Our team was three parts unpredictable, one part psychotic. Most of the latter belonged to me. Elinwall was stuck with an obsessive playing card fetish which would make The Joker proud. Jewel could only dance from one place to the next and only while wearing one boot. God forbid a man try to be kind and buy her some sneakers. Leveller had his eyelids burned off in a chemical blast and, since he would lose the eyes anyways, decided to toss those, too. Now the globule implants in his head, which he believed must be fascinating, were actually two of the sickest, most horrifying pink gumballs I’d ever seen. This made it easy to antagonize him, something that during the workday had become my most indulgent pastime. As for me, I’m my own brand of crazy. I actually liked all of these people.
Regarding our run-of-the-mill day, we’ve found a world-record-breaking odd-job. We eat stuff. Better yet, we eat everything that nobody else wants to eat. Or what they physically cannot.
Elinwall clapped with ugly, broken applause, a Seven of Hearts between his teeth. “Ho, lucky day. Lucky day.” Before him laid a menagerie of bodies flopped remorselessly into a pit twelve heads deep, presumably after they’d already died but with no way to be sure. They weren’t all men. Women, children, and even some animals helped fill the dark hollow. Their flesh was rotting on various stages, suggesting the pit wasn’t filled all at once. Some poor brute probably pulled the short stick and had to chuck any new dead into the hellhole. Hard to imagine people flocking on that opportunity.
“Woah,” Leveller waved a hand in front of his face, “That is quite a bitter stink, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, they seemed to have a lot of fun over here,” I answered. The surrounding urban drudgery was torn and tattered by the wars of men, punctuated by a poisoned grey and yellow sky. I could taste the hanging lead and blood, and it made my stomach grumble with curious hunger. “Jewel, I know you don’t care much for the unripe dead. Our contract has it so that we need to eat any leftover weaponry as well, if you wanted to start there. A quality carbon diet.”
Jewel licked her lips and tented her fingers, “You know the fast track to a girl’s heart, Jo-Jo,” she smiled, “I might just gobble you up, someday.”
Leveller bent over the pit and cupped a hand to an ear, “Don’t bother, hon. Have you smelled the man? His odor is worse than death,” the stock-and-muscle giant dropped his hand and took a generous sniff of the air, “Trust me, I know what I’m talking about.” Leveller reached into the cesspool of rot and snatched one body by the arm. He began to yank it free, feeling its shoulder slowly tear and give way to pestilence. Luckily it held and he managed to pull the body to solid land. It was male, young and at one time, strong. Probably a soldier. Opening his great, deep gullet, Leveller began to eat. The corpse broke apart in chunks, sucked down his throat like pebbles to a vacuum. Much cleaner and faster than the common man’s chop-and-swallow method. In a minute, everything of the boy was gone, down to the toenail. Leveller’s face twisted the way one might after catching whiff of curdled milk. “The first one is always murder.”
I moved to join him, dodging past Jewel as she did some old, South-American dance that worked the hips in thoroughly satisfying ways. I took a gander over my choice pick of dead and decided to break in the taste buds with the worst of it. I went straight for the old man, the one who some might say was already falling apart before Death’s bitter lady granted her ultimate kiss. It was one of the most unsatisfying appetizers I’d ever worked through.
Elinwall was always late to decide on his first bite. Leaning over, he scratched at a healing wound on his leg, just above the sock-line with an Ace of Spades tucked nicely within. “None of them look any good today.”
“Do they ever really look good? Just pick one and get it over with.” I was hoping that once the threshold had been reached, Elinwall would just turn into a machine and inhale most of the load himself. For being the thinnest among us, he always seemed to have the biggest appetite once it got rolling.
There was a holler from somewhere to my right. Jewel must have found something interesting. I sucked down another one of the dead. It was a shorter issue than the last, as it had lost a leg and I couldn’t find the blasted thing. Our girl gave another call, one more intentionally trying to grab my attention. I finished up the meat meal and strode to her side. My teeth flared with her discovery.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said.
Neither glad, but not altogether unhappy, Jewel shook her head. “She’s young, probably five or six. I’ve tried talking to her, but the poor beast won’t so much as babble.”
Sometimes we would find live children during our dirty work. The ones left behind. That was something wars were really good at making, and sometimes I wish they didn’t. Because then it becomes our responsibility to put them out.
Because the truly monstrous thing to do would leave them as they were. Or worse, bring them home. With the world as it had become, that was its own sort of hell, and one which would never welcome a child. Killing them was a gentle evil in comparison.
“I – I mean I’ve never –”
“I know, Jo-Jo. Neither have I.”
The problem was that in our crew, killing the residue was Kingpin’s job, and Kingpin was very notably absent for a myriad of domestic reasons not worth discussing. Nobody else had ever been able to muster enough gut to end the lives of the victims, myself included. I cherished that one untainted part of my character. But I could hardly shove the task onto Jewel or one of the others. We were looking at a sticky situation in the rear-view mirror. This was bad stuff.
Especially because the girl looked so painfully adorable and worthy of pity that it would be easier stabbing scissors into your own chest than doing her any harm. Her lip quivered with an unspoken word, some call for help lost between her parents’ death and her evident struggle to cling to life. She was withered like a weed, nearing the point of true atrophy but still holding enough fat and muscle to drag out the impending starvation at least one more week.
I dropped into a crouch to meet her eyes, syrup brown and very absent. “What’s your name, dear?” You don’t ask about the parents. You never ask about the parents.
Her jaw stumbled around a word, but closed up at the last second. I sighed.
“See what I mean?” Jewel said, “Not a peep.”
The girl was in shock, of course. They usually are. I begin to look her over with more attention, scanning for any malign damage. A waterfall of bruises filled the skin of her legs and her black hair was torn away above one ear, revealing a patch of purple and red and white. Dust stained the old tear-trails under her eyes.
“Holy sh–” Elinwall promptly slapped a hand over his mouth when he found our new friend. “Oh, god. Oh, god no,” he turned away and focused on his breathing. There was a thin splatter of blood on his chin from his last meal. “Please don’t think less of me for this…” In a stroke of defensive cowardice, he touched a thumb to his nose, “I’m not doing it, Ace.”
Bending to the action, Jewel mimicked him, “Sorry, Jo-Jo.”
There was a sideways wind that tore at my ears, filling them with natural sirens. It muffled Leveller’s presence all the way until I felt his fingers plant firmly onto my shoulder.
“I will do it,” he said flatly, “I at least cannot see her. I will have no face to torment my dreams.”
“You don’t have to do that. I am abl–”
His hand waved in a gesture of hard silence and that was the end of it. Leveller reached for the knife at his side. “All I ask is that one of you cover her eyes.”
My heart sank. I looked at the girl, her face like stone, and turned away. “Of course.”
Elinwall stirred as with protest, but put nothing forth. A paper-thin card spun meticulously between nervous fingers. “Then…I suppose me and Jewel will get back to work.”
Fingers running back and forth along her arms, Jewel hurried away without him. I knew the frailty of her heart, and none of us would hold it against her if she couldn’t speak to us for a while. As she hiked away, her back was straight and her head was low. There was a stifled sob caught against the wind.
I turned my attention to the girl and convinced myself that she’d already left the world. God just hadn’t come to pick her up yet. She shuffled her weight, but did not resist when I braced my arm over her eyes. Leveller took ten deep breaths and rested the knife against the soft of her throat. Though he could not see through his gumball eyes, he tipped his head to the poisoned sky. I rolled mine into my shoulder, jaw tight as glass, and waited impatiently for it to be over.