Hellboy: Oddest Jobs Page 22

Smoke from the kitchen mixed with the overwhelming reek of burning frankincense, and the room was like a stove. Dizziness swamped me, though heat never affects me much, not even Africa in midsummer. The music was deafening but over it I could hear, clear as the hellish chime of that bronze gong striking, ibn-Ghaalib's voice, shouting in the language of the Great Old Ones. I have to get out of here, I thought. I have to ...

There was a jolt like I'd been picked up and whacked like a rag doll against a wall, and I was standing on the other side of the little room again, looking at myself: ugly, crimson, not of human flesh. Raisha was gripping my arm, calling my name: "Al-Jahannum — al-Jahannum — !" but her voice seemed to come from a long distance away. I felt like I was falling but my body against the door didn't move. The yellow hue in its eyes had dimmed and I knew the heart had stopped. I knew what was going to happen next and memories — those nightmare memories from before my birth on this world — flooded my brain. Helplessness. Panic. Agony.

Raisha pulled a small knife from her belt and drove it with all her strength into my arm.

That tiny sharpness gave me a focus, like a spot of light. I flung my mind on it, gripped at it. Oxygen flooded my lungs and my heart raced like a blender, before I crashed unconscious to the floor.

I think the only reason ibn-Ghaalib didn't take me captive then was because he only had one bottle out on the altar, among all the almonds and dried apricots and smoking pots of frankincense, and that one was for Naseeba's zar. In my dream I was moving through the crowd in the front room, with the women spinning all around me, circling the altar as they spun, their hijabs cast aside and sweat splattering from the ends of their long hair. He was moving among them, the zar inside him now, captive, screaming and thrashing to get out. I saw him shed it out of him, weakened and tangled up in the weirds of power like a moth in a web, saw it go into the jar on the altar, that miniature dimensional enclave bounded by silver, pig tusk, and meteor iron. He looked around as he spun. Who is that? he shouted, over the clangor of the music. Who is that?

He knew I was there, all right.

There were other jars and bottles in his trunk.

As I sank deeper into dreams I could see them — Roman glass, fossil ivory, amber that had been gently carved in vats of human blood. About half of them contained other demons, not all of them zar and not all of them even from Egypt. He'd been collecting for a while.


They called to me, curses or pleas. One of them had a face that was scarily like Raisha's, only green like a moldering corpse's; and Raisha's long silver-gray hair.

I drifted down past them, into deeper dreams.

At the B.P.R.D., a lot of my education involved stuff that's generally referred to as "things mankind was not meant to know." That's because over the centuries, a hefty percentage of those who could figure it out used that knowledge to make trouble for everybody around them. And a lot of it had involved the summoning — and control — of supernatural or ab-natural entities whose psychic energy was greater than what humans could normally utilize without their brains imploding.

Like demons.

Since most of these unhuman entities don't give a rat's ass about human beings except as hors d'oeuvres, when they get out of control — and they often do — the result usually involves somebody having to scrape body parts off the ceiling. That's the tame end of the What-could-go-wrong? spectrum.

Having been summoned into this world by the Nazis myself for exactly that reason, I learned a lot about how necromancers use these entities once they get hold of them. Sometimes they end up as slaves and sometimes just as energy sources, cells in an ectoplasmic battery. Sometimes, if the entities are too powerful, they'll be enlisted as allies, but the results of that are never pretty. The B.P.R.D. had already had to clean up a couple of those. I dunno why people never learn, but they don't.

Anyway, for that reason I'd put in a lot of my spare time since the Egyptian government had announced work on the Aswan Dam reading up on folks who were known to be, or suspected of being, interested in collecting demons in bottles. A lot of these are the usual shlubs who figure their lives will work better if they have a little astral help in getting rich or getting laid, and don't look further than that. Some of them are out to further a Cause — politics or whatever flavor of religion they think will save people in spite of themselves, which pretty much amounts to the same thing.

Ibn-Ghaalib was one of the very dangerous kind because he worked far under the radar and was hard to catch, like a cockroach. He collected enslaved supernatural power sources to sell.

There was no telling where this stuff would go, or to whom.

All that was in my mind as I floated back to the surface of consciousness. It was dim and blast-furnace hot, and smelled like harissa and coffee. By the sounds in the street outside it was full day. I was starving.

In a room close by a door opened and Professor Scotch-and-Dysentery Harik asked softly, "Any change?"

"Not so far." The other voice was Carmichael's, the pilot who'd flown us in from London. I opened my eyes, turned my head on the pillow of a narrow bed. "What'd you find out?" Carmichael went on.

"Yusef ibn-Karim was found slashed to death in the alleyway behind his rooms the day after he contacted the Bureau," reported Harik. "I saw the pictures; it was clearly the work of a demon." The door between the bed-sit where I lay with my feet sticking out over the end of the bed, and the closet-sized kitchen where Carmichael sat, stood open. There were awnings and cheap straw blinds over the kitchen windows but the room was still bright enough to make me squint and hot enough to give an elephant a stroke. The pilot knocked a couple of Camels out of his pack and held one out to Harik, just closing the street door behind him.

"Gimme one of those," I said.

"You okay, Hellboy?" They brought in the kitchens solitary chair — it seemed to be the only one in the whole apartment — and Harik asked, "Does the light disturb you?"

"No, I'm fine." I sat up, looked around.

"Bint-Tahayet sought me at the hotel when she could not restore you to consciousness." Harik straddled the chair. He looked like he'd lost about ten pounds — which a guy that thin already couldn't afford — and sweat stood out on the long fjords of skin that went back into his graying hairline. "We brought you here, to her room in the Old City. She is out now, making enquiries as to where ibn-Ghaalib might have gone — "

"He's at the dance." I felt gingerly at my bandaged arm where she'd stabbed me. "The zar ceremony — "

"— ended this morning," said Harik. "It took her almost twenty-four hours to find me."

I said, "Crap." No wonder I was hungry.

"She on the level?" Carmichael went back into the kitchen and brought me a wad of flatbread, covered with cooked goat and hummus, takeaway from the ceremony, I guess — never let anybody tell you even the pilots from the B.P.R.D. aren't psychic. "Yeah, it sounds like poor Yusef got his from a demon, but that doesn't mean it wasn't her that sicced one on him."

I shook my head, the dreams coming back to me. "No, ibn-Ghaalib's a demon-hunter, all right. I saw Azuzar, shut up in an amber bottle — "

I winced, a stab of pain going through my head again. Azuzar. The other bottles and jars. Some were old — some were damn old. Demon hunters pass these traps along to each other, or steal them from each other and from unsuspecting museums. They have their own whispered network where they're bought and sold. Most of the traps are pretty poozley — they'll hold a poltergeist or a little water-pook, and most of the zar I'd seen at the dance weren't much stronger than that — but there'd been two or three in the collection that could have disabled low-level gods.

One of them — the strongest — I remembered had been empty, set aside in a separate compartment, packed in iron filings and salt.

"He's after something big." I opened my eyes again, looked from Carmichael to Harik. "He came here to fuel up. To trap the little stuff so he can use them when he goes after King Kong."

"He has not been seen since the ceremony," said Harik, as I proceeded to make short work of the flatbread. "When bint-Tahayet found us, it still took time to bring you here — "

"He see you at the dance?" Carmichael handed me a beer. It was warm, but I wasn't bitching.

I nodded, and winced. I'd hit that floor pretty hard. "Who would he be after, Professor?" I looked over at Harik. "What demons — what ... entities — would a man like that go after, if he had the power of about a dozen captive demons to back him up?"

Harik thought about that. He didn't look happy. I wasn't thrilled myself. There's scary crap out there that Necromancers over the millennia have called across into this world and used — or tried to use — to get things their way.

Before he could answer feet clunked on the wooden steps outside the door, and a second later Raisha came into the kitchen, then through into the room where the three of us were. "Allah be praised, the all-merciful, the all-compassionate." She pulled off her veil — I guess she'd established that Harik was a Catholic and didn't care whether she was veiled or not — and sat beside Carmichael on the edge of the bed, making it pretty crowded. "I feared ibn-Ghaalib had taken you, al-Jahannum, as he took Azuzar — "

"I think we are all of us fortunate he did not," said Harik softly. "Egypt is a land full of spirits, even in times of quiet. Had your self, your soul, been drawn out of your body — " He turned to look earnestly at me, " — I think there would be real danger that another demon — an earth-spirit, not a hell-spirit — might have possessed it."

Oh, swell. "You mean I'd have been possessed?"

"More like ..." He paused, thinking. "More like sublet. The problem is that none of us understands — I have discussed this with Trevor and I think he has spoken of it to you also — none of us understands the precise relationship of the demon spirit to its flesh. We know it is different from that of mortals; we do not know how different. Or what elements — what secrets, what dangers — may be hidden within you."

In the silence that followed the tinny blare of a Cairo radio station from the apartment next door sounded very loud. I knew there'd been a school of thought, while I was being raised in secret in New Mexico, that I should simply have been destroyed while humankind had the chance to do it. I'd heard also that some in the Bureau thought I should have been kept permanently under wraps and studied, instead of being brought up like a more or less normal person. It was only now that I began to realize what a risk the Professor had taken, insisting that I was a human being and should be treated like one. Which party, I found myself wondering, would Professor Harik have been in?

At the moment, there seemed to be only one thing I could say about the whole subject.

"Got another cigarette?" I turned to Raisha. "What'd you find out?"

She pressed one hand swiftly to her mouth, shut her eyes, trying to steady herself. "He was gone from the ceremony by the time I returned there," she whispered. Under decades of sunburn her face looked ashen, sick with anxiety and grief. "No one could say where. I checked at the airport and they knew nothing. But later one of the men there who loads planes for the smugglers — not the official flights, you understand — said that they'd left this morning, that ibn-Ghaalib had his box with him — "

A shiver went through her, and the gaze she turned on me was haunted. "What will they do with him? What do they want with him?"

"What happens to him," I said slowly, "depends on where ibn-Ghaalib was going."

She shook her head, fighting to keep calm against the unthinkable fear that she'd never find him again. Had she been that shook up, when her husband died? You do not understand, she'd said ...

Silently Carmichael got her a Coke from the kitchen, and lit a cigarette for her.

"There is a man named Fuad," she said after a minute, "who flies cargoes in and out of Cairo. Sometimes cigarettes, sometimes kif, or women for the workmen's brothels. Or he will take pilgrims to Mecca — anywhere that anyone will pay for the fuel." She swallowed hard, fingers trembling on her cigarette. "These are not official cargo companies, you understand. They pay the men in the tower, and no papers are filed."

Carmichael said, "Shit."

I said, "What kind of plane?"

Raisha looked blank, the way most people do when you ask that question.

"This Fuad ain't the only cargo runner working the airstrip," I said. With Russian money funding an army of manual laborers, I knew Aswan had to be chin deep in smuggled goods. "I saw a lot of old C-40s and gooney birds left over from the War out there when we came in; bigger craft as well. If we know what kind of plane our boy rented, we might get some idea how far he thinks he'll need to go."

We'd come down from London to Aswan in an old C-46 that a grateful government had bestowed on the B.P.R.D., stopping off to refuel in Rome. From Professor Harik's rental Chevy at the edge of the unofficial end of the airstrip, Raisha and I watched while Harik and Carmichael went in and put the fear of God into the boys in the tower.

"Ibn-Ghaalib beat feet out of here the minute the zar ceremony was done," I told her. "So he knows we're on his tail. If he knew to kill Yusef, he may even know who we are. He's been around long enough. So he'll stay away from commercial flights." I gestured at the small planes scattered on the flat pale sand that stretched beyond the regular commercial runway under the brutal glare of the noon sun. "Now, if our pal Fuad flies a C-40, like half the smugglers in Africa, that could be bad news, because he could just be headed for Cairo, to pick up a flight anyplace in the world. A C-40 would also put him in Syria, in Mecca, along the trade routes through the north of Arabia, in Greece, or at the site of ancient Carthage. Any of those places had enough sophisticated occult knowledge in the past to be hiding some truly nasty bogeymen."

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