Hellboy: Oddest Jobs
Carmichael and Harik emerged from the door at the base of the tower and walked toward us, Carmichael keeping an eye behind him on the airstrip staff. They looked like they'd sell a load of Mecca pilgrims to be chopped up for dog food if the price was right.
"A gooney bird — a DC-3 — would expand ibn-Ghaalib's range to sixteen hundred miles before they have to refuel," I went on. "That's the Empty Quarter of Arabia, Baghdad, the mountains of Azerbaijan where there's supposed to be some really weird stuff walled up under old monasteries, and the sources of the Nile. Anything bigger is going to cost more, and means one of their hops is longer than sixteen hundred. And that," I said, as Carmichael opened the driver's side door, "means only one place, from here."
"Fuad flies a C-46," Carmichael said.
"All right." I glanced at Harik; he nodded agreement. He knew. "That means he's headed for Timbuktu."
We refueled in Cairo, and again in Tripoli with the sun sinking red over the mountains to the west. The ground crew said another old C-46 had refueled around noon. The descriptions fit ibn-Ghaalib, Fuad, and Fuad's two-man crew. To be on the safe side we kept west and fueled again in Casablanca, because there was no airport then in Timbuktu and we'd have to go from there to Lagos — if we survived.
Harik and I both knew what was supposed to be in Timbuktu.
We took off and headed southeast across the desert, a thousand miles of nothing in the dark.
For four hundred years, Timbuktu was one of the greatest trading cities in the world, the last port on a deadly ocean of sand. Even after the Portuguese cut into the trade in slaves and gold in the sixteenth century, the universities there were famous throughout Islam, both for their studies of the Holy Qur'an and for their production — and preservation — of manuscripts. "We know that a line of adepts of occult knowledge lived and taught there," Professor Harik said softly to Raisha, as those black miles unspooled down below us and Carmichael's flight crew — a young Brit named Thomas and a jarhead Carmichael had borrowed from an air base in Germany — passed around thermos coffee in paper cups. And if you think there was any way we could have left Raisha on the ground in Aswan, think again.
"I will not leave him," she'd said. The look in her eyes was scary. And to me, "You owe me your life,"
Well, she was right. I had the uncomfortable feeling that if it hadn't been for her knowing what ibn-Ghaalib could do with demons, I'd have been in that other plane, not this one, cursing and screaming in one of those damn alabaster jars. And God only knew what would be occupying my flesh. Harik knew he — and the Bureau — owed her, too.
Now she sat on one of the carpet-cove red wall benches that were the only furnishings in the dark cabin, listening to Harik while I tried to pull together in my mind everything I'd picked up from the Professor, over the years, about what it was ibn-Ghaalib had to be seeking in that pink mud city on the banks of the Niger.
"Manuscripts were preserved among the ancient families of the city," Harik went on, "vast libraries dating back to the days long before the Prophet. Manuscripts collected from Arabia, Persia, Moorish Spain, and India, and brought to the city on the caravans that brought in slaves and ivory and salt. During colonial days wealthy Europeans plundered some of these libraries, carrying them off wholesale to Paris or Berlin. Seeing this, the scholars of Timbuktu hid many of those that remained — thousands of volumes — in caves along the dry rock watercourses In the desert, or buried them in the sand."
Raisha asked, "And that is what he seeks, this ibn-Ghaalib?" Her brows pulled together under the dark edge of the hijab that covered her hair. She knew there had to be more. "Why does he need to capture spirits, only in order to discover a book?"
Harik glanced at her, then at me, asking how much of this an outsider would understand.
An outsider who's been possessed by a demon for thirty years? Beats me.
"We think so," he said. "There was ... a great Arab scholar, a master of occult lore." Which I guess is one way of describing Abdul Alhazred, author of the Necronomicon. "We know that he studied in Timbuktu. It was there that he wrote portions of... of a work of frightening scholarship, a work that can be used to summon forth terrible beings from the abysses beyond Space and Time as we understand them. And a tradition exists, that he not only taught students of his own in Timbuktu, but that he left his notes, his early drafts of that dreadful manuscript, with these students: notes on sources that are lost now to the outside world."
"Legends say," I took up the story, "that Abdul Alhazred — that was his name — had a slave. He probably did; Timbuktu was the big center for the slave trade. This slave had come from the tribal south with his wife, but the woman had been mistreated on the way and died. Legend says the slave kept the spirit of his wife in a bottle, and every time a new caravan of slaves came in, he'd go down to the markets with the bottle, and the spirit inside would eat the spirits of women slaves when they died in the slave compounds."
Raisha said softly, "A zar. Many of the zar had life as humans, or take on the humanity of those they possessed before."
"Sounds like it," I agreed. I remembered the woman at the dance, swaying with empty eyes as she shouted the Hail Mary in Latin. "The story goes that after Abdul left town, our pal the slave went on living in Abduls palace outside Timbuktu, and became a scholar in his own right. Years later he got religion, bricked up the palace, the bottle, and it sounds like his boss's old notes, and became a hermit in the desert."
"And this spirit," Raisha whispered, "this wife — this woman who died in hatred and in hatred lives on in the form of a zar — it is she who guards this evil book. I see." She closed her eyes. She looked dead tired; God knows how much sleep she'd gotten in the past two days, if any. "As the zar give women strength — as Azuzar gave me the strength to survive — now this ibn-Ghaalib thinks to use their strength to defeat her. Dog," she breathed. "Pig and dog."
Her eyes opened, burning up into mine. "She will devour him," she said. "This woman who died in anger, this Guardian Zar. She will destroy him, and eat the spirits he brings with him, as she ate the others long ago."
I didn't think it was wise at that point to say that was what we were all hoping would happen. If ibn-Ghaalib had power over demons — the power I'd felt at the zar ceremony — I sure didn't want to lay money on us being able to get near him before he laid hands on whatever notes Alhazred had left. He had six hours' lead on us, and personally, I was coming to realize that getting killed outright would probably be the least of my worries.
It wasn't a pleasant thought.
We sighted Timbuktu at first light. Sand swept and crumbling, it stood on a slight rise above the river surrounded by the baked-out remains of what used to be marshes, the Sahara moving in on all sides. In 1962, there wasn't a modern building in the place, just pink mud-brick, weird triangular mosque towers with log ends sticking out of them, elaborate old gates and dome-shaped ovens like beehives in every street. Farther out in the desert, fumaroles smoked where the peat of vanished marshlands burned under the ground, and little lumps of rubble marked where old villages or forts had stood, protecting the caravan route.
"It could be any of those, couldn't it?" asked Professor Harik, kneeling on the bench beside me — carefully, because Raisha had fallen asleep there — and looking down out the window. "The slave's old palace, where he hid Alhazred's notes?"
I shook my head. "Bureau's checked 'em out already." And don't think that had been easy, while the Algerian War was going on. I'd seen photographs, and the map, in the Professor's office, a couple months back. Like I said, the whole subject of Africa had been talked about a lot at the Bureau, between the breakup of the French dependencies and the start of surveying on the dam.
"Can we simply guard their plane, then?" For a fussy little stick who thought alcohol would kill germs in a glass of Scotch, Professor Harik had a nice, logical mind. I like that. It makes things lots easier.
"Too late," I said. "If ibn-Ghaalib gets hold of those manuscripts, he'll probably be able to command the Guardian Zar as well. Then we're all screwed."
Beside us, Raisha breathed, "Azuzar" and opened her eyes.
There was something about them — blank, smoky, still tangled in dreams — that made me lean down and whisper to her, "Did he speak to you?" and she murmured, Yes.
Her eyes slipped closed again and as gently as I could, I laid my hand on her forehead. "Can you speak to him now? Ask him where he is?"
If she hadn't been that tired I'm not sure it would have worked, or if she hadn't been used to putting herself in trances for the zar dance. "Overhead." The word passed her lips like a dying breath. "We crossed overhead, and he saw us. A chamber — rocks — stairs going down. Water was there once and now there is only dust."
"Tell Carmichael to swing this thing around and take us straight back over our tracks," I said softly. "Not you," I added, as Harik would have gone, and flicked with my stone hand to Thomas, who ducked fast through the cockpit door. "You watch for landmarks — "
"There is nothing." A thin, steady wind was blowing across the desert below, driving little crescents of dust before it. Enough to take out whatever tracks there might have been. "I have been watching."
"Don't look for a building; it's too old," I said. "Look for ground that'd take a building; bedrock where you could dig an underground cistern."
On the other side of the plane, the jarhead called out softly, "Something down there." I hadn't thought he'd been listening. A minute later it came into view with the turning of the plane: a big thicket of dried-out camelthorn that didn't move right in the wind. Raisha whispered again, "Azuzar," and at the same time the sun came up, marking every irregularity of the ground with huge violet shadows, showing up what looked like a long island above an arm of the far-off river, that had sunk away centuries ago into the sand. Timbuktu lay about ten miles to the south, an easy ride if you were rich and had horses — or could rent a jeep in the town. On the sunny side of that slight rise of ground there were what looked like rock formations, and a couple more withered trees. There'd been water there longer than the rest of the area.
I said, "Tell Carmichael to put this thing down."
I went in first because I'm big, I'm scary, and I was betting ibn-Ghaalib hadn't told Fuad the cigarette smuggler that the people after him included a seven-foot-tall red guy. The mud flat where Carmichael put the plane down was on the sun side of the island and the two guards ibn-Ghaalib had left on the entrance to the old palace's cistern started shooting while we were still taxiing, long before we were in range. Amateurs. Back at the start of this expedition we hadn't expected trouble, so we didn't have professional muscle, but the jarhead was a fair sharpshooter and we did have rifles, as well as a box of grenades.
I took off my trench coat so they could get a good look at me, hooves, tail, and all, then ran toward them, dodging and weaving enough — I hoped — not to take a bullet that probably wouldn't kill me but that could be a real pain in the ass.
It worked. Even from the plane I heard one of them scream, "Yallah!" and saw him break cover from the rock formation and throw aside his rifle, and head over the rise to where I was pretty sure they had a jeep hidden under the camelthorn. The other guy had an AK-47 and fired two bursts at me, which showed him up to the jarhead, who fired back with aim a lot better than his or mine. Then he ran, too. I'd gone flat at the first semi-auto burst and stayed flat until Carmichael zigzagged up to me, though there wasn't any shooting after that. Then we went up to check out the area to be sure.
"Why're they still here?" whispered Carmichael. "They had six hours' lead on us —"
"— and probably a wall to dig through," I said. "We may still be in time." Whatever was down there guarding those notes, I'd much rather deal with ibn-Ghaalib before he got it riled up than after.
We'd barely reached the rocks when a scream came from the other side of the rise, a scream of purest, hellish agony, and a man's voice shouted frantically, "Hassan! Hassan!" And the next second, the stink of burning flesh.
I went to look, though I'd guessed ibn-Ghaalib had booby-trapped the jeep with a geas of some kind, and I was right. Hassan lay in the sand near the jeep, dead — most of the flesh was melted off his arms and his right leg. The other man, kneeling beside him, emptied a handgun in my general direction and then threw it at me and took off running straight across the desert.
Midsummer in the Sahara, you can die in less than ten miles, and he wasn't even headed in the right direction for town. My guess was, he wouldn't be back.
As I crossed back to the rocks where Carmichael waited, I felt, deep beneath the ground, a shudder, not like the jar and roll of an earthquake but a kind of sustained quivering, like a horse twitching its skin. I didn't know what that meant, but none of my guesses sounded good. I broke into a run.
Professor Harik and Raisha had joined the group by the rocks. Carmichael said, "What the hell is that?" and Harik, "There's no way in."
"There has to be, they were guarding here — " Carmichael began, and behind him I could see, behind fragments of half-buried masonry, the dark mouth of an ancient shaft.
Demons can see certain things that people can't. And so can I. I'd seen the runes ibn-Ghaalib had put on the jeep, and I could sure as hell see the marks he'd drawn on the old threshold, the broken wall, that slipped the human consciousness past them. Its an old trick and it doesn't work if your attention is drawn to whatever they're trying to hide, as I drew it by stepping into the shaft entrance; they all looked startled as hell. "How about this?" I said, and took the gun from my holster. Around us, the stone of the low hill shivered again, sending down a shower of pebbles and vibrating a cloud of dust from the walls. Harik coughed, backed out a step, then returned, taking a flashlight from his pocket; Carmichael muttered, "Damn straight." Raisha only stood, listening to something only she could hear.