Читать книгу Emerald Hell - Tom Piccirilli


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Страница 1

Tom Piccirilli

Emerald Hell

A book in the Hellboy series, 2008

For Gerard Houarner, who introduced me to Big Red

Special thanks need to go out to:

Christopher Golden, for his editorial skills and general midwifery of the novel.

Victoria Blake, for overall assistance right down the line.

Guillermo del Toro, for bringing HB to the big screen and giving us fans what we've wanted for years.

And, of course, Mike Mignola, for letting me run not in his groovy world once again.

Chapter 1

Hellboy came to the crossroads.

He'd been sitting in the back of the pickup for nearly a hundred and sixty miles while the others passed a jug of moonshine around and told their stories. The pickup couldn't do better than forty on the rutted dirt and gravel roads so it took most of the afternoon before they finally passed into Georgia.

Their folksy tales started off light and humorous and full of character, but eventually came around to death and ghosts, as he knew they would. Hellboy said very little but listened intently, especially when they got to talking about Bliss Nail and his six silent daughters. It had the ring of truth to it and he asked a few questions. The answers made him nod. He told them to take him as close by the Nail home as they could get him.

They said they'd drop him at the edge of Enigma, a swamp town that had been ebbing since before Sherman put the flame to Atlanta, but just wouldn't die. They were out of work and looking to hook up with some moon runners down that way anyhow.

The world turned even greener around him when a powerful summer shower came rushing out of the east. The others managed to crowd together into the cab and he sat alone staring into the marshy prairies of emerald cypress. Heavy winds stirred the catclaw briars and underbrush, thick branches parting as if a hidden audience was coming forward to take a peek. The storm rocked the pickup for a few miles but ended quickly.

The truck pulled over and the others piled into the back again. One had a banjo and another a washboard and they began to softly play and sing. Sunlight skimmed off the tupelo trees, casting a fiery green glow against the woven layers of deeper bog shadow. Hellboy dozed for a while listening to their music and thought he heard a baby crying.

A half hour later, they told him they'd reached Enigma and he unloaded. The toothless old man who owned the truck spit out some chaw and asked, "You want a last tap'a lightnin'?"

"No thanks," Hellboy said.

"Son, it don't take but two seconds to see you got yourself a sorrowful accounting. You watch your passage 'round these here swamps. They got a habit of finding their way into your heart. There's bad will in them waters." He pointed south, and Hellboy noticed the old man's fingertips had been chewed away from sixty years of having his hands in the mash barrels. "That direction, no more'n four five mile, and you'll find yourself in the Nail fold. Don't be lettin' any'a their black luck rub off on you none."

Hellboy thanked them all and started south while they turned west and disappeared up a dusty track into the lengthening shadows. When he got to the center of the crossroads he stood poised for a moment waiting to see if anything would come out and make a play for him. According to legend, this was where you came to meet the devil. He checked the brush land and thickening jungle around him, toed the mud, and scanned the sky.

"Anybody got a problem?" he called as the sunset bled out in the distance. "Anyone got anything to say to me?"

When nothing showed up, he continued along the trail.

As darkness set in, the mist drifted off the deep acreage of sugarcane that flattened back to the surrounding slough and mire. Blooming loblolly bushes, palmettos, and thick fields sprouting a type of flower he'd never seen before filled the evening air with an assertive but sweet fragrance.

The Nail family lived in an antediluvian mansion that had been built long before the separation of states. He saw where it had been rebuilt after Civil War strife and he could feel the dense and bloody history in the depths of the house. He glanced up at a row of large windows on the second floor and saw six lovely pale women staring down at him.

An elderly servant with a balding head and thick white pork-chop sideburns answered the door before Hellboy could even knock. That's the way the dead did it, trying to get one step ahead of you. Showing you they were always at the ready, waiting behind glass panes and cracked slats, aware but unwilling to come out when challenged.

The houseman asked him his business at the Nail home and Hellboy said, "I'm not the damn plumber, Jeeves."

It made the old guy draw his chin back and pull a face. His tidy uniform hung off his thin frail frame, the black suit-coat shabby but well brushed, his frayed shirt collar clean and starched. Maybe times weren't so good for the Nail clan either.

The houseman gestured for him to follow and led him down lengthy corridors past Colonial furniture and glass cases containing medals, swords, and antique guns. No photos anywhere. Nothing very modern that he could see. He started getting the feeling he'd been suckered by the spirits again and just imagined the houseman was really a skeleton and the girls upstairs were long murdered.

The home seeped age and sovereignty. The walls were filled with oil paintings going back a century and a half of wars, showing angry-faced little men wearing flashy uniforms and carrying sabers, their lips curled into the smallest of bitter smiles.

The portraits whispered to Hellboy. Chanting in melodic yet hissing voices, really trying to get under his skin. They mentioned a few of his major failures, the towns he'd wrecked, the people he couldn't save. Nearly all the dead seemed to know about such things now, chatting him up around the water coolers of the abyss.

"Shut up," he said as he walked by.

"What's that?" the houseman asked.

"Nothing, Jeeves."

The houseman spun. A pretty dramatic move for an old guy like that. "My name's Waldridge. I been takin' care'a the Nail family since I was still a child of twelve. Same as my daddy and his daddy before him. You might frown on my life, find it worth snickering about-"

"Hey now, wait a minute, buddy-"

"-but I don't let no man, whether he's white or black or red, speak to me with contempt. I don't care how big you are, suh, I promise to knock you down iffun you call me Jeeves again."

"Okay, Waldridge," Hellboy said, "you've straightened me out. Now lead on."

The paintings kept up their chatter but beneath it Hellboy thought he could hear something else. He cocked his head, focusing, and there it was again. The sound of an infant crying.

Withdrawing an Agnus Dei candle from his gris-gris pouch, Hellboy saw the wick immediately sputter and spark to life. He pinched the flame out. The old man in the truck had been right. A lot of black luck ran wild in this house. But that didn't mean much in itself. If enough blood ran inside a place there were usually enough echoes of regret, grief, and pain to call ancient forces and all manner of brazen, gluttonous things out of the mud.

Waldridge crept along the hall, opening huge double doors and then closing them again, the mansion as frayed but clean as the man himself. Ten coats of paint couldn't cover the hard years seaming the walls and floors. The original oil lamps were now friezes, the curtains heavy with lost heritage. They passed a ballroom lined with antlered animal heads.

Hellboy replaced the agnus dei and opened the small compartment on his belt that held a charm he'd received at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, inscribed with Sumerian phrases etched in silver nitrate. It dangled from a silver chain, which began to slowly twist in his hand. He held the charm to the houseman's shoulder and was a little surprised when the guy didn't scream, go up in smoke, or turn into a giant fly.

"What you doin'?"

"Making sure you're alive," Hellboy said.

"S'pose you coulda asked first. I'm plenty alive and got plenty of years on my back too, but you do that again, suh, and I'll cuff you one."

"You're pretty feisty, Waldridge."

"Didn't your mama ever teach you no manners?"

"No," Hellboy admitted.

"Try to have some in this here home." Weakness threaded the houseman's features, and his teeth were gritted against ache and afflictions, but he stood up for what he believed in and looked ready to go all the way in a fight. Hellboy liked him.

"Okay, pal, settle down, don't get apoplectic. I apologize."

"It's a start on showing some grace."

They stepped into a broad living area that was dark with oak and maple paneling. Still nothing very modern, no televisions or DVD collections or stereo speaker systems. A deep atmosphere of forlorn expectation seemed to hang in the air.

A tremendously wide stairway opened to a landing where colonnades rose on either side abutting the ceiling. He could see the six sisters huddled together at the banister curving down from the second floor, all of them watching him, their hair sprawled over the railing. He waved, but only one of them responded, lifting her hand and daintily flexing her fingers.

"Not you they scared of," Waldridge said. "Don't take it to heart."

"I don't."

"Mr. Nail is right through here."

"Thanks."

Waldridge pulled at an antique door latch, stood aside, and directed Hellboy in with

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