Hellboy: Oddest Jobs Page 33


In a blur the leather fist drew back and administered a second blow, an uppercut to Dylan's chin. With no choice in the matter he followed the trajectory of his jaw, vertically, a dog on a leash yanked skyward.

Then fell on his ass. Before anyone had time to blink.

Ethan just kept on coming. Or rather the stone fist did. It smashed in right and left, crunching Dylans face into the grass, first one cheek, then the other. The bewildered bully's flailing arms did nothing to diminish the onslaught. Two to the head, two to the body, two more to the head. Ethan hardly even paused for breath.

"Oi!"

"Little fucker!"

The friends, on their feet now.

Dealing with it.

How?

While they figured that out for themselves, Ethan continued beating the holy hell out of Dylan Drew, the boy's ears turning redder with every stinging blow, but not as red as the mist in front of Ethan's eyes. It was as if the stone fist had a will of its own now, and Ethan back behind the red mist wasn't in control of it anymore. The fist was empowering him, changing him, making him someone or something and he didn't know what. Something hot and alien was running through his veins. Mascara girl shrieked, "Stop it! Stop it!" But Gronow and Pamplin were still too stunned, too scared, to move.

The mist in front of Ethan coagulated in the air. It became a stream of blood which was coming from Dylan's nostrils and soon smeared his upper lip. The muscular crunch of the blows grew duller and duller in Ethan's ears and he could hear — distantly — another of the girls yelling, "Do something! Do something!" But nobody did.

Anyway, Dylan was weeping now the hitting had stopped, and Ethan was standing looking down at him, breathing through locked teeth, seeing his own breath as his adversary curled in a ball, wailing and sobbing and dripping blood from his broken nose.

And a shadow, giant, drew back from over him like an unrolled blanket.

And Ethan walked away, with no one standing in his path, and no words of abuse ringing in his ears. Only the sound of his own loud breathing, sounding like he'd run a hundred miles. But feeling he could run another thousand if he wanted to.

He took his hand out of his anorak pocket. Peeled off the oversized leather glove he was still wearing and pressed it flat back on top of its twin in the drawer. "Everything all right, love?" said his nan, from down in the kitchen. He saw a small red smear on its brown knuckle and touched it with his fingertip. He realized his heart was beating hard, still, as he slid closed the drawer and saw himself reflected in the dressing-table mirror. He wondered if he was a monster or a hero. He guessed he'd have to wait until he was a grownup to find out.

Dedicated to the memory of Dilwyn Mills Volk

(1924-2007)

* * *

Evolution and Hellhole Canyon

Don Winslow

* * *

Desert species are larger. This isn't just my observation; its an evolutionary fact. Species in the desert have adapted larger body mass to diffuse the suns intense heat. Its true of the mammals, with their bigger frames, larger ears, and thicker tails. Its true of the reptiles — they're just, well, bigger.

I thought about this and my own long, thick tail as I stared at the rattlesnake.

I'm adapted to the desert, an evolved creature, if you will; just like the snake that hissed at me, its large rattler making music like some kind of ancient ritual from the extinct people that inhabited this canyon for thousands of years.

They hadn't evolved.

But my concern now was not with them, but with the snake blocking my path, a narrow passage between two red-rock boulders twice as high as my head. The whole canyon was strewn with boulders, a geological anarchy, strewn about as if some god had had a temper tantrum and thrown his toys all over the place.

Unintelligent design; again, if you will.

It was this maze of sun-baked rock that I was trying to work my way through.

I was already hot, tired, and thirsty; and now this rattlesnake was in my way. In the desert, time equals survival. The longer you stay, the hotter you get, the more you dehydrate, the less chance your large body has to diffuse the heat. This is even more true in the narrow canyons where the sun reflects off the rocks, which store the heat and then disperse it, creating an oven.

I wanted out of the oven. I wanted to make it up to the oasis of palm trees, do my job, and get out of Hellhole Canyon.

The snake was a big one, all right, and it knew it. It had all the arrogance of the A-male, the dominant individual of its species. This boy was clearly successful, healthy, fat from hunting rats and mice. If a snake could be said to swagger, this one had swagger.

"We have a problem, big boy?" I asked.

"We don't," it hissed. "You might."

"Yeah?" I asked. "What's that?"

I tried to sound light and tough at the same time, but I was alert and ready to move. So was the snake; it was coiled to strike.

"It's one thing to go up a canyon," it said. "Another thing to come back down."

"Thanks for the wisdom," I said. "Are you going to let me through?"

Or do I have to swing my hammer-fist down and crush you, which I really don't want to do. Or try to do. I'm fast, but was I as fast as that rattler? It was a question to which I really didn't want an answer. Take it from a guy who's been in a lot of scrapes — talking is always better than fighting. Guys who say different are usually standing on the sidelines, men in white shirts and two-hundred-dollar ties who sit in offices and encourage other men to go out and fight and die.

I doubted that the snakes bite could pierce my tough hide, but the fangs that it was showing me were big, and this was another question I preferred to leave to the realm of conjecture. Didn't want it on my headstone, He Guessed Wrong About The Fangs.

And it wasn't like anyone was going to come rushing in with the antidote. I was a long way from anywhere, in the desert a hundred miles east of San Diego, hard by the Mexican border.

Which was the point.

I looked down at the snake with a Well? look in my eye.

"I'll let you through," it said, "if you think you really want to go."

Want to go? Does anyone want to go on a gig like this? Since when did want have anything to do with it? You do your job, whether you want to or not.

Evolution is not a choice.

"Stamp my ticket," I said. "I'm going for the ride."

"Suit yourself," the snake said. "Just don't say I didn't warn you."

Then it was just gone, disappeared into a crack in the boulder I didn't even realize was there. But then again, it had evolved to do just that. If it hadn't, it would long ago have fallen prey to one of the hawks that even now circled above, issuing its single-note, plaintive cry like another warning I wasn't going to heed. Higher in the sky three vultures wafted on a thermal, their keen eyes looking down, searching for the dead and dying.

They were large animals — desert species.

"Not yet, you bastards," I muttered. "You're early for the party. Very bad manners."

I took a gulp of hot air and then bounded up the next section of the canyon, my red skin blending in with the rock, my tail switching from side to side, providing stability and balance, my tough skin impervious to the cholla and barrel cactus that lined the canyon like angry sentinels. It was easy to imagine dinosaurs in this place that sang of the prehistoric.

Is that me? I wondered.

Am I a dinosaur, too?

In some ways, I hoped so.

It took me ten minutes to climb to a flat stretch of rock from which I could see the palm oasis a half mile above me, a patch of dark green cut into a narrow notch between red cliffs. I stopped and let my heartbeat slow down, and when it did, I could hear running water above me in the oasis.

I laid flat down on the sheet of rock, blending in as much as I could.

Laid still as death, and watched.

Twenty minutes later I saw a flicker of movement in the palms. A flash of white fabric. A cool color for desert heat, but a mistake in this country of buff, tan, terracotta, and red. You don't wear white in the desert if you don't want to be seen.

The snake can discern the strange temperature of the color.

The hawk can see you.

So can the vultures.

And me.

I moved carefully now. Slowly, making my own boulderlike body become just another rock in this garden of rock as I made my way up toward the oasis.

And I left the trail.

It's axiomatic in the desert — you leave the trail, you die. Every year out here, two or three hikers do it and don't make it back. They run out of water, the heat gets to their brains and they become disoriented. What look like easy, shallow canyons become narrow death traps. They can find their way in; they can't find their way out. Sometimes it's years before their bodies are found. If they're found, if they're not consumed first by the foxes, coyotes, and lions — big ones — that live out here.

That's what the snake was trying to tell me.

It's one thing to go up a canyon. Another thing to come back down.

Yeah.

But I went off the trail and up, making a wide loop to the right to blend in against the rocks of the cliff face and to get up above the oasis. They'd be looking down the canyon for any threat. They'd never think it would come from above. The terrain above the oasis is impassable.

For a human being.

Now I knew why they sent me. Your garden-variety Homo sapiens couldn't have made it. Neither up the canyon or down. He'd have been spotted and shot down before he got halfway up. Simply not built to do that.

It took me three long hours. Three hours of heat, thirst, heart-straining effort and pain to make the long loop away from the trail and then back again, above the oasis. I followed the sound of water, and if you don't think that's ironic in the desert, well, you don't know irony. But that's what I did — I could hear the stream of water as it sluiced through tiny cracks in the rocks and tumbled off cliffs and boulders, and the sound was my guide.

I'll admit it, by the time I got above that damn oasis I was hurting. I was just to the top, out of breath, gasping for even this baked air and stretched out flat on a rock above the stream, when the hawk landed in a creosote bush beside me and laughed.

It was a red-tailed hawk, big and beautiful.

"There are four of them," it said.

"Why are you helping me?"

Suspicion is an evolutionary trait in my business. Develop it or become extinct. Beautiful or not, I had no reason to trust this hawk. Well, I trusted its eye, I didn't trust its heart. I certainly don't trust beauty. Maybe it's envy rather than suspicion.

"A suitcase bomb?" it said. "Radiation kills hawks, too." Got it.

"You're going to die," the hawk said.

"Says who?" I asked.

"The vultures," the hawk said, tilting its head upward. "They're impatient. Hungry. It's been a slow day, and you'd make a large feed."

"Tell them I have a tastier meal in mind for them."

"They'll be glad to hear it," the hawk said. Then, "Two AKs, a MAC-10, one Uzi. Two of them are asleep, one's getting water, the other is on lookout."

"Looking down," I said.

"That's right." It looked at me carefully, curiously, and then it asked the question it had on its mind. "What are you? I haven't seen a thing like you before."

No one has, I thought.

What am I?

Good goddamn question.

"I'm a desert species," I said, for lack of a better answer. Time was an issue, and

I wasn't in the mood for explanation or introspection. Time for that after the job was done. Yeah, you're kidding yourself, I thought — there's never time for that.

The hawk said, "You're not of the desert."

"No?"

It shook its head and then flew off.

It didn't like being lied to.

Can't say I blamed it; neither do I.

I got busy and started to scuttle down the stream until I came to a flat shelf of rock behind some Indian tobacco brush. I laid out flat — well, as flat as I can get — and peered through the bush, down into the palm oasis.

The hawk had been telling the truth.

Four of them.

They had come across the border in the desert, left the truck down near Ocotillo Wells and hiked in. Were waiting in the canyon for the chopper that would come in that night. They would meet it down in the flats and from there ...

Radiation kills hawks, too.

I knew they were going to be tough. Good fighters, hardened in the mountains of Afghanistan and the Kashmir. But they hadn't seen or heard me. Their instincts were honed for other kinds of predators — helicopters and drones — death from the sky. The two sleepers were still asleep on a long rock that slanted above a pool, where the one getting water had filled the canteens and was now just bathing in the little pool. The lookout sat in the shade at the lower edge of the oasis — he was looking out down the canyon, away from me.

The suitcase sat by his hip, the small camo net thrown over it inadequately for the purpose of disguise. The bright midday sun exposed it for what it was — shiny, metal, modern, and lethal. An indiscriminate mass murderer that I'd been sent to fetch like some kind of mutant golden retriever after an equally mutant stick.

Stealth or speed — the basic choice of the evolutionary engineer. Every predator is equipped with greater or fewer quantities of those qualities, and I knew that if I was going to get that suitcase, I was going to need both. First, the stealth to get into range, and then the burst of speed to close the deal.

Starting with stealth, I slid off the rock, becoming one with the water — Zen Hellboy. I landed in a pool of water, crawled to the edge and did the same with the next little waterfall, and the next, until I reached the palm trees. Suddenly I was in another world. It seemed almost impossible, to be so quickly out of the harsh sun and baked rock into a realm of deep cool shade, running streams, and little waterfalls.

No wonder the ancient people cherished this place, their paintings even now evident on the gray rock faces above the little pools.

Water is sacred.

Water is life.

I pushed through some palms into a little grotto, slid down one of the waterfalls and stood stock still, like a rock, my hooves planted at the bottom of the pool, my head behind the falling water. Tiny frogs, green and blue, clung to the moss by my face. I looked at them, my eyes begging them to be quiet.

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