Hot and humid and crowded, all awash in red--the inside of the submarine was like some sort of devil's festival on a southern Alabama night at the height of summer. Add a few mosquitos and the illusion might have been complete... well, except for the clanking of the pipes and the hiss of steam, the constant low sound of metal groaning under untold pounds of water pressure. Matlin had three 35mm still cameras hung around his neck, and he would have added another--a good photographer can never have enough equipment--except it would have made the narrow pathways even more impossible to navigate. His cameras were already taking a beating every time someone squeezed by him in the passageway--
As if they'd been reading his mind, a squad of Special Ops soldiers hustled past him as they loaded their weapons, oblivious to the thumps and bumps they layered on the young photographer and certainly paying no attention to his equipment or the seamen who ran the sub and watched them suspiciously as they passed. But Matlin wasn't complaining as he shrank back, even though a duo of pipes dug painfully into his spine. He'd be a happy man if he could just keep the box of negatives he'd been going through from getting knocked out of his hand.
Matlin pulled the cardboard crate closer to his chest as he saw Sargent Whitman bringing up the rear. He looked aggravated--well, he always looked that way--and his uniform was soaked in sweat. Matlin wondered whether he'd been working his men or if it was the stress that was making the man heat up; Whitman was a tough as nails career Army guy who'd already worried himself out of most of his iron gray hair, so it was hard to tell. Matlin had a moment to wonder where the Sargent was going, then he remembered that they had a civilian on board, an English guy who wasn't much older than Matlin himself but who already had the ear of President Roosevelt. Pretty high profile for a young guy, and it was a sure bet Whitman was headed down to talk to him.
Whitman marched past, jaw jutting out and an unlit cigar clenched tightly between his teeth. Matlin fell into step behind him, still thinking about the Englishman he hadn't yet met. Already a professor, Trevor Bruttenholm--"Broom" for short--was supposed to be a "paranormal advisor." To Matlin, who believed in what he could see and always had a camera around to prove it, this wasn't just incredible, it was unbelievable. Add to it Bruttenholm's proximity to the President himself, and it was enough to make Matlin think the whole world had gone insane.
Sargent Whitman continued down the narrow, uncomfortable passageway to a small stateroom, then pulled open the door. Over Whitman's shoulder, Matlin got his first glimpse of the so-called paranormal advisor, "Broom." He looked a bit older than Matlin had heard, but not by much, and perhaps his appearance was just another byproduct of the tension they were all under. Maybe twenty-nine, Broom was a tall, gaunt young man with olive-toned skin that looked unhealthy in the poor lighting of the room. With his Oxfords, dress slacks, and a shirt topped by a wool vest, Bruttenholm looked out of place on the submarine, among all the men dressed in various military uniforms. Matlin had to grin to himself when he realized the professor was even wearing cufflinks. Alone in the room, he was seated at a small table on which he'd placed an ancient-looking set of tarot cards.
"Broom," snapped Whitman. "Topside--now."
Without bothering to look at Sargent Whitman, Broom turned the top two cards face up.
"The sooner we're done, the better," Whitman ground out.
Broom nodded and stood, then turned and grabbed an open wooden box whose antique sides were worn smooth. Over Whitman's shoulder, Matlin got a glimpse of its contents: old books just as worn as the box itself, a dozen different amulets and odd-looking paraphernalia. Bolted from one end to the other was a leather strap that let the man carry it like a carpenter's box. Broom hefted it over his shoulder, then gave the Sargent a heavy-lidded look. "This is an important mission, Sargent Whitman. I hope you realize that."
Whitman only stared back at him, barely concealing his animosity. "Oh, you don't wanna know what I think. Topside now."
Changing his mind, Broom slid the big box off his shoulder and rummaged quickly through it until he found a smaller box, along with a couple of specific amulets. He started after Whitman, then paused at the table. With a trouble expression, he reached down and flipped the next card face-up. It flicked against the tabletop with a soft snap.
October in Scotland wasn't the most pleasant place in the world to be. It was cold, raining like God Himself had turned the celestial shower on to Cold and forgotten to shut it down, and the pall of the war hung over everything. The tunnel they were in masked the sound of the rain, but it was chilly and humid in here, oppressive. The few flashlights Whitman's men had seemed dim and were aimed at the floor to provide only the bare minimum of light, just enough to ensure they didn't step over some edge and fall into an abyss. The mountain pressed down on them, making the tunnel carved into it seem flimsy, a fool's pathway through something that could crush them in barely the blink of an eternal eye.
Sargent Whitman's face was rigid, his cheekbones edged sharply by the sparse light, his eyes recessed pits of darkness as he motioned to the soldiers to spread out. He would have passed Broom and gone to the front of the group, but the younger man reached out and snagged his arm. His voice was an insistent half-whisper. "Sargent Whitman? Sargent Whitman, may I have a word?"
Whitman tugged his sleeve out of Broom's grip and looked at him impatiently. "What is it?"
Broom glanced around and saw several of the men watching them. "In private, if you don't mind."
The tunnel had widened into a larger room that was apparently a small, ancient chapel, and Broom led Whitman off to the side, out of earshot of anyone else. Whitman had a flashlight but he was keeping it at low power; when Broom pulled something out of one of the deep pockets of his coat, the Sargent had to shine the weak beam on it to see what Broom was offering him.
"Your men," Broom said urgently. He held up his wooden box, then lifted the lid. His fingers dug around until he could pull out one of the items, and he lifted it so Whitman could see the wooden rosary. "They'll need these."
Whitman's mouth fell open in amazement, then he scowled. "You're a Catholic?"
Broom swallowed and his gaze flicked around the chapel carved out of the mountainous rock, its ceiling long ago fallen in. Above them the sky boiled with storm clouds, and hanging from the stone walls overhead and slightly to his rear was a larger than life carving of Christ. The darkly stained wood was cracked with age and dripping with mold from the humidity, and the image was anything but comforting. "Amongst other things, yes. But that's hardly the point."
Whitman snorted, then brought out an automatic. He shoved a magazine into the stock and loaded the first round, then offered it to Broom. "Here. You'll need this."
But Broom shook his head. "I abhor violence." The Sargent shrugged and turned, shoving the weapon back into a holster at his belt. His firm stride had already taken him six feet away when Broom called after him. ‘Sargent Whitman, I hope you don't think me mad--"
Whitman didn't pause. "Three days too late for that one... Professor."
Broom exhaled in defeat, then dared to again look up at the wooden carving of Christ.
It had no eyes.
Cameras and straps tangling around his neck, Matlin struggled with his tripod and a camera bag as he finally caught up with Whitman and his troop. Damn, but it was going to be hard to get any kind of a decent photograph in here. There was next to nothing for light, and no way could he set up one of his shooters and leave it be for the amount of exposure time he'd need to get a semi-decent photograph.
Still, this was as exciting as any assignment he'd ever been on, and he was going to try his best. With that in mind, Matlin managed to work his way up to the front by the time the tunnel widened into some kind of room and that Bruttenholm guy--Broom, as they were all calling him--came hustling out of the darkness at one side of it. He made a beeline for Sargent Whitman, and when the older man turned to meet Broom, it was obvious he was ticked off. If the word making the rounds on the sub were true, Whitman would have just as soon thrown Broom overboard as looked at him, and right now that was pretty obvious.
"You're wasting our time," he ground out in a low voice, thrusting his big-jawed face forward until it was only a inch from Broom's. "There's nothing on this island but sheep and rocks."
But Broom didn't back down. "Ruins," he pointed out quietly as he scanned the area around them, "not rocks. The remains of Trondham Abbey. Built on an intersection of Ley Lines, the boundaries between our world and the other--"
"What a load of crap," Whitman interrupted. "Hell, a week ago, I hadn't even heard the word parabnormal--"
"Paranormal," corrected Broom, but the Sargent had already turned away, as if he were ready to instruct his men to leave. "But you read the transmission."
Whitman stopped and spun back, glowering at the younger man. "Half transmission. Nonsense--German ghost stories."
Broom regarded the Army man solemnly. "I have seen ghosts, Whitman."
"Oh, I'll bet you have," Whitman sneered at him.
While he'd wisely stayed out of it, Matlin hadn't missed a word of the two men's argument. The soldiers had slowed, sensing their officer might tell them to turn back; Matlin had ended up in the lead and now, just about to crest a small slope, he set his tripod down with a grunt of relief. He glanced over his shoulder at Whitman and Broom, then stretched forward, trying to see over the rise and if it were worth it to go any farther. The first thing he saw were the lights. Then he gasped.
Thirty feet below was an impressive Romanesque ruin. Strands of work lights were spread around a cavernous space, illuminating tall, heavy archways and crumbling statues. Dozens of Nazi soldiers scurried around the space, making it look like an ant farm encircled by thick, stone walls.
Matlin heard Sargent Whitman's sharp intake of breath as he and Broom clambered up next to him and peered over the rise. When he glanced sideways, he saw one corner of Broom's mouth turn up, but Matlin wasn't sure if the Professor was smiling or showing how displeased he was at the display of manpower and equipment below. When Broom spoke, his tone was bland, but his words had an unmistakable bite.
"They must be here for the sheep."
All the flashlights had been extinguished, and now the few people who were authorized to talk were careful to do so only in hoarse whispers. Broom huddled between Sargent Whitman and that photographer, Matlin; he hoped to God their heads didn't show over the edge of their hiding place, that some razor-sighted Nazi didn't happen to glance their way and see something--a glint of light off a metal fastener, the shine of a rifle barrel where the blackening had worn away--that would cause the whole operation to come crashing down on their heads.
German soldiers still rushed back and forth below, but the thing that interested Whitman the most was a little farther to the back, in an area off to itself. In that spot, about a dozen soldiers worked swiftly to assemble some kind of a large, steel machine. Overseeing it all and barking orders every few seconds was a spindly-looking Nazi dressed in black leather. Although everyone else seemed to be dressed normally, this man's face was covered by something that looked like a modified gas mask. That was a puzzle all to itself, because there didn't appear to be any reason for something like that.
Whitman nudged Broom a little too hard, sending the point of his elbow painfully into the muscle of the Professor's upper left arm. "The freak in the gas mask?"
Broom pulled away and massaged the spot with his right hand, his eyes squeezed against the viewfinder of his binoculars. He had a good bead on the men scrambling around below, and... yes, there he was. He'd been afraid of that. "Karl Ruprecht Kroenen, one of the Reich's top scientists. Head of the Thule Occult Society." Broom grimaced and passed the binoculars back to Whitman. "If he's here, this is worse than I thought."
Whitman jammed the binoculars against his eyes hard enough to leave impressions in his skin. After a few seconds, he lowered them and turned to the radio man on his left. "Air and sea backup. What's closest?"
The guy cranked a transmitter to life, then mumbled quietly into it. A few seconds later, he got a response. "Londonderry, sir. Forty minutes away."
Sargent Whitman balled his fist and swung his head around, staring down at the Nazis. There was a knot of dread in his gut. "We don't have forty minutes."
Although it's now out of print, you might be able to find a used copy on Amazon.com.
Hellboy is copyright Mike Mignola. All rights reserved.
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