It wasn’t the first time Duncan shot a dog. It was the first time he buried one he had named himself.
Snow gently fell on freshly tilled soil, surrounding him and his dog’s rudimental grave with an overwhelming sense of emptiness and deafening quiet. He should have been accustomed to the solitude; he found he wasn’t.
Duncan bought a fish after Rusty. It complimented his silences and didn’t bother pretending it enjoyed small talk, much like himself. In a matter of days, when he almost convinced himself the situation suited him just fine, an old station wagon ventured towards the cottage on the other side of the lake. He learned he had a neighbour.
Seven dogs and an inconspicuous man got out of the car.
There wasn’t much to be done in Triple Oak, Montana. Less than Duncan had expected, not enough to fend off the unexpected boredom of his retired life. Movies to rent, wood to chop. He was basically retired, he could entertain himself with more pleasurable pastimes, but his occupation had commanded not to let his guard down for years, and habits were hard to break. Especially those that had kept him alive so far. Relaxing wouldn’t happen in the near future.
Alcohol helped. Duncan replenished his supplies quite often; canned soup and cheap scotch to dampen his instincts, in hope of weakening them in the long term. He tended to his cabin, fed his fish, smoked his cigarettes, minded his own business.
One day, a familiar Volvo parked beside the poorly-stocked grocery store Duncan frequented and a familiar man entered with awkward steps, bell ringing after his passage. “Back in town, Mr. Graham,” the cashier casually greeted him. “Will you stay longer this time?” she friendly inquired.
“Who knows,” the man elusively answered searching the liquor section with covetous eyes. “Work’s been unpredictable lately,” he continued with practiced, artful ease, keeping his head down and his face inscrutable.
He favoured whiskey, Duncan noticed. There was little else in his basket, aside from ready meals and dog food. Their purchases were similarly depressing.
When Duncan had acquired the place, isolated and neglected and secluded, he was told his neighbour was a reserved person. Often out of town, not very sociable. The dogs apparently came later.
The guy would walk them twice a day, crouch down to clean them up when necessary, play fetch in the snow until they tired occasionally. Duncan could see him from his own deck, privately enjoying the nicotine in his lungs. A peaceful sight he wasn’t actively seeking, but neither avoiding.
On weekends, the man would embrace fishing gear and disappear for hours, presumably on the other side of the frozen lake; he would return after sunset with some beautiful perches on his shoulder. Fishermen of his kind, in Duncan’s experience, weren’t as docile as they looked.
Eventually, his neighbour dared his first steps towards Duncan’s threshold. Gloved knuckles produced a brisk, nervous knock on the door.
“I’m Will, Will Graham, I live in,” he began, gesturing at his own property, “guess you know already,” he observed, apparently reluctant to talk, yet determined to overcome his struggle; conversational or otherwise.
“Duncan,” he offered, not particularly talkative himself.
The man sighed, visibly abandoning his indolent attempt at cordiality. “I know it’s not ideal to ask for a favour before we,” he shrugged, “move on a friendly basis, but my usual dog sitter is in Minnesota for the weekend and I need to leave for a few days,” he rushed to say, not ashamed of seeking help when it was necessary. “I wish I didn’t need to, really.”
Unpredictable work, Duncan remembered. “I do have some free time on my hands,” he said, “but I’m not very good with dogs.”
That didn’t seem to deter his neighbour. “Don’t worry, they’re all trained,” he reassured him, “you only need to let them out and fill their bowls, you’ll be done in ten minutes,” he assured. “Come, I’ll introduce you.”
He turned to lead the way. Duncan let him, gaze averted on their regular tracks in the snow, fingers precautionary close to his hunting knife.
The dogs, as well trained as they were, remained instinctual creatures with solid hierarchical structures. Will Graham might have established Duncan’s position of superiority in their pack, but time and efforts would be required to stabilize his role when their owner wasn’t around.
A veritable horde of overeager strays surpassed him, tongues dangling from their mouths in ecstatic joy, as soon as the front door was open whenever he went to tend them. Lighting a cigarette on the porch wider than his own, Duncan studied their blithe frolicking and idle wanders, smoke still in the morning frost, before they would each relieve themselves against a tree of their choosing.
Duncan wondered whether Rusty would have gotten along with his peers, in another life. He dismissed the thought and headed towards the kitchen to replenish their supplies. Not being able to handle his own didn’t prevent him from caring for someone else’s.
“They were good,” Duncan greeted his weary neighbour upon his return, almost a week after his departure. He promptly knelt down to embrace his dogs with unrestrained relief. Duncan did not expect such a display of tenderness; he caught himself staring.
“They’re a handful , is what they are,” Will answered, face still buried in their soft fur, “literally and metaphorically.” He steadily looked at Duncan then, sustaining eye contact without hesitation. “Thanks for looking after them.” His gaze was vibrant, earnest.
Duncan dismissed his gratitude, yet accepted the glass of whiskey Will Graham offered, his single luggage left to be unpacked later.
“So,” Duncan began, “I take you weren’t expecting to stay away for so long.” His neighbour would decide for himself how much to disclose on his personal matters.
“My estimations are often revised upwards,” he said, before gulping a generous amount of his serving. “My boss doesn’t take no for an answer. I manage to keep him quiet working from home, I read his files, look at the pictures he sends, write my own notes,” he explained, placid, subdued. Sleep-deprived looking. “It’s never enough though.”
His boss sounded like an asshole, Duncan thought. He almost envisioned himself putting a bullet in their legs, just to scratch a minor itch. The man in front of him seemed exhausted just thinking about his upcoming future. His job had taught Duncan that for every asshole he dealt with, another would appear in no time. Even assuming Will Graham’s boss deserved that treatment, executing people never solved problems. Furthermore, Duncan did retire. His current target to kill was time.
“I know the type,” Duncan confessed. Whiskey loosened his tongue. “I couldn’t avoid them in my line of work, but I’m glad it’s not a problem anymore.” Thick bitterness impregnated the air and sat on their shoulders. Duncan recognized the familiar uneasiness.
Neither felt altogether eager to discuss work matters further, which conversely revealed they had something in common.
Subsequently, Duncan stopped privately addressing him as neighbour and started calling him Will instead, which was an improvement considering his trust issues. He reciprocated Will’s invitation, offered him terrible scotch and worse company, joined in his walks when his dogs felt particularly restless, even learned some of their names.
They began hanging out more often. Will still required a dog sitter occasionally, after his boss sent him out of town for days at belated notice. Eventually, Will stopped contacting his previous dog sitter and solely relied on Duncan for that.
Surviving the missions assigned by his company meant leaving many burned bridges behind. The warmth of a permanent lover, the illusion of possessing moral standards, the chances of a heritage that didn’t consist of corpses and sorrow, Duncan had to sacrifice along the way.
Making acquaintances seemed a considerable success on his personal to-do list. He expected to be precluded the possibility of plain, selfless friendship, however desultory. Sharing burdens gave Duncan the false impression they weighed less, gave him the boldness required to ask for advice. Specifically, how Will filled his free hours. To draw inspiration.
“I fish,” Will said over his scotch, amber liquid on smooth glass. A variation on the usual theme. “Would offer to take you with me if I didn’t suspect it might offend your,” he glanced at his unassuming goldfish, “or his sensibility.”
Will was a funny guy, although he hid it well. “The fish won’t complain,” he teased. He hadn’t even named it, Duncan realised, a touch disappointed in himself. “I’m better at hunting than catching anything by staying still though,” he admitted with resignation.
Will took another gulp, visibly storing information. Duncan never found him judgmental, yet felt his insightful mind dangerously attentive to small details for their reciprocal sake. “I can call you the next time I decide to cut a hole in the ice,” Will said, sealing the matter with a final sip of alcohol.
Soon enough, Will knocked on his door, first light crawling its way up the mountains, wearing fishing attire and extending an old hand ice auger for Duncan to hold. Equipped with warm clothes, steaming coffee and resolution, they managed to cast their lines before breakfast.
During their settlement, Duncan appraised Will’s beautiful handcrafted lures. An impressive collection, he noticed, marveling at the sight of Will carefully selecting an appropriate bait for the both of them. His concentrated frown, his pensive, narrowed eyes. It felt oddly intimate, strangely fascinating.
Under the pretence of patiently waiting for a fish to take the bait, Duncan realised his static, silent pursuit had become a purposeful excuse to let his mind wander. His senses remained alert, his breath regular, his surroundings accounted for. The situation was under control. He could let himself sink in tragic reminiscence.
Duncan loosened his shoulders and closed his eyes. He revisited unpleasant memories and open wounds, grief and bitterness, faceless targets he dispassionately killed, dismembered and forcibly disposed of. Many deserving of his methods, others less so. There was so much blood on his hands he had given up on trying to wash it away. His skin crawled, but the cold had nothing to do with that.
“Facing some serious regret, are you,” Will observed, bringing him back among the living, far from his grim thoughts. He produced a small flask from his pocket.
“Plenty to regret in my past,” Duncan countered, before accepting the silent offer. The booze didn’t cover the sour taste in his mouth. “A lot of unresolved business to attend to,” he added, thinking about his own finances. His pension had yet to be collected.
Despite their meagre catch, Will pronounced himself satisfied with their first outing, as there would be plenty of fish to feed two adults, if not enough to freeze or pack. He offered to cook it for them both that evening, after a brief stop by their respective places for a cursory shower to warm themselves. They arranged to meet afterwards.
Under the flowing stream of hot water, Duncan admitted it had been a pleasant experience, as a matter of fact. His demons had kept him company, never leaving his side, yet hadn’t persistently harassed his hard-earned calm. He found himself hopeful. He wished such undeserved comfort would visit the young woman to whom his monthly allowance was addressed, whose childish face still haunted Duncan’s dreams. She hadn’t deserved her life to crumble after his merciless passage, yet their paths had crossed and Duncan was left to hope her survival contemplated the kind of peace he felt that afternoon; hadn’t ceased in the moment he pulled the trigger on the rest of her family.
He could merely pray her existence wasn’t as riddled with misery as his own, but instead full of opportunities and achievements despite her sufferance. Duncan could never entirely pretend he didn’t care for her well-being.
“You shouldn’t have bothered.” Will welcomed Duncan inside upon his arrival, eyeing with a knowing smirk the bottle he had the presence of mind to steal from his personal stock for the occasion. “You did help providing the meal,” Will observed, heading to the kitchen. It smelled inviting.
“I’m told it goes well with fish,” Duncan said, absently petting Will’s dogs, approaching their regular guest with investigative intent. “Besides, cheap scotch goes well with bad company,” he added, summoning a laugh from his host.
Will kept tending to their dinner, Duncan set the table. Once given proper instructions, plates were served with minimal fanfare, dogs silently surrounding them with hopeful stares.
“Hope you like it spicy,” Will prompted. He had baked their catch with an interesting seasoning. It reminded Duncan of stagnant waters and Southern sogginess. “Thanks for the invite,” he said.
“It was no trouble cooking for two instead of one,” Will shrugged, taking a bite of his own fish. Its crust was friable and crisp under the knife and fork, whose clinking briefly interrupted their companionable silence. It didn’t feel awkward.
“I knew what to do with our catch, have been fishing my whole life,” Will admitted. “My father taught me to throw undersized fishes back, give them the opportunity to grow into satisfying catches instead of meager lunches, if not out of mercy.”
A terrified gaze burned behind Duncan’s closed eyelids, corpses framing impossibly young features. “That’s sensible,” Duncan commented. In the blink of an eye his focus returned to the present.
Steam fogged their glasses, again silence stretched languidly in the room as Will glanced in his direction with veiled curiosity. “Would you do the same?” he wondered. His morsel was washed with a generous sip of water for a change.
Duncan knew Will wasn’t asking about practical choices, perhaps investigating his capacity for compassion instead. Rather personal, suspiciously so.
Confining his attention to the plate, Duncan let Will’s watchful gaze rip his skull open, inspect its insides, probe at its functioning. “Depends on the fish, I guess,” he answered. “I wouldn’t let myself starve to spare its life, if that’s what you’re asking, but I don’t usually find myself in need to choose between it and me. I look after myself without hurting animals most of the time,” he asserted, not entirely at ease, nor blatantly defensive. “Survival’s another story altogether.”
Will caught his discomfort, relented his analytic peeling, suddenly modest about his morbid interest. “Sorry,” he apologized with an awkward smile. “You looked uneasy, I assumed you felt guilty about eating your catch,” Will said. “Your instincts were just better than your prey anticipated. No need to feel guilty that they took you where you are now.”
“You sound rather familiar with this line of thinking,” Duncan observed.
“I might have my own share of soul searching to do,” Will answered.
Duncan deliberated for a moment about the merits of exposing himself further than Will had uncovered on his own. He resorted to frankness. “You do that often. You peel my skin to look underneath, prying around like a curious animal approaching the road,” he said, seeking his eye with dispassionate diffidence. “Seems interesting, but it’s a dangerous business.”
Will visibly relented, tilting his head at an angle that left his neck exposed, oddly vulnerable. His shoulders sagged, his posture loosened. “I come back with scars when I go away to do my job,” Will confided. “Last time I almost bought an adolescent with me. She’s an orphan now, has no one in the world, but I couldn’t be anyone to her other than the man who killed her father. I had to step out for her good, as well as my own.” Will ate another bite, chewed slowly. “Still regret that,” he concluded, almost inaudible. “Wondered if you’d do the same as me,” he repeated, cracking a deliberate grin.
It had been a touching confession. A difficult choice forged on righteous intents, moving in its dedication. A deft deflection, intimate enough to establish a sense of sympathy, too delicate for Duncan to delve into any further. He could feel Will’s anguish was sincere, it reverberated with his own old, familiar ache at the thought of having orphaned more than a few himself.
He wouldn’t pretend to turn a blind eye on Will’s decoy maneuver, but he allowed his strategic retreat.
After having confessed to Duncan about the adolescent whose parents died at his hands, Will began sheepishly unraveling himself, unfolding his insecurities and little confessions more frequently. A slow but relentless process.
“I have trouble sleeping, you can stay longer.”
“I do in fact hate my job, it’s not good for me, but I’m unfortunately good at it.”
“Don’t know if I’ll ever learn to socialize like a normal person, I’m not even sure I’m interested in trying. And maybe that’s just fine.”
In a certain way, Will was attracted to him, Duncan realised, like most solitary men came to seek comfort from their often self-imposed isolation in a kin spirit. Duncan found himself in a similar predicament himself.
He shared meals with Will, joined him while he played fetch with his dogs, chopped wood for him when his supply depleted so he wouldn’t strain his damaged shoulder, in exchange of having his groceries delivered whenever Will went to the store for his own shopping. Their routines intertwined.
It was agreeable. It gave Duncan a sense of quiet accomplishment and convivial warmth despite the thick snow consistently surrounding them. A fulfilling state to which Duncan hesitantly began to cling. Predictably, it didn’t last long.
Duncan hadn’t been inoperative for long enough to be considered out of shape. When some younger Damocles colleagues assaulted his cottage, he knew how to defend himself. Although his offenders outnumbered him, disposing of them hadn’t required much time or inventiveness. He compensated their advantage with decades of field experience.
As Duncan sheltered himself against the cold, unforgiving weather, in the proverbial quiet after the storm, he heard the familiar barking from the house with the big porch.
He hadn’t considered his neighbour could have been targeted as well.
Rushing to Will’s place with every intention of striking upon his assailants, Duncan belatedly realised that the man had been entirely capable of handling the threat for himself. “Seven dogs and night terrors did help,” Will revealed with noncurance, dressed in his underwear and ruined shirt, blood dripping from his hands and chin. Scarcely compelled to cover himself, rather engrossed in keeping his strays from licking him clean. “I don’t know if there’s anyone else around,” he stated, before pinning him with a hard stare, “but I’d advise you to make sure there isn’t.”
Duncan nodded, bracing himself for one last long-term mission before retiring from his career definitely.
Between one assassination and another, Duncan wondered whether he’d eventually draw his pension once his forced changes in management settled. He was indeed too unpracticed to follow the bureaucratic processes of his own financial situation, had in fact relied on his deceased accountant for precisely that purpose.
In due time, he found out the shit-spit responsible for poor Paul’s death, took his time to make him regret his decision, contacted Vivian to manage Blut’s unspeakable mess and arranged a funeral for the perfectly respectable bookkeeper. He felt like that was the least he could do after years of honorable service.
When he eventually returned to Triple Oak, beaten and exhausted but still whole and pretty much alive, Duncan found the chilling reception of his place still in disarray, blood all over his floor, and a cold gun barrel pointed at his temple as soon as he crossed the threshold. “Welcome back,” Will greeted at a safe distance.
Duncan wasn’t particularly eager to resort to violence whenever possible. He was content to let Will keep the weapon if that made him feel more secure. “Thanks,” he answered before calmly removing his coat, putting his bag out of the way. Will hadn’t ordered him not to move, after all; he made himself comfortable. “I assume you’re not here for a drink,” Duncan said, wandering towards his kitchen sink for a glass of water.
“Maybe later,” Will conceded. “I’m not sure what I’m here for, I deliberated while I was waiting for your return. Didn’t come up with a good reason why I shouldn’t simply arrest you and then find out what exactly brought some hasty hit men here to try and kill both you and me.” He hadn’t lowered his gun.
Duncan drank a generous gulp, pondering on his words before answering. “Would knowing make any difference?” He was suddenly desperate for a cigarette.
“Not sure,” Will confessed, shifting closer. His attentive gaze was dissecting Duncan again, piercing him like a needle, stripping him and worming under his skin to understand, always curious, always interested. So flattering in his dedication, so disturbingly insightful.
Duncan wasn’t surprised about Will’s affiliation with law enforcement. His stance, his attitude, his painful willingness to change subject whenever the subject of work was bought into conversation. Will was singularly invested in serving and preserving the common good, which conversely led Duncan to presume his personal inclination was otherwise disposed. An obsolete corrective mechanism.
“I came here to escape from anyone else, to be left alone in my head before it became a crowded place, since my boss doesn’t care to check my mental state,” Will said, approaching him with cautious steps, “and it suited me just fine that my one and only neighbour was an absolute brick wall to look at. Not a lot of emotion to read on your face, just a massive amount of regret and tiredness. I could relate to that, could handle both fairly well. I think I did in fact, didn’t even mind your company to be honest.”
His shoulders were tensing, the tendons on his neck were taunt, Duncan noticed. He seemed calm otherwise. Perfectly in control of the situation.
“You’re not as bad a man as you think you are, despite whatever you’re running away from,” Will continued. “I knew right away you weren’t making a honest living, but you took care of my dogs, never pried on my business, helped me out when I needed it. I never wanted to strangle you in your sleep and that’s really more than I can say about most people I know.” He frowned, then added, “I fed your fish while you were away. Moved the bodies too.”
And wasn’t that touching of him. Duncan marvelled at the casual kindness, felt something melt in his chest. He sighed inwardly, placing the empty glass on the table. “Thoughtful of you,” he said, appreciative of his concern and grateful for not having to deal with that minor issue. “I’m sorry about this,” he offered. There wasn’t much else he’d been able to offer in his life aside from lame excuses.
Will seemed to appraise them more carefully than Duncan expected. His shoulder sagged, his eyes lowered, as well as his loaded gun. “I forgive you,” he simply stated before visibly lowering his defences. He wasn’t wary of approaching Duncan for his drink of water, nor of sipping from his glass.
“You’re fundamentally a decent person,” he said in a low voice, like an intimate confession. “You’re a nice guy, irredeemably so, even if you’re good at killing. You’re inexcusable, but you’re not a cruel monster.” He frowned, licked his lips. “Your capacity for violence is entirely different from that kind of crazy.”
Duncan couldn’t help but noticing Will’s familiarity with the subject. He pointedly didn’t think about the warm corpse in his house, dogs frolicking in hectic worry around his feet. About the bodies in his own cottage. “Still inexcusable,” Duncan pointed out. His breath was slow, measured, unnaturally controlled; he was keeping himself poised, he realised.
“Still a better man than me,” he whispered, staring at Duncan’s lips with intent. The very same interest he so often reserved for Duncan’s difficult admission and cryptic answers. Purposeful and resolute. Then leaned forward to kiss them, holding his breath and closing his eyes. It felt natural, subdued, an admission of defeat, until his hand surged to hesitantly touch Duncan’s forearm. “I don’t want to arrest you,” he confessed, “I don’t care about the lives you took, and I don’t care about what this says about me as a person,” he grimaced. “Wasn’t good at people to begin with.”
Duncan had recently had sex less intimate than the soft brush of Will’s mouth against his own. Had in fact embraced sinuous curves and heard loud moans, before intercourse became predation. He would have never expected to enjoy Will’s light stubble prickling on his own chin more than the voluptuous sight of fair skin and long hair. “You’re good to me,” he retorted, before seeking the contact once more.
Will’s weapon was far from their reach, their attention focused on their contact points. Will resumed his exploration of Duncan’s jaw with tongue and teeth and intent. His hands slowly framed Duncan’s neck, then roamed over his shoulders while Duncan’s circled his waist to bring him closer. His portions of naked skin was like warm silk under Duncan’s fingers.
He could feel Will’s erection under the dishevelled clothes pressing against his pants, as he planted kisses on Will’s arched neck, eliciting groans and sighs with his deed.
They didn’t relocate to the bedroom, Duncan didn’t care to find the bloody residue of his confrontation with the unfortunate hit woman whose head he’d struck with an axe. They remained in the kitchen, laid on the table and suffered the discomfort of their awkward positions until sweat broke on their skin and nothing but silence mingled with their erratic breaths. They fumbled to divest themselves, their hands careful, frantic.
Will exposed them, Duncan took them in hand. He could sense Will shivering against him before spilling his release. He followed shortly after, feeling his own intense orgasm down to his curled toes, soiling them with his spent as well as Will’s. Entirely unapologetic about it.
“This is probably a good time to mention that I’m glad you weren’t hurt, wherever you’ve been,” Will admitted, reluctantly straightening to look Duncan in the eyes. “Would have been hard to dismember all those corpses by myself. It was hard enough moving them around.” And wasn’t that touching too.
As a matter of fact, Will proved himself more resourceful than Duncan anticipated when it came to disposing of multiple cadavers. Part of his career, Will explained, and Duncan felt like delving further into the subject once his place had been thoroughly cleaned.
They didn’t bury the deceased killers as Duncan had done for Rusty.
“You did what to your dog,” Will inquired with a threatening edge to his voice. “You weren’t kidding when you said you weren’t good with dogs,” he grumbled, digging more vigorously with his shovel into the ditch for their bones. “You ever considered growing plants instead,” he continued, noticeably more upset about that matter than he had been about the whole assassination affair. Duncan conveyed that his habit of sleeping with a loaded weapon close by wasn’t the safest decision he made.
Will never distanced Duncan from his own dogs afterwards, rather hid his weapons in safer locations.