The truck shuddered to a stop at the entrance.
"Liz," Hellboy said, giving her a gentle shake. "We're home."
Her eyes fluttered open. "Home," she repeated.
The word didn't mean the same thing to her. Since the fire had first manifested in her at eleven years old, burning her life and family down around her, the BPRD had been more like self-imposed prison for her. She was not a captive, of course. She had run away many times as a child, and since she had reached adulthood and joined the Bureau as a field agent, she'd quit more than a few times. Abe and Hellboy were comfortable living in a place where they weren't constantly reminded how different they were. Liz was the opposite. She looked ordinary--even pretty--on the outside, but living at BPRD headquarters was a daily admission that she wasn't like other people, that she was a danger to them all, a freak.
It got under her skin.
Liz sat up, reached into the back of the truck for her duffel bag, and popped open the door. She slid out, then paused to glance back at Hellboy.
"Going back to sleep. Thanks for watching my back."
Hellboy nodded. "Sleep well."
Liz shut the door and headed for the building entrance without waiting for him. As tired as she was, he wouldn't have expected it. Tonight, or maybe tomorrow, they'd all sit in his room and watch a movie and eat bad Chinese food and everything would be fine. Liz just needed some down time.
Hellboy grabbed his own duffel and disembarked. He tapped the truck's roof with his left hand.
"Thanks for the pickup."
The driver waved out the window and pulled away, and the truck returned down the road, where the driver would leave it in the garage near the front gates. Hellboy shouldered his bag and went inside. By the time he stepped through the entrance and into the buzz of the Bureau offices, Liz was nowhere to be seen. Agents and researchers and coffee-carrying assistants moved through the corridors. Phones rang. Hellboy waved to several people as he strode through the midst of the BPRD's operations. It always fascinated him, the spectrum of reactions he got from people--even those he worked with on a regular basis. Some of them treated him like a celebrity, others like a monster. The ones he liked the best treated him like just another coworker, or somebody to talk movies with over a beer.
When he entered the residential wing of the complex, and the door closed behind him, he exhaled. It had been nice to come home, but now he could truly relax, maybe make up a batch of nachos with all the fixings, guacamole and all.
He passed Abe's door. As usual, he could hear music from within. Abe would be curled up with a book, or sitting on the floor surrounded by piles of books like Burgess Meredith in that classic Twilight Zone episode. But, always, there was the music. Today it was The Notting Hillbillies, a quirky little album if ever there was one. Not Hellboy's thing, but Abe had forced him to listen one day while they were playing Scrabble.
When he unlocked the door to his own room and pushed it open, the first thing he saw was the manila envelope that lay on the floor just inside. Someone had slid it under the door. Interoffice mail. But this one had a red CONFIDENTIAL stamp on it, so it wasn't a memo about Bureau staffers wasting too many paper clips or budget cuts forcing them to take the free coffee out of the break rooms.
"This can't be anything good," Hellboy said.
He closed the door behind him and dumped the duffel bag to one side. As he went into his apartment, listening to the comforting hum of the refrigerator and gazing lovingly at the huge sofa that sprawled in front of the television, he tried to ignore the manila envelope. He went to the fridge and stood in the open door, drinking a quart of orange juice right from the carton. When he closed the refrigerator, he glanced at the envelope, as though it might have done him the favor of vanishing.
Lamenting the nachos he'd promised himself, Hellboy grumbled as he crossed the room and snatched the envelope off the floor. He tore it open, ignoring the PLEASE RECYCLE message printed on the front, and slipped out the memo.
TO: Prof. T. Bruttenholm, Abraham Sapien, Hellboy
FR: Dr. Thomas Manning, Dir. Field Ops
RE: Dragon Pool
Gentlemen, please convene in my office at 3 pm today to discuss Dragon Pool investigation. Due to the urgent nature of this case, the team will depart BPRD HQ for air transport at 9:20 pm.
Hellboy glanced at the clock on the wall. It was a quarter after two already. He crumpled the memo in his fist and went back out into the corridor, leaving his door open. Still grumbling, he went down and knocked on Abe's door, his massive right fist shaking the wood in its frame. Normally he showed more courtesy, but he wasn't in a courteous mood.
The music paused, and a moment later, the door swung inward. Abe stood just inside, a kind of dim golden light filling his living room. His vision was extraordinary, and he favored gloom over brightness, even when reading. All that time underwater, Hellboy figured.
"Welcome home," Abe said, but his words had an inquisitive tone. There was very little that looked human about the amphibious man's appearance. His mottled, greenish skin had dark markings that only increased his resemblance to many forms of ocean life, not to mention the gills and finlike ridges. But his mannerisms were almost entirely human.
Hellboy held the crumpled memo out to him. "Yeah. Some welcome. I was going to make nachos. You know anything about this?"
Abe cocked his head to one side. "If that's the note from Dr. Manning about our three o'clock briefing, then, yes."
Hellboy waited, but Abe did not continue.
"Okay," he prodded. "Are you going to make me play twenty questions?"
"Of course not. I'd been thinking about charades, though," Abe said straight-faced.
Hellboy shook his head, unable to keep up the intensity of his annoyance with Manning when Abe was cracking wise.
"Are you trying to be funny?"
"Succeeding, actually," Abe replied.
"Well, I can't expect you to be an unbiased judge. You'd have to have a sense of humor."
Hellboy glared. "I've got a great sense of humor."
Abe pointed at him. "See how I just did that again? I've been practicing."
Unable to help himself, Hellboy laughed softly. He reached up to fiddle with the little knot of hair at the back of his head.
"You're a riot, Abe. Seriously. But, the memo?"
"Yes. The Dragon Pool. A mythological site discovered in Tibet. There's been trouble, apparently caused by something inhuman. A girl's gone missing."
Hellboy straightened up, filling the doorway of Abe's apartment. "All right. I get the urgency. Why isn't Liz on the team?"
The amphibian shifted with agitation. Most people would never have noticed, but Hellboy knew him too well.
"She didn't tell you?" Abe asked.
"Tell me what?" Hellboy growled.
"She's taking a leave of absence. Several weeks, I think."
Hellboy leaned against the doorframe, disappointment spreading through him. "Why? And how come she told you but not me? I just spent a week with her in Chile. You'd think she'd mention something like that."
Abe shrugged. "Maybe she thought you'd be annoyed and didn't want to have to discuss it with you. As for why she's going, I can only guess she's gotten claustrophobic here again. To be honest, I thought it was an improvement. At least it's an officially sanctioned leave of absence and not another resignation."
"There's that," Hellboy allowed. He threw up his hands in surrender. "Okay, so, any idea what the case is about? What's in Tibet, aside from llamas?"
Dark eyes wide, Abe cocked his head like a curious bird.
All of the frustration and cantankerousness left Hellboy at the utterance of her name. A myriad of reactions swept through him, but all he could do was blink and stare at Abe.
Anastasia woke with a start. A sound echoed in her mind--a loud, abrupt noise--but she wasn't certain if it had been real or a dream.
When the second gunshot came, she had her answer.
"Bloody hell," she whispered, climbing from her bedroll. She'd been raised a proper English girl with a disdain for guns, but that hadn't stopped her from learning how to use one. Quick as she could, she slipped on her boots. Given the events of the past thirty-six hours, she'd slept in her jeans and tank top, just in case. Day before yesterday, they'd spent hours scouring the lakeshore and the mountainside and every part of the dig--every ditch and dirt pile--searching for Kora Kyichu. Then, last night, the entrance to the Dragon King's temple had been caved in and the saboteur chased from the camp.
Frank Danovich and Ellie Morris had both gotten a half-decent look at the culprit in the moonlight, and what they described was a nightmare. Leathery face, protruding jaw, long teeth, and eyes that flickered with weird light when they'd cornered him. Danovich had been the one to call it "weird light," actually.
Ellie had said he had fire leaking from his eyes.
This confirmed the basic description Anastasia had gotten from Xin, who supervised the project's diggers. By then, she'd already used the wireless to call in her report and demand they contact the BPRD. Apparently her request had been passed along the appropriate channels, but there was no telling how long it would take to reach the Bureau or when help might be forthcoming.
For now, they were on their own.
At sunrise yesterday, half the camp had been put to work on the careful reexcavation of the entrance to the temple, and the rest of them had broadened their search for Kora. Kyichu had lost his wife a number of years before, and though he kept his wits about him as he directed the search, Anastasia had seen the haunted look in his eyes. His gaze strayed again and again toward the lake. His thoughts obviously mirrored her own. If the girl had wandered off, and they hadn't found her in a day and a half, the most likely solution was that she had somehow swum too far out into the lake and drowned.
Perhaps under other circumstances, they would have assumed that was precisely what had happened and simply mourned the girl. But there was at least one mysterious saboteur plaguing the dig, and the thought that he might be responsible weighed heavily on them all.
Tonight, Anastasia had posted guards around the camp, and at the entrance to the temple, which had been freshly cleared just before sundown. In the morning, she'd planned to take a small detachment from the camp and travel to the nearby village to see if the locals could tell them anything about who might want to sabotage their dig and find out what they knew about a little girl gone missing.
But morning hadn't arrived yet. Gunshots could only mean one thing: The saboteur had returned.
She slid her pistol from the holster she'd hung on a hook jutting from the tent pole and stepped out into the chilly night air, the gun's weight a comfort in her hand. The crescent moon cast an otherworldly glow upon the land, and the surface of the lake glinted with a million points of light. The mountain loomed to her right, cranes and pulleys silhouetted mantislike against the night sky. For a moment, she heard nothing but the wind.
Then another shot came, the crack of a rifle. Anastasia bolted in the direction of the shooter, boots kicking up dirt. She didn't want to end up with a bullet in the face, but if the bastard who'd been causing them so much trouble was in her camp, she wasn't going to hide from him.
Voices carried on the wind ahead of her. Someone was shouting.
"That way!" she heard. "Son of a bitch went that way!"
Danovich. Chances were he was the shooter as well. Frank was a dead shot with a rifle. Other people had begun to emerge from their tents at the base of the mountain, but she ignored them, starting up the slope, pistol clutched in her right hand. The dig sprawled across the face of the mountain just above her, excavations gaping shadowlike craters on the moon. None of the machinery ran. Not a single engine rumbled. There wasn't even the sound of buckets being filled, shovels turning soil, or pulleys turning. That was to be expected in the middle of the night, but with the knowledge that someone or something prowled the abandoned dig site, looking to do them harm, the quiet made her shiver.
Her grip on the gun tightened.
More shouts sounded. She heard boots pounding dirt and saw several figures crest an outcropping of rock above her. They were familiar shadows, and one of them could only have been Han Kyichu. The moonlight made a halo of his white hair, though the rest of him was in darkness.
"Han!" Anastasia shouted, more to make sure that Danovich didn't shoot her than anything else.
"Dr. Bransfield!" Kyichu called down to her. "He's there with you! We just saw him!"
Anastasia stopped and lowered herself into a half crouch. She gripped the pistol in both hands and spun around, scanning the slope around her. Shadows loomed beneath jagged outcroppings and behind rows of low, stunted bushes. Nothing moved. From up on the ridge she heard the cocking of a rifle and knew Danovich must have run up to join the others. A spark of panic ignited in her.
Her chest rose and fell, and she could feel the throb of her pulse in her temple. Anastasia listened to the wind and her own breath, and she hated this silent, invisible figure more than she'd ever hated anyone in her life. She hated him for making her afraid, and she hated him for the way her finger tightened even further on the trigger, for making her willing to shoot him.
"Stacie, there!" Danovich shouted from above.
The rifle cracked. A divot of earth erupted twenty feet to her right, behind a scree of low, tangled brush. A shadow lunged away. The moonlight seemed to slip around him, as though he existed just beyond its reach, but the silhouette was real enough. His running footfalls were heavy on dirt and stone--as though his weight was far greater than the thin, wiry figure ought to have carried. Again, Danovich took a shot, and again, the bullet struck the rocky slope.
Fast, Anastasia thought. The bastard's fast.
But he wasn't heading for camp. Why would he? Too many people, too much attention. Sabotage was about sneaking around. He'd been trying to ruin the dig, not kill the archaeological team.
Anastasia took off after him. The terrain was rough, and she nearly stumbled but gave herself over to the downhill momentum of the slope. The shore of the lake was below. The water rippled in the moonlight, giving her an even better silhouette of the slender intruder. He ran so quickly that it was breathtaking to see, but it also meant there was no way in hell she was going to catch up to him.