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THE GREATEST AMERICAN HULK

Jane Leavell

"Geeze, I don't believe it," Tony Villacona mumbled in his best ersatz-Brando accent. "Whitney High ain't never had a crowd like this for one crummy guest-speaker before."

As he spoke, one hand casually drifted toward the cigarbox bulging with dollar bills. His classmate Rhonda automatically slapped it away. "Yeah, well, Mr. H. says this Allsop guy's a real big-wig at the Pentagon. All I know is, we're sure gonna have enough money for that class picnic now," she said, and handed out another ticket.

Adjusting his brown leather jacket, the Travolta-clone let his eyes scan the waiting crowd. He stiffened abruptly. "Oh, no."

Rhonda strained to look above the heads of the people crowding the school lobby. "What? What is it?"

"One side! FBI. Outta the way, okay?" The tall lean man in the Foster Grant sunglasses plowed impatiently through the crowd, pausing before Tony. "Not in jail yet, Villacona? Where's your owner?"

"You know what FBI stands for? Friggin' Bas--" Tony broke off as his teacher put a hand on his shoulder.

"Bill! What a pleasant surprise. I didn't know you were interested in science."

"I'm not. This is Bureau business." Bill Maxwell removed his Foster Grants to cast a cold hazel stare in Tony's direction. "Listen, Ralph, can we go some place and talk?"

"Sure, Bill. Pam, can you excuse us?" Ralph Hinkley gave him a slightly bemused smile, but obediently led the older man into the school auditorium and behind the green velvet curtains, leaving his date to supervise the ticket-takers. He seemed electrified with excitement, so much so that Maxwell could probably have gotten a charge for his walkie-talkie from one golden curl on the head bobbing before him. "--Pam's idea," he was saying. "I never thought Professor Allsop would agree to come."

"Yeah, well, that's what we gotta talk about, kid. Carlyle's practically crapping his pants on this one. Do you know who Allsop is?"

"Sure. He's a leading authority on radiation, and--"

"He's part of the Pentagon wise-guys, in on all those hush-hush defense plans. The Russkies asked for him personally to help on that Kiev thing. He's been no problem, kept a low profil for years, then all of a sudden he wraps up some mumbo-jumbo test and decides he's gonna come out to a rinky-dink high school in Podunk, USA, and talk."

Ralph looked puzzled. "So? I think it's marvelous. The American Way--learned men sharing their knowledge with the young--"

Maxwell groaned. "Ralph, give me a break. The Prof wouldn't even go to Switzerland for the damn Nobel--"

"It's Sweden, Bill. The Nobel Prize is awarded in Sweden."

"Whatever. He didn't even give 'em enough notice on this, so the security boys are goin' nutso. They even called us in for reinforcements." Absentmindedly, he slipped his right hand under his open suitcoat to touch the revolver nestled in its leather shoulder-holster. "My first chance to go trout-fishing with some a' the boys, and I gotta babysit for a hothouse scientist." He said it as if it were an obscenity.

"Relax, Bill. Enjoy the experience. Maybe you'll even learn something."

"Very funny, Ralph." Bill slid the hand under his light blue vest, making sure he still had the tiny transistor radio and earplug in there. "At least I can catch today's doubleheader while the old geezer lectures. I just wanted to be sure--before the other guys got here--about the jammies. You did bring 'em, didn't you?"

The young teacher hesitated. "Uh, yeah. Yeah, they're in my briefcase."

Maxwell loosened his red tie. "Good. I just figured you should put the suit on, just in case the Commies show up or something."

"Bill, the Cold War is ending. It's time to put aside our old prejudices--"

"Yeah, yeah, I'll make nice with 'em when they're dead and gone, all right? Just be sure you got the suit." He swept past Ralph to the lobby again. Hinkley reached for his briefcase, then realized it wasn't at his feet, and grimaced. "Where did I put...? Pam?" He followed Maxwell into the lobby. "Pam, have you seen my briefcase?"

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"You're sure you don't want a lift into town?"

"No, this is fine." David Bruce Banner climbed down from the cab of the battered yellow pickup truck, and a smile briefly lit his somber features. "Thanks again for the lift."

"No problem. The stories more than paid for my trouble. Good luck, wherever you're going."

Banner nodded, his brown eyes returning to the newspaper clipping in his right hand even before his ride had pulled away. As it had the night before, the file photo of Dr. Wilfred Allsop leaped up at him. The plump face was a little rounder than it had been five years ago, the peanut-butter brown hair thinner, but it was unmistakably the scientist he had met at that conference in London. Allsop was brilliant, and at the time he'd been fascinated by the effects of rare gamma radiation. Now, with virtually unlimited government funding and the use of the best labs in the county, he was undoubtedly the top man in his field. Even the superficial treatment of the article indicated his major interests were now military, but there was always the hope that he did have the knowledge--the knowledge that would free David Banner from rage personified.

Banner carefully folded the clipping, squinted against the mid-morning sun at the sprawling one-story building down the road, and slung his pack over one shoulder. Whitney High. With luck, it would be his salvation.

Reluctantly parting with some of the money he'd earned washing dishes two towns back, he accepted a ticket and slipped into the auditorium. He would listen to Allsop's lecture, then try to reach him backstage. It was a slim hope, but better than nothing. After all this time, he was running out of options.

Slumped in a seat on the aisle, he took a deep breath and willed his thudding heartbeat to slow. The childish giggles and snaps of popped gum from science students here to earn extra credit brought back memories of long ago, when the biggest problem he had was lining up a date for Saturday night.

Maybe that would soon be the biggest worry he had to face. He'd lasted a week in that last town without losing his temper, and his nemesis, Jack McGee, never poked his long nose in, either. Now, to top it all off, Wilf Allsop had unexpectedly left the impenetrable walls of the Pentagon. Perhaps his luck was finally changing.

It was then that he heard the first gunshot.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Fidgeting nervously outside the back entrance to the auditorium, Ralph consulted his watch one more time. For security purposes, Professor Allsop wasn't going to arrive until the last minute, but right now it felt like the last minute was already halfway gone. What would he tell the ticketholders if the professor didn't show up? How would he convince his special ed class that hard work paid off and that even intellectually brilliant minds respected them, in the face of such flagrant disregard?

Oh. No problem. The black limousine was pulling up now. He and Pam exchanged relieved smiles as Bill joined Allsop's security team, fitting right in. No doubt he was relieved to leave the liberal academic crowd for his more natural habitat.

"Professor Allsop, I'm Ralph Hinkley. I can't tell you how pleased and excited we are to have you--"

One of the dark-suited men flanking the small, portly doctor cast a suspicious glance around the parking lot. "Can we do this inside, please?"

Allsop ignored him, holding out both hands to the slender, dark-haired woman standing with Ralph. "You must be the lawyer who wrote me. My dear, you never mentioned how lovely you are. It would surely have induced me to come sooner."

"It was Pam's idea to invite you," Ralph offered.

She bushed a stray lock of long, coal-black hair behind one ear and extended her right hand. "I saw an old interview you did on PBS, and I thought it was--"

Over Allsop's shoulder, Ralph barely noticed a brown panel van pull into the school parking lot. More alert, Bill and his fellow feds spun simultaneously, guns magically appearing in their hands. For once, Maxwell's paranoia was justified. The side panels slid open, and three men burst out, guns blazing.

"Counselor, get down!" Maxwell hurled Pam to the ground and shielded Allsop with his own body, coolly snapping off two shots. A windows on the van shattered. "Ralph, the jimmies!"

Ralph hesitated, seeing his wife try to melt into the asphalt, but when one of Allsop's guards collapsed, gun skittering away as if afraid of the rain of bullets, he himself skittered to the right. Ducking behind a station-wagon, he frantically shucked his tan corduroy jacket and yanked with fumbling fingers at his tie.

As he ripped at his shirt, he risked one quick peep through the car windows. Another agent was sprawled limply by the auditorium door, and Bill, his lantern jaw outthrust, was grimly holding off the three attackers with his revolver.

"Doc, for God's sake, get inside! Ralph, will you hurry up? We're dyin' out here!"

He wriggled out of the shirt. "I'm trying, I'm trying!"

Someone opened the door to the auditorium, and Rhonda began screaming. Some of the audience ducked behind chairs, while others crowded around the door, until stray bullets whizzed their way.

"Ralph, Bill's been hurt!" Pam cried.

Fumbling with his belt, Ralph peered through the windows again. A bullet had slammed the pistol from Maxwell's grip, snapping the trigger finger. "Just a lucky shot," Bill muttered. He scrabbled at a fallen dark-suited body, trying to find the man's gun. "Ralph!"

Pam covered her head with both arms, shrinking back, as the three kidnappers pounced. One of three kicked Bill's hand away from a fallen gun; the other two grabbed Professor Allsop's arms. In the school, the screams reached a hysterical height, mingled with an unearthly roar.

Ralph unfastened his belt, crouched, and literally flew out of his pants. The kidnapper by Bill froze, gaping, as Ralph, his blue-lined cap flapping, lunged over the station wagon, veered sharply left, wobbled, veered right, and crashed into Allsop and his assailants. For a moment they were face-to-face, then the man's eyes widened even more. What could possibly be more startling than a flying man in a one-piece red jumpsuit? Blinking, Ralph turned to look over his shoulder, and found out, as a massive green creature, vaguely man-like, its misshapen face distorted with rage, loped from the auditorium.

"Oh, shit!"

All three kidnappers ran for the van.

"Excuse me," Ralph automatically muttered, steadying Allsop. "You guys hold it right--oof!"

As he spun and ran at superspeed toward the van, Ralph collided with the seven-foot, murky green body of the running hulk. They ran together with a near-sonic boom, and the force of their collision hurled each backward, onto the ground. The van roared out of the parking lot in a cloud of exhaust, as more security agents converged on the scene. The colossal humanoid shook back shaggy green-brown hair from glowing jade eyes and snarled in wordless frustration. Ralph rubbed his sore head.

"Ralph, get out of here!"

Ralph slowly rose to his feet, brushing off the red suit. The brute rose, too, bulging muscles rippling.

Finally managing to snatch up a gun, Maxwell got to his feet, gun clutched in both hands. "Halt, or I'll shoot! FBI!"

The monster whirled and shook both fists in the air, roaring a wordless challenge. Bill flinched--who wouldn't be afraid of something as abnormal as this?--but did as he had threatened and pulled the trigger. Either his broken finger threw his aim off, or bullets were no use against whatever this was, because it howled again, then turned, bounded onto the roof of a Chevy, and leaped over the chain-link fence. Ralph hesitated, then turned and ran in the opposite direction.

"I-I'm sorry," Allsop stammered, bumping against Bill's side. His Adam's apple bobbed nervously in his short, thick throat. "I...guess I froze. What--what were those things?"

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

All the way to his home, Ralph berated himself. Why hadn't he chased the creature, whatever it was? What if it hurt someone? Instead of worrying about keeping his super-powered suit a secret, he should have used it to protect the school. Knowing that he'd left Pam to hide his clothes, evacuate the building, and deal with the press only made him feel worse. By the time she got home, she was disheveled and exhausted, clutching the glass of wine he offered her as if it were a lifeline. When Bill finally showed up with his finger bandaged by the ER doctor, it was the final straw. Ralph slumped down in his chair, glumly watching Bill pace in front of the window; not even Pam's gentle massage of his shoulders made him feel any better.

"I'm telling you, kid, it was the Reds, after the doc's know-how."

"Even that green thing?" Pam interjected.

Bill-s straight-arrow features were suddenly pallid. "Geez, you don't think he was--you know--anything to do with them?" He rolled his hazel eyes toward the ceiling. "The little green guys. Up there." He shuddered briefly at the thought of the aliens who'd given them the suit, then got hold of himself. "Nah. Can't be. He was too big. So he hadda be working for the Commies."

"I don't know, Bill. They seemed as afraid of him as they were of me. And he--it--seemed to be really angry with them."

"So it's a bad-tempered colleague, like Carlisle back at the agency." Bill gestured loosely with his right hand, the bound broken finger sticking out. "It was running toward the prof, right? If you hadn't been there, who knows what it woulda done to him? And it shrugged off bullets like it was a tank!"

The doorbell rang, and in one fluid motion he was against the wall, gun drawn. Ralph shot to his feet.

"Bill, put that away! Last time, you drew on a Girl Scout, and I had to buy twenty-five dollars worth of cookies to make her stop crying!"

"We can't take any chances, not with Allsop snoozing in your kid's bedroom."

Ralph scowled at him and opened the door, standing at an angle to block his partner from view. At the door was a man in a grey tweed suit, his hands deep in his pockets, rocking on his heels. As the door opened, he pulled one hand out, his thin, downturned mouth lifting into a charming smile that revealed a slight overbite. "Mr. Ralph Hinkley?"

"Yes, that's me. Can I help you?"

"Jack McGee. I'm a reporter for the National Register. May I come in?"

Maxwell shook his head urgently, mouthing the word 'no.' Ralph smiled and stepped back, forcing the older man to quickly reholster his gun. "Of course. This is my wife, Pam, and this is Mr. Bill Maxwell, my...friend."

The reporter nodded to them, slipping a spiral notepad and pen out. "I heard radio reports about Professor Allsop's interrupted speech at your school, and I understood you had set up the lecture."

"I'm the faculty advisor for the class that sponsored it, right." Ralph warmed up, pleased for a chance to boost his kids. "They've done an incredible amount of work, organizing this--"

"But we can't discuss it," Maxwell cut in. "Classified."

McGee raised his eyebrows, setting faint quizzical lines in his forehead. "Classified by whom? There was a press conference arranged, wasn't there?"

"FBI. It's a federal matter."

"That's interesting. I've been following the Hulk for five years now, and he's never been an FBI problem before. Do you work for the agency?"

Pam set her wine glass on the coffeetable and leaned forward. "You mean you weren't interested in the professor?"

"Not until now, no," McGee said honestly. He made annotation in his notebook. "My primary interest was the Hulk, actually."

"The big green thing?"

"Exactly. What is this Professor Allsop working on that's so mysterious?" McGee cocked his head at Maxwell like an alert terrier about to pounce. "And what connection does he have with the man witnesses describe as wearing a red Superman outfit?"

"None. Maybe he came with your jolly green giant," Bill said sarcastically.

"Look, I know more about the Hulk than anyone else on Earth, and there's no red-suited wonder man connected with him." McGee frowned thoughtfully. "Could any of you give me a description of this man?"

Ralph and Pam exchanged stricken looks. Maxwell said firmly, "No, we can't."

"We--we were busy being shot at," Pam offered.

"Could I ask the professor? He may have--"

"No." Maxwell was apparently tired of the tactful, diplomatic route Ralph was always preaching to him. "Look, buddy, I wouldn't let you talk to him if you were from the New York Times, let alone some cheap supermarket rag. We don't know anything about green men, or red magic suits, or aliens from Mars." He opened the front door again. "So beat it."

McGee eyed him speculatively, then flipped the pad shut. "Thanks. You've been a real help."

Maxwell slammed the door shut behind him.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Jack McGee paused outside Ralph Hinkley's bleached white, Spanish-style home, indistinguishable from the rest of this sunny California suburb. Odd. No one in there had denied seeing the Hulk, or even shown much interest in him. This Allsop fellow was their major worry, and his keen investigative nose smelled a good story there. Not everyone who wrote for the Register was a hack re-writer of press releases.

The Register's morgue would be full of useless information on UFO's, axe murderers, and scientists who had phone calls with the dead, not the sort of scientists the FBI would be interested in. But he could slip away long enough to call an old friend at the Post for some background on Allsop, and then stake out Hinkley's place.

He'd had a good career going, plenty of potential, when he let the bottle wash away his chances; it would take a miracle to get him out of the Register's gutter and back on track. That's why he pursued the Hulk so relentlessly. Having pinned his hopes on that creature, he had to prove that the Hulk wasn't some publicity stunt, or even a delusion inspired by his drinking. But he wasn't going to sneer at other good stories along the way...and this one had definite potential.

Don't go anywhere, folks, Jack thought, and grinned. I'll be right back.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Inside, Maxwell twitched the curtains aside and watched the rather battered blue convertible pull away. From the corner of his mouth, he grated, "I don't like this, Ralph. If that sleazy rag has found us, we're gonna have fifty TV men and reporters on our butts any minute now. We're gonna have to move the prof."

"Where?"

He shrugged. "We'll stash him in a hotel room until we get more reinforcements, and tomorrow we'll send him back to D.C. and let the Pentagon worry about it. You go wake the prof up and help him pack his teddy bear, Ralph."

Pam said thoughtfully, "Maybe we need to question that reporter and find out about that Hulk thing. If he knows so much about it--"

"Ahh, he was running a bluff," Bill scoffed. "But maybe I'll give Carlisle a call and let him check this McGee character out." He chuckled, wickedly pleased with himself. "He'll love that. Counselor, you call a couple hotels, make reservations for the Hinkley party. Maybe even one for Allsop. A little razzle-dazzle to lay a false trail."

Ralph re-emerged from the bedroom, frowning. "Pam, did you ever read any of the National Register's stories on this Hulk thing?"

She straightened and stared icily at him. "Ralph, you have seen me read law journals, the evening papers, and an occasional issue of Playgirl. Have you ever seen me read junk like that?"

"Well, no, but...uh...I think I've read some of those articles. They weren't too bad." Both Bill and Pam turned to stare at him. "No, really."

Allsop waddled into the living room, yawning, as Bill and Pam cowed Ralph with contemptuous stares. "What is it, Mr. Maxwell? Trouble?"

The FBI agent grabbed Ralph's frog-shaped telephone, made a face, and punched out a number. "What does this thing do when ya get a call, Ralph, croak?"

"We're moving to a hotel, Professor," Pam said calmly. "Bill's calling for reinforcements."

"Reinforcements? Hotel?" He looked from Bill to Ralph. "Are you sure that's safe?"

"...yeah, yeah. The Sheraton on 42nd. Right." Bill covered the mouthpiece. "He hit the roof--says the brass are screamin' for my balls because we dropped out of sight. Just pack your things, okay?" To the phone, he said, "Cool your jets, Carlisle, everything's under control. Honest." He hung up. "Listen, this is the scenario. I'll do a quick recon, make sure we haven't been made. Ralph, you bring the prof. And, uh, be sure you--you know--"

Understanding, Ralph flipped a corner of his shirt up, revealing a flash of red. Maxwell relaxed and slipped out the front door.

Pam sighed. "So much for our plans for a romantic weekend."

"Maybe you could drop in for a visit."

"I don't think Bill would stand for it. That's not in the scenario." She rose, reaching for the phone book, and Ralph slid both arms around her waist, smiling, as Allsop retreated to the bedroom to gather his things.

"In that case, maybe we could settle for a romantic moment?"

Minutes later, Maxwell returned through the kitchen, snaring a box of dog biscuits in passing. "All clea--oh. Yeah." He appeared supremely embarrassed, unable to look at them head-on. His voice pleaded with them more eloquently than words. "All right, guys, enough with the kissy-poo stuff, okay? We're in the middle of a mission, here."

They reluctantly broke apart just as Professor Allsop re-emerged with a leather briefcase under one arm. "I almost forgot this. Very important papers--not just the notes for my speech at your school, you understand. It mustn't leave my side."

"Okay, let's go."

"I'll start phoning in phony reservations. You two be careful out there, now." With a sudden mischievous grin, Pam planted a warm kiss on Maxwell's cheek. "'Bye, Bill."

He blushed furiously. "Aw, jeez, Counselor, quit it. We're on a covert operation here, all right?"

Ralph grinned back at her. Sometimes he thought Bill was exactly like a grade school boy, still playing G.I. Joe games and thoroughly repulsed by the idea of getting caught playing with girls.

Flanking the short scientist, they strode through the front yard to Maxwell's car. With Allsop safely sandwiched between them in the front seat, they eased out of the sunny suburb. Ralph switched on the AM radio and spun the dial, looking for a news program. Maybe the green thing had been seen somewhere else in the city since this morning's attack.

Maxwell's eyes kept darting to the rearview mirror, until finally he hit the steering wheel with the heel of his right hand, briefly wincing as it jarred the broken finger. "I knew it. That reporter creep's trying to follow us. Watch this, gang."

"Reporter?" piped Allsop.

"Yes, he came to the house asking questions about that green--"

The traffic light turned yellow, and Maxwell pushed the accelerator to the floor, soaring around the corner in a tight left turn. Brake squeals mingled with blaring car horns. Two blocks later, he wheeled right again, leaving a trail of similarly irritated drivers, and watched the rearview mirror.

"No problem," he announced with satisfaction. "We lost him."

"I think we lost my stomach, too...."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Making no attempt to imitate the left turn--it would've been impossible to penetrate the newly-created traffic jam, anyway--Jack McGee calmly drove three more blocks before turning left. The next street over was one-way in the wrong direction, but one block further on he turned right again, easing behind a city bus. This time he was considerably further back.

Good investigative reporters aren't that easy to shake. He might work for a two-bit newspaper, but Jack McGee was a good investigative reporter.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

As usual after a hulk-out, David Banner returned to sanity with a pounding headache and a drained, hollow feeling. What had happened during his period as the jade monster was hazy, though he remembered what had triggered it: his frustration at seeing his hope for a cure being forcibly kidnapped, and the pain of a bullet gouging into his arm as he lunged for the auditorium door.

The first thing to do was leave the alley where his rage had curled up and succumbed to sleep, and find out whether anyone had been seriously hurt. His own wound was a garden-variety Band-Aid type, easily ignored. A visit to the nearest Salvation Army store replaced the shoes and clothes that had split apart under the explosive development of the Hulk's muscles; over the past few years, he had gotten intimately acquainted with the joys of shopping at charity stories and dining with the homeless.

His rather shabby attire drew him a few stares, but the diner didn't refuse his money. David huddled wearily over a cup of lukewarm coffee, listening to the radio blaring behind the counter. The hourly news summary made a jocular remark about jolly green giants and supermen at Whitney High, attributing the story to a practical joke or mass hypnosis. Banner brightened, rising. Apparently no one had been injured by the Hulk. That was one eternal worry he could temporarily lay to rest.

No doubt the security around Wilfred Allsop would be doubled, cutting his chances of getting a message through to just about zero. Still, Banner wasn't ready to give up so easily. This morning's episode reinforced the fact that he had to get this self-inflicted curse removed, and soon, before his uncontrolled alter ego did something deadly.

As he stepped out of the diner, a passing vehicle caught his attention, and his deep brown eyes sharpened. A brown van that seemed strangely familiar.... "Taxi!" He stepped into the street, forcing one to stop. "Follow that--"

"Look, buddy, I'm off-duty."

Hastily he thrust out a handful of bills, climbing into the back seat. Cursing, the cabbie flicked off his OFF-DUTY sign. Banner leaned forward. "Just stay in this lane, please."

This was really dumb. California was full of brown vans, and the license plates were the wrong color. Then he located it again, half a block ahead, and his knuckles turned white as he clutched the back of the seat.

How many brown vans were missing the same window he'd seen shot out at Whitney High?

Over the grumbles of the cabbie, he followed the van to the imposing Sheraton-Hilton Hotel. Once in the gleaming, glass-and-greenery lobby, he paused, pretending to tie his shoe while he quickly scanned the immediate vicinity. There, by the newsstand--wasn't that the kidnapper who'd kicked Allsop's bodyguard? And the trench-coated man by the registration desk was familiar, too.

The man casually glanced over his shoulder, and David instantly lowered his head, recognizing the thin face beneath the neat, somewhat long brown hair. When the man turned back to the desk, Banner straightened and dodged behind a marble pillar, breaking out in a cold sweat. McGee, here! Would the mule-headed reporter never give up?

He gritted his teeth and willed his thumping heart to slow down--Please, God, don't let me Hulk out, not now!--while he tried to figure out what to do now.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Ralph helpfully stored Professor Allsop's suitcase in the bedroom of the hotel suite, although the scientist refused to let go of his briefcase. Maxwell swept through the suite, scanning the windows and exits before putting away his gun and smiling.

"You're safe, Professor. Relax."

Allsop blinked and collapsed into a chair. "Sorry. Guess I'm still a little worked up."

"You're perfectly safe. The Feds are on their way, and Ralph here is all the protection anybody could ask for. He's still a little green, but I'm training him. Here, have a biscuit."

The scientist waved away the bone-shaped treat. "No, thank you." He watched uneasily as Ralph emerged from the bedroom and fiddled with the color TV across the room. "I wanted to ask about the way he--you know, this morning--"

"Oh, that." Maxwell moved a chair close and sank into it, lowering his voice. "It's a hush-hush, top-secret invention we're working on. Right now it's on a need-to-know basis only, and I'm afraid that you just don't qualify, even with your clearance."

"Does he wear some sort of muted engine under the cape, or--?"

"We can't discuss it. In fact, if you even mention it to anybody, you could get in serious trouble. We're talking rubber-room time here." The black telephone rang shrilly, and he shoved his chair back with his heels to snatch up the receiver. "That's probably our reinforce--" Bill stiffened, and Ralph looked up from the TV. "McGee? How the hell did you--no, you can't talk to him. He's not even here. You stay right there, mister. You're under arrest!"

Hinkley offered, "Gee, Bill, I don't think you can arrest somebody over the phone. All he has to do is hang up and walk away. Besides, the First Amendment guarantees the freedom of the press. As a reporter, he's just doing his job."

Maxwell slammed down the phone. "Kid, enough with that namby-pamby liberal mush. Our security's broken. We've gotta--"

A bullet crashed through the window, parting his graying brown hair. He clapped one hand to his head and waved the others down with the other hand, then squirmed to the window on his belly, risking a quick look as he awkwardly drew his gun, hampered by the broken finger. "It hadda come from that office building over there; we're on the fourth floor, for cryin' out loud. Will you hurry up, Ralph?"

Hinkley finished shucking his blue jeans. "I hate this, Bill. You know how I hate flying."

"Save the hearts and flowers for later, will ya?"

Hinkley rolled his eyes, drew a deep breath, flipped his blue cape over his shoulder, and plunged head-first through the already-shattered window.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The National Register had long ago realized the value of cheap bribes, and over the years Jack McGee had been rather disheartened to learn just how little it took to buy his fellow man's loyalty. Given the quality of the Sheraton-Hilton, he estimated that this one was going to take five dollars more than most. The Sheraton's workers, after all, had higher standards than most.

"I just don't know," the room-service waiter said.

Holding out for more, McGee translated. "Look, it's just a practical joke on an old frat buddy. No harm done." He drew two bills from his coat pocket. "I'd really appreciate it."

The waiter glanced both ways, then snatched at the money. "Okay. But just for half an hour."

Always reassuring to know I haven't lost my ability to judge my fellow man.

McGee gently liberated the serving cart from him, trundling it into the elevator. He'd make the obvious attempt to bypass Maxwell, and the FBI agent would undoubtedly throw him out. But with any luck at all, Professor Allsop would find his list of questions and phone number secreted beneath the sandwich plate. He'd thought about tossing a few bills in, too, but decided a high-tech scientist would require more than his travel allowance allowed, and settled for hinting at a willingness to reimburse the good doctor for him time as required. Big figures were usually willing to wait for bigger payoffs; room service waiters had to be paid off up front.

Although a willingness to be bought made his job a lot easier, sometimes the St. Louis boy in him wished someone would turn him down, just once. So far, that hadn't been a problem.

If this didn't work, maybe he'd try contacting Hinkley's lawyer wife; she might be a little more reasonable than Maxwell.

Jack McGee stubbed out his cigarette and pressed the button for the fourth floor.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

As he dove into space, Ralph Hinkley told himself firmly, Do like you practiced in the desert. Shoulders back, legs together, head up... Then a stray gust of wind buffeted him, and he starfished, his arms and legs waving. As the building across the street loomed closer, he wrapped both arms around his head, and cannonballed through a window.

"I hate this!" he yelled, uncurling to find himself sitting in the Out basket on a woman's desk. Various secretaries and businesspeople stood frozen, staring at him in stunned silence.

If those all-powerful aliens could make a suit impervious to bullets and train crashes, a suit that could make him fly, turn invisible, or see through walls, why couldn't they notice that he'd lost the instruction manual again? How could a high school teacher save the world from terrorists and outer space threats when he didn't even know how the suit worked?

At times like this, he felt like a total jerk.

Flipping his rumpled cape back, Ralph snapped, "What floor is this?"

"F-Fifth," an accountant stammered.

"Damn! One floor off!" Crunching through the broken glass, Ralph Hinkley launched himself back into the sky.

After a moment, a secretary edged toward the window to peer out after him. "He couldn't wait for an elevator?"

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Bill Maxwell stood in the window, watching Ralph cartwheel through the sky, and winced. "That's gotta hurt," he muttered, with knowledge born from years of getting shot and beaten up.

Someone rapped lightly on the door. "Room service."

"Stay down, Doc." Leaving the security chain in place, he eased the door open a crack, holding the gun with his bandaged finger sticking out. As he recognized the 'waiter,' he scowled. "McGee. Didn't I tell you--"

He broke off in mid-accusation as Professor Wilfred Allsop flailed at his head with the briefcase. Two heavy blows brought him to his knees, and the scientist snatched his revolver as he toppled over.

McGee stared in gape-mouthed disbelief. The reporter in him crowed, What a story you've just stumbled into! while the more sensible half gulped, "Jack, you're in real trouble now.

Allsop unfastened the chain and threw the door open. "Get in here." His small blue eyes studied the serving cat. "That's not big enough to wheel him out in."

Jack cleared his throat. "If I'd realized I was going to run into unconscious FBI agents, I'd've gotten a bigger cart," he said in ironic apology. The gun's muzzle looked very big, like a close-up in a Dirty Harry movie.

Allsop sighed. "It's too bad; he's involved with an utterly fantastic new invention." He gestured with the gun. "Get some I.D. from his wallet. My colleagues will have to look him up later."

The reporter obediently fumbled with Maxwell's three-piece suit. "I, uh, guess this isn't a good time to ask for an interview, since you seem to be on your way out for the evening."

"That's no problem; you're coming with me."

He swallowed. It was an honor he'd prefer to decline. "Why?"

Allsop tucked the full briefcase under one arm. "My friends are waiting downstairs; let's start walking." He held the briefcase casually in front of the gun, which was now aimed at McGee's ribs. "Actually, you did me a favor, distracting Maxwell."

Jack said dryly, "Why do I get the feeling you're not about to return it?"

"Sorry. You make too good a patsy to pass up." The elevator was empty; McGee punched the street-level button. "Maxwell was already suspicious of you. Now you've gone and kidnapped me. Why, we may even have time to plant some incriminating odds and ends in your home before the FBI gets there."

The elevator door opened, and McGee shuffled off, the revolver's muzzle intermittently brushing his ribs. He tried not to think about it, tried to think of some way out of this.

"Ah, there you are, Wilf." A stranger walked toward them, smiling, hand outstretched. "Good to see you again. Our car's waiting."

McGee hesitated, but Allsop, smiling unctuously, prodded him with the gun muzzle, which felt to his strained nerves like a small cannon. He let the stranger take his other elbow.

Since he had been through a mountain plane crash with John Doe, the poor bastard who transformed into the Hulk, Jack had often pitied the man he was hunting. When he wasn't a monster, John Doe was a good man: kind, compassionate, brave. He didn't deserve the curse of becoming a murderous, out-of-control creature like that.

But at times like this, Jack wouldn't mind being able to make that change himself...

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"I got him, Bill!" Ralph made a wobbly but successful entry through the window, but his triumphant glow died as he saw the older man sit up, rubbing his head. "Bill, what happened?"

"Huh? Oh. That reporter, McGee." Maxwell's dazed expression gave way to anger. "He musta used some sorta nerve gas on me, and I hit my head when I fell."

Between that near-miss with the bullet and this bump, Bill's head was taking quite a beating, but he seemed to be taking it in stride. Ralph scanned the room quickly. Oh, no.

"Professor Allsop's gone."

Bill climbed to his feet. "I knew it! I knew there was something fishy about that sleazy reporter. He was working for the Russkies all along!"

Ralph bent to pick up a stenographer's notebook lying on the carpet where Bill had fallen. "What's this?"

"His notebook. Maybe it'll have some clues." Bill reached up, and cried out in real anguish. "My gun! The dirty bastard stole my service revolver. Carlisle'll have my hide. Do you have any idea how much those babies cost?"

Ralph's mind was on other problems. He helped Bill to his feet. "Maybe we still have time to catch them. Listen, you take the stairs or the elevator, and I'll jump down to the parking lot. We can meet there."

"Hold it, kid. Did you get the sniper?"

Hinkley paused in the act of stepping from the window. "Oh, uh, yeah. I tied him up with a fire hose and hung him out the second floor window," Ralph said, and jumped out again.

Despite the wind gust, he made a successful landing this time, except for a slight leeward stumble. Ralph worked his way quickly through the lot, ducking behind parked cars when anyone else came through, but didn't see anything suspicious. When he reached the main entrance, he hovered behind a bush, waiting for his partner to emerge.

"Ralph? Any luck?"

He stood on tiptoe to peer over the shrubbery. "No. You?"

"McGee's long gone. We'll have to put out an APB and--"

Someone cleared his throat politely.

Ralph ducked, screwing his eyes shut and concentrating on invisibility, but he opened one eye to check on the situation, and as a result became patchily visible as an irregular pattern of scarlet in the green leaves. Bill swung around, automatically reaching for his missing gun. The man standing there didn't resemble any of the kidnappers they'd seen so far, including McGee: he was a shabbily dressed, quiet man with dark brown hair and somber brown eyes.

"I'm not a valet, bub, move along."

He said softly, "I saw Jack McGee leave, if that's who you're looking for. He was with Professor Allsop."

"You see?" Bill told the bush from the corner of his mouth, one eye still on the stranger. "Okay, which way did he take the prof?"

"Well, from what I saw, it was the other way around. They seemed to be forcing him to go along."

"No way. McGee's kidnapping him!"

The man laughed ruefully. "Oh, no. You don't know McGee; I do. He's nosy, pushy, stubborn, and persistent--but he's not a kidnapper."

"Yeah, well, we'll worry about that after we catch him. You a friend of his, or what?"

The man gave him a strange look. "Let's just saw we're acquainted."

"Uh-huh." From the sound of it, that was enough to make Bill concoct an immediate plot involving both men. "Just who are you, buddy?"

"Donald. Donald Barton."

"Okay, Barton, which way did they go?"

Barton hesitated. "You have I.D.?"

Impatiently, Bill flipped open his wallet, waiting as Barton studied it.

"Uh, that seems to be a John Wayne Fan Club I.D."

Bill thumbed through the wallet frantically before yelling, "He stole my official I.D., too! When I get my hands on that piece of slime, he is dead meat, you got that, Ralph?"

"It's Donald, not Ralph," Barton said, no doubt wondering why Bill was talking to a bush. Things like that could give people a bad impression of the FBI. "If you can't trust the John Wayne Fan Club, who can you trust?" he asked, with a humorless laugh. "I'll tell you what I know, if you take me with you."

"No way. This is an FBI matter."

"Bill," Ralph hissed, concentrating on invisibility again, "don't you think Carlisle'd want you to bring him in for questioning?"

Bill threw up his hands. "I don't have time to argue. Come on, both of you. Which way, Barton?"

"It took off south on Reid."

Bill led them both toward his car. Barton threw an uneasy glance over his shoulder when Ralph's boots squeaked, and seemed even more nervous when, after he got in the front seat of the car, the back door opened and cushions squeaked. "It--it was a new model brown Ford van with Nevada plates, GA-538."

He nodded and pulled out. "They've got too much a lead time on us," he told the empty backseat, and glanced at Barton. "Listen up. Everything you see and hear in this car is top-secret, classified information. If you reveal it, number one, you can be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, and number two, nobody's believe you. That's for openers. The other thing is, don't turn around, no matter what you hear. Or think you hear." To the back seat: "You gotta do that ESP thing."

"Bill, I don't think it will work. Usually I need a hat."

"You saw me without one."

"Yes, but we're friends."

He gave up on the invisibility thing, figuring Bill's threats had intimidated Barton enough. Bill glanced in the rear-view mirror, meeting his eyes. "You've got his notebook, right? Try that." To Barton, he barked, "Don't turn around!"

Ralph clutched the notebook in both hands and closed his eyes tightly, concentrating, even holding his breath, which he finally let out in an explosive wheeze. "Nothing."

Bill was watching him in the mirror. "The head, kid. Put it on your head."

"This is embarrassing," he muttered, but balanced the notebook on his head. "Wait a minute."

He reached over Barton's shoulder to adjust the rearview mirror, and on a sudden impulse flipped the notepad open, resting McGee's actual writing on his head. Almost immediately the mirror clouded over, then the mist cleared away, leaving a vivid picture of the inside of a van.

"I'm getting it now. That reporter...Allsop...at least one other man."

Barton craned his head for a quick glance at the mirror. He wouldn't see what the suit showed Ralph; Ralph figured he probably saw a man in a red superhero suit, wearing an open steno pad on his head.

"So where are they?" Bill demanded.

"Sshh!"

Under the FBI agent's voice, Allsop had been talking. "...a substantial amount of money, so I jumped at the chance to speak at that rinky-dinky school. I knew security would be rotten."

Why, that cad! "Did you hear that?" Ralph demanded. "He's got a lot of nerve."

"We can't hear it, kid, you know that. Where are they?"

"...so we're going on a long boat ride." Allsop opened his omnipresent briefcase and pulled out some papers. "You're going on a much shorter one. And that concludes your interview, as well."

McGee sucked in a breath and closed his eyes, looking like a man who'd just been punched in the stomach. The image abruptly shrunk in on itself and disappeared.

"I've got it. They're going on some sort of boat ride."

"The marina. Good. That's less than five minutes from here."

"And, Bill...whoever those people are, I don't think they're friends of McGee."

"Yeah, yeah, we'll talk about it later. You got your radio?"

"Uh-huh." Catching sight of masts against the afternoon sky, Ralph closed the notebook. "Mr. Barton, is it? Why did you want to come with us, exactly?"

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Why did he insist on coming? In telling the FBI what he'd seen, he'd done his civic and moral duty, after all. What more did he owe the man who had so relentlessly pursued him through city after city with cameras, guns, tranquilizer darts, and the aid of the military? Sometimes it seemed that whenever he had a chance at peace, friendship, or even love, McGee was the serpent in his newfound Eden.

David drummed his fingers on the worn armrest. When they reached the docks, he'd better disappear. It wouldn't do to let Jack McGee discover that Dr. David Banner was still alive, and his funeral just a mockery. The man would realize at once the true identity of the Hulk.

Maxwell slammed on the brakes. "Don't turn around, mister. Okay, go to it, kid. See if you can pick out which boat it is." The rear door opened. "Don't look out, either," Maxwell growled, opening his door. "And don't get out. I want you where I can keep an eye on you."

David opened the door and stood up, anyway, resting his arm on the roof of the car. "Mr. Maxwell, don't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry."

The older man snorted and turned to scan the horizon with binoculars, then spoke softly to a tiny microphone. "Any luck, Ralph?"

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Whoaaa!" Hinkley thumped onto the deck of the nearest outward-bound ship. No one seemed to be about. Cautiously, he put the palms of his hands on the roof of the cabin, and the suit made the steel superstructure turn transparent. "Oh, my God!"

Bill's voice cried tinnily, "What is it? What's wrong?"

His face felt as red as his alien suit. "That woman--what she's doing with that--I just can't believe it! That's disgusting!"

"Ralph!"

He told the radio, "Uh, wrong boat, Bill. Definitely."

He took a running leap from the prow of the APHRODITE into the cloudy sky.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

With 'Donald Barton' in tow, Maxwell stalked the marina until he spotted a small motorboat he could commandeer. "Come on, you--out!" Pitching the protesting owner onto the dock, he switched the ignition on.

Instead of trying to escape while he had the chance, Banner found himself sitting in the rear of a borrowed motorboat, squinting at the three boats streaming toward the horizon and trying to figure out which one was their target.

If Allsop killed McGee, he would be free of his nemesis, and with an absolutely clear conscience. But what he kept remembering was the time they crash-landed in a forest, leaving Jack with a broken leg, with a forest fire burning toward them even as infection raged in the leg. For the first time, he'd seen beyond the cynical façade to something human and touching; a man maddeningly persistent, but likeable. He remembered Jack, strapped to a pallet, in terrible pain, telling the man he called John Doe to leave him. "I'm just holding you back..."

David leaned forward. "Can't you make this boat go any faster?"

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sitting quietly in the cabin of the cruiser, his head leaning against the wall behind him, Jack McGee had spent the last forty minutes trying desperately to think of one good reason why they shouldn't kill him--and for once his creative skills seemed to have failed him. If he'd joined the Science Club instead of the school newspaper back in high school, there might be some chance, but the Communist bloc had no use for investigative reporters.

In a way, it was his own damned fault. He never could stand a jigsaw puzzle uncompleted, or a mystery unsolved. Instead of remembering that "curiosity killed the cat," he'd taken to heart the dictum of Glenn Howard, the big publisher who'd given him his first break: "Persistence! That's the name of the game. Persistence always pays off."

This is one pay-off I could do without, thank you.

He glanced across the cabin at Allsop, who was calmly going through his stolen military papers, as if McGee were already dead and forgotten.

God, could he use a drink right now.

One of the foreign agents glanced at his watch, then bent to confer with Allsop. McGee tensed. So his time was as short as that?

All this time, he had been so quietly despairing that they thought him completely cowed, and for the moment no one seemed to be watching him. McGee leaped to his feet and dashed through the cabin door.

The narrow stairway slowed him down, but he made it to the deck of the gaily-painted yacht before one of Allsop's ersatz 'kidnappers' caught up and clubbed him down.

I really should've given up the cigarettes when I cut back on the booze, he thought breathlessly. That was the last bright idea he had time for.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Despite the embarrassment on the last boat, and despite the humiliation of being unable to make the suit work properly, Ralph Hinkley was a happy man. He was rushing to rescue a man from certain death. This was the sort of thing the suit was meant for; saving a human life more than made up for the hard work, the shaky flying skills, the arguments with Maxwell. He kept telling the kids that one man can make a difference. Thanks to the suit, he had even more opportunities to make things better, and it felt awfully good.

The second boat was an innocuous fishing vessel, a group out for beer and sun.

By the time Ralph zeroed in on the last boat, his flying had become truly erratic, but his spirits were still high, even if his flight path wasn't. That is, until he got a good look at the deck.

Squinting, he realized he was watching two men briskly wrap chains around the kidnapped reporter's legs. The sight so startled him that he finally lost control, doing a painful bellyflop that threw up a cascade of water.

Coughing up a lungful of water, Ralph yelled, "My God, Bill, they're going to kill him!"

From the radio, Bill's tinny voice cried, "What? Ralph, come in!"

Behind that, dimly, the radio picked up a scream of rage. "NOOOO!"

Oblivious, the agents dragged McGee's limp body to the far edge of the boat. One drew his gun.

Sucking in a deep breath, Ralph lowered his head underwater and let the suit turn him into a high-speed human torpedo. At the last possible second, he wrapped his red-clad arms around his head.

By the time the spy jerked McGee's head up with a fistful of hair and lowered his pistol, Ralph had rammed through the side of the yacht, just below the waterline. The impact shuddered the entire boat, and the first bullet missed entirely.

Spluttering, Ralph shook his head dazedly, then battled against the torrent of water rushing through the jagged hole and ran for the nearest doorway.

Running at super-speed, like a movie played five speeds too fast, Ralph left the incoming flood behind. His first priority was to stop the killing, but when he passed Professor Allsop in the process of lowering a lifeboat, he couldn't resist one quick push. The rotund scientist made a highly satisfying splash below, propelled there at super-speed, but Ralph's grin died as he heard a second shot up on deck.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"What?" Bill Maxwell shook the radio. "Ralph, come in!"

No answer. Dropping the radio in disgust, he drew his gun, instead, at the same time that he jammed the accelerator to the floor.

He had no time to worry about a doomed tabloid reporter, or about Ralph, who was too impulsive for his own good sometimes. Behind him, McGee's buddy howled, "NOOO!" Hearing the shout become a garbled, brutal roar underscored by the ripping of seams, Bill spun around in time to see huge green muscles pulse through the tearing red flannel shirt.

Unsteered, the little motorboat swerved right, and Maxwell fell against the side, but he didn't take his eyes off that thing sharing the boat with him. The creature gritted big white teeth and hunched mighty shoulders, snarling.

Make nice with the monster, Billy.

"Uh, hi there. I--I'm a friend of your little buddies. You know." He rolled his eyes skyward. "Up there."

Emerald eyes flicked briefly upward, seeming puzzled, then the Hulk gathered massive tree-trunk legs beneath it and leaped over his head. Maxwell watched in stunned disbelief as it soared into the twilight, thudding to a halt on the APHRODITE. The impact rocked that side of the ship low into the water, and from the cabin came screams and a canine howl.

Ignoring the commotion, the Hulk bounded to the other side and leapfrogged again, sending the port side high out of the water and provoking another canine yelp.

Maybe he'd better leave this part out when he wrote his report for Carlisle....

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The boat-rocking thump, followed by a slight list and accompanied by screams from some other ship, were all clear indications that things were going catastrophically wrong. One of the agents took an angry kick at the American reporter's side, then thought fast.

By holstering his gun and running for the lifeboat, he could perhaps avoid a murder charge, but would fail in his mission. On the other hand, with the only real witness dead, Professor Allsop could claim he and the reporter had both been kidnapped. With his cover unbroken, he could wait for a safe chance to defect. The mission could still succeed.

It was, as the Americans would say, a no-brainer.

Gripping the butt firmly in both hands, he lowered the gun to the chest, a broader target area, so there would be no chance of missing.

With a furious rumbling scream, a jade colossus fell from the sky to the deck, and the agent's hands jerked involuntarily. The bullet only creased the reporter's side. Torn between terror of the creature and frustration at his failure, the agent cursed, firing one round directly into the seven-foot monster's chest.

It flexed one shoulder, and the smashed bullet rolled from its thick green hide to the deck.

The combination of the growing starboard list and the Hulk's violent landing started McGee's weighted body sliding over the side. Almost casually, the Hulk caught him with its right arm; with its left, it backhanded the agent. Shrieking, he was hurled backward and over the side. His partner took one terrified look at the advancing brute, dropped his own weapon, and ran directly into the arms of a surprised Ralph Hinkley.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Jack McGee himself awoke very slowly. At first he thought he was back on the mountainside, strapped to the pallet so he wouldn't flop out while John Doe hauled him away from the plane wreckage, but somehow that didn't seem right. For one thing, he was moving fluidly, more like a raft on water; no matter how hard John tried not to jostle him, the pallet had always been a jerky ride. Besides, his leg ought to be screaming, and right now it felt just fine. His side, on the other hand, was killing him. It hurt just to breathe.

There was a lot of noise, too. Bangs and shouts. That could've been the plane crashing, maybe, but it just kept going on and on, and he couldn't seem to move.

Maybe I went off the bottle. Or maybe I got beat up again--it's an occupational hazard in my field, after all. But that didn't seem right, either.

Groggily, he focused on making the eyelids open. That shouldn't have been difficult, but it was, and even though it seemed to be night outside those lids, what little light there was bothered him.

He squinted, then focused on a big bulbous green nose; with a sense of inevitability, he raised his eyes, recognizing the glowing green eyes under huge swamp-brown eyebrows. Meeting his gaze, the Hulk roared triumphantly, scooped him up like a child's rag doll, and leaped.

Terrified, Jack cried out, sure that this time it was going to shred him limb from limb and maybe even gnaw a little on the pieces before tossing them into the ocean. Instead, it snapped the chains encompassing him and sent them slithering into the depths, then patted his head with one massive paw.

Oh, great. Apparently it likes to play with its food first.

The Hulk jumped again, and Jack struggled to lift his head. They were plunging feet-first toward a little motorboat putt-putting across the ocean. He could see the FBI hardnoser, Maxwell, vainly trying to steer out of the way as they landed. Driven deep under water by the landing, the motor sputtered and died. Snorting, the Hulk carefully set McGee down, turned, and dove into the water.

"RALPH!" Maxwell bellowed.

God, his side hurt. McGee tried to sit up, levering himself upright with one hand, and saw golden curls and lots of red. That didn't make any sense. Somebody was dressed up in a cut-rate Superman outfit, and they got the colors reversed. Was he at a costume party?

"Don't worry, Bill, I called the Coast Guard, and they'll be here any minute."

Never mind the guy with the superhero fetish. The Hulk is getting away. Clutching his side and making a face at the feel of warm blood, he stared at the green form powerfully swimming toward shore. No, wrong tense. He's gotten away.

Maxwell sounded as frustrated as he felt. "Ralph, it's getting away! Catch it!"

"I've gotta pull Allsop out first, Bill, I think he's drowning." The superhero guy shook his head. "I'm not sure you want to catch it, anyway. Where would you keep it?"

He bent his knees and jumped, clumsily launching himself into a sideways flight path roughly aimed at the yacht that McGee had just left.

Maybe I'm still unconscious, Jack thought reasonably. And then: Maybe I'll just lie down until it wears off...

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sitting in the Hinkley living room, with Ralph, Pam, and Maxwell lined up on the sofa glaring at him, was not unlike sitting in the court room, with the exception that this time Jack McGee was the accused instead of simply testifying. Sipping at the mug of coffee they had grudgingly offered him, he waited for the attack he knew was coming.

"You can't be serious," Hinkley said incredulously. Even his golden curls seemed stiff with righteous indignation. "How can you still be chasing the Hulk? It saved your life!

"I know. And now he's missing."

Maxwell made a face. "So call the cops and file a Missing Persons complaint, if you're so worried about him."

The teacher seemed even more insulted by Jack's expression, which he suspected was both patient and faintly amused. Well, okay, maybe not all that patient, but that's what he was aiming for. "If it hadn't been for the Hulk, you'd be dead now. They were going to shoot you."

He tucked his elbow closer to his ribs. "They did shoot me," he observed mildly.

"Aw, forget it, kid." Bill Maxwell turned the page of his Sports Illustrated with an expression of utter contempt. "You're trying to appeal to his finer feelings, and people who write for that slimy rag don't have any."

Despite his intent to stay calm, Jack felt himself bristle. "Unlike the always tactful, ever-sensitive FBI." His eyes narrowed. "You think I like writing articles on how to lose weight by eating twenty doughnuts a day? You self-righteous government prigs don't begin to understand what it's like to blow a good professional career by hitting the bottle--neat, wind-up federal dolls don't have human failings." Maxwell lowered his magazine uneasily, and McGee thought, A-ha, that hit home, didn't it? I guess maybe it takes one to know one. "I was a good investigative reporter--damned good--but once I dried out, I had to beg for a job with a cheap supermarket tabloid."

Maxwell cleared his throat. "Yeah, well, you can work your way back up, prove yourself. You got a front-page story right here: top Pentagon brain turns Commie."

"Look, I've hit other gold mines before, following the Hulk, and I freelance them to the wires, but that still doesn't convince the editors who do the hiring. Staking my career on tracking down the Hulk might've been a mistake, but now it's the only hope I've got, and meanwhile I have to take a lot of nasty remarks from a lot of pompous wise-asses like you!" He stopped, breathing hard, then saw Hinkley's miserable expression, and his face softened. He ignored Bill, speaking directly to Ralph.

"Yes, he saved my life four or five times. Sometimes I think maybe he was trying to do something else, and saving me was an accident. Or maybe he likes having an official biographer. Or maybe he's saving me up to do me in himself some day. I don't know. But don't forget that thing killed a respected scientist, Dr. David Banner, and it could kill again."

Ralph said slowly, "It's hard to believe that man would kill. At least, not without a good reason."

Jack stared into his empty mug. "That's the man I call John Doe, not the Hulk. John Doe seems like a decent, caring man, and he doesn't need any more deaths on his conscience. Look, capturing the Hulk will be a great story, yeah; it'll get me my column back. But it'll also give scientists a chance to find out why he hulks out, and learn to stop it. Don't you think he deserves that chance?"

The teacher sighed and reached for his wife's hand. She sat quietly, taking it all in like a judge at a trial, expressionless. McGee set down the mug and picked up his notebook.

"Do us both a favor, John Doe and me. Give me a description of John Doe."

Maxwell shrugged. "He's in his late thirties--"

"No, Bill, you're not even close. More like mid-fifties." Hinkley sounded positive.

Maxwell stared at him. "Brown hair?"

"Short, red, and curly," his partner said promptly.

Maxwell grinned. "Six-foot-five?"

"Naw, more like five-two, don't you think?"

McGee closed his notebook, sheathed his pen. "Okay. Fair enough." He gave them a crooked smile. "Maybe another big story will do the trick; I'll be putting in applications with the bigger papers again. But if I don't hear anything in a week or two, maybe I should re-think my career moves. Maybe I'd stand a better chance of tracking down that fellow in the red magic suit, instead of the Hulk."

His sofa-bound jury sat bolt upright, electrified. Pleased, Jack sauntered out the front door, whistling.

Maybe it wasn't a bad idea at that.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Another Hulk-out, another Salvation Army store. Dr. David Banner, decidedly not dead, zipped up his new duffel bag. Money was getting tight again. Time to put some distance between himself and McGee, and find a job, preferably near a large library, where he could do more research on gamma radiation. He wasn't the only scientist who'd been interested in that field; someone else might make the breakthrough needed to relieve him of his alter ego.

Wilfred Allsop was just another dead end in a life full of dead ends. He was getting used to the idea that success wasn't attainable, that optimism was insane.

On the other hand, thanks to the Hulk, Jack McGee was alive. He could be a real pain in the ass--had been before, would be again--but David was glad the man was still alive to bedevil him. Maybe someday he would find a way to contain the rage his experiments had unleashed, put the genie back in the bottle, and talk to Jack again as a friend, the way they had talked when he had amnesia. Without the Hulk between them, they might never be best friends, but they would also never be enemies.

It was something to dream about.

Sighing, David stuck out his thumb. After a few minutes, a pickup truck pulled over. He hefted the duffel bag and opened the passenger door.

"Where ya headed?" the grey-haired driver asked.

"Nowhere," David Banner said wearily, slamming the door behind him. "Nowhere at all."

--FINIS--

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