There is a certain amount of irony involved in trying to sneak across the border into Mexico, not out of it. Pausing to sip at his canteen, David Bruce Banner sighed. In his case, it made sense. A very persistent--and, unfortunately, very good--investigative reporter had pursued him all over the United States for several years now, so it made sense to be sneaky. In Mexico, where many laws were laxly observed at best, he would have access to some new drugs that might finally cure his affliction.
He capped his canteen and glanced north, at the bright lights of the border town. It was very dark here, in the maze of hills and canyons west of the highway, with only the starlight to guide him. It would be easy to stumble over a cliff, or startle a rattlesnake, in the dark.
And maybe it would be for the best. It would put an end to years of misery, be a final cure for the self-inflicted disease that gave his own rage and frustration flesh. With his death, the world would be free of the Hulk, and he would atone for the damage he'd done.
After a moment, David shook his head and moved into the darkness. No. That wasn't the answer. He'd done good, as well as harm. By some mercy, the Hulk had not yet killed anyone. There was still some hope left. He'd come close to finding a cure, so many times; this time he would do it.
As he walked, he kept his eyes down, scanning the unlit field for danger. He couldn't afford the several hundred dollars it would cost to hire a 'coyote' to guide him safely. Besides, how would he ever explain smuggling himself into Mexico? But the border was 2,000 miles long, the Border Patrol thinly spread; as long as he didn't trip a sensor somewhere, or fall, he should be all right.
But good luck never walked with David Banner.
The soprano scream of a dying rabbit echoed off the granite canyon walls. A coyote would eat well tonight. Then the scream came again, and this time, shocked to the core of his being, he realized it was human.
The scream cut off abruptly. He blundered into a low, spiny shrub, but dragged himself loose, searching for the source of the cry. This time there were words.
David skidded to a halt barely in time; if the raucous voice hadn't warned him, he would've plunged over the edge of a deep ravine. Luckily the people below were too absorbed to notice. Cautious, he dropped to his belly and squirmed forward, ignoring the rocks digging into his skin.
There were four people scuffling down there, two men and two women. One man was simply giggling; the other, crooning drunkenly, was embracing one of the women. She cried out again--"Pendejo!" and as she wrenched away, it was clear that she was enormously pregnant.
Between his rusty high school Spanish and the distortion as their voices bounced off the steep rock walls, it was hard to make out what was going on. One of the women said something indignant about "She won't like this!" and both men laughed as if it were a good joke.
Grimly, he decided he must have stumbled across a pair of 'coyotes' who were ripping off the 'pollos' they were paid to escort across the border into the U.S.
The giggler yanked one woman's backpack off and began to paw through it. When she protested, he casually backhanded her. She crumpled against the rocks, one hand clutching her swollen belly. Furious, David leaped to his feet. "Stop that!"
Muttering an exclamation, one of the smugglers shielded his eyes and stared upward.
He stood helpless at the cliff's edge. Dammit, he didn't even have a gun! There was no way down the impossibly steep, smooth granite wall. Bluffing it out, he yelled, "This is the U.S. Border Patrol!"
Panicking, one of the men produced a battered revolver, and a bullet whined off the granite near David's feet. He tried to duck, but lost his balance and fell. Desperately, he clawed at the cliff's edge, but his fingers slipped through sand and weeds.
"NO!" he shouted, and felt his face distort, his rational self dissolve, in a wave of fury.
One last frantic reach upward, and then he was falling.
No normal man could survive a fall into that ravine, but the beast that landed unscathed on broad, bare feet wasn't normal. Its massive green muscles had split the seams of its clothing, and the worn shoes had exploded from its expanding feet. Now it hunched incredibly broad shoulders and thrust out a big, misshapen, vaguely Neanderthal head. Emerald green eyes glittered beneath shaggy, swamp-brown eyebrows as it scowled at the startled quartet.
"Dios nos valga!" gasped one of the women, crossing herself.
The Hulk raised two arms as thick as tree-trunks, clenched its fists, and howled with wordless anger.
"Vaquero! Shoot it, Vaquero!"
Shaking, the bigger man fired his gun. A trickle of green blood oozed from the malachite-green hide, but it was little more than a pinprick. Enraged, the Hulk batted him against the canyon wall with an effortless arm-sweep. The other smuggler tried to run, but the beast pounced on him and raised him into the air. He screamed shrilly, writhing, and the creature snarled in response, pitching him into the thorny embrace of a cactus. Still raging, it glowered around the canyon, but Vaquero was unconscious, and the cowering women were no threat.
Snorting, the Hulk turned and ran into the desert.
Shrugging, Angelina tossed back her curly raven hair and held up the rune-carved wooden dipper. The murmurs of the waiting crowd hushed. She held the pose deliberately, knowing that the scarlet shawl and virginal white shift made her a dramatic figure. Flamboyance deepened their belief in La Bruja, the witch, and their belief made the potions more effective.
With a sweeping gesture, she lowered the dipper into the steaming cauldron holding the noxious purple brew that was going to cure Alicia's headaches and Chino's gall-bladder problems.
A shadow fell over the fire-lit gathering, and one of the old women screamed. Angered, Angelina looked up...and froze.
Not even in the worse of nightmares had she ever seen a monster like this. It towered menacingly over her, thick slabs of green muscles standing out all over its half-naked body. The face was malformed, primitive, but somehow more confused than hostile, and the strange green eyes seemed dazed. Cocking its head, it stared back at her, seeming unsure what to do next.
Moving very slowly, La Bruja slid her left hand into the small leather pouch dangling from her throat. The aphrodisiac was very valuable, for hummingbirds weren't easily caught and the other ingredients were even rarer; she wore it by her heart to protect it from theft.
"It's a demon sent from Hell!"
"The priest warned us--"
"Shut up, you idiots," she hissed between teeth set in a very charming smile. "La Bruja is the ruler of all spirits and demons. I will deal with him." She flicked the powder into the monster's face, and stepped back quickly.
Surprised, the Hulk sneezed, shook its shaggy head once, twice, and then yawned. The rage that had brought it was gone. Slowly, the creature sat down in the sand. In the flickering firelight, its face seemed to change, to somehow shrink in on itself. The glowing green eyes faded. Where the immense green brute had been was sprawled only the limp form of an ordinary man.
The mestizos sank to their knees. Angelina moved away from the fire, sure now that she wouldn't have to douse the demon with boiling liquid to stop it. Instead, she threw up both arms in the moonlight.
"La Bruja has saved your lives--and the beast is mine!"
David Banner lay very still, half-afraid to open his eyes, feeling the familiar drained sensation the Hulk left in its wake. Had the Hulk hurt someone this time, even killed someone? If he opened his eyes, would he find himself in the desert, surrounded by mutilated corpses? In a Mexican jail? All-too-familiar despair swamped him. He could never remember what the Hulk experienced, what it wanted or what it did, and if he ever found that it had killed--he had killed--
Someone was moving; he caught the click of wooden heels on a wooden floor. Not the desert, then. Reluctantly, he opened his eyes.
He was in a bedroom with colorful handwoven blankets hung on whitewashed walls, and there was a young woman standing by a dresser that was topped by his well-worn duffel bag. As if sensing he was awake, she moved quickly away and reached for a creamy white pitcher covered with green-and-blue bird designs.
"You are thirsty," she said with assurance.
"Uh--yes. Yes, I am."
Accepting an earthenware cup from a slender, tanned hand, he swallowed gratefully, finding that it was true. He was very thirsty. She waited, a smile lighting her starkly beautiful face. With the long black hair, burning black eyes, and sharply-planed features, she might have been an Aztec priestess, but the smile was too sweet for such a threatening image, and he shook his head once, dismissing it.
"I--I'm not sure where I am."
"You are in my home, and safe. I am Angelina Diega y Rivera. You stumbled into our ceremony last night."
David sat up gingerly. "Excuse me, I'm a little confused. Ceremony?"
"I'm the bruja here. What you might call a witch."
He smiled. "A witch. I see."
She stiffened. "Yes, a witch. How else could I know that you have been in Las Vegas; that you are a very troubled man; that you have many names, and all of them begin with...let me see...I think with D.B.?"
That hit home, but she didn't pause for him to think about it.
"It is very fortunate for you that the gods brought you to me. The Judicial would throw you in prison. The priest, he would curse you. But I am La Bruja, and I will cure you."
"Cure me?" He had a sinking feeling that he knew what she meant, what she wanted to cure him of, and it wasn't sunburn.
"Como no! You came to our fire as a monster, in a rage, but I calmed the beast and made him sleep, and here you are." The smile returned, and she drew him from the bed. "No one knows more about herbs and magic than I; with them, I can control the beast inside you."
He'd ridden that roller-coaster a thousand times before. "No one can. Believe me, Angelina, I've tried--meditation, drugs, anger management classes. There is no way to control the Hulk, no way to cure me."
"You'll see," she said serenely. "You had a bullet wound, but that is gone." Automatically he reached for his shoulder, feeling only a mild twinge. "Come, David. You've slept most of the day away. I must prepare for tonight's ceremony, and you must eat."
Still rather dazed, he let her draw him into another room, this one crammed with dried plants, seeds, sea shells, dried meats, and ornately-carved amulets. Clay and bone flutes dangled from one wall, and two drums stood beneath him. \\She saw the Hulk. She should run screaming when she sees me. How can she be so calm, so accepting?// He didn't want to question it. People liked David Banner, the knowledgeable handyman with the shady past but good heart. People didn't like David Banner, the mystery man with the evil monster inside. To have someone know about the Hulk, and not care, was so rare....
Angelina busied herself behind a long wooden counter. "I have zapote blanco fruit for your lunch, and valeriana tea." He hesitated, and she smiled. "It's a natural tranquilizer. It won't hurt you. Eat. We have a lot of work to do."
She wasn't kidding. Over the next few hours, as he obediently followed La Bruja on her 'rounds,' his respect for her grew. Angelina wasn't just a 'witch;' in this isolated community she was the doctor, the midwife, and the marriage counselor. He watched her deal briskly but fairly with the poverty-stricken mestizos she called her people, sending some to the pharmacist in the nearest town, dispensing potions to others. As a scientist, he couldn't really approve of an untrained 'witch' practicing medicine, but he had to admit her judgment seemed sound, and her people were grateful.
They stopped at one home--teeming with clean but noisy children--for a huge meal of guisado, a stew of pork, chilies, and vegetables, washed down with beer. Afterward, David found himself dozing in the shaded kitchen, too stuffed to rise from the table, drained by the white-hot desert sun.
Maybe Angelina's tea was more potent than he'd realized.
He awoke with a start to find a stranger looming silently over him; the tallest, burliest Mexican he had ever seen, dressed in the familiar Tex-Mex style of sweat-stained Stetson, plaid shirt, Levis, and gleaming boots. His face was the broad, flat, expressionless mask of an Indian carving. Meeting Banner's gaze with brown eyes as cold as pebbles, he grunted and held out a steaming mug.
David hesitated. "What is this?" He got no response. "Que eso es?"
Angelina leaned her head into the kitchen. "Oh, Vaquero, there you are. Juan has given us the goat with the broken leg--take it to my place, eh?"
"Vaquero?" David looked at him quizzically. "The name...sounds familiar."
"It's a very common nickname here--'cowboy.' He used to work on a cattle ranch in Texas. David, finish your tea; we must leave for the ceremony."
Tea? It wasn't the valerian again, but it tasted strong and vaguely minty. He drank some, just to be polite, as he rose. "Listen, Angelina, I should be--"
She smiled up at him. "I'm so glad you're here, David. The drums are heavy and hard to move, and coming home from the ceremony alone in the dark--" She shivered. "It can be very frightening."
He set down the cup and followed her outside. It was the least he owed her, after all. My God, she was a beautiful woman.
Angelina was right; the drums were heavy. The huehuetl wasn't so bad, since it was a simple vertical drum, but the teponaxtli was a long horizontal drum hollowed from a log and beautifully carved. Even with Vaquero's muscles, wrestling it in and out of the back of the rusty red pick-up truck was hot, exhausting work, and kept him too busy to think.
By the time David and the grim Vaquero had dragged the teponaxtli near the newly-built fire, someone was already thumping on the huehuetl; it had a tone so resonant that it could be heard for miles across the desert. Angelina's people began to gather.
"Thank you, David." Angelina had changed into a patterned wrap-around skirt and a red blouse, and had braided red satin ribbons into her hair and about the crown of her head. She caught his hand and squeezed it. "Come watch the sunset with me."
It was a glorious sunset, all crimson and gold, haloing the bare granite peaks and pine-scattered slopes that trailed down to the desert. A cool night breeze was already sweeping the arid, moon-like landscape around them, and it danced the ribbons along Angelina's shoulders.
"You'll like it here, David. You'll see."
"Angelina, I can't stay. I came to Mexico looking for a way to cure the--the disease that makes me become that thing. The Hulk."
"The desert will give us the cure," she said confidently. "And if not, I can control the demon. It could be a force for me, for good."
"No. It can't be controlled; it has to be stopped. Avoiding any kind of stress or excitement will help, yes, but I haven't had much luck with that. Something always goes wrong."
"Not here. My people will protect you."
"I know you mean well, but 'witchcraft' isn't the answer. I'm a scientist. In a decent lab, with controlled settings--"
Gently, she touched his lips with her forefinger. "Listen with your heart, not your head. Have you never seen magic work?"
He had to be honest. "I knew a woman--Annie Cassiday--who was psychic. She had premonitions about accidents and deaths, and they usually came true."
"Then believe me. I can control your Hulk, and I will." For a moment he saw the steel beneath her charm, then she exclaimed with delight, darting forward to pluck a brilliant scarlet flower from a low, spiny shrub. "It matches my blouse. David, help me braid it in my hair."
Her hair was like black silk, and sweetly performed. Touching it, standing here in the fading sunset, he could almost believe she was right. His hands lingered, and then somehow he was kissing her. The repetitious, mesmerizing beat of the drums was echoed in his pulse.
Angelina trailed her fingers down his back, then eased away and led him back to the fire. Here, the rhythmic pounding of the drums was overwhelming. A semi-circle of people swayed to it, murmuring a low chant. Words drifted around him.
"....biggest since the cabronito..."
"...there, the gringo...."
"La Bruja stops it..."
"...the green demon...." David Banner joined the crowd, and the words faded beneath the chant. \\You're a scientist,// he reminded himself. \\This is a fascinating anthropological event, and you're only an impartial observer, nothing more.//
Unconsciously, he began to sway with the hypnotic beat of the drums.
Somehow, Angelina's voice was clearly carried over the drums. "Tonight, we give thanks that Rosalia and Isabel have safely crossed the border to norteamerica." Her black eyes sought out David's face, and she smiled. "And we welcome a new friend to our circle."
He felt himself lost in those night-dark eyes.
All right, all was not well. She sighed, recognizing that flat voice even before she turned around. "Carmela. What's your problem, eh?"
"Rosalia and Isabel aren't safe and happy in norteamerica," Carmela hissed, her pie-shaped face distorted with hate, "any more than you are a true bruja."
Angelina glanced around quickly. Most of the worshippers had drifted away, and David and Vaquero were loading the truck. "Come with me. We need to talk."
She led the squat, dark-skinned younger woman out of the dying firelight and downwind, where they were partially hidden in wisps of smoke. Carmela angrily wrenched her elbow away.
"Talk all you want, puta! You don't fool me."
"Carmela, Vaquero told me it all went well. The women are across the border, and their children will be born norteamericanos, and--"
"I know all about your scheme. You bleed the pollos of all the money they own, and then your men kill them, or sell them as slaves. But no more. Tonight, I'm going to my fiancé, and he'll arrest you all. The people will listen to me again, instead of to your lies and threats."
"No one will listen to you, Carmela."
"Oh, yes, they will. Tomas will."
There was clearly no reasoning with her. Carmela tried to push past her. Seeing everything she lived for about to collapse like a house of straw, Angelina raised her skirt and grabbed the ritual knife strapped to her thigh.
The knife bit Carmela like a serpent's kiss, even as someone shouted from the darkness. Angelina's head snapped up. \\Who--?// In the moonlight, she glimpsed the narrow, rather sour face of a stranger, a gringo.
Carmela dropped to her knees, blood trickling from her mouth, her cow-like eyes surprised.
Frantic, Angelina yanked the knife free and hurled it, but the gringo was already running across the desert. She screamed, "Vaquero! David, help me!"
Despite the chill night air, Jack McGee was covered with sweat as he scrambled desperately for cover, cursing himself. Mark, his long-suffering editor at the National Register, had told him a story on border bandits would be too dangerous for one man to tackle, but did he listen? Of course not. No, Jack McGee was a loner, keeping all the glory for himself. That's how he got caught in these things.
Damnit, didn't the godforsaken desert have anything in it but rocks and cactus? He stumbled on a rock, but couldn't spare the breath for another curse. Somehow he'd gotten turned around; he should've reached his rented car by now.
Well, he had his story, anyway. It wasn't what he'd come for, but the readers would love it: REPORTER IS EYEWITNESS TO MURDER. Except that Mark would make it something tacky like REPORTER WATCHES BLOODY CULT SACRIFICE.
Panting, he gave up the car and angled for the hills. Maybe he could hide out somewhere in that maze. Running headlong through the desert was a good way to get himself killed, especially when he didn't know the terrain.
Someone was definitely on his tail. He could hear a jangling, metallic sound coming closer. That would probably make a great story, too: INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER MURDERED IN BAJA DESERT. Except that he wouldn't be around to read it. With a fresh spurt of fear, he plunged into a canyon, only to find it was a dead-end. In this case, literally.
The jangling noise was closer. McGee scrabbled along the nearest rock wall, trying to find some kind of handhold he could use to scale the sheer granite face, but slipped back down. As he fell, one arm plunged forward. There was some kind of hole there, half-hidden by scrub brush. Gasping, he jammed himself into it, forcing himself into fetal position to fit.
For once, the gods were with him. Not even Tonto could track someone in the dark. Even so, he held his breath as a pair of snakeskin boots paused beside his cubbyhole, and moonlight glinted off the silver spurs on each heel. After a moment that seemed to drag on for hours, the boots moved on.
Jack stayed where he was, cramped and cold and very frightened. Why didn't he listen to his father and stay away from newspapers at all costs? Look where his college degree in journalism got him: clutching his knees and fighting the urge to wet his pants while hoping no animal came along and tried to retake its home.
It was going to be a long, long night.
The Preventivos, experts at dealing with town drunks and petty thieves, exchanged helpless looks. It was left to David Banner to pat her trembling hand reassuringly. He had held her close on the long drive to this tiny outpost of Mexican law, comforting her, but she was still upset, and rightly so.
"Look, she's told her story twice. Can't you let her go now? After all, she's just seen a murder, and Carmela was her friend."
One of the brown-uniformed men slammed a fist on the cigarette-scarred table. "And she was my fiancée! We will go over it again."
Angelina turned to him, her expression tragic. "Tomas, you knew her. She was good woman, not like one of those Tijuana putas. When she fought--defended herself--he killed her. I screamed for help, and he ran."
Tomas jumped up and turned away, face quivering. His partner stroked a graying walrus mustache and said, "Describe the killer to me, senora."
"He was a gringo, average height. Brown hair. Not young, not old." She gestured helplessly. "It was dark, and I was frightened."
"But you would recognize him if you saw him again?"
"Yes. Oh, yes. I will never forget him. Never."
David tenderly enfolded her in his arms, feeling her body quiver. Over her head, he told the police firmly, "You know where she lives. I'm taking her home now. This has been a rough night for her."
Without giving them a chance to debate it, he guided Angelina out of the police station and helped her into the cab of the red pickup. It wasn't fair. A woman as kind and lovely as Angelina shouldn't have to deal with such horror. But then, his own life was proof enough that 'fair' meant nothing to the uncaring universe.
"I know it's hard to believe right now," David told her as he started the engine, "but the pain will fade, in time. You'll forget the worst of it, and just remember the good times you had with your friend."
"She taught me so much," she said in a low voice.
"We humans are very resilient. Just when you think you couldn't possibly deal with one more heartache, one more frustration, you get two more dumped on you, and you find out you can handle it after all."
She wiped her eyes, sitting up. "You sound as if you've had to face that yourself."
"I have." He braked abruptly as a cow and her calf plodded placidly across the highway, taking their safety for granted. "I lost my first wife in a car accident. If I could've lifted the car off her, she might've lived. That's why I became the Hulk; I was trying to find a way to unlock the freakish strength so many people develop in emergencies. Then my lab blew up, and my lab partner was killed. Ever since then, I've been on the run, traveling from town to town, trying to find a cure."
"But you survived."
He nodded, starting the pickup again. "It wasn't always easy. There were times I was ready to give it all up, even give up on life. Even when I did find a new friend or a place to call home, I always had to leave."
"There's an investigative reporter after the Hulk, and he never gives up." David sighed. "Jack McGee is my personal cross to bear, and he's too good. One of these days he'll finally catch me, and I'll be put in a cage, photographed and poked and prodded, for life."
"No. La Bruja protects her own. You'll see."
He shook his head ruefully, wondering if he had ever been so trusting, so innocent. The truck lurched painfully down the rutted dirt road to Angelina's adobe house. Vaquero was waiting outside, coated with sand and sweat, clutching a rifle.
"Vaquero! Did you catch him?" When the big man shook his head, her face fell. "Ahi sera el Diablo," she muttered, and slammed the door to the truck. "There'll be the devil to pay. David, you must get some sleep. Come--I'll make you some hot chocolate."
"I'm not thirsty, just tired."
"Please, David. Don't leave me alone with my thoughts."
How could he resist that plea? She drew him into the kitchen, and busied herself with hot water and herbs. The chocolate she produced was thick, rich, and creamy, but with a strong aroma that he couldn't quite identify. It tasted very good.
Their eyes met. David smiled, reaching across the table for her hand.
She really was an extraordinarily beautiful woman.
Sort of like a metaphor for his life, really. Empty. No family, hardly any real friends, no career worth mentioning--he'd thrown all that away, and for what?
Ahead of him, the sand swirled upward, like smoke from a genie's magic lamp, and suddenly the desert wasn't gray and lifeless anymore, it was green, moldy green, and roaring with hate. The Hulk, here! He tried to back-pedal, but his ankle turned and he fell. Then he felt the mighty hands close around his ribs and lift him high in the air, and he squirmed, yelling for someone, anyone, to help him, but it was too late, it had thrown him, and he was falling--
Tumbling from his little hole to the desert floor, Jack blinked. He'd had that nightmare before, but this time it seemed appropriate, considering where he had spent the night. One of the worst nights in his life, in fact, and given the way things had gone for him lately, that was saying something.
Grimacing, he stood up, brushing off the dust. Every muscle in his body was stiff and aching. Already it was getting warm out here; he'd have to keep moving if he wanted to make it to a town before the sun was high enough to sear his eyeballs.
Jack wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. Next time he went out on a story, he'd stuff his pockets with food. And a beer. A tall, cold beer. Better yet, two of them.
When he finally found a road, it seemed to be sparsely traveled. Other than a few inquisitive goats and a lot of cow dung, the road was empty, and it seemed to stretch on to infinity, a thin gray ribbon cutting across the arid desert.
"So, which way?"
One of the scruffy goats lifted its head, yellow eyes gleaming balefully, and baa-ed derisively at him.
"You're a big help. Right it is, then. Right makes might."
He trudged wearily onward, and the goat turned its back on him. Already it was very hot. Hot, and humid. Weren't deserts supposed to be dry?
Wherever this road ended up, it better have a well-stocked cantina.
When the tiny village finally did shape up ahead, he was half-afraid it was only a mirage. He strongly suspected he was already suffering from a sunburn, but surely it was too early for hallucinations? No, it was real. The buildings all faced inward, turning their backs to the road, and he couldn't pick out a police station, but there was a battered, grimy jeep parked outside the nearest adobe building, with a man in a brown uniform getting in it. A Preventivo, one of the 'beat cops'. Rescue was at hand. Jack waved both arms.
"Hey! Hey, you! I'm an American citizen, and I want to report a murder!"
The cop spotted him and, incredibly, drew his sidearm. It was so totally unexpected that Jack simply froze, staring in disbelief, as the Preventivo fired at him. The sound of that first shot freed him from his paralysis.
"What the hell--?"
The Preventivo was firing again, bracing his arm on the jeep, but McGee had long since taken to his heels, making it to the nearest house with a speed to rival that of the Roadrunner. His aching muscles were quite forgotten.
In what felt like an instant replay of last night, he ducked and dodged around what felt like half the buildings in the village before he felt safe enough to take shelter in a ramshackle shed, his knees quivering.
What the hell was going on here? That cop was trying to kill him, dammit! Carl, the INS stringer who gave him the tip on this story, had warned him the local cops were crooked, but taking potshots at innocent foreigners was carrying crooked too far!
The door to the shed creaked open. Startled, Jack leaped backward, stepping on a dirty pitchfork, and got slapped in the back by its handle. He grabbed for it, figuring a pitchfork was better than no weapon at all.
Luckily, he found himself threatening to bale not a cop, but a short, heavyset, middle-aged Mexican, presumably the owner of the shed. Evidently he'd been surprised in the middle of a meal, since he was clutching a half-eaten sandwich.
"Uh, hi. I mean, Buenos dias. Yo soy--uh--un reporter." Suspecting from the blank expression that he hadn't said anything at all useful, he muttered frantically, "What's the word for reporter? Yo soy--"
"I speak English, senor."
"Great." Suddenly realizing he was still holding the pitchfork up, McGee dropped it. Threatening a man with his own property was no way to make friends. "Listen, I'm a reporter for an American newspaper, the National Register, maybe you've heard of it?"
The man shook his head, his eyes wide.
"Well, anyway, I've got to get in touch with some people." He dug out his notebook and began scrawling numbers. "If you call my editor, Mark, at this number, I'd really appreciate it." He ripped out the piece of paper, but the Mexican made no move to take it. Grimacing, Jack held out his I.D. "It's the truth, see? My name's McGee--Jack McGee."
"I am Rafael."
"Rafael, after you call my editor, call the police. Not the local yokels--somebody big. The feds. You understand?"
"Los Federales. Si."
Rafael still gazed stolidly at him. Making a face, Jack opened his wallet again and began pulling out mankind's most effective motivators. "Of course, I want to pay for those calls."
"Of course, senor."
Jack 's stomach rumbled. "For my calls, and the rest of that sandwich. And something cold to drink."
Rafael pocketed the money, shrugged, and handed over the French-style roll. Jack tore into it gratefully. Things were starting to look up.
Rafael shuffled out of the shed. When he returned with bottles of pulque--the fermented sap of the maguey cactus--the reporter had thrown his head violently backward.
"What was in that sandwich?" he gasped. He was sweating copiously.
Rafael shrugged. "Pickled jalapenos. My snack." He could hardly be heard over Jack's noisy, desperate air-sucking. Sympathetically, he said, "You are enchilado. It will pass, senor. I have seen it in my wife when she bit into a chiltepiquin, a very hot chili." He handed over the bottles. "I will make those calls now."
Unable to respond, Jack desperately chugged the entire bottle, not even noticing its slimy texture, trying to drown the fire. It didn't help one bit.
David punched his pillow and rolled over. \\Go to sleep. You can think about it tomorrow."//
Although he was exhausted, completely drained, when he did finally fall asleep, well after dawn, it was a restless, sweaty, unsatisfying rest. Worst of all was the dream.
He was standing in the middle of an endless desert--not the rocks and cacti of Baja, but one of those sandy rolling deserts featured in movies about the Foreign Legion. There was nothing in his dream but the cloudless blue sky, the endless brown sand dunes, and David Banner.
Strangely, he wasn't at all surprised when the sand in front of him suddenly erupted. \\It's a volcano,// he told himself reasonably. But the rising cone spat sand, not fire, and something in that spinning cloud of sandy began to growl.
David back up, raising one hand defensively, only to find that he was suddenly trapped in a cage. Then a thick green arm slashed out of the swirling sand, grabbed his wrist.
"No! Leave me alone! Let me go!"
The sand was abruptly gone, and he faced the Hulk across a boxing ring, in the gym where a kid with a zip gun once tried to kill Jack McGee. There was no audience, only hundreds of reporters, all shouting questions and blinding him with flashbulbs.
"You!" he screamed. "You did this to me!"
Snarling, the Hulk crouched, green eyes dumb, arms flexing. David hurled himself at it, fists swinging wildly.
"You destroyed my life. You ruined everything!"
The Hulk staggered back against the ropes, and David's fingers closed on its massive throat, squeezing. Flushed with triumph, he brought the mighty creature to its knees. It reached out helplessly, and their eyes locked. In that instant, no longer threatening, it seemed pitiable. It didn't know why it had been called into existence, or why it had to die.
Then the face changed, and suddenly he was looking into his own face as he strangled to death.
"Hush. Hush, David. It's all right. I'm here."
His eyes popped open. This was the room where he'd gone to sleep, but it seemed to float dizzily around him. Angelina was leaning over him, her long black hair unbound. A wave of lust swept over him, and he tried to fight it, but he was drowning in desire, and then she was in his arms.
He thought he'd left his father's foolish idealism behind him when he left St. Louis, but he still felt somehow betrayed. "Not quite honest enough to stay bought, eh, Rafael?"
The armed man in the Tex-Mex clothes yanked him to his feet and pushed him into the burning sunlight. Rafael followed, saying apologetically, "She has marked you as one of her own." Standing outside, his wife crossed herself as they passed and pulled her rebozo tight around her grey hair. "We will pray for you, senor."
"Yeah, thanks a lot."
The big Mexican shoved him again, harder.
"Look, you're making a mistake. I'm an American reporter." The man grunted, pushing him toward the highway. "I don't know what they told you, but I'm innocent, okay? I didn't do anything." He craned his head around for a glimpse of that impassive face, but the cowboy impatiently slapped his neck. "Ow! I know who really killed that woman, dammit!"
This time his captor jammed the rifle barrel against the back of his head with painful force. Jack swallowed hard and shut up. Maybe this gorilla's boss would listen to reason. At least he hadn't shown up shooting, like that Preventivo.
They were walking toward a rusty, dented pickup truck, not a patrol car, but he remembered Kolchak saying the local cops often drove cars and trucks stolen in the US and dumped across the border. Until he was about to enter the truck, he didn't even notice the faint jingling of spurs. Then he glanced down, and saw an all-too-familiar pair of snakeskin boots.
"You're not a cop!" he yelled, and bolted.
The Mexican was on him in two short strides, the butt of the rifle driving into his kidneys. Jack fell to his knees, and the Mexican hit him again.
He wasn't even aware of being hurled into the truck.
A quick glance around suggested he was in a medieval apothecary shop, which didn't make much sense. When he managed to focus on the beautiful, sharp-faced woman in the center of the room, his eyes widened. The amateur butcher from the desert.
"I am a woman of many talents, gringo. I sensed your presence-the presence of a man who works with words, an American reporter." Dramatically, she touched her temples with red-painted fingernails. "Your name...it is John, yes? Or Jack. I am La Bruja."
He grimaced. "I see you can read my I.D., if not my mind. Nice try, Ms. Witch."
Oh, good move, McGee. Antagonize the hell out of the woman who holds your life in her hands. He tried his most charming smile--the one that made Pat, his publisher's daughter, forgive him anything--but it came out cynical, and he gave up. They weren't going to let him live, no matter how charming he was.
Cool as those air conditioners he'd been dreaming of, she told him, "Vaquero was right to bring you to me. You are an alien, and Carmela was one of us. The people will be very angry. I have their respect, but...." She smiled into his eyes as he recognized the veiled threat. "Pray that your God extends more certain protection than one poor woman can."
His grin twisted. "You know that I'm not the one who--"
The cowboy rammed the rifle muzzle into his aching kidneys, even as she spoke loudly over his words, as if trying to drown them out.
"Spare me your lies, murderer!"
God, that hurt! By the time he got his breath back, she'd given Vaquero orders in rapid Spanish. Then she glanced meaningfully at the far door. Maybe there was someone in the next room, someone who didn't know La Bruja here was a killer. Jack opened his mouth to fill them in, but Vaquero yanked him back by his shirt, cutting off his breath, and pushed him out the other door.
He had the feeling that if his Spanish had been better, he might have recognized the words for 'lynch mob.'
Angelina seemed to think McGee had killed her friend. That had to be some kind of crazy mistake. McGee was--well, he was a pain in the ass, sure, but not a killer. But the important thing was that everyone else believed Jack'd killed Carmela. Angelina was an angel incarnate, and she'd do all she could to hand him safely over to the police, but she was too good. She didn't know, as he did, the brutality lurking within all men. Even if no lynch mob came after Carmela's murderer, he might well be killed by Tomas, her fiancé. Either way, McGee was in danger, and Angelina couldn't stop it.
He groaned. The conclusion was inescapable. He had to set his worst enemy free. McGee was an investigative reporter, and a good one. He should be able to clear his name, if he lived to get the chance.
The thought seemed to clear away some of the dizziness. Working quickly, he tied a blue bandanna around his face and pulled a ragged straw hat low over his eyes. Not much of a disguise, but it would have to do.
David eased the bedroom door open, making sure no one was in sight, and slipped out. Later, when McGee was safely out of here, he would explain it all to Angelina, but now he had to hurry.
He found McGee in the barn, drenched with sweat, tied to one of the support beams. When David opened the door, the injured goat penned in the next stall bleated, and the reporter opened his eyes, face tightening.
"You boys are quick. Tell me, do you listen on the CB to catch the latest lynch parties, or is this a special occasion?"
David merely grunted, fumbling with the knots. They were tied very tight, digging into the skin around the wrists.
"You're not going to be lynched," David muttered. He pitched his voice low, trying to sound like a man who gargled with gravel. The last stubborn knot gave way. "I'm setting you free. Go."
McGee rubbed his wrist absently. "Go where?"
He gestured. "Out there. I'm setting you free."
"Yeah, right, and then I get shot in the back while trying to escape," the reporter scoffed. He folded his arms stubbornly. "Uh-uh. You'll have to drag me out."
It was utterly maddening. "I don't even have a gun!" he said, exasperated. "For God's sake, get out, before we both get caught!"
The honest anger at least got McGee moving toward the barn door, one arm reaching back to massage his lower back, but still he hesitated. "Who are you? Why are you doing this?"
David snapped, "Because I know what it's like to be ruthlessly hunted for something you haven't done!"
Jack scrutinized him suspiciously, trying to make out the face beneath the blue bandanna. He stopped rubbing his back and straightened up, frowning.
The rattle of spurs spinning outside made his head snap up.
Forgetting to disguise his voice, David yelled, "John, for God's sake, run!"
His face flushed, Vaquero opened the door and shook his head. Angelina bit off a short command, and the burly man slipped back out, his face even redder.
"He got away," she said.
Despite himself, David's mouth curled up. She slapped both hands down on the table.
"David, how could you? You're turned loose a--a killer! Who knows who else he'll attack?"
His smile died. "Angelina, come on, that was Jack McGee. The reporter I told you about."
"Yes, your enemy. I don't understand, David! Why would you help your enemy?"
"Because I don't believe Jack McGee is a killer."
"You said he hunted you, like an animal!"
For an instant he was again in a dark cloakroom, trying to dodge the exposing light, while McGee stalked him with a tranquilizer gun, refusing to listen to his pleas of innocence. He blinked. His face tightened. "Jack McGee is arrogant, cynical, self-centered, and persistent, but he's not a murderer. He's..." He shrugged. "...a good man."
Angelina tossed her head. "Anyone who would hurt you, David, is not a good man." She eyed him thoughtfully, then smiled, her anger seeming to dissipate. "I'll make you some tea, David, and we'll talk. I'm sure you will see reason...."
No one but his late parents and John Doe called him 'John' in that angry tone of voice. The man who turned into the Hulk had saved his life.
If only I'd pulled down that bandanna...!
He tripped over a rock, and painfully levered himself to his feet. It was so damn frustrating! Over and over again, he came within seconds of solving the mystery of the Hulk, only to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. He couldn't even go back to the house without getting his throat slit by John Doe's lady.
And I didn't do anything wrong, dammit! It's not right!
By the time evening finally smothered the sun's heat, McGee was bruised, cut, and dirty, his clothing shredded by cacti. He no longer worried about the Hulk; it took all his concentration just to make his legs carry him another few steps.
He had to be near the border by now. Maybe the Border Patrol would make a sweep near here and find him. Maybe he'd trigger an underground sensor, and they'd send a search team, thinking he was an emigrant. Maybe he'd stumble across his rental car and make a getaway.
Panting, he dropped to the ground and closed his eyes. He couldn't sleep, not out in the open, but he had to rest.
Forcing his burning eyes open, Jack waited for his breathing to ease.
This was how a rabbit must feel, trying to escape a fox. John Doe had said, "I know what it's like to be ruthlessly hunted." But I'm not hunting you, John, I'm hunting the Hulk, and it's a killer. This isn't the same thing. I'm innocent, and they're still hunting me down. It's not fair!
Somehow he dredged up the strength to grin crookedly at himself. He knew better than that. Few things in life were 'fair,' and only idealists like his father and John Doe expected them to be.
It was infuriating, all the same.
Jack rolled over, gasped, and painfully got to his feet. It would be easier to run...or stumble...in the cool of the evening, and easier to hide in the dark. Maybe he'd even find that hole in the wall again, or one like it. Maybe he'd make it after all.
His luck being what it was, that was the moment when a rock was hurled into his back. Taken completely by surprise, he went flying. The rock was followed by a blow to the kidneys, and he thought numbly, I'll be pissing blood for a week.
His assailant caught him by the scruff of the neck and flipped him over; even in the growing dusk, he recognized Vaquero, and felt his stomach twist as he realized the big man was grinning.
Whatever's makin' him happy, I'm not gonna like.
Giggling softly, Vaquero began to systematically beat him to a pulp.
There had been a scraping, dragging noise outside his room, and now there were voices. David frowned. Why was he so sleepy? Why couldn't he wake up?
"...a dead man, senor. Your body just doesn't know it yet."
"I think...it's got...a clue."
You must get up.
"I won't risk you getting away again. Take care of it, Vaquero."
He heard an obscenely happy giggle, and the hair on the back of his neck rose. Slowly, David dragged himself from the bed. "Angelina...no."
Swaying in the doorway, he struggled to focus on the next room. That tattered, blood-smeared, sunburnt figure in the middle of the room was Jack McGee, minus his usual suit and tie, and there was some reason why McGee mustn't see him, but he couldn't quite remember what it was. Their eyes met, and Jack seemed to be at least as groggy as he was. Then Jack blinked, and the grogginess was replaced by shock. The reporter's mouth gaped.
"D-D-Dr. Banner? But--it can't be. You--you're dead."
Was he? Was this what being dead felt like? Drugged, that inner voice was whispering. You have to fight it off.
Angelina clapped her hand against her hip. "You see, David? Now he must die, or he will expose you."
As if she hadn't spoken, his eyes still locked on David's face, McGee said weakly, "The Hulk...killed you."
He'd dreamed that. No, he dreamed he killed the Hulk, and the Hulk was part of him. David shook his head hard, trying to dislodge the smoke that was obscuring everything.
"I can't kill a man just because he knows my name. Angel, you're not--I can't believe you'd want that."
She said urgently, "No, David, listen to me. He murdered poor Carmela. He thought she was easy, like those Tijuana whores, and when she struggled, and I saw him, he panicked. He killed her."
McGee was still reeling, on his feet only because Vaquero was holding him up, but the accusation sparked outrage, turning his eyes finally from David. "I killed that girl? It was y--"
Vaquero threw a hairy arm around his throat, choking him off.
David frowned. What McGee said, or tried to say, was important. But he couldn't focus on it long enough to figure it out, because Angelina was flowing into his arms, kissing him. He buried his face in her raven hair, reveling in the sweet perfume. She loved him, despite the Hulk. She helped him, the way she helped her people.
"He's hurt you so many times," she whispered. "All those years, hounding you, trying to destroy you." He made an incoherent sound, face still troubled, and she nuzzled his throat, her voice low and coaxing. "He's a threat to us both, David. He would put us both in cages. Do you want that? Hmm?"
David's eyes traveled past her head to McGee, who was clutching at Vaquero's arm and gasping for breath. David didn't want to be in a cage. He didn't want anyone to hurt Angelina. But suddenly the room was washed away; he was in the woods, about to go the stream for water, and Jack, strapped to a skid, was saying, "Be careful. I don't have many friends. I mean, not a friend who...just be careful." David looked back at Jack, who was suddenly vulnerable and rather shamefaced about it, and an inner voice said, Friend. The same inner voice that now kept insisting, You've been drugged.
He pulled away, gently removing her from his arms. "Angelina, please. Let him go."
For a moment she hesitated, then she shrugged and puckered her lips. "Es lastima, David...but no." She turned away, dismissing him as unimportant, and glared at McGee. "I'd save you to be the cabronito, the goat without horns, at our next sacrifice, but you keep getting away."
Anger. Use your anger as a weapon. But he felt so sleepy, so dizzy, that he couldn't seem to spark the rage he needed. "Angelina?"
"Nothing...personal," McGee gasped. It was like the man to insist on having the last word even now. They were ignoring David, talking as if he was no longer there, and David tried to focus on that, to fan irritation into something more.
Angelina reached under the counter, behind a row of capped bottles, and pulled out a machete, holding it out so McGee could see the inscription. "'La Vida Es El Camino Al Sepulcro.' Life is the road to the tomb. Fitting, no?"
David lunged for the machete, but was overcome by a wave of dizziness, and fell against the table. "No. Angelina, don't do this!"
A vein began throbbing in his forehead, and his eyes ached.
She called back over her shoulder, "The pain will fade in time, David. You'll forget the worst of it, remember?" Teasingly, she traced the point of the sharp blade across the reporter's belly. Jack closed his eyes, sagging in Vaquero's grasp.
David, feeling it swamp him, drowning him in rage, screamed, "NOOOO!"
By the time Angelina spun around in alarm, the transformation was already complete. David Banner was gone; in his place, the Hulk rose to its feet, flexing his biceps, the ripped shirt dangling from its shoulders. Stunned, Vaquero lowered his arms, his captive forgotten.
"I can control him. You'll see," Angelina said, but her voice was shaky. "David. David, it's me. Your Angelina."
The Hulk swung its big head toward her, eyebrows lowered, a growl rumbling deep in its broad chest. Holding the machete behind her back with one hand, she reached out appealingly.
"You remember me. We are friends--very close friends. You love me, and you would never hurt me. Just as I would never hurt you."
The Hulk cocked its big head, the growl fading. Angelina inched closer.
On the floor, Jack pushed himself up onto his hands and knees and focused blearily on the machete gleaming behind La Bruja's slender back. The Hulk took a step forward, and her knuckles whitened.
He rasped, "John--David--don't listen to her, it's a trap!"
The green giant hesitated, turning toward him, looking puzzled. Vaquero grabbed Jack by the arms, lifted him bodily, and slammed him against the wall.
Angelina's charms were forgotten. The Hulk knew anger, and responded to it. The fury that had called it into being was doubled. That was what it was for, to scream, to pound, to break. Roaring, it swung one massive arm across the big cowboy's chest, hurling him back against the far wall, where bottles crashed around his head.
The woman rushed at him, swinging the machete at his back, and the creature swung around with a mindlessly furious snarl, fists raised. Losing her nerve, Angelina darted behind the counter. One long green arm whipped out, yanking the machete from her grasp and hurling it aside. It drove deep into the wall and whipped back and forth there.
"Vete a la chingada!" she shrilled.
Gripping the counter in both hands, the Hulk wrenched it from the floor, hurling packets of dried herbs and various filled bottles all over the woman.
Behind it, Vaquero shakily rose to his knees, reaching for his rifle. Angelina hurled the vertical war-drum at the Hulk, without enough strength to damage it, and ran to the wall for the still quivering machete, just as Vaquero fired. She took the bullet full in her back.
As she fell, the Hulk screamed and turned, ripping the gun from the cowboy's suddenly nerveless fingers. Effortlessly, driven by its rage, it twisted the rifle barrel into a horseshoe. Bullets shot into the air and fell uselessly to the floor. The Hulk crushed the horseshoe, cast it aside, pounced on Vaquero. Lifting the big man as if he were no more than a child's rag doll, the Hulk hurled him into the bedroom wall, and this time the wall crumbled.
With deep, animalistic growls, the Hulk slowly surveyed the room. No one stirred. There was no one to battle. Its fervor fading, it bent over Angelina's lifeless form, and twined one finger in a lock of long black hair. Its face was tragic. She didn't move. After a moment it rose, and the emerald eyes fell on McGee. It stood over him for a long moment, fists clenched.
The pesky little man was hurt. People who were hurt needed help.
Grunting, the creature scooped up the reporter's limp body, with a delicate touch that belied its grotesque size. Pressing the body protectively close, it wrenched the door from its hinges and loped into the desert, toward the distant desert border town.
"Come on, Doc, how long are you going to keep me here?"
"Believe me, Senor McGee, the nurses are asking the same thing," the doctor said serenely. "He shone a pencil light into McGee's eyes, thumbing back each eyelid, and grunted.
"How long 'til I get my memory back?"
"As I have told you repeatedly, a concussion is not something to take lightly." The white-haired doctor firmly pulled McGee's hand away from the tubing. "Some of the brain cells have died, and all of them have been shaken up, yes? Some scattered bits of those missing eight hours may return, or none at all. There is no way of knowing." He probed a bruise, and McGee flinched back. "Why would you want to remember getting a beating like this?"
Jack made a face. "You do have a point."
The doctor nodded, scribbling a few notes on his chart. "Your visit to our country has been most unpleasant so far. Why not relax and enjoy your stay here? After all, you are not the one paying for all this, are you?"
"Anyone stupid enough to be an investigative reporter has to have good medical coverage," the reporter said morosely.
Chuckling, the doctor opened the door. "You may visit him again, Senorita Steinhauer. See what you can do to cheer him up, for all our sakes."
His glum expression was already changing into a smile as Pat entered. "Aren't you a sight for sore eyes. And sore everything else, for that matter."
She met his grin with the saucy dimple that first made him look at her as a woman, not just the publisher's daughter. "Tres gallant, I must say."
"So? What've you got for me?"
Pat sighed, pulling up the bedside chair. "Nothing. Someone calling himself Rafael called Mark and said you were in trouble. Presumably he's the same man who anonymously and drunkenly called the Preventivos. When they got to Rivera's house, she was dead, and you were gone. They were going to blame you for her murder, but you turned up at the hospital emergency room, brought in by two nuns babbling about a giant green monster who brought you to their convent."
"That's no more than we knew yesterday! I thought you were a reporter."
Pat's face hardened. "I'm a damn good one, and you know it. I left an expose on the NASA bribery case to come here."
Jack had the grace to look ashamed. "Pat, come on, I'm sorry. It's just so--so damn frustrating."
After a moment, she shrugged. "No one is this town will admit to seeing the Hulk, and Rivera's followers have faded into the woodwork. Face it, Jack--it's another dead-end."
Jack scowled. The last clear memory he had was of stumbling desperately through the desert, with Vaquero hot on his heels. There was a gaping hole in his memories, and suddenly he was waking up in a border hospital, with Pat looking down at him and weeping. What had happened? Who had beaten him so badly--La Bruja's cowboy, or the Hulk? He kept seeing the Hulk form magically in the sand, only that had to be a hallucination. John Doe was in there somewhere, and the sword that left the scratch on his belly, and--
Dammit, Pat was laughing at him. She had sucked in her cheeks in that stern, efficient, Boss Lady look, but her blue eyes were dancing.
She patted his free hand. "The important thing is, you're cleared of that murder charge, and you got a great story--which, by the way, Mark wants finished today. You write the sidebar, all about what it's like to be almost sacrificed by a witch, and I get to phone it in."
He rubbed his aching head irritably. "Yeah, yeah, I know." But then he muttered, "It's just that I have this feeling I've forgotten something very important. If only I could remember...."
She wasn't the sweet angel he'd imagined her to be, yet even now, with the drugs finally flushed from his system, he was haunted by her image. It was as if she had been the oasis of love in a barren life of broken dreams, as illusory as any desert mirage. He mourned what he thought she had been, not what she was.
Another failure. Another death. Another hope shattered.
"Goodbye, Angelina," he said finally.
David shouldered his duffel bag and began to walk down the long, empty highway...alone.
---Wednesday, October 1, 1986
David Banner says e-mail the author at littlecalamity at hotmail.com with some feedback. Don't make him angry. You wouldn't like him when he's angry.
Be a good investigative reporter like Jack McGee and learn HOW TO WRITE MARGINALLY READABLE FAN FICTION, complete with real examples and fanfic-useful details from selected TV shows, or Hulk will smash you to paste.