Hellboy set the vacuum cleaner with the blue goblin smoke inside on the bar and glanced at Martin. "Keep that back there for me, will you? Don't want it getting into the wrong hands. And don't use it."
Martin started to protest, but Anastasia was walking back to her table, where her mates waited in amazement, and Hellboy didn't hear a word the bartender said.
He followed her.
For the better part of two years.
The village of Nakchu lay five miles northwest of Lake Tashi, still in the foothills of the snowcapped Nyenchen Tanghla mountain range, but at a slightly higher elevation. They were already at fifteen thousand feet on the plateau where Lake Tashi pooled among the mountains. They had prepared for the breathlessness caused by the elevation and the hard work, but when Anastasia led a small party on a hike to Nakchu, they were out of breath fairly quickly.
She had left Mark Conrad in charge of the dig, and Eleanor Morris to keep an eye on Conrad. Danovich had to oversee the safety of the whole circus, so he had to be left behind as well. There were seven people in the detachment she led to the village that morning--herself; Professor Kyichu; a communications man named Horace Trotter; their local guide, Tenzin; a representative from the government in Beijing named Mr. Lao; and two diggers she had chosen for sheer muscle.
Anastasia carried a gun. She didn't let anyone else have one except for Tenzin, who carried a rifle slung over his back every waking moment. In fact, she thought that the slim, powerful guide with the intense eyes might have been born with a tiny rifle across his back.
Far too many times, they were forced to pause to rest. Tenzin became restless as a hunting dog with a snoutful of his prey's scent, but the rest of them weren't entirely used to the elevation. Tenzin understood this--his English was perfect; it was why they'd chosen him--but it didn't make him any less impatient. If she'd had to guess, Anastasia would have expected Han Kyichu to hold them up the most. He was the eldest among them by at least a decade. But it was the man from Beijing with his black eyes and black hair and new boots who slowed them down. His feet hurt.
Anastasia didn't much care.
Diplomacy was a part of her job. It came with the territory. But if the representative of the government that held Tibet against the will of its people had blisters on his toes, she figured that was a small price for him to pay.
Tenzin led them to a narrow stream that flowed down from the foothills of the mountains and from there they turned northwest, following the water. A flock of black-necked cranes rested beside the stream but took flight at their approach. Anastasia paused and watched in wonder as they skirted low to the land. It seemed impossible to her that they could thrive at such elevations, but she did not question it. Many things she had seen in her life were impossible, and they had already seen ducks by the lake.
As they went up, the terrain became rough, with patches of rocky soil interrupting the sprawl of brownish yellow scrub that was the yak herds' main source of sustenance. A fox raced from a hole and away across the hill, a red streak against the brown land. They followed the stream for several miles, and it seemed to Anastasia they were getting nowhere. Looking back the way they'd come, she could still see Lake Tashi. But ahead were only the mountains, and the higher they climbed, the colder it became.
Then, just as she was about to question Tenzin's sense of direction, they topped a rise to see a flat stretch of grassland below them, covered in grazing yaks. Opposite the rise, in the shadow of the mountain, was a village.
Anastasia smiled at what passed for a modern village in the mountains of Tibet, so far from the nearest city. There were perhaps sixty or seventy dwellings clustered around the base of the mountain, half on either side of the stream--which seemed almost wide enough to be a river here. A wooden footbridge spanned the water. The homes were small, but elegant in design, and smoke rose from several chimneys, reminding her how much chillier it seemed than at the dig site. Farmers' fields spread out for many hundreds of yards in either direction, though the yak herd lazed in the middle, kept away from the crops--or what remained of them.
Perhaps there were generators in the village for electricity, and maybe even a two-way radio. She'd stopped in similar places, where some of the village elders had radios with tall antennas that pulled in a rough static with the occasional melody.
"I simply don't understand it," Horace Trotter said, coming up beside her.
"What don't you understand?" Anastasia glanced at Horace, then surveyed the rest of the group. Mr. Lao, the man from Beijing, only smiled thinly to show his relief that they'd rested and that their uphill climb was finished. The diggers stood near Professor Kyichu, watching him warily, though because of his age or his grief, she did not know.
"Why do they live so far away from the lake? Surely crops would grow better there. It's not quite so cold. There are several caves they could have used to store goods. Where we're conducting our dig, there isn't much land to graze their herds, but the area where this stream runs into the lake is broad enough."
Anastasia had her theories about why no one had settled on the rim of the lake, but only Professor Kyichu knew about those theories, and she wasn't going to start talking about the Dragon King Pool now. Trotter ought to have known enough to realize that ancient superstitions lingered for millennia in such remote places.
"Tenzin?" she asked, turning to their guide.
The Tibetan turned his impassive features toward her and looked at Horace Trotter. "The mountains are sacred."
Trotter scoffed. "I thought the old temple city we're unearthing was sacred. Come to think of it, I thought the lake was sacred."
"Sacred too," Tenzin agreed. "Just different. The mountains are holy. Pure. The lake is not a place for people."
"But we're there," the communications man pointed out.
Tenzin fixed him with a meaningful look. "Perhaps you should not be."
That shut Trotter up. Tenzin descended the other side of the rise and started toward the village, yaks ambling lazily out of the way. The rest of them followed. Anastasia hurried to catch up to their guide.
"That wasn't very helpful," she said in a low voice as she came up beside Tenzin.
He smiled sidelong at her. "Helpful to me. No more stupid questions."
"Are they stupid questions?"
Tenzin gave a small shrug of his shoulders. "Any question is stupid when the man asking is not smart enough to understand the answers."
They trekked into the village. Even before they reached it, people started to come out to watch their approach. Little girls and women with mesmerizing eyes stood together, many of them wearing thick, soft head scarves. A pair of small boys in dark caps marched out as if to meet them, but then only stood aside to watch them pass. The man from Beijing glared at them, and they glared back. But when Anastasia smiled at them, they giggled and ran away.
Staying by the river, they entered the village unhindered and passed among the houses. It was still only late morning, but Anastasia smelled something delicious cooking in one of the houses. The wind stole the scent a moment later, but her stomach rumbled with the memory of it. Clothes hung out to dry on lines. Dogs raced around, barking at the newcomers and each other, then tearing off across the village on some other mad errand.
The gun felt heavy against the small of her back, beneath her jacket.
Half a dozen men stood on their side of the wooden bridge, waiting for them. Others stood in front of homes but did not come any closer. The men wore drab grays and browns, or white. Though several were ancient--including one whose face was so wrinkled his eyes were almost hidden in the folds, and one whose long, thin, white beard was tied with a cord a few inches below his chin--most of them were of indeterminable age. They might have been thirty or fifty. Some had their heads shaved bald, while others had black or black-and-silver hair.
All were as expressionless as Tenzin, save for the man with the white beard that hung like a braid. He smiled and, as Anastasia gestured for her party to halt, he nodded to her.
Anastasia had found that the Tibetan language often sounded sharp and abrupt to her. But when this man spoke, there was a softness to his words that made the language sound beautiful. He looked at her as he spoke--she presumed because he had seen the others defer to her--but when he was through, she glanced at Tenzin.
"He welcomes us to Nakchu village with all appropriate prayers and hospitality," Tenzin said.
She nodded. The six men had been joined by three elderly women, and their expressions were not as muted as those of the men. They glared at her with open suspicion and hostility. One of them muttered to the man next to her and touched her hair, glowering at Anastasia. Something about her red hair being sinister, she was sure. Tenzin didn't need to translate that one.
"Thank him. Say whatever you have to say to not offend these people. All the customary niceties, please. And then tell them of our missing girl and ask if any of their herders or anyone else might have seen her."
A chill went through her, and she glanced back to see the man from Beijing watching her with grim disapproval.
"What?" Trotter said. "Why don't we just look for her ourselves? If they snatched the poor thing, they're not likely just to hand her over."
Professor Kyichu whipped his head around and froze Trotter with a glance. "Don't be a jackass, Horace. You don't honestly think this entire village kidnapped my daughter? If anyone did, it would be one, among them. One twisted spirit. When they hear what's happened, we need to know if they suspect one of their own could do such a thing."
"And how will we know?" Trotter replied testily.
"We'll know," Anastasia said. She glanced at Tenzin. "Speak. We're going to offend them, making them just stand here."
Tenzin nodded and began to rattle off a stream of Tibetan. He gave a respectful bow of his head and gestured to Anastasia, then to the group in general. She recognized only a handful of words, including her own name. At one point, when Tenzin paused, the old man replied.
"They're aware that you're digging at the lake. He worries that you will disturb spirits of their ancestors."
Anastasia bowed her head just as Tenzin had. "Tell him we will preserve anything we find, that we're there to study, only, and that our respect for what we discover knows no boundaries. Tell him that nothing will be removed from the site without the proper authorization."
Tenzin shot a glance back at the man from Beijing, then looked at her. "They'll want to know what you consider the proper authorization."
She flushed. "Right. Leave off that bit."
The guide started speaking again. The villagers did not seem at all comforted by her reassurances, but Tenzin forged ahead. When he gestured toward Professor Kyichu and said Kora's name, the professor closed his eyes in momentary anguish before opening them and fixing his desperate gaze upon the white-bearded man.
The village elder's eyes filled with sorrow, and when Tenzin stopped speaking, he nodded toward Professor Kyichu and spoke words no one needed to translate. Then he looked at Tenzin again and made a suggestion in that mellifluous voice. Several other villagers nodded and murmured their assent.
The response made Anastasia look around. She scanned the faces of several who stood nearby, then the people beyond them. A figure caught her eye, a young man washed in sunlight, standing between two small dwellings. While the other villagers focused on Tenzin or Professor Kyichu, this young man stared directly at Anastasia.
A bright red stain blossomed on the right shoulder of his pristine white shirt.
Her eyes went wide.
"No, it was not, damn it!" Professor Kyichu shouted.
Anastasia turned to stare at him and Tenzin in alarm. The village elder still wore his implacable, soothing smile, but several of the other men had adopted stern expressions.
"Han," she said, pinning the professor with a look.
But Professor Kyichu ignored her. He met the elder's gaze with a dark look, and when he spoke, it was to instruct Tenzin.
"My daughter was not taken by a bear," the old archaeologist said. "We've a hunter and tracker along on the project, and there's been no sign of any bear. Black bears may make their home here, but we haven't seen one, nor has one come anywhere near our camp or the dig. Have you seen any sign of a bear, Tenzin? Or any sign that Kora might have been taken by one?"
The guide shook his head. "No, Professor. I haven't."
Tenzin began to rattle off words to the elder, who only nodded solemnly. The two diggers had begun to look a bit puffed up, as though they might be expecting a fight. Missing the pubs back home, she had no doubt. Anastasia caught the eye of the older of the two and shook her head. He took a deep breath and nodded.
The man from Beijing looked on in apparent disgust, but she was not sure who or what precisely disgusted him. The answer was probably everyone and everything.
Horace Trotter looked queasy and frightened.
As if it had suddenly been deposited there, she felt the weight of the pistol against the small of her back again.
Anastasia glanced back between the two dwellings where she had seen the young man with the crimson spot on his shirt, but he was gone. Again she scanned what she could see of the village, but though she saw several men with similar white shirts, she did not see the one she sought. Her pulse raced as she told herself that it might not have been blood, that it could have been some kind of adornment on the shirt. But she didn't believe that. She told herself that the saboteur--the intruder who had been in their camp--had not been human. He'd had eyes on fire and jagged fangs and twisted features.
But how could she know what that young man might look like after dark?
Tenzin, the village elder, and Professor Kyichu continued to talk a few moments longer, but then the guide turned to her.
"He promises to send someone to our camp if they see any sign of Kora. That's his polite way of telling us it's time to go."
Her skin flushed with alarm. "They're not going to invite us for tea?"
Tenzin smiled. "That doesn't seem likely."