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Ben Grimm flipped past the spread on page six, headlined "Web-Slinger Now a Web Menace," and turned to page fourteen, as the cover of the Bugle had told him to. And there it was, in black-and-white: "Yancy Street Demolition Scheduled."
He read the article. It was true, he saw; a whole block of Yancy Street brownstones, the block between McGraw and Stanton, was coming down, a new multiplex was going up. He shook his head. Those old buildings were falling apart, it was true, more of the windows had boards over them than glass, the only people who lived there now were the old ladies and the gang members, but still . . .
That old block was home. That was where he'd grown up after his parents died, where he and his older brother, Dan, God rest his soul, had played football in the street, hung out late nights on the stoop, watched out for the little kids coming home from school . . .
It wasn't right. Turning a whole neighborhood into a shopping mall. But what could you do? It was happening all over the city. Manhattan was a place for rich people now, you couldn't live here unless you hit the six-figure mark, and who made that kind of money?
Well . . . he did, but that was hardly the point. Not a lot of people would want his job well, they might want it, but they wouldn't want to go through what he had to get it.
Ben read on and saw with some satisfaction that the company doing the demolition work was having trouble staying on schedule; somebody kept stuffing potatoes in their bulldozer's tailpipe. "A dangerous, dangerous, stunt," according to Vito Lungati of the Pasqualone Construction Company. "Not funny at all. Somebody could lose an eye. These pranksters oughtta keep that in mind."
Good old Yancy Street, Ben thought, and took a sip of his coffee.
He looked up.
The man at the counter burly, unshaven, wearing a white shirt with "Manager" monogrammed above the pocket turned and frowned.
"What you want?"
Ben raised his cup.
The man frowned.
"Yeah, coffee," Ben said.
Theo took his cup and filled it, looking angry the whole time. Ben shook his head and looked down at his plate. He'd ordered steak and eggs, half a dozen of them, over easy, rye toast, and orange juice.
He got grapefruit, whole wheat, and the eggs. After asking three times, Ben gave up on the steak.
Breakfast wasn't usually like this; they knew what he liked here, had the steak on the grill for him before he was sitting down, the juice and coffee right at his spot at the end of the counter. Theo made a good steak, too. But today Theo's kid was on the grill, a tall, weedy teenager with long hair, strands of which Ben had pulled out of his eggs, and Theo was at the counter, serving customers.
And Olga, his usual waitress, was nowhere to be seen. It was like some kind of omen.
Ben sighed and took a sip of his coffee, and almost spat it out.
"What the "
Theo looked at him and frowned.
"What is matter?"
"Matter? Did you taste this?"
Theo's face reddened. "Is good coffee."
"It's dishwater." Ben held up his cup. "Weakest cup of joe I ever had in my life."
His son leaned through the little opening from the kitchen.
"Yo, Dad, I told you to use two of those packs. That's what Olga does." The boy turned to Ben. "I told him, you know?"
Outta the mouths of babes, Ben thought, and managed a half-smile.
Theo glared at both of them and then he looked over Ben's shoulder, toward the entrance to the coffee shop, and his face got even redder.
Ben followed his gaze and saw Olga hurrying through the door.
Theo started yelling.
"What you do, huh?" He put his hands on his hips. "You know what time it is? You see what time it is? You see what's happening?" He gestured toward the tables. "Place is madhouse, and where are you, hey? Where are you? Late is where. Late!"
"I'm sorry," Olga said, coming toward them, taking off her coat as she went. "I'm so sorry. There was an accident there was this monster on the train, the police they asked me questions, they took me to the hospital, I kept saying I had to come to work, but "
"Hospital?" Ben stood up, blocking her path to the counter. He looked down. Olga had a bruise on her temple. She looked pale and a little woozy. "What happened? What's this about a monster?"
"It's nothing," she said. "Really. I'm fine now."
Ben shook his head. He'd been coming to Theo's weekday mornings for about three months now, and Olga had waited on him every one of those mornings. They weren't exactly friends, but he knew her well enough to take a little interest in her affairs. Especially if she wouldn't.
"You don't look so hot to me. I think you oughtta go back home, take it easy."
"She got to work." Theo peered around Ben and shook a finger at Olga. "She got to work. Place is madhouse, you see what's happening? Madhouse!"
"Hey." Ben raised his voice. He turned around.
He stood over Theo, all six-foot-one, five hundred fifty orange-rock pounds of himself, and now it was his turn to shake a finger.
"I think you oughtta take it easy, too, Theo."
The man gulped and took a step back.
Olga put a hand on Ben's arm.
"No, Mister Grimm. Really. I'm okay."
He turned, and looked her over again. Okay. She was pale, no doubt about it, and she did have that bruise, but otherwise . . .
"I can work," she said. "I need to work. I need this job."
She looked pretty certain about that.
"Okay," Ben said. "But when you got a minute, I wanna hear about what happened."
"Yes." She nodded. "When I have a minute."
She moved past him, headed behind the counter.
"Coat," Theo said, nodding at hers. "Hang it up, please."
He gestured toward the row of hooks on the wall.
"Here," Ben said. "Lemme take it for you."
She flashed him a grateful smile. "Thank you, Mister Grimm."
"Ben," he said.
She nodded. "Okay. Ben."
He took her coat.
A rat jumped out of its pocket and landed on the floor.
Theo shouted and took a step back.
Ben made a face.
Living in New York, you saw just about everything, but this . . .
A rat hitching a ride in somebody's coat pocket? That was a new one, even on him.
The rat flopped around a minute; one of its legs was all twisted up funny. There was something else wrong with it, too; it kept shaking, like it was having convulsions. There was blood matted in with its fur, some other stuff, too. Looked like rat guts. Blecch.
"Wotta revolting development," Ben said under his breath.
Though it wasn't the rat's fault, the way it looked. Musta gotten hit by a car or something. Poor little thing was beat to hell. Bleeding, and that leg . . . it was dying, obviously.
Ben raised a foot to put it out of its misery.
The rat looked up at him.
"Don't," it said.
Ben froze with his foot in midair.
Talking rats. That was a new one on him, too.
The rat gasped and took a breath. "Give me a minute," it said.
He looked at it. He looked over at Olga, whose eyes were still wide, and at Theo, who had come out from behind the counter with a big kitchen knife and was heading straight for the rat, and he held up his hand.
Theo stopped in his tracks.
"Put down the knife," Ben told him.
"It's a rat."
"It's a talking rat."
Theo glared. Ben looked back down to the floor.
"Okay," he said. "What do you need a minute for?"
"This," the rat said, and all at once, there was a flash of light and the smell of something burning.
Ben blinked, and instead of the rat, a man lay on the floor. Black guy. Big guy, as far as regular people went, maybe six and a half feet tall, wearing colored robes, with some sort of beads around his neck. Some kind of magician, obviously.
Ben knelt down next to him. He looked, all at once, familiar.
"I've come a long way to see you, Mister Grimm."
"I . . ." The man gasped again and shut his eyes for a second.
The same leg was twisted up beneath him that had been twisted on the rat. Twisted up, most likely broken, and that wasn't all that was wrong with the guy. There was a light sheen of sweat all over him; he looked as if he was in a lot of pain.
He looked as if though Ben was no doctor he was dying.
"Easy, buddy," Ben said, and put a hand on his arm. "We're gonna get you a doctor, and . . ."
"No time for that. No time at all. I " he began, and then was seized by a sudden fit of coughing that came from so deep inside him Ben thought he was going to bring up a lung.
And then he did bring up blood, a thin trickle of it that escaped from the side of his mouth as the cough subsided.
Ben looked up. A woman in a business suit was talking on a cell phone, hand cupped over her mouth.
"Hang up and call an ambulance," he said. "Now."
The woman blanched, and her mouth froze open in midsentence.
"Ahhh . . ." she managed.
"Now," Ben said again.
She nodded and started punching keys on her phone.
"That's him," a voice said from behind him.
Ben turned and saw Olga staring at the man on the floor.
"Him. Who him? Whattaya mean?"
She shook her head. "Him. The man from the train, from before. When the monster attacked."
"This guy is the monster?" Ben asked.
Olga shook her head again. "No, no. He was with the rats. The monster attacked him."
Ben was confused.
"Sort this out for me, will ya?" he said to Olga. "This guy . . ."
A hand grabbed at his arm.
"You have to tell Richards," the man said. "You have to tell him to stop the experiment."
"I don't know what you're talking about," he said.
"The strands will come apart you have to tell him not to do it." The man tried to sit up. Ben eased him back down.
"The strands," Ben agreed. "I will definitely tell him. You bet."
In the distance, he heard sirens. The ambulance on its way.
"Now, you sit back down," Ben told the man. "Just take it easy."
The man nodded.
"Easy," he said, and closed his eyes, and died.
Copyright © 2007 by Marvel Characters, Inc.