’s orders, but they’d have to anyway, considering there are too many people out and poking around to lurk in the car. Instead, they go downtown, or downtown such as it is in Duluth, getting beers and food that doesn’t come from a paper bag.

A few people approach, swaying drunkenly, motioning at them.

What do they want? he signs at Numbers.

Want know c-o-s-t-u-m-e-s us, Numbers signs back, finger-spelling slowly but more fluidly than he had been even a few days ago, and Wrench can’t help but give a ‘good,’ before giving the approachers a sign that even drunk assholes can probably interpret.

A theater is showing Nosferatu, and they get tickets, Numbers negotiating the transaction, though it’s not like pointing to the movie time and gesturing for two tickets would have taken much effort. He pays, anyway; Wrench isn’t going to complain about someone else spending their money.

It’s a good movie, surprisingly spooky, even if Wrench can’t appreciate the band they brought into play as an accompaniment. The vampire, or vampyre as the title cards spell it, is huge, looming, coffin-shaped, fingers creeping across scenes. Numbers actually jumps at one point, grabbing Wrench’s wrist as a reflex. Wrench gives his hand a steadying pat before digging into the bag of popcorn they bought to split between them.

Thank you, Wrench says, after. It’s been a while since he’d seen a movie in the theater. He doesn’t know whether Numbers really gets what he’s saying, but he signs OK in response.

They get a second dinner after, in a burger joint with high-back booths and low lighting. They sit at the bar instead.

Good movie, Wrench says, when they’re seated and the bartender dispatched with their orders. He’d just pointed before Numbers could ask what he’d wanted, motioned for two beers to be brought over as well.

Good, Numbers agrees, then motions as if to indicate that it was extra good.

You got scared, he says, making his face extra comical - eyes big, lip trembling a little - to solidify his point.

Numbers shrugs, a firm ‘so what?’ Like m-o-n-s-t-e-r movies, he says, though the way he says it, it’s not clear if he’s asking Wrench if he likes monster movies or stating his own preference.

Good monster, Wrench says, and smiles back when Numbers laughs at the sign for monster.

Numbers also has the pad out, writes, big guy. always so quiet. lurking. reminds me of someone.

Wrench flicks him off, once, casually, then tucks into his meal, and Numbers does the same.

He doesn’t know what prompts it, but he can guess. All he knows is that they’re eating, mostly finished with their food, and suddenly Numbers slams a man’s hand against the bar, pierces the steak knife he’d been using on his burger through the webbing between the man’s fingers, nothing vital, but all those capillaries there. Hand wounds and head wounds always bleed so much.

Numbers wipes his hand off on his napkin, long enough that it’s clearly for a show of disdain and not about hygiene. He gets his wallet out, throws down a twenty, which probably won’t cover their food and beers, but the bartender is too busy trying to staunch the bleeding to notice they’re leaving.

Wrench only has to punch one guy on their way out, and it’s not really a punch so much as grabbing the guy and tossing him with his fist. He doesn’t look back to see where he lands.

Outside, Numbers pulls a cigarette from the pack in his coat pocket, cupping his hand against the wind to light it. C’mon, he gestures, and they walk down the street, past trick-or-treaters, shoulder to shoulder.

What did that guy say? Wrench asks, back at the motel.

Numbers shrugs, dismissing the question, not the same way when he genuinely doesn’t know something.

You won’t tell?

Asshole, Number signs, indicating he’s talking about the guy, not Wrench. probably should have punched him, he writes. but the knife was already there.

Wrench laughs, and Numbers does too, after a minute. Thought you were scared, Wrench signs.

No, Numbers says, shaking his head emphatically. Not scared.

 

They don’t end up capping the guy in Duluth, or at least, not that guy, but they do end up grabbing one on the Iron Range for the next job. He’s a screamer, too, so Wrench wrestles him into the truck, knocks him out, and then duct-tapes his mouth so Numbers won’t have to hear him when he wakes up.

It’s a standard icy-plunge kill. Wrench drills the hole through the solid lake ice, and in the guy goes; his hands are cuffed, mouth taped. They wait until long after the guy could conceivably surface before turning back, retracing their footsteps across the surface of the snow-covered lake.

Bad way to die, Wrench says, when they’re back in the car.

Like falling asleep, Numbers answers.

How do you know?

Numbers shrugs. Buy you some lunch? he says, instead. It’s a long drive back though, and Numbers hasn’t really mastered signing and driving yet, so it’s done mostly without talking, only pointing out the occasional weird shit on the road, a billboard advertising taxidermy, another advertising a church, a warning that the end times are upon them and that bingo night is on Tuesday.

You can listen to the radio, Wrench says, after a while, and clarifies by fiddling with the radio dial. He doesn’t know if he gets music or static, but Numbers only moves the dial a little, and the signal clarifies into something more rhythmic that Wrench can feel through the dashboard. He puts a hand on it, enjoying the way it pulses.

What is it? he asks.

Numbers has to take his eyes off the road for a second, driving one-handed and finger-spelling s-p-r-i-n-g-s-t-e-e-n, and then new j-e-r-s-e-y. He points to himself.

t-e-x-a-s Wrench spells back, and then motions that he’d moved around a lot as a kid. army brat, he writes.

Numbers does, in fact, buy him lunch. Not that Wrench is really complaining: He doesn’t know what the Syndicate is paying Numbers, but he suspects it’s more than what they’re paying him.

You always pay, he says, when Numbers returns to the table after paying at the register.

You can pay later, Numbers says, but he motions away Wrench’s wallet that night at dinner and again when they duck into a second-hand bookstore to get a bunch of books for the drive back. The place smells like old paper and dust, the way these places always seem to smell, and Wrench grabs a few things more or less at random, not really glancing at more than the covers. If they suck, they can always use them to soundproof the trunk.

I have money, Wrench signs, after Numbers pays for his pile of books. He doesn’t have much - the Syndicate keeps them hungry enough to keep them coming back, but fed enough to keep them from taking outside work.

These’ll keep you quiet during the drive tomorrow, Numbers says. Not all - and he flaps his hand in a chomping motion that Wrench thinks probably means ‘yapping’ - and being a big baby.

Ha ha, Wrench signs back. I’ll get the next round.

Instead, though, Numbers delivers him back to their motel and says, Going out, indicating that Wrench is not really invited on this trip.

Getting laid, Numbers says, though it’s more like ‘getting fucked’ the way he signs it.

Killing makes you horny?

My dick - and he actually grabs the crotch of his pants - makes me horny. Not having to kill a guy the next morning makes it … he trails off. Better?

Easier? Wrench says.

Yes, Numbers says. Don’t wait up.

He reads, then, in the low yellow light of the motel lamp. He turns the TV on after a while, for company as much as light. It’s mid-November. There’s no baseball, so he idly watches a hockey game, though the resolution on the TV is too low to really make out the puck.

He could go out, too. It’s not actually hard to pick up without talking, depending on how picky he’s being, and the answer is, as always, ‘not really.’ There’s a certain kind of woman who likes the strong silent type, and a certain kind of man that seems to think not talking makes fucking a guy less gay.

Most of the previous guys he’s worked with have gone out right after capping someone; something about fucking after a kill being life-affirming or some shit. Mostly, it just tires him out, considering he has to do the literal heavy-lifting.

Numbers comes back looking disheveled, or disheveled for him, eyes glassy and mouth shiny - drunk or smug or something - hair like it’s gotten grabbed a few times. His collar is loose around his neck, jacket open and scarf unwound, and he’s stumbling a bit. He looks - well, he looks drunk and freshly fucked. It’s not a bad look on him, a good one, even, though Wrench doesn’t say it.

Good? Wrench asks, to be an asshole.

Good, Numbers answers, though the way he says it, it’s more like ‘thank you.’ He signs some other things - probably details, though his hands slur and he falls over on the bed in the middle of it.

OK, Wrench says, and goes to relieve Numbers of his coat, shoes, and belt. He peels off the coat easy, and ducks down to get Numbers’ shoes, though he leaves his socks on - he bitches about cold feet almost as much as he does stomach aches, which is to say, all the time. The laces are tight, and Wrench’s hands feel momentarily too big, like he’s trying to pick apart dental floss. He gets them loose enough to slip his shoes off, placing them side-by-side on the floor next to Numbers’ bed.

When he looks up, Numbers is sprawled out, shirt open the first three buttons, and sleeves open at the cuffs, legs spread wide where Wrench positioned them to get at his shoes. He gives Wrench a heavy-lidded look when Wrench goes to undo his belt, lifting his hips only enough to allow it to slide from its loops. He could probably take off Numbers’ pants, too, considering it’s a bitch sleeping in them, but Numbers catches him by the wrist when he goes for the button, holding his hand there, thumb pressing at the veins inside, and he’s saying something, something Wrench can’t lipread at all, a blur of words and then his eyes are shut and he’s snoring loudly enough that Wrench can feel the vibration where his hand is on Numbers’ belly.

He jerks off in the bathroom later, with the exhaust fan running, to cover the noises he’s probably making. He doesn’t think about Numbers sleeping in the next room, the way his neck looked or the way he keeps his finger alongside the trigger until he’s ready to shoot, a real professional. He doesn’t think about his hands, how quick they’ve gotten, the way he’s learned to sign jokes. He jerks off like it’s a job, washing his hands in the sink before looking at himself in the mirror, always careful of the evidence. It’s a physical thing, probably. It’ll pass.

 

The next job isn’t a disposal job - the opposite, in fact, a package retrieval.

I like this kind of thing better than I like killing, Wrench says, drawing his hand across his neck for the sign.

Numbers shrugs. Don’t mind killing, he says. Happy I’m not the one having to carry the bodies around. He pats Wrench’s arm approvingly. Good to have muscle, you know.

The job involves a lot of hurry-up-and-wait, sitting in the car taking turns watching, Numbers with the radio on loud enough for Wrench to feel it, Wrench half-reading his book on the history of salt, half-listening as Numbers tries to tell him about his college football team’s prospects for the year.

You went to school? he asks.

Don’t look surprised, Numbers answers. Did two years. Then four years in …

P-r-i-s-o-n? Wrench spells, then shows him the sign for it, veed fingers smacking together.

Yeah, Numbers shrugs. Did time there too.

Wrench doesn’t ask why - it’s personal, the way Numbers’ tattoos are. He doesn’t think Numbers’ll stick a knife through his hand for it, but he doesn’t want to test it, either.

Money, Numbers says, unprompted. That’s how I got the name. He spells the name of the prison: Mid-Orange Correctional Facility, managing to make the fingerspelling of ‘correctional’ sarcastic somehow. You? he asks Wrench.

Jail, Wrench says, not prison. He shows the difference in emphasis between them, the smack of hands for being locked up. Couldn’t make the charges stick.

The truth is the system hadn’t been able to find an interpreter, or possibly didn’t think it was worth paying for one for an assault charge, leaving Wrench to stew for a while before releasing him on the promise not to come back to that godforsaken Oklahoma county. No one much bothered him there - he was too big and mean-looking and quiet, though he played cards with one of the officers a lot.

They’d fooled around after, in the bathroom of a bar he’d driven Wrench too instead of taking him to the bus depot, the guy on his knees sucking Wrench off, then motioning for Wrench to return the favor. He’d had a wedding ring on and pictures of his wife and kids in the clear plastic frames in his wallet. He’d given Wrench a twenty after, maybe for the head, maybe just to pay his way out of the state.

He tells a version of the story to Numbers without the guard, who laughs and signs to him that he has a good poker face.

The package they’re tracking turns out to be doll parts.

Anyone smuggle anything fucking normal in this state? he asks Numbers. He opens a box of plastic doll heads, their eyes blinking at him, plastic eyelids painted blue for some reason. Numbers reaches for one, tips it over, and a small bag of what’s probably heroin falls out.

Better, Wrench says. Less weird, anyway.

There’s no shooting over this shipment, just a few guys to tie to chairs and work his knuckles out on. They have a good system going - talkative cop, silent cop - and whatever Numbers is saying to them seems to work, since Wrench only has to brandish a screwdriver at them and make motions toward their mouths.

One of the guys actually pisses himself, though, and Wrench jumps back to avoid getting any of it on his boots.

P-r-i-s-s-y, Numbers spells. Don’t worry. You’re still - and he makes the sign for pretty, but opens his fingers at the last minute, so it’s closer to ‘beautiful.’

Wrench doesn’t laugh, but it’s a near thing. He gestures between them to indicate that they’re the same, watching as the guy strapped to the chair - still in a damp and probably now-cold puddle of his own urine - looks at the motion and grows increasingly pale.

Yeah, yeah, Numbers says, waving him off. Get the - he points to the toolkit Wrench had brought with him, a clamping gesture that’s actually pretty close to the sign for pliers. Bet this guy’ll tell me his s-s-n, his mom’s name and his p-i-n.

Just need to know where the rest of the drugs - he makes a sniffing motion so he knows Numbers understands it - are, he says. But he gets the pliers anyway.

The guy cries while telling them. On the whole, it’s pretty embarrassing.

After, Wrench wipes down the tools with some rubbing alcohol and a rag. There wasn’t blood on them, but the guy’s mouth had been foul when he’d stuck the pliers in, spit and snot mingling. He’d gagged before Wrench could even get the pliers deep enough to do any real damage.

Weak sister, he says, pointing to the now-dry puddle.

You’re scary, Numbers says, following it with the sign for ‘monster.’

Not a monster, Wrench says, rolling his eyes.

You come out of nowhere, all - and Numbers does a mime of a lurching walk forward, like Wrench is Frankenstein’s creature or something - and try to pull people’s teeth out with pliers. Monster.

You kill people, Wrench says, and he knows he looks kind of whiny about it.

Well, we’re both monsters, Numbers says, smacking his hands against his coat as if brushing off invisible dust. Let’s eat. I’m buying.

They can’t leave the box full of doll-heads unattended, though it’s in the trunk of a car registered to neither of their names, nor anyone involved in the Syndicate. The motel hadn’t asked for a license plate number when they’d checked in, and they wouldn’t have given a real one, anyway.

Dinner is cartons of Chinese food balanced on a rickety motel table, a twelve-pack of slowly warming beer, a view of the parking lot where they have the car stationed within sight, but not directly in front of their room. There’s no reason to think someone’ll come after it; the guys handling the shipment had been decidedly small-time, but no reason for them to be fools about it either.

Numbers has the TV on, and he tries to explain jokes from some rerun he’s watching, but either it’s not funny or he’s not funny telling it, so he stops and starts telling stories from college or prison - it’s hard to tell, because he keeps cracking himself up.

He looks good this way, relaxed and easy, sleeves actually rolled up, getting loose after a few beers. It’s harder to follow his signing after a while. He slurs, but he manages to tell Wrench about his first caper, a schoolboy’s prank, really, something about selling oregano to unsuspecting freshmen, getting jumped for selling blanks on the same street as an actual dealer, then relieving the dealer of his cash through a series of improbable adventures.

Don’t know how he didn’t know it was us, he signs, more or less. Got my first tattoo from it, and he shoves a sleeve up to show Wrench the design, a goofy little scrawl of a dollar sign on his upper arm.

Why’d you leave school? Wrench asks. Got kicked out?

No, Numbers says, shaking his head. He takes a long pull of beer. I don’t know. I was - young, angry, stupid. Thought it couldn’t teach me anything. Wanted to see how ‘real people’ lived. He looks appropriately sheepish at that. How about you? he asks after a minute.

Left, Wrench says, shrugging. Turned sixteen. Most of the schools couldn’t deal with me, anyway.

Being deaf?

Wrench laughs. Too many fights, he says, cracking the knuckles of his punching hand for emphasis. And being deaf too. Half the teachers couldn’t talk to me. Figured I could do the same thing with a library card as I could in school.

He pauses, takes a swig of his own beer and makes sure the car is still undisturbed across the lot. My mom was better with me out of the house, anyway. Easier on her.

Yeah, Numbers says. Mine too, I think. She didn’t write to me in prison, or come see me. Told people I was on v-a-c-a-t-i-o-n. He mimics the sign back, once, and then again, the way he does with most new words.

You learn fast, Wrench says, because Numbers has learned fast - faster than his mom, at least, though her arthritis had made it tough to tell what she’d been trying to say.

If I haven’t said it before, thank you, he says. He breaks eye contact for that, the four beers he’s had making him too honest.

Sure, Numbers says, when he looks up again, like it isn’t any big deal. You’re easy to talk to.

Wrench has no idea what to do with that, or with the look Numbers gives him when he strips off his sweaters. The heater in the motel room works, for once, a little side unit pumping out enough to make it feel tropical in the room. He feels full and heavy, so much that he skips his nightly calisthenics routine, as much as he can do one in the narrow rooms the Syndicate puts them in. He’s getting soft from all the sitting, from Numbers’ constant paying for food, from jobs where the mark gives it up before he even really needs to land a blow.

He lies down on his bed, and watches Numbers do the same on the other one, stripped to his undershirt, feet bare. They watch TV for a while, though the show is really not funny, even with the captions on, misspelled and lagging behind the actual mouth movements of the actors.

He’s about three breaths from sleep - Numbers has first watch on the car - when Numbers signs something at him. He has to sit up to see it, propping himself up on his elbows to see. It’s just a simple ‘good night,’ though he follows it up with another sign, one Wrench hasn’t taught him, a tight linking of his two index fingers. p-a-r-t-n-e-r, he spells.

Night, friend, Wrench says back.

 

Mid-December, and they’re at a bridal store in Devils Lake. The package, in this case, is a quinceanera dress for one of the bosses’ daughters.

Look at this thing, Wrench says, pointing to one of the mannequins. The hands.

Numbers is examining one of the dresses on the rack, a tangerine ballgown with a scatter of sequins on it. What? he says, when Wrench snaps his fingers to get his attention.

Look at this, Wrench says again. The mannequin’s hands aren’t the plastic gloves the other figures have - instead its knuckles are rough, skin waxy, a ridge like a vein tracing its way toward the wrist.

Yeah, real s-p-o-o-k-y shit, Numbers says. He fidgets his foot against the floor, a flash of shiny shoe, impractical with the weather. Think there will be drugs - he does the elaborate sniffing motion they’ve been using as the sign - in the dress?

Wrench shrugs. Could be? Maybe it’s just a dress.

The clerk comes out, says something to Numbers that has him pissed off.

Can’t fucking believe this, he says. We have to come back tomorrow.

Are mice sewing it back there? Wrench asks.

“What?” he says, out loud, hands up in dismay.

M-i-c-e, Wrench spells. Like C-i-n-d-e-r-e-l-l-a. Watch a movie.

Numbers turns, asks the clerk something that has her tossing Wrench a nasty look, all high chin and a long stare down her pointy witch’s nose.

She says they don’t have mice, Numbers says, shooting him a smile that’s mostly teeth.

Ask her if it’s because she ate them, Wrench says.

Numbers actually chuckles, hand to his face, and he doesn’t ask the clerk anything else, just waves their good-byes.

The day leaves them at loose ends, wandering the row of overly quaint shops in Devils Lake, strange little boutiques and too many juice bars for a place that looks like it should be something out of the Wild West.

The wind whips at them, and they duck into the nearest building, a dusty old store at odds with the yuppified vibe to the whole street. It’s the kind of place he would expect to get a scroll, a lamp with a genie, some artifact at the beginning of an adventure tale. The shopkeeper is bent enough with age that he barely raises his hand at them when they enter.

Think we can find a monkey paw in here? Wrench asks.

That’s not really the sign, is it? Numbers says.

Monkey, Wrench says again, arms curling up into his armpits like every pre-schooler’s impression of a monkey.

Now you’re just messing with me.

Not this time, Wrench says.

They putter around, blowing dust off a few books, leafing through them. Most are old and poorly cared for, pages yellowed and crumbling.

Wrench finds one with sturdier paper, parchment maybe, he can’t really tell, full of pictures: plants dissected, flowers drawn huge and sexual; a frog skeleton, its legs primed to leap; things that he’s never seen before, strange little creatures with whip-tails, a parasite burrowing into the digestive tract of its host, alien animals with huge eyes peering at him off the page.

You want it? Numbers asks, pointing to the book.

It seems like a strange thing to buy, a coffee table book. Wrench’s coffee table is a board over two milk crates. He mostly just puts his feet on it.

No, he says, putting it back. Just interesting, you know?

Two kids come in and make for the rack of comic books, turning it slowly and examining the books encased in plastic.

That’s a good one, he says.

Numbers says something to the kids, who give them both questioning looks, like their parents warned them about talking to black-clad strangers about an ancient issue of the Blue Beetle.

Whatever they say back is interrupted by a guy walking in, striding up to the counter and sticking a gun in the old man’s face. He’s yelling something - Wrench assumes it’s about money - and waving the gun like he’s never held one before, finger already on the trigger.

Wrench grabs the kids, one under each arm, and drags them behind an old high-backed sofa. Run if you can, he says, pointing at the back door. Stay low. He mimes crouching and crawling.

They nod at him slowly. One looks like he’s about to cry, and the other, a girl with straw-color bangs in her eyes and a stained shirt, won’t let go of his leg.

Numbers, meanwhile, has his gun out and is holding it steady-armed at the would-be thief. He looks calm, if annoyed.

Wrench gets his own piece out for good measure, shaking the kid off, who detaches once she sees the gun in his hand. He walks slowly, circling, keeping the gun aimed at the robber’s center body mass, even as Numbers talks the guy into raising his hands in surrender.

There’s a blast of cold air, the back door flying open as the kids run out of it, and something about it - the noise, the motion, the suddenness - and the robber stops surrendering, bringing his weapon back up, but not before Wrench drops him, a shot to the back through a dusty old pillow he’d grabbed as an improvised silencer.

Numbers rolls his eyes and takes the gun from Wrench. He wipes it off with his scarf and looks down at the slumped body of the robber.

Fucking f-r-e-e-b-i-e right there. Get the car. I’ll deal with this one, he says, pointing to the shopkeeper.

Cops? Wrench says.

Yeah, maybe. Hurry.

By the time he gets back with the car, Numbers has the guy rolled into a rug, and they carry him out back quick enough that if the neighbors see anything, it’ll just look like two guys with terrible taste in carpets loading something into their trunk.

Gotta ditch the gun too, Numbers says, once they’re on the road, Wrench driving.

What about the old man? Wrench says.

He couldn’t see the hand in front of his face. I told him that J-F-K did it, and he asked me to repeat myself. Deaf as a - and he stops signing mid-sentence.

Wrench laughs, can’t help it. Asshole, he signs at Numbers.

They drop the body in the lake, though not before relieving the guy of his gun and the cash in his wallet. He’s wearing a St. Anthony medal around his neck, which Wrench ducks to examine.

Want a k-e-e-p-s-a-k-e? Numbers asks. First free kill.

No, Wrench says, because it’s not and he doesn’t. The medal and the body go through the hole he drills in the hard ice of the lake. It’s cold enough that there’s a film of ice forming on the dark water a minute after, though it’s broken again by Wrench’s gun going in too.

I liked that gun, he says, when they’re walking back to the car. Numbers slides a little, shoes slippery on the ice, and Wrench sticks a hand out to catch his arm.

You want this one? Numbers says, showing him the gun they took off the robber.

It’s a piece of shit, barely better than a Saturday night special, meager compensation. He shakes his head and stashes the thing, unloaded, in one of the hollowed-out spaces above the wheel well.

Think those kids will rat us out? Numbers asks, once they’re back on the highway. He uses the symbol for ‘mouse’ instead, so it takes Wrench a minute to process.

Who’d believe them if they did? We look like something out of c-o-m-i-c books.

Yeah, Numbers says. He pats himself down, finding a pack of cigarettes in his ridiculous coat. He offers it to Wrench, who declines. You want a drink, then? he asks.

No, Wrench says.

You need to u-n-w-i-n-d, he says, using a modified sign for ‘weaken,’ before Wrench shows him the actual word for 'relax.’ Drink, eat something, get laid, punch someone.

You offering? Wrench asks.

Not to get punched, he says.

They end up eating at a steakhouse, the kind of place they almost never eat. Numbers’ clothes actually fit in with the other clientele, stupid fur coat aside, and the hostess practically sneers at Wrench before seating them, though her expression softens when she sees them signing. He tries not to curse her out too obviously.

His steak comes on the rare side of medium, little pools of blood on the plate when he cuts into it.

It needs to sleep longer, Numbers says. r-e-s-t, I mean.

It’s good, Wrench says, and makes short work of it, and the mashed potatoes it came with, and most of the bread basket.

Knew it, Numbers says, when Wrench asks him if he’s going to finish his surf’n’turf.

What? he asks, then helps himself to two fat shrimp, dunking them in cocktail sauce and sticking the tails back on Numbers’ side of the table.

Everyone has to do something after a ‘job,’ he says. Knew you weren’t actually a m-o-n-k.

Wrench gives him a long look. This one wasn’t a job, if you didn’t notice.

Even a hooker has to get laid sometime, Numbers says, shrugging. Sorry you had to do one for free.

That’s not - and Wrench slides his plate away from him, food a lump in his stomach. He looks down, long enough that Numbers hits the table, enough to make the silverware jump, to get his attention.

Don’t go all soft on me now, he says. A guy that dumb was going to end up dead one way or another.

Dumb, maybe, Wrench says. Or d-e-s-p-e-r-a-t-e. He runs a finger over the smooth wooden surface of the table, watching it smudge and then fade.

Dumb, Numbers says. Kids in the store, us there. That old man wouldn’t know how to hand over the money.

Yeah, Wrench says. Dumb’s not a reason to kill somebody.

Numbers laughs, and his face is ugly for a second, cruel almost. Half these guys we knock off - it’s because they’re too fucking stupid to know better. You think it’s some kind j-u-s-t-i-c-e, what we do?

I don’t know, Wrench says. He looks around.

They’re attracting attention, of course, maybe for repeatedly making the throat-slashing sign, maybe for being two guys in a fight over dinner, more probably just for signing in public. Deaf while eating.

Let’s get out of here, he says.

What’s next? Numbers asks, reaching for his wallet and signaling for the waitress to come with their check. S-t-r-i-p club? Bar? We could blow some shit up if you want.

No, he says.

They drive out to the middle of nowhere instead, a different lake than the one they put the body in. Wrench doesn’t say much on the ride, just lets Numbers drive, staring out the window at the dark ribbon of the road.

It startles him some, when they pull up next to the lake. It’s remote enough, and dark enough, that stars paint the sky above them. Numbers had the radio off for the drive, but he turns it on now, a buzz under Wrench’s hand when he puts it on the dash.

He takes a cigarette this time, smoking with the window cracked a little, an edge of cold.

First time I killed a guy, Numbers says. It wasn’t for money. He takes a drag off his cigarette, blowing smoke out his nostrils.

Me too, Wrench says. He lights the end of a fresh cigarette with the still-burning tip of his old one, then flicks it out the window, watching it spark against the hard ground before going out.

Did he d-e-s-e-r-v-e it? Numbers asks.

I thought so, at the time.

And now?

I don’t fucking know, he says.

Yeah, Numbers says.

They sit like that for a long time, watching the wind rearrange snow on the surface of the lake, the way the stars don’t do much to cut through the darkness of the sky.

If you weren’t like this, Wrench says. If you didn’t do this for a living, what would you do?

You mean if I stayed in college like a good New J-e-r-s-e-y boy?

Sure.

Probably would have gone looking for t-r-o-u-b-l-e, he says. End up getting killed by guys like us. L-e-o-p-a-r-d-s and s-p-o-t-s, you know?

There’s a joke about leopards, Wrench says, turning to face Numbers a little more. A guy who plays the v-i-o-l-i-n he goes into the woods looking for a place to play. All the animals come to listen to him. L-i-o-n-s, deer, rabbits, all of them lying down together to hear the music, all peaceful, none of them killing each other for once. It’s the most beautiful music they’ve ever heard, and it goes on and on, like something they could listen to forever.

And then this leopard comes out of the forest, and sees the violinist, and gets him by the throat and tears him down. The violinist dies and the deer all run and the rabbits all hop away. The lion comes over and goes, ‘hey, leopard, why you gotta be such an asshole?’

And what does the leopard say? Numbers asks.

The leopard goes, ‘What? I can’t hear you. I’m deaf!’

Numbers laughs, and thumps him on the shoulder. You know what I learned from that joke? he says.

What?

Deaf people aren’t funny.

The next day, they go back for the dress.

Seriously, the hands on this thing, Wrench says, pointing to the creepy mannequin. What if it’s a body?

It’s not a body, Numbers says, but he’s looking at its face, the way its skin isn’t pulled smooth like the other figures’.

Who do you think it was? Wrench asks. A bride who never got married? The owner’s daughter?

Numbers looks a little spooked at the thought. Some people have a hard time letting go, he says. He pauses for a minute. Maybe I’ll do that for you, he says. Prop you up like some kind of drugstore I-n-d-i-a-n.

Don’t be ridiculous, Wrench says.

You’re right, he says. No way you’re dying before me. He says it like it’s both a joke and not a joke, and Wrench doesn’t have the chance to respond before the clerk comes back with a clear bag holding a bright green layer-cake of a dress.

They rifle through it in the car, careful on the fabric. Wrench mostly holds the dress up, hands gloved so as not to stain it, letting Numbers do the delicate work of feeling the hem for anything hidden, inspecting the lining and seams.

Nothing, he says, finally. Guess it’s just a dress.

 

Wrench doesn’t get sentimental about Christmas, though Numbers does, weirdly.

Thought you were Jewish? Wrench asks, when he sees him eyeing their target’s Christmas decorations with an expression that’s more like envy than distaste for inflatable snowmen and too many lights.

I was, Numbers says. Off the w-a-g-o-n.

It does explain his constant need to eat any available pork products, though he whines about it after, popping whatever digestive tablets he can get his hands on or, more frequently, shutting up when Wrench gets him some tea.

Still, Wrench says. Christmas?

It was my first year in prison, Wrench says. My mom wasn’t speaking to me, and my dad considered me dead - he gives the sign that’s closer to ‘thought I was murdered.’ My - I don’t know what it’s called? He gives a sign that more or less means ‘prison-friend,’ though in any other context it would be closer to a romantic partner than a bunkie.

Cellmate, Wrench signs back.

He really liked Christmas. Made decorations, even, out of some magazines and toilet paper. Other guys gave him shit for it, but he didn’t care. He was - and he motions at Wrench - big like you. But not as talkative.

Ha, Wrench says.

Anyway, he really liked it. I mean, even in prison, they still let you have Christmas. The food was a little better. Turkey - he makes the sign for ‘big chicken,’ but Wrench gets it. Families came, my cellmate’s kids, his wife.

Did your family come?

Nah, he says. He signs it like the thought of his family visiting him was ridiculous. My cellmate’s wife brought me a present, though. Really nice of her, considering … Numbers drops his hands. His face goes a little red, though it’s hard to tell, with the car heater running and the cold as vicious as it is, their skin is pretty chapped.

You were prison-friends? Wrench says, holding the motion for friends longer than normal, indicating closeness. Not just a bunkie then.

Yeah, Numbers says. He takes out a cigarette and lights it, cracks the window, even though it’s cold enough they’re both wearing two sets of gloves in the car, and Numbers’ beard shows damp spots from where his breath froze outdoors. This guy ever gonna show up? he says, after a minute, smoke trailing as his hands move.

Wrench doesn’t really know what to say. ‘It’s OK,’ seems like it could backfire. Maybe they’d just been close by necessity. Numbers can fight if he needs to, but he’s more of a talker - a problem in prison, probably - and a weapons guy, likes big guns and big knives over hand-to-hand stuff. That’s what Wrench is there for. He’d been young when he went away, about five years younger than Wrench is now, but in mileage, a lot younger. They both have had to make choices they don’t want to talk about.

He settles, instead, for bumming a smoke off Numbers, who hands him the pack and the lighter without comment, and dropping a hand on the seat between them, not on Numbers’ leg, but close enough to it that Numbers probably gets his point.

They do Christmas dinner together at Numbers’ actual apartment. It’s cleaner than it normally is, wooden tables showing swipes of a rag, carpet with fresh vacuum tracks. He brings a bottle of scotch, something expensive enough that he’d had to pull a fifty from one of his stashes, and a store-bought fruit cake, the kind with hard red and green fruit in it. And another package, mostly as a joke.

There are cooking smells, beef and something spiced, and Numbers’ hair looks fresh-combed, though he’s in his socked feet in the kitchen. He’s not wearing any sort of weapon Wrench can see - probably just the knife at his ankle then, or his backup holster.

Anyone else coming? Wrench asks, though he knows the answer. They’ve spent too much time hunkered in cars together for the past few months to think that Numbers has a family hidden somewhere, a circle of friends that think he’s a salesman or something.

Numbers shakes his head, then holds up a bottle of wine as an offer.

Wrench offers the scotch instead, and he snags two glasses that are clean and only a little water-spotted, pouring them both a few fingers, diluting his with a little water from the tap, handing Numbers his straight.

What’re we drinking to? Numbers asks, tucking the glass into the crook of his elbow so he can sign more easily.

Christmas? Wrench offers.

OK. Numbers raises his glass, clinking it with Wrench’s. He drinks, making a pleased face at the taste. Good stuff.

They eat in front of Numbers’ TV, a college football game that Wrench only pays half-attention to. The food is good, some of it actually seeming homemade, a roast with onions and carrots, some kind of noodle pudding thing that Numbers spells as k-u-g-e-l, bread wrapped in foil and warmed in the oven, broccoli with mayonnaise and cheese.

It’s too much for both of them, but they eat most of it anyway, making decent inroads into the bottle of scotch he brought. They talk about nothing in particular, past good meals they’d eaten, the fact that Numbers has never seen the Charlie Brown Christmas special, various crimes and misdemeanors.

You talk to your family? Numbers asks.

Just my mom, Wrench says. No sisters or brothers. And my dad’s never really been around. Emailed her. She can’t write too well, and I don’t like the relay. She has - he grips his hand in an A, shaking it, then spells out ‘arthritis.’

Ironic, Numbers spells back, but his face is sympathetic. What does she think you’re doing?

He shrugs. He doesn’t lie to her, really. She knows what a shit-starter he is, just asks him if he’s happy and healthy and out of trouble, for pictures if he’ll send any, if he’s ever going to settle down.

She wants me to get married, he says. Grandkids. At least a dog.

Numbers laughs. Moms, he says. All the same.

You talk to yours?

A head shake. My dad put me out after I got home from prison - or I put myself out. Took a job with the m-o-b in New Jersey first thing after I was released. He told me I couldn’t live under his roof if I was going to hang around with a bunch of g-a-n-i-f-s. Thieves. Think I was looking for a reason to go. Think he was looking for a reason to get rid of his t-h-u-g son.

He looks down at his hands, fusses with pulling his sleeve up where one of his cuffs has come unfolded. She called me, he says a minute later. A few months ago. I send her the number every time I move. We didn’t talk long. She was - and he traces an index finger down his cheek, from his eye to the top of his beard. Crying. He puts his hand down, catching himself, and drains the rest of the scotch from his glass.

I’m sorry, Wrench says. He sloshes more from the bottle into Numbers’ glass.

I don’t know why I tell you all this shit, Numbers says, and his eyes are looking a little wet.

We’re friends, Wrench says. Don’t have many others.

Don’t have any others. Ones who are alive. He signs ‘not murdered’ for alive, which could be the case.

People tell me I’m good at listening, Wench says, to lighten the mood a little, and it has the desired effect, since Numbers laughs, warm and open.

Yeah, he says. You’re a good listener all right.

Numbers laughs like a nut at the fruitcake, even more when Wrench tells him to open his present - the ugliest Christmas sweater he could find at Goodwill, complete with sparkly Santa faces and a bearded elf that looks a little like Numbers. He gets a thwack on the arm for it, but Numbers pulls it on over his shirt, messing up his hair in the process. He doesn’t bat Wrench’s hand away when he goes to fix it, just looks at him with an unreadable expression for a little too long, then pads off to put the leftovers in the fridge.

 

The next job goes bad.

Numbers gets shot, twice, in the muscle of his arm and a graze at his hip, the first deep enough that he starts to go pale almost immediately, maybe from the blood loss, but more likely from shock.

“Fuck,” he says, out loud. “Fuck fuck fuck fuck.”

They’re stuck in a firefight though, and Wrench can see where bullets are tearing up their car, can see the bright muzzle flashes of the guys firing at them, can’t see a way out of here.

It’s cold enough that he doesn’t want to strip Numbers’ shirt off to look at the wound, so he just wraps his scarf around his arm as tightly as he can, though it quickly soaks with blood.

More shots hit around them, some glancing off the icy road, ricocheting dangerously.

Numbers tries to hold his hands up, but his arm won’t bend, so he just ends up shouting and pointing with his non-shot arm. “Go!” he says, pointing at the tree cover about fifteen yards away.

Wrench shakes his head. No fucking way.

“Go!” he says again. Can’t run, he manages to sign, one-handed, a single L shape moving sideways. Save yourself, he doesn’t say.

Usually when Wrench has to drag someone, he’s using them as a human shield. Now, he pulls Numbers up into a half-crouch, shoulders under his good arm, leg against his bad leg. There’s snow everywhere, of course, and the adrenaline from getting shot at doesn’t trump the cold or the way he can see Numbers’ teeth click together, the way his lips are starting to look a little blue.

It’s slow going though the snow provides some cover since the guys shooting at them can’t seem to land much of a shot. It’s a tough angle, shooting uphill, a hundred yards out, with the snow howling around them, a small mercy. Still, he and Numbers have to stop once, halfway there, Numbers sucking air, face ashen.

If he carries him, and breaks for it, it will mean standing fully upright. If he gets hit, they’re both done for. He looks back at the trail of blood left on the snow, at Numbers’ eyes, which are beginning to roll up in his head, and he does a full-body heave, throwing Numbers into a fireman’s carry, and runs, break-neck, into the woods.

From there, the shots diminish, though one hits a tree a few feet from them, so he traces his way over snow and around tangled branches and across slick leaf litter until he’s well and truly away from the gunfight - and from the road to anything resembling civilization.

The scarf around Numbers’ arm is saturated with blood now and he rebinds it, adding his own, even if the wind bites at his nose and ears. He pulls his hat down as much as he can, and he’s warm, though Numbers has stopped shivering - shit, shit, shit - and that’s more worrying than any bullet.

He opens his coat, brings Numbers in quickly to press against him, then closes it around them as much as he can, Numbers’ hands between them, his face buried in the crook of Wrench’s shoulder, breathing wetly.

It occurs to him that, if Numbers dies here, he won’t know what to put on his gravestone, won’t know who to contact in New Jersey to tell them their son is dead, won’t know what to do with the few things Numbers calls his own. The Syndicate keeps them anonymous - to each other as much as to their victims - for a reason, and Wrench’s name has been Wrench for long enough that it feels like his, truer than what his mother calls him.

They stay like that for a few long minutes, Wrench clutching Numbers’ body tight against his chest, trying to infuse any warmth he can, even as his face and fingers start to go numb. He can lose the tip of his nose to frostbite if need be, a finger, maybe, not his trigger one, but a pinky, a little toe, the rim of a useless ear. If he’s honest, he’s not sure what he’d do if he came out of the woods with his body fully intact and Numbers dead. If he’d even come out of the woods at all.

Numbers starts shivering hard against him, managing to say something against his neck.

Wrench pulls back, examining Numbers’ pale skin, his hair mashed down by his hat. He looks bad, still, but better than he did, lips starting to color a little. Wrench brings his hand up, unsure what to say, if he even knows the words for what he’s feeling right then. He settles for tracing the edge of Numbers’ cheek with his thumb, cupping his jawline in his hand, hoping it’s saying what he can’t.

Numbers shivers again, teeth together, and they have to haul ass out of there before they both die of exposure.

They make their way through the woods, Wrench half-carrying, half-dragging Numbers. They leave a path behind them, footsteps already filling with snow, blood freezing into little red holes, stark against the white ground. It’s near dark and there are predators beyond the kind with guns in this forest, wolves and bear, coyotes desperate enough with winter hunger to take on people.

A painful few miles later, and he sees a cabin, from the looks of it deserted but sturdy against the wind. It doesn’t take much to open the lock - a key hidden under the doormat, practically an invitation - and they’re in quickly enough. It’s almost full dark, stars a smear across the sky, moon big, and the snow has picked up enough to hide their tracks. Safe enough for now.

He lights a fire in the small wood stove, long match and crumpled newspaper onto mercifully dry logs, then goes to assemble something resembling a first aid kit. He finds tweezers, vodka, spare linens to serve as bandaging, superglue, a pot to boil water in. He heats enough water to fill a metal cup, urging Numbers to drink something to stop his chattering teeth, has to hold the cup to his mouth, unsteady as he is.

This will hurt, he signs, before reaching for Numbers’ boots, pulling them off, soaked socks too, and rubbing his feet enough to start circulation in them.

After, Wrench scrubs his hands down at the rattling sink, wondering that the pipes aren’t frozen. He washes once, twice, to the elbow like he’s seen surgeons do on TV, splashing a little vodka on his fingers as well, letting it evaporate off near the fire.

From there, he strips off Numbers’ coat, unwinding the scarf on his arm, which leaves blood smears on Wrench’s hands. The sweater Numbers is wearing sticks into the wound, and he picks fibers out with sterilized tweezers.

He negotiates Numbers’ good arm, then body, then hurt arm out of his shirts. Numbers shudders hard, leans over like he’s going to hurl, stomach convulsing, but nothing comes out. He doesn’t protest when Wrench manhandles him back against the sole bed in the cabin and props his hurt arm up to slow the bleeding. It’ll need a doctor, more stitches than Wrench is capable of administering, but there’s no bullet either, a straight through and through.

He cleans it, first with a rag dipped in boiling water, then vodka, holding Numbers’ good hand as he yells through the pain. He glues the hole shut, a sloppy, inelegant job, pressing the sides of the wound together and watching Numbers grimace, then go pale, then say something, probably cursing him out, sweat sprouting on his forehead.

Once the glue dries, he binds the arm with strips of cloth as best he can. The bandages don’t soak the way the scarf had, even if they have a slow, spreading red blotch. He loops another piece of cloth over Numbers’ shoulder, immobilizing the arm.

You’ll live, he says. Need a doctor soon. But you’ll live.

The wound at his hip is messy but superficial, though he has to strip off Numbers’ pants and long underwear to get to it. It leaves Numbers naked, save the bandages, and a quick search of the cabin yields a variety of canned goods, extra blankets, and clothing for someone bigger than either of them. It works, though, a pair of sweatpants with the waistband rolled a few times, long enough that they cover his strangely delicate feet, a blanket draped across his shoulders.

He finds a few cans of stew, heats them on the stove. Numbers can work his good arm well enough to slurp from a cup, though he’s so slow that Wrench reheats the stew once to keep it from going completely cold. He eats as well, suddenly hungry enough that he burns the roof of his mouth, his tongue, laughing a little at the idea of blasting his tastebuds off when he’d been worried about freezing to death hours before.

There’s snow piled on the windowsills. He can feel the wind rattling the panes in the windows, kneels to pack an extra blanket against the sliver of a draft coming in under the door.

When he rises, he finds Numbers looking at him. He looks warm, skin pinked up from the heat, even the beginning of a light sweat over his tattoos.

You think you’ll be able to sleep? he asks. I can’t find anything for the pain. There’d been an ancient bottle of aspirin, the tablets old and crumbling. The bottle warns of it being a blood thinner, anyway, so Wrench doesn’t offer.

Yes, Numbers says, a nod. He winces even at that small motion.

Wrench removes his own boots, stuffs them with newspaper and puts them near the fire to dry out, then gets his socks and pants and two shirts, until he’s in his T-shirt and boxers. He unwraps the blanket from Numbers’ shoulders, enough to tuck it around both of them, then maneuvers under the blankets so that Numbers is leaning against him, bad arm still elevated.

Thank you, Numbers says, once, a sloppy motion from his mouth toward Wrench, out and down.

His eyes are heavy, his breathing deep and even, and he’s warm against Wrench. It doesn’t take much for him to slide into sleep, for Wrench to spend a few minutes after watching the steady rise and fall of his chest, grateful for it, to fall asleep between one breath and the next.

In the morning, it takes a minute to remember where he is, that he’s not just wrapped up and warm against another body, as much as his cock wants to believe it, to press forward and enjoy the feel of it.

The fire has died enough that there’s a chill in the cabin, and Wrench can’t maneuver his pants on under the blankets without totally interrupting the bubble of warmth formed around them, so he settles for the sting of cold against his feet and legs as he pads across the cabin to stoke the fire. A few logs, and it’s back to life enough that he practically races back to bed, sliding under the blankets hurriedly.

Numbers’ bandages have gone rust-colored in the night - a sign of the end of bleeding. He whines at Wrench when he inspects them, more when he tries to move his arm and get him to move any of the fingers in his hand. He can’t squeeze down on Wrench’s finger, or form a fist, fingers struggling to curl over into an O. More promisingly, the wound on his hip is just a series of red lines around a deep but unbleeding gash, a few places even beginning to scab.

Looks good enough for now, Wrench says, at the end of his once-over. Need a doctor today.

OK, Numbers says. How?

I’ll think of something, Wrench says. You rest.

He gets his clothes on, his boots and socks, supplemented by what he can take from the cabin - an extra sweater, a pair of socks stretching up to his knees.

Outside, it’s still snowing a bit, not enough to obscure his vision. There’s an access road about fifty feet from the cabin, distinguished only by a slight dip in the snow cover, a shed that looks like it would normally house a snowmobile. He finds a shovel and clears enough to confirm where the road is, that it traces through the woods more or less clear of trees. They could be miles from the nearest town, too far to walk in a day, and he doesn’t like the chances of someone passing picking up a big deaf hitchhiker. Predictably, the burner phone the Syndicate gave them shows no service.

He goes back in, kicking snow off his boots against the doorframe. Numbers is awake, still propped against the pillows he’d set up.

How’re you feeling? Wrench asks.

He gets an unsteady hand in response, a line of pain between Numbers’ eyebrows.

Could you eat?

A quick head shake, and Numbers looks slightly green at the thought.

There’s not much he can do, other than warm some water, hold the cup to Numbers’ mouth while he sips. He probably needs to eat, keep his salt levels up after losing that much blood, but it won’t matter if he throws it back up again.

I’ll have to walk to find help, he says, after Numbers is done drinking. Even that has tired him out, and he slumps against Wrench’s chest, Wrench wrapping his arms around him and signing in front of him so that Numbers can see.

The angle is different, and it takes him a minute to register what Wrench is saying, to summon enough effort to shake his head ‘no.’ Cold, he says, gesturing outside. Lost.

You need drugs, Wrench says. S-t-i-t-c-h-e-s. A doctor. The bandages feel warm and a little wet against his arm, and if blood loss isn’t a concern anymore, infection definitely is.

Numbers makes a few aborted attempts at signing that Wrench interprets as ‘how would you get help?’

He holds up the phone the Syndicate gave him, miming sending a text message.

Tomorrow, Numbers says. Please.

You could lose the arm. Wrench gestures to the bandages. He’ll need to redo them soon. He hopes they’re not so tight as to cut off blood flow entirely, that the wound isn’t slowly going septic. He doesn’t know.

The response is disjointed, a gesture at him, the sign for ‘lost’ like Wrench is a set of car keys that could get misplaced. ‘You could get lost,’ maybe, or ‘I could lose you.’

It’s probably a bad idea to strip off his sweaters, to add another log to the fire, to warm up enough stew for them both to eat, feeding it to Numbers in alternating gulps, to huddle close and warm under the blankets while the snow intensifies around them. But he does it anyway, getting up only to retrieve a damp towel, which he uses to wipe Numbers’ forehead where his hair is sweat-stuck, then under his arms and across his chest, down the line of his stomach.

Thanks, Numbers signs, before drifting into not-quite-sleep against Wrench.

Wrench watches the logs crackle in the fire, the calm of the woods. A lean deer walks past, a doe from the look, or a young buck, perhaps, already shed its antlers for the winter. It spends time nosing at the peeling bark of a tree. It must see something in the woods, because it freezes, the wide-eyed look of a prey animal, before darting off.

He must sleep, too, because he wakes up with Numbers against him, fever hot, face flushed and sweating. He’s crying in his sleep, eyes wet, saying something, but Wrench can’t tell what.

It was foolish not to go, but it’s too far along in the day now to do anything but get fresh snow and heat it just to the point of melting before applying it to Numbers’ face and neck. He opens his eyes but they’re glassy, fogged with dreams, and he doesn’t seem to know Wrench is there. He says other things, names, maybe, but it dissolves into more delirium, and for once Wrench is grateful that he can’t hear who he’s calling for.

The snow helps, the few aspirin that Wrench manages to get Numbers to swallow do too, but he’s still too warm, and the arm wound, under the bandages, takes on a disturbingly red look, inflamed and too wet.

That night, they both sleep in fits, Wrench waking every time Numbers moves, getting more water, more snow, shedding blankets to cool him off, then redraping them when he’s wracked by shivering.

He leaves at first light, has his clothing on by the time by the time night resolves into morning. He sets a bowl of water near the bed, a cup to dip into it in case Numbers can find the strength to, the dwindling bottle of aspirin, some jerky he finds in the cupboard near the stew.

I have to go, he says, though he doesn’t know if Numbers can really understand him, eyes still shining with fever, so he says it out loud, throat unaccustomed to making noise. “I have to go.” He has no idea if it sounds at all like words, but he presses a hand to Numbers’ cheek, his lips to his flushed forehead, once, twice, and hopes that it’s enough.

He walks to the road, then along it, stopping only to adjust his socks in his boots. His phone still shows no sign of a signal, even when he comes to a larger road, mentally flipping a coin before deciding to walk east toward the rising sun. He ties Numbers’ scarf as a marker around a fencepost, hopes the wind won’t carry it away.

It’s hard going, snow knee-deep and coming down, wind bitter. He traces his progress by how far the sun climbs, noting every turn in his notepad so he can hope to retrace his path. An hour goes by, then another, and there’s a black dot on the horizon, an approaching car. He waits for it to get close enough to see that it’s not a cop or a trooper, then waves his arms frantically, only to have it whiz by him.

Mid-day, and he eats the jerky he brought, cups some snow in his hands until it melts, drinking it, cold against his lips and tongue.

The road shakes, snow falling off fence posts, and he looks up to see a truck coming, a big-rig that seems to be decelerating, maybe to help him or at least enough not to hit him. It does stop a little after where he is, and the driver extends an arm out the window. C’mon.

It’s warm inside the truck, and he pulls himself up to the passenger seat easily. The driver is saying something, but Wrench just takes out his pad and writes DEAF in all capital letters. Then need ride to town.

The guy nods once, affirmative, grabs the pad and scrawls out WHAT TOWN? as if Wrench can’t see as well as can’t hear.

any he writes back.

It’s a short ride, or short enough, Wrench getting feeling back into his hands. The guy drops him at the next city, Thief River Falls, one with decent enough cell service that Wrench gets two bars, and he doesn’t ask any more questions or do much other than shrug when Wrench signs ‘thank you’ at him.

He texts the Syndicate. stranded in Thief River Falls MN. need doctor. send help asap.

A few minutes pass, and he begins scoping out easily boost-able cars, since he only has a knife to jimmy the lock with. He’s hungry too but it feels wrong to eat while Numbers waits for him. He goes to a pharmacy instead, buying bandages, some painkillers, glucose tablets, rubbing alcohol, heat packs. He gets more stew, the biggest cans he can find, a few candy bars that he pockets rather than pay for.

The clerk tries to make conversation, maybe something about the weather, her smile big and bright.

He points to his ears, signs out a quick, ‘sorry,’ a rub of his fist against his chest, then takes the bags.

She gives him a look that’s pure pity, and he makes a show of checking his phone to avoid her eyes. Nothing from Fargo yet.

He does take a car, an unlocked sedan with the ignition key in the visor above the driver’s seat. It’s sitting on three half-flat tires that he has to pump up at a filling station. He manages to get directions to a veterinary clinic from the clerk, along with an odd look as the guy slides the notepad back to him. The sleeve of his jacket is streaked rusty with blood. My dog, he writes. Very sick.

His phone buzzes on his way there, and it says the name of a doc, the address he was heading to anyway. she’ll expect you. cash upfront.

He digs the extra wad of money out of his boot, the emergency fund he extracted from Numbers’ wallet before leaving.

The doc is old woman with a face like shoe leather and an outstretched palm that he places five hundred dollars in. Go get him, she writes. I’ll sew him up here. She gives him a bottle of antibiotics and another of ketamine, only a few tablets, with firm instructions to administer the dose as listed.

The drive back feels both shorter and longer, the car bouncing over the half-ploughed highway, then along the pitted backroads. Everything looks the same - flat and white with tree branches grabbing at clouded sky - and he hopes he’s at least going in the right direction.

Something in his stomach unknots when he sees Numbers’ scarf still fixed on its fencepost. He pulls the car up, slowing as it labors up the access road. It’ll do no good if they get stuck, so he parks a few hundred yards from the cabin, tramps the remaining distance at a half-run, the cold air in his chest doing nothing to calm his anxiety.

Numbers is there, passed out but breathing, and Wrench clutches him selfishly to his chest before administering the antibiotics, tilting his head back so he can pour water down his throat. He swallows in two gulps, and his eyes crack open a little.

He says something, and Wrench can feel it vibrate against his hand, but it doesn’t matter what, because his expression is relief and surprise, lips still parted, and fuck it, Wrench just kisses him full on the mouth, once, hard, turning away before he can see Numbers’ response, and then goes to gather his things up.

It doesn’t take long to get him dressed, boots back on, enough blankets that he’s twice his normal width, and there’s no way he’ll be able to walk.

He replaces the stew they took, extinguishes the fire, neatens the bed as best he can, leaving a hundred that he hopes covers the stained sheets.

It’s far enough to the car that he’s breathing hard by the time he gets there, laying Numbers in the backseat carefully. Between the car’s shitty suspension and the condition of the backroads, he breaks half a tablet of ketamine and gets it into Numbers, hoping it’ll knock him out enough for the ride.

The doc examines Numbers' arm, poking at the super-glued wound with disdain. Don’t do that, she writes. Poison. She’s able to extract the plug of it, though, which brings up all sorts of other things with it that Wrench doesn’t care to see or smell, and he finds himself in the bathroom, heaving up jerky and beef stew.

When the doc’s done, she motions for him to come to the exam room where Numbers is lying, still mostly sedated, arm stitched up and rebandaged.

Keep it clean and dry. Take ALL antibiotics. No other drugs if you can help it. If fever >103, take to ER. Otherwise, ice and Tylenol.

Thanks, Wrench signs.

The doc shrugs a response. I need another $500$1000.

Fargo, he writes back.

 

He says we made a fucking mess of it, Numbers says. He’s got the phone tucked into the crook of his shoulder, and he’s nodding at whatever their Syndicate contact is saying. He should see my fucking arm.

The wound is mostly healed, though it’ll scar for sure, a radiating mark like a star around where the bullet went through, another smaller one on the exiting side. He’s still wearing his arm in a sling, signing one-handed as best he can, only using a squishy stress-relief ball for hand-strengthening exercises when Wrench badgers him about it.

Are we fired? Wrench says.

Numbers shakes his head, a dismissal. Leave of absence. Not fired, he says. Only way we’re fired is if we’re dead.

Quit, then? he says.

Are you - Numbers holds up a finger, nodding along with whatever Fargo is saying on the phone. He says something back, not bothering to translate for Wrench, then hangs up. You couldn’t wait until I was done? he asks.

Don’t ignore me. Are you quitting?

Quitting? Numbers says, expression incredulous. Quit and do what?

Wrench shrugs. Whatever, he says. Whatever we want.

Numbers actually laughs at that, a nasty laugh. Yeah, all right, he says, going so far as to call Wrench ‘kid.’

Fuck you, Wrench says, and turns away, going into the other room, effectively ending the argument.

Numbers finds him later, draping his good arm over Wrench’s shoulder to get his attention.

Don’t be like that, he says, when Wrench turns to face him. His expression is soft and conciliatory, though, and Wrench rolls his eyes, but doesn’t turn his back when Numbers sits down next to him.

You could have died, Wrench says.

I could have, but I didn’t. He signs it with a shrug, like, ‘what can you do?’

I thought you were going to. I was scared.

I didn’t, he says again, sweeter this time, somehow, a reassurance, and he adjusts how he’s sitting, leaning against Wrench.

He’d been doing shit like that since they got back, leaning against Wrench, tucking his feet under him when they get cold. He had shrugged when Wrench complained that his couch was too short and lumpy. So sleep in the bed, he’d said, rolling over to let Wrench in, then sleeping close enough they were sharing heat.

Now, he’s got his bad arm and shoulder half-against Wrench, hair close enough that Wrench can smell whatever wax he puts in it to keep it ridiculously high. They should probably talk about this, whatever it is they’re doing - and whatever Fargo wants them to do next.

Instead, he flicks on the TV, handing the remote to Numbers so he can change the channels to find what he wants. Today, it’s cooking shows, and Wrench watches as a woman with a too-large head and what he admits is a great rack prepares some kind of chicken dish.

Looks good, he says, after a while.

I could make that, Numbers says. Looks pretty easy.

You don’t have to.

I don’t have to do anything, he says. But I could, if you wanted.

You don’t have to go back to Fargo, either, Wrench says.

Numbers studies his face for second, raising a hand like he’s going to touch Wrench’s cheek before dropping it and beginning to sign. You really think that? he asks. You really think we could just walk away?

I’ve done it before.

Numbers laughs, a harsh-looking thing. This isn’t some county jail. You don’t walk away from Fargo, he says. You run and you keep running. Or you die. He draws a hand across his neck for emphasis.

We could, Wrench says. Walk away. Run. Take all the money. Go some place that’s not cold all the fucking time.

You and me. On some b-e-a-c-h somewhere? More likely to end up at the bottom of a lake.

Think about it, Wrench says. Please? He draws his finger over his heart, the sign for it.

All right, all right.

What would we do? Numbers asks, later, when they’re both half-asleep on the couch, Wrench pretending to read the book open on his lap, Numbers changing the channel lazily.

Go some place quiet. Count our money. Day work’s not hard to find, he says. The truth is, Wrench hasn’t considered much beyond leaving Fargo.

We’d be looking over our shoulders forever. You really think you can stay out of trouble? We don’t have a great track record on that.

We could learn.

Guys like us, Numbers says. You think we could learn?

We could try, Wrench says.

 

We need eggs, Numbers says the next day. And bread. He takes out his wallet, hands Wrench a few high-number bills. Beer?

No beer, Wrench says, taking the money. Numbers can’t drink on his meds. It’s been a source of disagreement. Any kind of bread?

The s-l-i-c-e-d kind. Buy yourself something pretty.

Ha ha, Wrench says. Seriously, you need anything else?

I wrote a list, Numbers admits. He hands Wrench a folded piece of paper with a short grocery list, instructions on where to pick up his shirts from the dry cleaners, another plea for beer. Thanks, sugar, he says, the last sarcastically, a prolonged swipe of two fingers down his chin.

It feels strange to walk around alone, through the bright clean aisles of the supermarket, pausing at the condiments section for too long, debating whether to buy grape or strawberry jelly, then remembering the wad of cash in his pocket and getting both. He loads his basket, avoiding the offers of help from the employees when they see him studying the aisle signs with a simple gesture to his ears. Sorry, he says, belatedly.

There’s a kid at the dry cleaners’ manning the counter, doing what looks like math homework, fingers busy at the calculator. She looks up when Wrench approaches, eyes wide, and accepts the bill and ticket he hands her without comment, pressing the button on the conveyored rack until it delivers Numbers’ things.

He has his hands full - groceries, a bag of hangered clothing, a case of beer - and is heading back to the car when a guy comes up to him. He’s asking for something, Wrench can’t tell what - money, directions, whatever - and won’t seem to take Wrench pointing to his ear and mouth as a sign to fuck off.

He has to put the groceries down, and reaches for his notepad when he realizes he left it back at the apartment. He considers his options - walking away and just getting in the car, or braining the guy with a case of beer. He settles for a middle finger instead.

Thought we were staying out of trouble, Number says, when Wrench comes in, but he’s already shooing Wrench into the bedroom, sitting him on the bed, and pressing a bag of frozen peas to his swollen eye. He says something else, but Wrench can only half-see him, and so he asks him repeat himself and Numbers waves him off.

He leans back, bag dripping on his face. I’m trying, he says. There was a fight.

No shit there was a fight, Numbers says when he looks up. There always is. I’m going to - and he gestures to Wrench’s eye. He stands between Wrench’s legs, tracing gently around the top of his cheekbone with his good hand.

Wrench winces a little.

Sorry, Numbers says. It’ll probably bruise. He doesn’t move away, though, just keeps his hand on Wrench’s face a beat too long. He feels closer than they’ve been since the cabin, even sharing the same bed, giving Wrench a careful, appraising look. One of us should make better decisions, he says, shaking his head, stepping back.

Wrench grabs his wrist as he turns to go. Let me take a look your arm, he says, after a second. Check for -

OK, Numbers says, and goes to undo the buttons on his shirt.

It’s easier with him standing shirtless, Wrench leaning down and close enough that he can’t see Numbers’ face. The arm looks fine, no sign of infection since the vet sewed him up, stitches dissolving away after a little more than a week.

Still, he takes his time, running a hand over the top of Numbers’ arm, trying to be gentle. The scar interrupts his tattoos, white lines cutting through ink there, and Wrench presses a thumb into where the skin must be tender, because Numbers’ hand comes up and cups his shoulder. When he looks up, Numbers’ face is tense, lips pressed together.

Hurts, he says, holding up his other hand, thumb and forefinger held close to indicate the smallness of the pain, though his expression says otherwise.

Wrench continues his inspection, putting a hand on Numbers’ chest to check for any change in his breathing. He massages his bicep, feeling the cord of muscle over bone, and he must be doing all right, because Numbers hums a little, a pleased feeling.

Wrench moves behind him, keeping a hand on his chest, examining the other side of the wound. He ducks his head, watching the hair on Numbers’ arms stand as he breathes on him, the way he feels tense, spring loaded, rising almost to the balls of his feet.

A push with his thumb yields a sharp intake of breath, and Wrench moves on reflex, arms around Numbers, one at his chest, the other low on his waist, Numbers’ back pressed against his chest.

Numbers makes a noise in his throat, a little whine that vibrates against his chest, and he tilts his head to the side, maybe to bring his hands up to start talking, maybe just to allow Wrench a closer fit, but it’s enough to drive their hips together, drawing a noise Wrench can feel all over. He grabs one of Wrench’s hands and brings it to his mouth, lips on it and then gesturing out, the sign for ‘thank you.’

It’s all too much to take and not act, and Wrench has to kiss him, just then, turning him around and pressing their mouths together. It’s not like the kiss at the cabin, a different kind of desperation, Numbers’ mouth opening under his, his hands digging into Wrench’s sides, bunching his shirt.

He steps back a minute later, only to demand Wrench remove it, and his boots and the belt from around his hips. He gets impatient with the last, doing it for Wrench, arms around him, belt slithering out. He rubs his knuckles across where Wrench is hard in his jeans, then pushes him back on the bed, two fingertips against his chest enough to fell him.

His beard is rough against Wrench’s neck, his stomach, the line of skin above his waistband. He smiles at the bad tattoo Wrench had gotten at seventeen, drunk and dumb, then slides a tongue over it, too quick to be anything more than a tease.

Wrench gets his hand in Numbers’ hair, presses down, a rough suggestion, and feels Numbers laugh against his belly and then move up his body to meet his mouth.

They kiss for a while like that, and then Wrench rolls them over, undoing Numbers’ pants and sliding them off, underwear next, and he gets his legs on either side of Numbers’ hips, leaning down over him, back arching so they can kiss once, again, more bites than actual kisses.

Numbers says something he doesn’t catch, a quick movement, before rolling his hips up, giving him a long, heavy look, and Wrench goes to undo his jeans, kicking them off.

I could, if you want, Numbers says, motioning to turn over, but Wrench shakes off his sign.

He wants - he wants a lot of things, most of them inexpressible, hands too busy with feeling Numbers, whole and responsive under him, to bother saying. He leans over, taking Numbers’ wrists and pinning them above his head, with a glance that says ‘leave them there,’ and he drops to kiss his way down Numbers’ chest, through the hair on his stomach, the scarred skin on his hip.

Numbers says things, body rumbling, things that Wrench can only guess at when he looks up. His lips are outlined in a moan, the shape of Wrench’s name, perhaps. He brings a hand to Numbers’ neck, loose, not a threat, just to feel the noises he’s making, the sharp intake of breath, a laugh when Wrench kisses him on the side of his ribs, tickling, something deeper when he pushes his thumb against a nipple.

He must drag it out too much, because Numbers reaches up, and rubs out a sign on Wrench’s chest, a swipe of a hand across his heart: Please. Like Wrench can deny him anything.

 

Was it like this with your prison friend? Wrench asks, later, when they’re naked, lying in bed and passing a cigarette between them. He holds the sign for friend, grinding his fingers together, long enough to make it dirty.

No, Numbers says. It was … He hesitates for a second, then settles on the sign for ‘different.’ He had a wife, kids. I was never going to be - He takes a long drag from the cigarette, which is near the filter, then stubs it out in the overflowing ashtray on the nightstand. I wasn’t going to ever come first, for him, he says, finally.

Wrench turns a little, examining Numbers in the dim lighting. He looks like an old black and white photo, thin light from the window drawing slats across his chest. He traces a finger over one of Numbers’ tattoos, high up on his good shoulder. If you hadn’t been in prison, would you have been with him? he asks, after a minute.

I don’t know. He was the first guy I was with. Things are different on the inside. But that’s like asking if you’d kill people if you weren’t deaf. It doesn’t matter, really.

This isn’t because I saved your life? Wrench says, gesturing between them.

It doesn’t hurt, Numbers says, and he rolls over so he’s draped across Wrench’s chest, head tucked into his shoulder. But it’s not only that.

OK, Wrench says. Good. He drops a kiss to Numbers’ hair, hums a little, low enough that Numbers doesn’t seem to hear it.

 

Arm’s better, Numbers says, a week or so later. He squeezes the stress ball as evidence. Maybe it’s time to go make some money.

We could tell Fargo there’s n-e-r-v-e damage, that you can’t work a gun.

They’d work a gun into the back of my head. B-r-a-i-n damage, he spells, even though Wrench knows he knows the sign for it. They’ve been calling, anyway.

You haven’t answered?

Figured we could do one more, a little cash for the road. I wanted to ask you first.

I guess we could see what the job’s about, Wrench says. But he feels like an alcoholic promising himself just one more drink, especially when Numbers smiles wide in response.

The phone buzzes a few minutes later, a call Numbers takes in the other room as if his talking will disturb Wrench.

He comes back in, holding notes on the notepad Wrench had left on the bedside table. Wrench doesn’t use it much in the apartment, anyway.

Nothing too hard, Numbers says. We just have to get a package to a guy in Chicago. It’s a three-day thing - two days driving, a day in the city. Almost like a vacation.

You told Fargo we’d do it? Wrench says.

They didn’t really ask, Numbers says.

The package, of course, is a brown box with no external markings. It’s heavy enough that it takes the two of them to lift it and wedge it into the trunk. Its weight fucks with the already fucked suspension of the car, and they bounce along the highway, Wrench driving a careful five miles over the speed limit, fast enough to stay with the flow of traffic, not so slow as to catch the attention of any curious state troopers.

It’s cold, of course, wind blowing in the cracked window, Numbers ashing his cigarette onto the Minnesota road.

What do you think it is? Numbers asks, a few hours into it. Time machine? B-u-l-l-i-o-n?

Soup? Wrench says back.

No, like treasure. You know? Like pirate b-o-o-t-y.

Wrench rolls his eyes. I was messing with you, he says. It’s probably not anything fun, anyway.

They stop for lunch at a diner. Don’t get the pork, Wrench says. I can’t listen to you bitch for the next five hours. He mimes Numbers holding his side, looking gassy.

Don’t get the pork, Numbers signs back, sarcastically. But when their order comes, he just gets pancakes.

The food isn’t great, Wrench’s sandwich overly greasy, and the diner only offers a view of the parking lot. Numbers complains about the crappy music being played, how the springs in the passenger seat are making his ass hurt, the weather.

It’s no different than any of the times they’ve eaten together, except it isn’t, somehow. They’re both tall enough that their knees knock together under the table. At one point, he has to catch Numbers’ hand to re-form a sign, adjusting his fingers, and Numbers doesn’t pull away, after, leaving them effectively holding hands across the table until the waitress interrupts with their check.

Numbers drives the remainder of the day, Wrench dividing time between reading his book and arguing about the music on the radio. The songs that feel best are apparently all things that make Numbers grind his teeth. He feels oddly light, watching the road, thinking of the various things that could be in the box in the trunk, like they could dump the package in Chicago and keep driving - somewhere, anywhere.

You think it’s a dead cat? Wrench asks. In the box?

Numbers laughs. Could be. Or a live one. Did you want to open it?

Wrench shrugs. Tomorrow, maybe.

They end up hauling the box into the motel room overnight, sticking it in a corner where it can’t be seen easily from the doorway or windows.

Which bed? Wrench asks, tossing his duffel onto the one that’s furthest from the door.

Numbers shoots him a look. Fuck on one, sleep on the other, he says, like it should be obvious.

Later, they end up getting deep dish pizza and eating it in the room, since at least one of them has to stay with the package. There’s no table, so they eat on the ‘sleep’ bed, leaning against the headboard.

It’s already messed up, Wrench says, referring to the other bed. Half the blankets are on the floor, and the mattress cover may have gotten torn a little, just in one corner. Might as well eat there.

I’m not getting crumbs stuck to my ass when we fuck, Numbers says, and sits down on the ‘sleep’ bed with his box of carryout.

There’s a hockey game on that Numbers pays attention to, sawing through his pizza with a plastic fork and knife. This shit isn’t really even pizza, he says. It’s fucking c-a-s-s-e-r-o-l-e.

It’s good, Wrench says. Better than that cardboard shit that people in New York pretend is pizza.

Numbers fakes outrage and from there it devolves into a shoving match, then a wrestling one, and, by the end of it, both beds are in pretty bad shape.

Wrench finishes his pizza sitting on the floor, Numbers leaning against him and lazily narrating the end of the hockey game. His hair is sticking up at odd angles, and he’s wearing Wrench’s shirt, too big at the neck and too long at the sleeves, which makes it hard to understand him when one of the cuffs flops over whatever he’s trying to say, something about how dumb the new shootout rules are, probably.

Wrench catches his hand to push the shirt back, thumb and forefinger around Numbers’ wrist for a second, and the look Numbers gives him is enough that he doesn’t take his hand away, just settles with his fingers stroking the rough places on Numbers’ palm as he watches the Chicago Blackhawks lose to the St. Louis Blues in overtime.

A simple job, of course, turns out to not be so simple.

They go to make the drop, the box for a few bricks of cash, only to find the contact dead in a pool of blood. He took two in the back of the head - so either professionals, or people who think that’s how professionals do things.

“Fuck,” Numbers says, out loud. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.” He gets his phone out and hits the speed dial; there’s only one number programmed into the phone anyway.

Wrench takes a closer look at the body. Their contact couldn’t have been older than twenty, a fat kid with a fat kid’s face and hands, a few childish freckles spotting his skin. There’s a gun in the corner, an M4 carbine, unfired from the smell of it. Wrench helps himself to it, and to the cash from the kid’s wallet, before reaching with a gloved hand to cover the kid with a nearby drop-cloth.

Don’t get s-e-n-t-i-m-e-n-t-a-l on me now, Numbers says. There’s a clean-up crew coming for him. Don’t ask how they do it in Chicago. You don’t want to know.

What about the box? Wrench asks.

Fuck the box, Numbers says. Let’s go find the schmucks who did this.

That part turns out to be simple. One of them was dumb enough to step in blood on the way out, and they follow bloody footprints down the warehouse stairs to the curb. Fifty bucks and a pack of cigarettes gets them the make and model of the car from one of the corner kids, who tries to give Numbers the ‘I didn’t see nothing,’ treatment until Numbers offers a big enough bill.

Kids today, he says, after.

It’s probably something boosted or a junker from a resale lot, now abandoned, but they do a sweep of the neighborhood anyway.

Who the fuck does a murder then drives away in a Civic? Numbers asks.

But they spot a little blue Honda, rusted in spots, outside a suitably abandoned-looking rowhouse. It doesn’t take much to get in: The door swings open when Wrench turns the knob, and if they had any doubt this was the right place, the bloody sneaker prints on the concrete steps and around the doorway confirm that it is.

They find two guys in the back room. The bag of money is there, open, a few red handprints on it. Both guys look high as kites, a small fortune in heroin next to them, one so totally out of it that he doesn’t look up when they walk in. They’re older than Wrench expected, or maybe just look that way because of the drugs, thin-limbed and in clothes that look a week past a wash.

Jesus, this is like fish in a barrel, Numbers says.

We could just take the money, Wrench says. It looks like a few thousand in the bag, maybe twenty or thirty, and enough heroin that they could probably get by for a while marking that up to rich kids who don’t know any better.

Not exactly ‘run away to Mexico’ money, Numbers says. Besides, maybe these assholes are faking it. He punctuates this with a kick to the couch where one of them is passed out. The guy doesn’t respond. Fargo said we get these guys, then head back with the money and the box, he says.

Leave them here, Wrench says. Let’s just take the money and the box and go.

They shot a kid, Numbers says.

Oh, don’t pull that shit with me. For all we know, they took the money after the fact. Kid looked pretty stiff when we got there.

It’s Fargo’s money. They took it.

And we’re taking it back, Wrench says. If you want to do these guys, at least wake them up so we can make sure it’s them who shot the kid. Maybe they saw someone -

Numbers throws up his hands, saying something that Wrench can’t lip-read.

That’s such bullshit, Wrench says, signing frantically, arms stinging as he smacks them together. This is such bullshit.

It’s enough that one of the guys stirs, looking groggy as he sits up, and Wrench doesn’t have time to do anything before Numbers unloads two shots into him, one in the chest, the other in the head.

It’s sudden enough that they both stand there for a second, until the dead guy’s friend starts yelling.

Ah, fuck, Numbers says. Get the other one. He has the phone out, already saying something, and snags the bag of money before going into the other room.

Wrench just sighs and pulls his weapon.

 

The drive back to Fargo is tense, Numbers driving and not playing the radio. They divide the money into different stashes, some in the wheel well, some in the hollowed out door, some taped to the bottom of the seat.

It’s seven hours into it, and they don’t even stop to eat, Numbers just pulling into a drive-through and shouting something into the microphone when Wrench shrugs off his question about what he wants for lunch.

He doesn’t know what prompts the stop; their tail-lights are working and Numbers was driving so correctly, his hands had actually been at 10 and 2 on the wheel.

Still, the trooper runs his lights at them, and they pull over without resistance.

Get the registration, Numbers says, and Wrench rifles through glove compartment, which empties its load of fast food napkins, maps, cigarette packs, and one lone clip, which he snags with his boot and shoves under the seat.

The trooper approaches, a woman with a pulled-tight bun and those glasses they must issue at the academy.

“Is there a problem, officer?” he asks, signing along with it.

She says something back, and Numbers snaps his fingers at Wrench for the registration, which he hands her along with whatever license matches it. She takes them and walks away.

Vehicle matching our description? Wrench asks, when she’s clear of them.

Something like that, he says. This car should be clean. I think it is, anyway.

And if it’s not? Wrench eyes the barrier on the side of the road. Too high to scale, for sure, but there’s a break in it in about two hundred yards, a drainage ditch piled with snow. He kicks a heel back, boot against the clip. He can probably get the cash, too, if he starts loosening it now.

I can probably slow her down, Numbers says, and his expression is unreadable. Give you a good lead.

You would - Wrench begins, but he’s cut off by Numbers grabbing him by the fringe of his jacket and kissing him.

Go, Numbers says, pulling back. Now’s the chance.

Wrench glances behind him. The cop is still in her car, and there’s too much glare on her windshield to see what she’s doing - boredly waiting for their plates to come back from the system, or calling for backup.

Go! Numbers says again, fingers against Wrench’s chest, two points that fail to move him.

Come with me, Wrench says. We can make it.

Someone’ll have to provide cover -

So we’ll put something down on the gas pedal, the money, make a run for it -

Jesus, just - and Numbers reaches across him, goes for the latch on the door, and Wrench grabs his arm, hand cupping his face. A kiss, and then another, and -

A tap against the window, the reflective gaze of the cop looming down, and Numbers turns, slow, mouth open and wet, tongue against his bottom lip as he says, Is there a problem, officer? before repeating it again out loud.

She tosses his papers back to him and says something, then walks away.

We’re supposed to drive safe, he says, rolling the window up and letting out a long, slow breath. He reaches over, puts a hand on Wrench’s leg, high enough that it’s not a suggestion so much as a deliberate come-on, and leaves it there until the next exit.

Wrench doesn’t say anything when they turn off onto a service area promising gas, lodging, and fast food. They don’t make it that far.

He presses the seat lever back with his foot, moving it back, though it gets stuck on the cash. It lowers enough that Numbers can clamber over, coat off, hat flying somewhere in the back seat, going directly for Wrench’s belt.

They’re both too tall for this, too big, elbows against the window, knees awkward against the seat, but it doesn’t matter because Numbers’ hands are in his pants, and his mouth is hot against his neck, biting, and it’s frantic, almost angry, and Wrench can’t seem to stop the fact that he’s making noises, deep ones in his throat he can feel in his chest, whining into Numbers’ mouth as Numbers jerks him roughly.

Wait, wait, Wrench says, but doesn’t, himself, instead getting Numbers’ pants open and then they’re sliding together, one of his hands around both of them, the other against Numbers’ ass in his dumb designer pants.

Neither of them is going to last long, not like this, too keyed up, too far gone to do anything but rock against each other and breathe into each other’s mouths. When it happens, Numbers says something, the shape of a word against his ear, and for once, Wrench doesn’t need to see it to understand him perfectly.

 

The phone buzzes two days later, and Numbers gives him a questioning look before answering it. Just one more, he says.

Wrench has his gun disassembled on the coffee table, working over it with rag and oil, probably adding more prints than he’s wiping off. What’s one more, I guess, he says, and Numbers smiles as he answers.

The job’s up in B-e-m-i-d-j-i, Numbers says when he’s done, holding up his notes and standing in the doorway to their bedroom. Some idiot there got capped in a strip club. Small time guy for the Syndicate. We’d just have to dig around, find out what happened, maybe even get the guy who killed him. Shouldn’t be more than three days, tops.

OK, Wrench says. Guess that doesn’t sound too bad. What do we have to do next?