Hellboy: Oddest Jobs
Feeling warm and protected now, but still curious about the red man and his friend, she clambered into a sitting position in Esmeralda's arms so she could get a final look at them as she was taken back to where she knew the stroller she'd escaped from was parked.
That's when she saw it, the red thing that had so eluded her in her quest. It was the red man's tail! She reached out her hand, wanting desperately to escape her nanny's arms and go back for the big red chew toy! She began to cry hysterically, but she knew it would be to no avail.
It was too late. She had completely missed her chance.
Hellboy and Liz watched the sobbing little girl and her keeper as they disappeared down the cold-beverage aisle. It was a long time before the toddler's cries finally died away.
"And that is exactly why I hate grocery stores," Hellboy said, as he watched Liz pick up an apple and put it in her basket.
Liz only smiled thoughtfully to herself and moved on down the produce aisle.
* * *
* * *
The south of Egypt was a weird place to be in the summer of 1962, especially if you happened to have horns and a tail. Workers were tearing up the red-gold hills above the First Cataract for the Aswan Dam; archaeologists were tramping around figuring out which temples they were going to cut to pieces and save, and which they'd leave to the rising waters of Lake Nasser. Spirits who used to be gods were coming to the surface, who'd sunk away into the parched wadis a thousand years ago; nasty little dust-devil afreets that had spent the last three millennia sliding in and out of mummies' brains in the rock-cut tombs now whispered in the date groves along the river, looking for something to bite. The air stank with psychic debris, supernatural slime stirred up from the bottom of Time.
At the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, we knew every demon-hunter on the planet had to be out there with their little magic jars.
They flew me into Aswan with a Professor Harik from the American University of Beirut. His Arabic was better than mine at the time and he was supposed to act as my contact with Yusef ibn-Karim, Our Man in Aswan. The night I met Raisha bint-Tahayet, Harik was back at the hotel, feebly sipping warm Seven-Up in between trips to the John. One of the best things about having my particular constitution is that I can eat anything anywhere in the world without spending the rest of the night looking at the plumbing fixtures.
But the dumb bastard had insisted on having Scotch on the rocks at the airport instead of a beer — which doesn't need ice in it, or in his case, frozen amoeba soup pumped up from the river.
But maybe it was just something he needed to learn, along with, lets not ever do that again.
Whatever. That night in 1962, I was out on a red-rock promontory across the Nile from Elephantine Island at sunset, waiting for Yusef ibn-Karim alone.
The B.P.R.D. had budgeted a permanent agent in Aswan in 1959, when the surveyors were still making their plans. But good boony ops are hard to recruit. Who the hell wants to live in deep cover for three years in one-room workers' housing in a company town where the big news is the weekly shipment of cigarettes from Cairo? This was before the internet, or even TV, in most of Egypt. Hell, in that neighborhood it was before indoor toilets. Ibn-Karim wasn't bad, just inexperienced. And though the Professor knew in the marrow of his bones that somebody had to be out there collecting thaumaturgical hairballs, we hadn't heard a thing.
Until last week.
So here I was, smoking in the fast-falling African twilight and listening to the demons whisper in the rocks. Across the river I could see the faint glow in the sky above Aswan, though the dark mass of the island blocked out most of the town itself. Behind me, where bone-dry hills merged with the biggest desert in the world, the sky faded, cinnamon to indigo to star-splattered black.
Feet crunched on the path. Tobacco, frankincense, and ras el hanout. I stubbed out my smoke.
"Who is there?" Whoever it was, she spoke fair English. "I am here from ibn-Karim."
"Where is he?" I didn't move. In the shadows, I can look pretty much like a rock if I need to.
"He is dead." She turned her face in my direction, and I could see she saw my eyes. In darkness they're kind of hard to miss. I saw her step back, and her breath hissed, flattening the black cotton of her veil against her lips. "Al-walad al-Jahannum — "My Arabic was for crap, but I knew damn well what that meant. Then instead of running screaming back to the river, like most people who come on me unawares in the dark, she stepped toward me again and said, "Ibn-Ghaalib killed him, the thief who steals demons. The thief who stole the demon out of my own flesh, Azuzar, that has dwelt in me for thirty years."
The moon, just clearing temple ruins on the crest of the island, showed me the glitter of her tears.
Her name was Raisha bint-Tahayet. She was a Berber out of western Sudan — the veil was for the benefit of her Egyptian neighbors, and she took it off once she was clear there weren't any Muslim men around. She was forty-two and looked nearly sixty, which is what living on the fringe of a desert does to people with no money (among other things, I found out later). She'd been possessed by a zar spirit since the age of thirteen,
"One cannot be the kodia of the zar dance, unless one is possessed oneself," she told me, as we passed through the date groves that fringed the river here. In her dark hijab and abaya she moved like a shadow, silent. A small motorboat was tied up on the bank: ibn-Karim's, whose friend she'd been. Its not a popular opinion, but I was damn glad just about then that the government had told every crocodile hunter in Africa to come to Aswan and help themselves. "One lives with the zar. Azuzar gave me strength. Here in this country, many women have need of a zar's strength to survive."
I could believe it. I hadn't been in southern Egypt long, but it sure wasn't New York.
"What'd your husband think?"
Raisha bint-Tahayet smiled. She was missing a couple of side teeth. With its elegant bone structure, her face was still beautiful. "My husband was an exceptional man," she said. "My sons — " Dark eyes, hollow from sleepless grief, ducked away from mine. "The zar dance is forbidden by our faith. I think it was my sons who helped ibn-Ghaalib lay hold of me ten nights ago and take the zar away Tor the good of my soul.' Allah knows what is good for a woman's soul — "
We got into the boat, cast off. My weight sank it to the gunwales.
"— but the loss of Azuzar has all but destroyed my heart. Yusef said this man he was to meet sought ibn-Ghaalib because of what he does; because he traps demons, and makes them his slaves. Is this true?"
"Something like that."
"Are you this man's slave, then?"
"Nope." The word came out maybe a little too fast and a little too hard, and I turned away from her gaze and lit another cigarette. After a minute, I looked back at her and asked, "The zar your slave?"
She shook her head.
No. "You don't understand," she said.
Something about her eyes told me I probably didn't want to.
But I'm curious. Always have been. It would have been safer for me to wait out in the alleyway of the old town where she took me, and to grab ibn-Ghaalib when he came out of the joint they'd rented for the dance. But I wanted to see.
Professor Bruttenholm, I knew, would want to know what the zar ceremony was like from my perspective.
So instead of going back to Raisha's room in the Old Town and drinking coffee for a couple hours — the Egyptian kind you have to chew for awhile before it quits chewing back — I had her smuggle me in through the back door of the old house where the zar dance was being held.
A couple of women were in the front room when we got there, setting up an altar on one of those brass tray tables in the center of the room. Raisha waited till they'd gone out to bring in whatever else they needed, then led me to what could have started life as a changing room or an office; anyhow, it had a wooden door with a grille on it, and a hook on the inside. We shut ourselves in just as the Decorations Committee came back with an armload of white tablecloths and bowls of munchies to put on the altar. Somebody set out a jar for contributions.
"Many women are possessed by the zar," murmured Raisha. "Like me, they draw their strength from these spirits — if their husbands are harsh, or their families misuse them. This girl tonight, Naseeba, is wed to an older man, a shoemaker, who treats her like a servant and whose sons show her no respect. So the zar in her rose up, and made her do things she would not have done in her right senses, like smashing the things in his shop, and striking the oldest boy with his own walking stick when he slapped hen It was clear that Naseeba was possessed, so the women of the neighborhood called on the women who dance the zar, to calm the angry spirit, and permit peace to return to the house. The shoemaker," she added, and glanced at me sidelong in the spots of naked electric-bulb glare that came in through the grille, "is paying for the food and the hall.
"I was to have led in this dance," she went on after a minute, while I thought this over in the light of the Psych 101 text I'd read at the Bureau. "I have been kodia of the zar dance here for ten years, and my teacher a kodia in her turn. With so many women coming in with the workers for the dam, our numbers have grown large here. A year ago a man — ibn-Ghaalib — came to join us, a thing not unheard of, though men on the whole do not approve of the zar. He was kind, and had gentle manners. A great many of the women liked him. I never did. In the dance, the zar — my zar, Azuzar — would warn me to keep away from him. When I watched him lead a dance some months ago, it seemed to me that instead of simply drawing the possessing spirit out of its subject to the surface, to calm it, he drew it out entirely, captured it in a vessel made of horn and glass that he had put on the altar. There," she said softly, and moved closer to the grille. "There he is."
Yep. It was him. I'd seen his pictures at the Bureau.
The name the Bureau knew him under was Muzafar al-Tair, but he'd had a couple of others; they were all the same guy, anyway. Ectomorph, dark eyes, major schnozz, long dark hair past his shoulders, which changed the way he looked. Since the last shot we'd had of him he'd sprouted one of those foofy little Prince Albert beards, too. There were flecks of silver in it, and a few in his hair, but they didn't fool me. There's a look people get, when they're using occult assistance to keep young. He'd graduated from Oxford in 1910.
It was ibn-Ghaalib, all right.
He came in with the musicians — they were guys, also — and had a boy to carry a big metal trunk for him. Out of this he took his own contributions to the altar — frankincense, bones, a root wrapped in string — then locked it back up again. It reminded me of the voodoo I'd seen, especially once everybody arrived and the music started. Ibn-Ghaalib killed a goat, out in the yard — Mr. Shoemaker's special contribution to the proceedings, and in my opinion they should have stuck the bastard for a camel — and during the dancing, which went on all that night and through the next day and the next night as well, women were coming and going from the kitchen, cooking it. In ceremonies like this — and the same goes for voodoo — there's a big streak of church picnic: everybody brought food.
And everybody danced.
There must have been nearly a hundred people showed up. Most of them were women, neighbors, and friends. You could tell which ones were possessed. As the night deepened and they moved around the altar, whirling in smaller circles, heads lolling, long hair hanging free, you'd see their faces change, sometimes their whole bodies, as other entities than good Muslim wives came up out of their hindbrains and took over. They'd swagger and shout — you see this in voodoo as well — and run to the altar, sometimes drinking from the bottles of rum and Jim Beam standing open there, sometimes chugging from the bowls of the goat's blood, splattering their white clothing with red. A lot of them smoked — demons love tobacco — and the more aggressive of them would grab up swords off the altar and make mock attacks on the male musicians, or the boy who'd carried in ibn-Ghaalib's box, or Mr. Shoemaker, who sat in a corner looking plenty grim. And I've got to admit, a lot of the ladies who did all of the above weren't possessed in the least.
Only glad to have the excuse to act as if they were.
Like I said, you could tell. Or I could, anyway. The music always changed when a zar rose to the surface: goatskin drum, tambourine, a big bronze chime whose note went straight through my skull, and an aluminum washtub. Intricate rhythms, different for each zar, and as the night got later I could feel the mingled energy of frustration and hate and friendship and fear and joy build and focus in that room, like hot sunlight when a kid tortures a slug with a magnifying glass. I could feel the rhythms pulling at me in a way I'd never experienced before — or not within conscious memory, anyway. A way that made my flesh crawl.
The first flash hit me when Naseeba — that good little wife whose zar needed calming down — fell on her knees in front of ibn-Ghaalib, raising her hands palm to palm like a Christian and shouting, of all things, the Hail Mary in Latin. Ibn-Ghaalib reached out to her — they were both swaying in wild circles — and I saw signs written on his palms in green henna, not the usual baraka you see all over North Africa, but Lemurian occult marks for the summoning and protection from demons, straight out of Abdul Alhazred's Necronomicon. It was hard to hear much, between the music and the shouting in the rest of the room, but I almost didn't need to.
I felt the spells he was calling out. Felt them in my bones.
And for one instant I saw myself — this seven-foot-tall, massive, red-skinned guy in a trench coat — pressed up against the door of that tiny room, the skinny little Berber woman at my side. It didn't last more than a second, then I was back looking through the grille again, gasping, heart pounding — What the — ?
Swaying together, ibn-Ghaalib brushed Naseeba's face with his spell-written fingers, then rocked his body back, withdrawing slowly, and I could see the zar coming out of her, long strings of glowing ectoplasm trailing from his hands.