Hellboy: Oddest Jobs Page 29

"Listen carefully," he said. "I've got a proposal. How much are these Bureau creeps paying you? Well I can offer more. The Carnacki Institute has many bank accounts and now the other members are dead. So I'm extremely rich. You want half this money? It's yours if you perform one simple service."

"You think I'm so cheap?" I spluttered.

"Yes I do. The Carnacki family was big and influential. All I want is to rebuild some of my destroyed pride. That's not much to ask. My institute diverted Nekrotzar onto a new trajectory but couldn't put it back on its original course. I don't mind admitting I've lost face."

"State your terms," I growled, believing myself beyond temptation, but none of us are ever that.

"All you have to do is enroll as a member of my institute. I can formally welcome you aboard right now. There's nobody left to veto my decision. I am the Carnacki Institute."

"What good will that do either of us?"

"Cross over to Nekrotzar with Hellboy. He'll have to make the perilous trip through the palace to the throne room. The instant he arrives near the throne, you can jump forward and take hold of the rudder. The credit for saving the world will belong to the institute again! You agree? By the power invested in me I accept you as a full member!"

I arched my eyebrows. "How can I persuade Hellboy to let me accompany him on the mission? I'm not a field agent. I'm just here for this."

"Don't give him a choice. Hitch a ride all the way!"

And he whispered into my ear. His idea was so treacherous I still don't understand why I didn't break his evil jaw with my fist. Maybe it was the hypnotic quality of his eyes. Whatever the reason, I was infected with his madness. I howled. The mystic doorway was ready and Hellboy was striding toward it. I transformed myself entirely into ectoplasm, flapped across the surface of the floor, flung myself over Hellboy's shoulders like a cloak.

Not really like a cloak. Closer than that. Like a second skin. In fact the astral molecules of my ectoplasm meshed with the molecules of his real skin, bonding with the moisture in his cells. I'm no expert on the biology of demons and maybe that moisture wasn't water, but it served its purpose. He paused for a moment.

"What the hell are you doing? This isn't part of the ritual!"

"I've changed my allegiance," I hissed.

"You're making a mistake. I don't want to hurt you."

"Buddy, there's no way you can remove me now. Not without surgery. I've sold you out for money, same way I sold myself out, years ago."

In a few minutes the doorway would close. Hellboy had no time to reason with me. He had to cross over now, with me draped on his back. I planned to stay exactly where I was for as long as possible. I was drunk with a feeling of power, far more drunk than I had ever been on beer.

Haifa minute later I was totally punch drunk ...

We had underestimated the big red lunatic. No mortal man could reach around behind himself and pull off his own skin without even blinking! It should go without saying that Hellboy wasn't a man. First he shook me out like a sheet, then he rolled me up and snapped me like a whip against the floor, forcing me to change back into a man. I had betrayed the Bureau and had this coming to me ...

That should have been the end of it, but I was still infected with the madness Marvin Carnacki had induced in my soul. I flung myself at Hellboy again and again. He tried to brush me off lightly but I just wouldn't back off. So he was forced to get rough.

"Sorry, Foggy," he said, and the regret in his voice was genuine.

Witnesses to the incident later told me that the whole thing lasted thirty seconds. I believe it. But in that short period a mangling occurred that I surely will never forget. Having said that, I don't recall the actual beating. The bruises are my mementos. And the scars. Very rapidly I faded in and out of consciousness like a flickering lightbulb, then I distinctly remember hearing a shouted warning that the doorway was starting to vanish. Maybe my life was saved by that yell. Hellboy turned his attention to his mission.

As he passed through the door, he began to shimmer. Just before he was entirely gone, he glanced over his shoulder at Marvin Carnacki and jerked a thumb. "I'll be back for you."

Despite my condition I managed to laugh.

But Marvin only sneered. "How will you do that? Nekrotzar is located in outer space. If you succeed in diverting it from its present course you'll never see planet Earth again!"

It was a fair point, well made. Yes.

And that's how I ended up in the hospital. The surgeons worked hard to repair the damage. When I came to my senses I felt different, lighter, but in a way I couldn't identify. I realized I was in one of the Bureau's secret sickbays. The nurses were friendly but didn't engage too intimately in conversation. I asked for a newspaper. Many weeks had passed since the assault. A single paragraph on one of the back pages of one of the crankier tabloids reported that the actor Foggy Dicks had been injured by falling scenery on the set of his latest film. I smiled thinly at this. The Bureau can pull any strings it wants to.

I found myself growing obsessed about the progress of Hellboy's weird mission on an alien world. Nobody could give me any information. As for Marvin Carnacki, I didn't even ask about him, partly because I didn't care, partly because the merest thought gave me painful cramps inside. I know that sounds very mixed up, but I was very mixed up right then. As I recovered I tried simple exercises with my ectoplasm gland, attempting to shoot forth tendrils of gloop to lasso the jug of water on my bedside table. But nothing worked. My injuries were still serious. Frustrating.

So I have to relate the story of Hellboy's exploits on Nekrotzar secondhand, the same way I received it from the big red brute in question. Might as well get down to that task now. My pillow is comfortable enough. After he stepped through the doorway, our stump-browed hero emerged through an almost identical portal on the other side that vanished behind him like a broken cobweb. He was in a vast hall, the lobby of the palace, and the sight of his surroundings was impressive even to him, and he's seen a lot of odd sights in his career, believe me.

You don't have to take my word for that, or for anything else, of course, but your doubts aren't important to me. Anyway, Hellboy gazed at the horizons, then craned his head to look up at the distant ceiling. Stormclouds were gathering in one corner of the room, bumping back and forth between the place where the ceiling met a wall and a row of columns rising from the floor. When King Sciron had given his order to start work on the palace, he forgot the inconveniences of geography The landscapes of his home planet became enclosed in the edifice.

Mountain ranges, river valleys, deserts, steppes, icecaps, glaciers, even entire oceans — these don't just disappear simply because you roof them over and enclose them between gigantic walls in absurdly immense rooms. The forests die, this is true, because of the lack of sunlight, but Nekrotzar's sun had gone out millennia before anyway. The only vegetation Hellboy found on his visit was various kinds of fungus, some toadstools as big as redwood trees and puffballs like the severed heads of bloated corpses. And all illumination was provided by the perpetual electric storms ...

Why didn't he arrive directly in the throne room? Why did he now have to travel all the way from the lobby to the center of the palace? Who knows for sure? The rulers of Nekrotzar had been devoted to games of mischief; it was in their nature to be capricious. Hellboy began walking over a moldy carpet as big as a savanna. He was aware of many pairs of eyes watching him from the shadows, some from above, but sensations like that were part of a day's work for him. Something flapped high above. A lump of pterodactyl crap hit his shoulder.

"So that's how its going to be?" he muttered.

He crested a rise, a warp in the carpet, and stood gazing down at a small inland sea. Mists obscured most of its expanse, but at the wide mouth of a lazy river was a wooden jetty with a golden boat moored to it. A man stood on the jetty and something made him look in Hellboy's direction. Fingering the pistol in its holster but not drawing it, Hellboy ambled down the incline to meet the man. They stood a few yards apart, squinting at each other, then both slowly nodded, as if reassured.

"I know you," said Hellboy.

"Yeah?" came the reply. "Well I ain't Anubis."

Hellboy moved closer. "You're Philip Jose Farmer, the writer. What are you doing on an alien world?"

The boatman shrugged. "For some reason I've been resurrected here. No explanation was ever offered by anyone. I thought at first that maybe every other human who had ever died would join me somewhere along the length of this mighty river, but it didn't turn out like that. I'm alone."

"You're a new Charon, an infernal ferryman?"

"Nah, I just rent out the boats. Been waiting for my first customer since my rebirth. You're the one."

"Honored," said Hellboy, "but I don't have time to work out this new mystery. I reckon it might not even be connected to my main quest. It could be just a fluke. I don't care because you have what I need, namely a boat. I have to ask the price first, I guess."

"Look buddy, I like you, don't know why. You can have the barge for free. Money's no use to me. Maybe I shouldn't tell you this, but there's an endearing quality about you and I want to help properly."

"Thanks for the observation."

"This river is exactly one million miles long and terminates in the throne room. If you use the boat to paddle there it'll take at least a century. But there's a shortcut. The river loops like a knotted piece of string. If you're strong enough, drag the boat overland to the next room and rejoin the river there. That way you'll bypass a long stretch, because first it flows into the lower levels and then around and up through most of the turrets before returning to this level."

"Thanks. You're one of the good guys."

"Smile when you call me that, stranger," said Philip Jose Farmer.

"How much of the river will I bypass?"

The answer came with a grin. "Ninety-nine percent."

There wasn't a need for further decision making. Hellboy grabbed hold of the mooring rope and dragged the boat up the river bank. Then off he set across the carpet in the indicated direction. Seeing him preoccupied with his burden, the pterodactyls took their opportunity to swoop and sink their talons into his shoulders. They tried to carry him off to their clifftop nests. Bad mistake. Soon the ground was littered with broken long heads and the flapping remnants of torn wings.

Hellboy entered the adjacent room by passing through a wet curtain, the spume of a waterfall that cascaded from a high shelf directly over the door. A curiously formed rainbow undulated away into pale brown light. Desert sands whipped abrasive particles against his bare legs and arms. He ignored them and the biting insects that regarded him as a potential supper. Hellboy is the sort of guy who lights an ordinary-length cigarette from the crater lip of an active volcano. Talking about those, there were none, for Nekrotzar was a geologically dead world.

Small mercies. Hellboy spied the river in the distance. He plunged into a petrified forest, snapping stone trunks left and right. Then he was set on by a group of telepathic winking tyrannosaurs. Swinging the boat on the end of its rope he knocked those down like Cretaceous skittles. Their winking days were over. Damage to the hull was thankfully minimal. He pushed the golden barge out into midstream and jumped aboard, determined to enjoy the ride. But others in the equation had different ideas about that. And here was one of the most bizarre aspects of the entire adventure. What the hell were Nazis doing on Nekrotzar?

They ambushed him in the next room, which was a sort of lounge filled with giant sofas and occasional tables. They sniped at him from behind the cover of weirdly shaped rocks, from both banks of the narrowing river. He cursed, fired back and made every bullet count. As for the Nazis, they were old men, clearly marooned here for many decades, but how and why? I don't think Hellboy killed every one, at least he doesn't reckon he did, just most of them. Good enough.

Plenty of things happened to him after this, mostly bad things, but each time he won through. One percent of a million miles is still a hell of a long way. The rooms he passed into all contained their own dangers. Snakes the size of oil pipelines, golems fabricated from riverbank mud, armies of evil spiders with tiny human faces, muttering warlocks sitting inside caves who cast bolts of spluttering green fire. And Hellboy lost all sense of direction. He just took what came to him and responded appropriately. After a while he even stopped wondering why.

Marvin Carnacki hadn't lied. The palace was a maze, a labyrinth worse than the famous one Theseus found his way through. But Theseus used an unwinding cord to retrace his steps and Hellboy only had the river to follow. Inside Hellboy was a growing conviction that he wouldn't be stuck on Nekrotzar forever but he didn't want to appear too confident. Tempting fate and all that. He just kept working the oars and only broke his rhythm to deal with hostile assaults. He thinks it was the T'ao T'ieh that really made him cynical about the threats.

The T'ao T'ieh, he later explained, is an inverse variation of Cerberus, the guardian hound of Hell. Whereas Cerberus has one body and three heads, the T'ao T'ieh has only one head but two bodies. Anyway, at a bend in the river, just before it plunged into a chasm between two looming easy chairs, the dog in question jumped into the water from the shore and started swimming toward the boat. Hellboy lifted one oar and used it as a club to pulverize the hound's skull. A single stroke was enough. No contest. The corpse spiralled to the bottom.

Then he entered a space longer and narrower than any encountered so far, more of a corridor than a room, and he guessed it was the approach passage to the throne room. He squinted in the dim light and made out the flight of steps that led up to the plush chair of a king. It was unoccupied at the moment but on the bottom step stood something that could only be one of the authentic inhabitants of Nekrotzar. Then Hellboy knew that the other things he'd fought weren't original to this world. The realization gave him some relief. It confirmed a guess.

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