Clutch has killed somebody recently.
This goes without saying.
For as long as Clutch can remember, he has always killed somebody “recently.” If not within the last few hours, then certainly within the last few days. He may have gone as long as a couple of weeks without, from time to time, when circumstances conspired against him. But never as long as a month, no, not for living memory.
Of course, Clutch has never had much of a memory. All the events of his violent life pass before him like dream-images, fading into the past almost as soon as the screams people make at the sight of him are reduced by his misshapen hands to gurgled death rattles, fading to silence. He has never had any real sense of time, and almost no understanding beyond the direction of his next step, the scent of the next living thing he must throttle. But in that part of his mind that works, he still knows that his last kill was not long ago. It only stands to reason. His hands are still sticky with blood and his nostrils still tangy with the smell of voiding bowels and his general simmering rage is mostly sated, so it just stands to reason, that’s all.
He has no immediate needs of that sort to satisfy.
Life, or whatever it is he has, is good.
But he is hungry.
It is a cold night beneath pinprick stars and he has emerged from a cross-country hike through a stand of pines to a two-lane road that looks like every other strip of featureless blacktop he has ever wandered.
The unusual sense that he has been here before leaves him unsurprised when he recognizes the sight up ahead, a low silver building hemorrhaging electric light into the surrounding darkness; he feels that he has returned to some place he knows. When he steps off the road and onto gravel, his disfigured expression resolves into something that could almost be called a smile.
Clutch lurches through the double doors, and into the vestibule with the gumball dispensers and the cardboard display with slots where quarters can be inserted for a charity benefiting a sad-eyed child on crutches. It seems strange but right for the door on the other side of the vestibule, leading to the diner interior, to be scaled to his dimensions: a novelty, he’s always possessed an awkward shape and monstrous bulk that makes breaking down doors somewhat more natural than opening them. He’s also oddly gratified that the dining room he finds past that inner door is also scaled for him, with booths he could actually fit into if he wanted, and stools that seem just the right size to sit on, and not crush.
It’s not a busy night. Two of the booths and one of the stools are occupied by creatures that make no sense to him, things that are as alien to him as he has long been to the world. One is mostly scales and teeth; the other is mostly slime and structures that would remind a human being of hypodermic needles. They pay him no mind and Clutch grants them the same courtesy.
The man behind the counter is just as odd, in that he does seem to be a man but unlike most men is tall enough to look Clutch in the eye. That is unheard of in a world where the tallest men only stand as tall as Clutch’s ribs, but this place’s defiance of the way things usually are seems universal, and so it is no surprise when the steaming mug that man sets on the counter before him is also sized for him, complete with handle capable of accommodating his massive fingers.
Clutch takes a sip. It is not coffee. He has never had coffee, as far as he remembers, but he knows this is not coffee. It is not blood, either—that, he has had—but it is alive, not just the product of life. It swirls of its own volition, and seems to protest being consumed. It is good.
The counter man says, “Want the usual?”
Clutch has no idea what his usual is but decides it’s good to have one.
He sips some more, feeling a rare peace coming over him, the peace that comes with belonging, even if only for the duration of a rare meal consumed in a welcoming place. To be sure, the stool proves awkward. He has never been quite symmetrical, and even when he adjusts himself his left arm rests easily on the counter while the right dangles almost all the way to the checkerboard-pattern floor. He is aware of how unclean he is, how stained he has become with blood and other things. When he shifts his left arm away from his cup the countertop is left covered with a viscous rainbow sheen. The counter man, fussing with other things, does not seem to mind, and that, too, brings a sense of unfamiliar peace.
The vestibule door opens, admitting a new patron with a gray profile and grayer suit, who would be easy to mistake for what the world sees as normal until after he hangs up his coat, revealing that at least half of him is jagged landscape of ribs that protrude from his flesh like daggers. Impaled on a number of those ribs like pinned butterflies, the severed heads of recently murdered human beings dangle ribbons of ragged flesh still fresh enough to drip. Though their skulls are pierced in places that compromise whatever gray matter still exists inside, their eyes still roll, their lips still grimace, and their mouths still struggle to scream.
Clutch, who for as long as he can remember has never understood the concept of names and came up with his own only because it’s what he remembers doing most, stirs as he realizes that he knows what this newcomer calls himself: a name that is also a reflection of his favorite activity.
Pierce takes the next stool over and accepts a mug from the proprietor. “Man. I’ve been looking forward to this.”
Clutch moans incoherently.
“Yeah, I know what you mean. It’s good work, but there’s a sameness to it after a while. I keep wishing I could take a break from it, get away from the grind, see a place for longer than it takes to do a proper cull. Not that I’d want to be on the other side, but you know how it is.”
Clutch, who doesn’t know how anything is, raaars, trailing off into a whine when he recognizes that rarest of all sensations for him: empathy.
Pierce sips from his mug, then lights a cig and blows out smoke, though the smoke emerges from his lips before he puts the filter to his mouth. “Hey, Mack!”
The counter man returns from the grill, slinging a rag over his shoulder. “What?”
“Wanna hear a great one I heard on the road?”
The counter man winces. “Not if it’s bad as the last one.”
“No, no, this one’s good. I need you, anyway, because my pal here’s never been all that talented at jokes that required audience participation.”
“Okay,” the counter man says. “Shoot.”
The counter man replies in a cynical monotone. “Who’s th—ohmigod ohmigod no no no, what is that thing, somebody help me, help!!!!!”
“Damn,” Pierce says. “You know it already.”
“Known it forever,” the counter man says, without heat. “That chestnut’s older than Cthulhu’s childhood nanny. Want me to heat that up for you?”
“Not necessary,” says Pierce, dipping an index finger into his mug, bringing it to a boil.
The counter man returns with Clutch’s Usual. It’s alive, though terrible things have been done to it to make that a very unhappy and unfortunate condition. The gaze the meal directs at the being about to dine is not afraid, but eager—finding the only form of hope available to it in the promise of its own imminent extinction. Clutch snarls at it and rips off a chunk of meat, the wrong chunk to give the meal what it wants.
Its cries are too faint to inhibit conversation, which allows Pierce, stirring his beverage, to move on: “Anyway, it just gets to be a bit much, that’s all. I did a school bus, a few days ago. Not kids. You know that’s where I draw the line. I never do kids. I don’t judge the guys who do, but hell, we all have our preferences. The bus is carrying twenty-three septuagenarian church ladies on their way back from some outing or another, singing hymns as they head home in the dark. I get them broken down on some old country road, and circle them for eight hours tearing down trees and sticking to the shadows, so they only get fleeting glimpses of what’s come for them. I kept chanting that they’d be dead by dawn. They were, of course, but you wouldn’t believe how much of that I had to go through before one of them finally came out and waved her Bible in my face, which was of course the dramatic first kill I wanted. Hours, man. Just to get corpse one. Hours.” He shakes his head and sips from his cup, washing down the burning cigarette. “In my day, people used to have the courage of their convictions.”
One of the creatures in the booths, the one Clutch noticed before, whose maw is studded with shapes like hypodermic needles, feels encouraged to speak up. “Oi know what you mean. Oi went after this one nutter living in a garret, should have been a straight go from me going ooga-booga to his mind shattering like a dropped glass. It looked real promising at first; he had the walls covered wif newspaper clippings, and old books wif sketches that didn’t even come close to capturing what Oi really look like. You know what the mugger did when Oi came in through the crack in the wall? Took out his bloody iPhone, he did, to get a picture of me for his Facebook friends. Oi was gobsmacked. ‘Course, Oi ate his brains anyway, but it wasn’t exactly the most filling meal Oi ever had.”
Pierce commiserates. “It’s like you can’t take two steps anymore without tripping over an asshole.”
The door opens again, admitting more patrons. One is a transparent, man-sized pillar of smoke, churning like an oncoming storm. The other is a creature made out of shiny black tar, who appears to have made a hobby of rolling about in broken glass. More follow. There are beings with flesh that flows like filthy water, beings who appear to be two mismatched halves sewn together by untalented craftsmen, beings who reek of ruptured bowel and beings who could almost be men, but for the obsidian jewels that shine from the places where men would have eyes. They laugh and say hello to one another and swap tales of children they snatched into the empty dark spaces beneath beds, of the unlucky wanderers they found venturing down the wrong alleys, of reaching up through shifting sands to pull uncomprehending men into the earth.
Clutch, who does not seem to possess the same gift of speech that these others trade with such casual abandon, understands only that these beings are old acquaintances, who remember him even if his memory of them is an elusive presence just beyond his grasp. He feels warm among them, happy in a way he has never been happy unless something alive was turning to something dead in his hands.
It is only when the diner is full and every seat is taken and every obscene thing has been served its favorite obscene food that the door opens again and a diminutive man walks in. Clutch, who’s been playing with his food for a while—much to his food’s intense displeasure—believes at first that this must be just some unlucky traveler, drawn by more conventional hungers to wander unaware into this place populated by creatures designed to make him scream his last breaths. But instead of pouncing on him from all sides and ripping his limbs off, the diners just murmur and wait.
The little man says, “Good evening, all.”
The creatures at their tables all chime out a cordial good evening, Clutch speaking up half a beat after the others, because he’s late in realizing that this is what he is supposed to do.
This is actually a man of average size, who is merely dwarfed by the fittings of this particular diner; if he stayed to eat, he would likely need a child’s booster seat. But even adjusted for scale, he gives the impression of insignificance. He has a fussy, pencil-thin mustache and wears big round glasses that magnify his eyes into moist blobs. Every occupant of the diner is focused on the object he holds, a clipboard.
“As always,” he says, “I don’t want to cut into your down time, so I’ll cover the bullet points quickly. First, the quarterly figures. We’ve have a slight dip over our last period, and that’s unfortunate, but the head office says we can mostly attribute that to the cold weather. Frankly, I think that’s bullshit. I think those of you assigned to the warmer states should be doing a little more, to carry the slack, and those of you in the less temperate areas really need to start exploiting ski resorts, ice skating rinks, and the like, for the special opportunities they provide. I mean, it’s not like these people never go outside. Their roads get plowed, their jobs still expect them behind their desks on time. There’s any number of things you could be doing, if you put a little more thought into it. Otherwise, it’s impossible to look at the figures and not know that some of you must be slacking.”
He adjusts his coke-bottle eyeglasses.
“That said, a number of you remain solid producers and have banged out truly superlative totals.”
A quick look at his clipboard.
“The winners of our mortality contest for the months of December, January, and February are as follows. Third highest victim count goes to . . . ah, forgive me, this is always so hard to pronounce . . . N’loghthl Impo’teb . . . Teb?”
“Tep,” says an unhappy creature whose facial tentacles dangle into his soup.
“Yes, you. N’loghthl. Pretty good figures for a guy with the Vermont territory. As promised, you win a framed certificate of excellence from the head office, and five thousand points toward our incentive program. Congratulations, N’loghthl.”
The polite scattered applause does not touch the creature with the damp tentacles, who instead seethes and mutters, “Whatever.”
“Come on, Loggy: you know it’s an achievement just to come so close. You just need a little more edge, that’s all. Second place, and I’ve got to stress that this was very, very close—less than five removed from the rep who won the top slot, so close that we were tempted to declare it a tie, but you just don’t go changing your rules at the last minute, do you? Winner of our second prize, the set of steak knives, the rep who’s won second prize four quarters in a row . . .”
“Dammit!” cries a gravelly voice from the back.
“. . . and really is closing on that top slot so quickly that our number one guy is really gonna have to watch out, let’s hear it for Mister Thumbs!”
This time the applause surrounds a figure with a head that narrows to a pin and a pair of arms that, displayed for all to see when he waved them all to silence, end in serrated bony spurs. He is the one who cried out, and he isn’t happy with his position on the winner’s roster, either. Even as the ovation starts to die down he cries an aghast, “What use do I have for another set of steak knives?” that leaves his peers roaring and pounding their tables in hilarious appreciation.
“Don’t worry about it,” says the man with the clipboard. “You can trade them in for their equivalent value in incentive points. Just come to me after the dinner, and I’ll take care of it.” He flips the top sheet of paper. “Anyway, so that brings us to our number one producer, and I’ve really got to say here, fellas, that the rest of you can honestly do worse than taking a close look at this guy and learning how he does it. He doesn’t complain about his territory. He doesn’t make excuses about management playing favorites. He doesn’t ask for special favors or try to wangle any special treatment from the main office, he just puts his nose to the grindstone and, well, does it, plugging away like the professional he is.
“Winner of the big prize everyone here wants, the master of disaster, the lean green killing machine, the big kahuna himself, our perennial hero—”
And everybody chants the name at once, at a volume that rattles the metal walls, that shakes the formica tables, that makes the dishes in their racks crack from the violence of the sympathetic vibration:
“Clutch! Clutch! Clutch! CLUTCH!”
Clutch needs several seconds to remember that this is his name, and to realize this means that they must be cheering him. The epiphany unmans—or un-whatever-he-isses—him. He bows his craggy knob of a head and lets the adulation wash over him like heavy surf. Then a little tickle builds inside his chest, and he feels it move up his windpipe to his throat and then to the lumpy thing he has for a tongue, and he discovers for the first time that it is actually a question, the first sentence he has uttered in a full night of listening to his peers speak. In a voice like a rusty hinge, producing words that escape one at a time with long pauses between them, he begs, “What . . . do . . . I . . . win?”
“What you always win,” the man with the clipboard says. “What everybody here wants: Oblivion.”
For a moment Clutch has absolutely no idea what the man with the clipboard is talking about. But as he gropes for an explanation, other things come to him: the particular look on the face of innocents, in the seconds before he rends and tears; the families who have screamed, watching loved ones torn from them; the special feeling of revulsion that has always wanted to come over him whenever he caught his own reflection in a storefront window, or in some full-length mirror passed in the many houses he’s broken into, or in the reflective surface of some mirrored lake. He remembers waking to every fresh dawn, not just acting according to his nature, but understanding it. It is, he realizes for the first time since the last time, not anything he particularly enjoys being, and behind that terrible epiphany—racing into his suddenly waking consciousness like the nightmare it is—comes a horror equal to that which he has always so excelled at bringing to others.
He almost screams.
But then comes the sharp jab of pain, a lot like dying, and all of that disappears, contracting into a single bright point before being subsumed by darkness. He knows nothing, only that it has been some time since he last killed. Dully, he is aware that as soon as they free him from this place he will have to do something about that. It is not like he has anything else to occupy his time. Or any thoughts to occupy his head.
Pierce pulls his burning fingertips from the crater he has gouged in Clutch’s skull, pulling with them the few gobbets of bloody gray matter that have managed to heal and resume thinking since the last time.
Clutch has no opinion. Literally, no opinion. He has no thoughts, no soul, no regrets, no hunger, no understanding of what he is or what has always been expected of him; just a dull, burning resentment of anything that lives and breathes and moves. Sometime soon, he will be trucked to a fine killing ground and set free, to wander. And when he does, he will not over-think, or for that matter consider at all, any of the impulses driving him to do what comes next.
Somebody mutters, “Lucky bastard.”
There is a general murmuring of consensus over this, until the man with the clipboard adjusts his glasses and says, “Yes, well . . . remember that it’s something you can all earn, at any time.”
A scaled half-man, half-fish mutters, “Yeah. In Minnesota. Right. How the hell am I ever gonna get into the top three, frozen under ice half the year?”
The dispatcher adjusts his horn-rimmed glasses.
“You know the way it is, Gil. The top territories go to closers.”