Hellboy: Oddest Jobs Page 1

Prologue in pulp

It was a long train and swift and dark as the inside of a dead man's gut. Its smoke stack chugged out dark wafts of choo-choo exhaust that climbed up high and momentarily bagged the full moon, stunk up the sky until the thin desert air smelled like something rotten and pissed on.

It ran not only between and around cacti and little rises of sand, it ran right smack dab through them, but didn't move them, didn't change them. Went through them as if the train were smoke, churning up clouds of dust.

Since its appearance, the moon had stayed the same, had not changed a bit; it was forever full and forever bright and it kept the same position in the sky. The train ran on invisible rails. The smoke from the stack broke up in patches, fluttered about like agitated birds of prey.

The desert town of Cold Shepherd lay cool and silent in the late of night. It was dark except for a few store lights. It was a little town and not very populated, most of the people middle-aged or old, a smattering of kids and infants, so after midnight there was very little activity. Everyone was tucked away in their beds by that time. Come early morning, many would drive into the city some twenty-five miles away to do their jobs or shopping. Old men would play dominoes down at the Community Hall, smoking and cussing and telling lies of youthful prowess. Old women would gather for a furious game of bridge and gossip; false teeth would clatter and the air would smell of too much perfume. There would be no school as it was the dead of summer, and the kids would be bored by midday, having played out video games and watched DVDs until they could quote the lines in all the movies. Mothers would be worn out with crying babies. Dogs and cats would lie about in any available shade.

So they slept, the next day looming, and then came the sound, from a distance and odd at first. No more noise than a rat straining to shit, and then there was a bit of clatter and rattle, like a drunk pot-and-pan salesman falling downstairs.

It was loud enough that lights went on and people came out of their houses, walked into the street for a look. In the distance they saw a perfectly round glow of gold the size of a thumb tip coming toward them beneath the higher glow of the harvest moon. The round glow kept coming on and on, faster and faster, becoming larger, and then they saw it was the light of a train, and then they could see the train, its cow catcher at the forefront, greasy smoke stack coughing up char-colored smoke; the stench was close now and worse than rotten and pissed on; it smelled like a butcher shop where the meat had hung too long.

As the machine heaved to a stop in the center of town, scattering people in pajamas and robes, it could clearly be seen that the train was right out of an old Western movie, something ripe for Jesse James to rob. There were boxcars, but they none of them appeared to be passenger cars — no windows. When it stopped there was the sound of the big hot engine cooling in the night air, the metal heaved and squealed like a soul caught up in barb wire, the box cars trembled as if cold, and the smoke stack coughed one last time and a huge puff of shadow swelled out and stuck in the stack for a moment, then broke loose with an uncorking sound, took to the sky and broke apart and made a batch of bats that flew up until the night absorbed them.

The people, stunned as if they had been whacked with a mallet, just stood there, staring, not even speaking, and then someone said, "Look at that," and pointed toward the sky. People looked, saw the smoke bats were coming back, and they were swelling in size until they were no longer bats but smoke dragons. They could see through the dragons in spots, hints of moonlight here and there. The dragons dropped down out of the sky. Their beating wings and twisting tails caused the dirt to spin on the street in tiny dust devils. The glass in window panes rattled like dry old bones.

People panicked. Old men and women hobbled on canes and walkers, and younger men and women broke and ran. Others scooped up their children, or encouraged them to run. They made for their homes.

No one made it. Not even the dogs and cats.

The smoke dragons were quick, and when they came down they scooped the people and animals up like hawks grabbing mice, scooped them up in their smoky talons which were solid as steel, and darted for the train.

The side door on the train flung open with a sound like a cough, and just before the shadow dragons carried the people inside, the victims got a whiff of the train's interior. It was enough to make the eyes water, the nose fill up, and the head go stone-cold drunk. It was a stench beyond the exterior butcher shop smell; it was a stench like all the dead things that ever were or ever would be, all the vomit, excrement, and foul odors of decaying man and animal, fruit and vegetable, composting in the heat of hell.

The shadow dragons darted into the train. The door slammed loudly shut, tight as a miser's wallet. The train cranked up with a chug, and another, another, and then it was moving again, down the street, right through a house without so much as breaking a board, leaving behind ectoplasmic cobwebs and drips of goo.

The train pumped on across the back end of the town, on out into the desert again, picked up speed. It began to look like an elongated shadow, and then there were only streaks of blackness, like some kind of poisonous infection running the length of a wound. The streaks joined with the natural shadows of the desert and were soon one with the night. There was only a hint of its stench left behind to mark its passing.

Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense

New Mexico field office

Hallway security cam

Its not a good picture. It vibrates a little, goes scratchy (got to get that fixed, everyone thinks, but so far no one's fixed anything.)

Cam shows a tall man with a shaved head and a goose-step walk. He wears a black suit underneath a black leather raincoat, has on shiny black shoes, has the face of a man afraid to laugh. His eyes look like a couple of cigarette burns. With him is a woman, Kate Corrigan, folklore expert. She has to walk fast to keep up.

A large room

Hellboy, sitting in a chair, watches the security cam on the wall, says, "Now what?"

A light glows red above the door, and then the door opens, and Now What enters the room. The tall man and Kate. Kate, she looks okay today, like maybe she got some sleep, but she's all business, Hellboy can tell that. She's got that look, rested or not.

He takes hold of his tail and pulls it in an unconscious gesture, maybe hoping it will come off. Sawing off his horns worked out. The nubs looked pretty cool, like goggles. Maybe a nip of the tail and he'd look more presentable. Of course, there was his right arm, about the size of a cannon and not exactly the most dexterous of limbs. Had a lot of bad mojo about it, Right Hand of Doom and all that, formerly owned by someone else, real heavy, good to hit with, but not exactly the best hand for picking your nose. So, no matter what he did, unless he was willing to have a lot of amputation and one hell of a makeover and wear funny hats, he was always going to look like a big red guy with a tail.

When they come into the room, Hellboy doesn't leave his chair. He's too tired for that, too worn for that, too much late-night business with demons and ghosts, werewolves and nasties; even someone of demonic origin gets a little worn out, needs a break, thinks of Hawaiian shirts and smooth beaches and girls in bikinis, some kind of cool, alcoholic drink.

As the tall man and Kate approach, Hellboy says, "Its not good to see you. I'm taking a break. I don't want any. Gave at the office. Can I borrow five dollars? I have runny sores."

"Weak," Kate says, sauntering over.

"Yeah, well," Hellboy says, "I'm not feeling so good. My dog died. I have to wash my hair."

The tall guy just looks at Hellboy. Hellboy doesn't like those eyes. Human enough, but they're way too deep in the skull and too small and too close together, the pupils are like greasy B.B.s. Hellboy watches, wondering: Does this dude blink?

"This is Jim Jeff," Kate says. "He's a Reverend of sorts. He thinks it's the end of the world."

"Again?"

"Big time," Kate says.

"Ah, saw you blink," Hellboy says to the Reverend.

"What?" says the Reverend.

"Don't pay him any mind, Reverend," Kate says.

"Reverends have always got problems," Hellboy says. "I've come to the conclusion religion isn't any fun."

"Glad to meet you," says the Reverend, and he doesn't mean it, of course. Hellboy takes him for one of those self-righteous types, probably wondering what m the world he's doing associating with someone that has the stench of sulfur about him. That's all right, Hellboy thinks. I don't like you either.

"Salutations and all that stuff," Hellboy says. "What's up, Rev? Let's make it snappy. I got a manicure coming."

"Manicure?" says the Reverend.

"No, he doesn't," Kate says. "He thinks he's funny."

"I got a million of them," says Hellboy, "mostly Farmer's Daughter jokes, but they're good and I can really tell them, and boy are they nasty. I know some elephant jokes too. How many elephants can hide in a jelly bean jar? Buzz. Time's up. Twenty, if you paint their toe-nails the right color."

"Shadow train," the Reverend says, ignoring Hellboy. "It's been moving through the desert. It's touched a big spot of desert in Arizona. Now it's always night there and the moon is always full. It's something demonic, I'm sure of that," says the Reverend.

"Isn't it always?" Hellboy says. "And because it is, you need a big, red guy to help you out. Am I right?"

"I came here for help, and maybe I can help a little myself," the Reverend says. "Ms. Corrigan here has added a lot to what I know, and maybe I've given her something to work with. Did I mention the train doesn't run on tracks? That it comes out of the night and melts into the night?"

"Nope, you didn't mention that," says Hellboy.

"Well, that's the way it is."

"That's a curiosity item for sure," Hellboy says.

Reverend Jim Jeff nods. "And towns are disappearing."

"Towns?" Hellboy asks.

"The inhabitants to be exact," the Reverend says.

"Vacation?" Hellboy says.

"Everyone is missing, not just a few," the Reverend says, as if Hellboy's question is serious. "They couldn't all be on vacation. There aren't even any animals about. A bird won't fly over the place. And should I say again it's always night and the moon is always full?"

"Yeah, I got that part," Hellboy says. "Is there any way you can figure this out yourself? Maybe hire ten guys to do my job?"

"Not likely," the Reverend says. "You have ... special abilities."

"You mean I'm a freak."

"I didn't say that."

"But you're thinking it. About those ten guys?"

The Reverend shakes his head.

"Just hopeful," Hellboy says. "Arizona is far."

Reverend Jeff says, "There are signs of interest, however. Handles, so to speak. Things we can grab onto. Ectoplasmic signs. The air is foul with decay, but there aren't any bodies. A family driving on the highway said they saw something from a distance, something rising up in front of the moon. Dragons. Not entirely solid creatures. The family was on their way toward Cold Shepherd, one of the towns where this happened. They were in daylight, and then they crossed into Cold Shepherd and it was night. They stopped and got out of their car and watched. They saw the dragons dive down into the town, then later they said they saw a ghost train. That's what they called it. And then it disappeared. Saw it go right by them and then it was gone. They said the air stunk so bad they got sick. They drove through the town. Not a soul. The motels were open, but no one was there. They told the sheriff in the next town about it, where it was still daylight, and of course he thought they were crazy. But the story got around. Some people went to Cold Shepherd. Dead of noon, and there was nothing but night. They found other towns that way as well. Three of them. And guess what?"

"No one was there either," Hellboy says.

"That is correct," says the Reverend. "And it's night there, too. And the moon is full. The towns are all in line with Cold Shepherd."

"We think they're linking up," says Kate. "Soon, it'll be a whole chain. Spreading across the country."

"Maybe it's done. Maybe four's enough," Hellboy says.

"Maybe," Kate says. "But we can't be certain."

"Why Arizona? Why these towns?" Hellboy asks.

Kate shakes her head. "All we know is we've brought the National Guard in to protect both ends of the towns that have been ... evacuated, if that's the word. We don't really know what's happened there."

"Before I saddle up and ride, Rev," Hellboy says, "what's your place in this?"

"Outside investigator," Kate says. "Works for us. His own shop. But an outside contractor."

"I live near Cold Shepherd, at least most of the time. Phoenix. Normally, I deal with these things myself." The Reverend folds back the flaps of his long black coat. There are twin revolvers, butts turned forward, poking out of sleek, black holsters.

"Sometimes I use these. They fire mojo bullets. You know, treated with spells and such."

"My gun is bigger," Hellboy says. "And I use really big bullets. They have all manner of stuff in them. And I have a lucky horseshoe on my belt. Crucifixes. All kinds of goodness. I think I got more mojo working."

The Reverend looks at Kate.

She just shakes her head.

"The Reverend," she says, "also writes for the psychic rags."

"How nice," Hellboy says.

"Everyone is busy," Kate says, "so we're sending you and him to check this out. Its the Reverend's area, so that's bound to be helpful."

Hellboy leans forward in his chair, latches an eye-lock on Kate, says, "The end of the world and everyone is busy?"

"There are all sorts of approaches to the end of the world," Kate says, "and some of them go on at the same time. You know that. You do your part, and we'll do ours. I've got some ideas on this, and I've put together a file. You'll be briefed en route. You should leave immediately ... If that's all right with you, of course."

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