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Bruce Banner ran through the streets of Porto Verde, Brazil, as if the devil himself were trying to catch up with him. For all he knew, the devil indeed was endeavoring to do precisely that. No harm in making that assumption: It kept him prepared for the day when that inevitably did happen.
He was sprinting up the hill through the favela, a shantytown that was perched on hillsides on the outer edges of Porto Verde. There were any number of such ramshackle affairs in Brazil, consisting of mostly one-story buildings thrown together with everything from bricks to garbage, accompanied by the smells that one could naturally expect from such living conditions. Most of the homes were illegal in their construction, unlicensed, unsafe. But the authorities had no stomach for dealing with the favelas and typically chose to ignore them. The inhabitants, endeavoring to scratch out livings in the marketplace or beg money off whoever came near, were effectively nonpeople. That suited Banner just fine.
Banner descended toward the chaos of houses and streets of the city, sprawled like a living organism, teeming with people. He checked something on his wrist. It was a pulse monitor, and it told him that his pulse was currently clocking in at ninety beats per minute. For someone running as hard as he had been, with sweat causing his shirt to cleave to his body like a second skin, that was low indeed. Anyone else working that hard would have been frustrated that his metabolism was responding so lethargically to the amount of effort he was expending.
Banner could not have been happier.
Banner slowed to a walk and made his way through the streets, as anonymous and nondescript as the slum around him. That likewise made him happy.
He stopped at a market stall, a place that sold inexpensive bags at prices that exceeded their value. It was run by a man named Bezerra, a fast-talker who was always eager to earn a few reais whenever possible. One of his many means of doing so was providing a drop point for any packages that Banner needed sent to him. When Banner walked past him, Bezerra merely nodded to indicate that he had something for him. Banner pretended to study the assortment of bags Bezerra provided, and then Bezerra produced one from underneath the counter, a small backpack, and proceeded to extol the virtues of its fundamentally shoddy quality. Banner naturally didn’t give a damn about the bag’s quality, but merely what was inside it. Nevertheless he pretended to listen, nodded, then pulled out a handful of coins—ten reais, the standard terms of their deal—and handed them to Bezerra. Bezerra was wearing a floppy white hat and he tipped it to Banner in appreciation of their transaction. Banner felt the weight of the bag, indicating that it did indeed contain something, nodded silently in response, and went on his way.
Banner’s apartment building was a rough-and-tumble four-story affair, one of the few block apartment buildings in the tin-roof sprawl of the favela. He entered his shabby, run-down apartment, although it took a minute to navigate the lock that he had installed in the door. Most of the apartments didn’t have locks, on the basis that most of the people living there didn’t have anything worth stealing.
Banner entered his apartment and slung the bag onto the pathetic excuse for a bed that served him as well as a pathetic excuse for a bed could be expected to. He awoke routinely with a backache, but was hardly in a position to call up a mattress store and have something nice and comfortable delivered. The only other things in the apartment were a tiny refrigerator in which he kept his meager food, a hot plate that was the only means he had of cooking anything, a small black-and-white television on the floor, and a desk that was held together with electrical tape. The desk was positioned in front of the one luxurious item in the apartment: an electrical outlet. Electricity in favelas was always a dicey affair at best. Typically it was being distributed illegally through the enterprising efforts of a building owner who was siphoning it off a legitimate source. Consequently, every so often all the power would go out in Banner’s apartment building when the legit source discovered it was being tapped into and shut down the siphon. It would invariably take a couple of days for the owner to find a new source from which to steal. During those times Banner had to be extremely judicious with the use of his computer, since it wasn’t possible to recharge the battery.
There was also one other resident of Banner’s apartment: a friendly black-and-white mutt that had followed Banner around during one of his excursions looking for junked material that he could cannibalize for his laboratory. The dog had followed him home and had been so nakedly eager for affection that Banner—despite the fact that he really should have—just couldn’t bring himself to toss the poor thing out into the street. So whatever meager food supplies Banner had around the house, he shared with the dumb animal.
He crouched and put out his palm. The dog obediently trotted up to him and licked it.
“It’s good to see you too, Rick,” he said to the dog.
Today the electricity appeared to be flowing just fine. Banner pulled his laptop computer out from its minimalist hiding place under the lumpy mattress. He set it down upon the desk and booted it up. His Internet access was as sketchy as his electricity, very much hit- or-miss depending upon whether his satellite hookup was interested in cooperating. A good day: He was online.
He typed: Mr. Green. Knock knock. “Mr. Green,” of course, referred to himself.
There was a long pause, so long that he was about to shut down his computer to conserve power on the assumption that there would be no response. Then abruptly there came the soft “ping” of acknowledgment and, seconds later, a response came from the respondent who signed himself “Mr. Blue.”
Hang on. In laundry hell.
Banner sighed in relief. There were days where he felt as if “Mr. Blue” were his one connection to sanity, and perhaps even salvation. He typed back, Received your package. Many thanks. The search continues.
Happy hunting, responded Mr. Blue.
Banner leaned back and ran his fingers through his hair. It felt ratty. He was going to have to grab a shower in the bathroom down the hall. It wasn’t one of his favorite things, since the water had a nasty habit of coming out brown, but he didn’t really see a choice.
Then his gaze fell upon a photograph that was lying on the desktop. It had been printed off the Web with the aid of a bad color printer, and the edges were curling up from the crappy quality of the paper and the infernal humidity of Brazil. But at least it was something.
He smiled at the picture of Betty Ross. She smiled back, as she always did, locked into that permanent expression. He tried to tell himself that she had been thinking about him when she had posed for the picture. He was lying to himself, of course, but hey . . . whatever got him through the day. It was a necessary philoso- phy for someone who was forced to live one day at a time.
He spent the rest of the afternoon and evening as he always did on a Sunday: watching television, eating alone, studying Portuguese, meditating, scratching Rick behind the ears, and doing his damnedest to keep a low profile and remain off everyone’s radar.
The ungainly bulk of the bottling factory in which Bruce Banner worked loomed before him. He trudged into the main entrance, indistinguishable on the line from dozens of other laborers. Looking neither right nor left, keeping his vision focused resolutely on the floor in front of him, Banner filed into the men’s locker room where he would change into his gray, nondescript work clothes, as well as gloves and goggles. The changing-room walls were filthy, the floor cracked, and illumination was provided by naked bulbs dangling from frayed wires. The place was a fire hazard waiting to happen, and Banner could only pray that he wasn’t around when it did.
Four young toughs in particular were being extremely loud this morning, which was not unusual for them . . . especially on a Monday when they had “played” hard over the weekend. Banner hadn’t caught all their names, although there was one, Silva, who appeared to be their leader. It was Silva who, in this particular session of horseplay, shoved one of his associates playfully, who in turn bumped into Banner. Banner staggered back and almost fell over before righting himself at the last second. They didn’t apologize, but it didn’t matter, because he literally didn’t react. His face remained utterly impassive. One would have been hard-pressed to determine if, aside from having to recapture his balance, he had even been aware of someone colliding with him.
Banner said nothing as the four swaggered out of the locker room. He pulled on his gloves and noticed that one or two men were looking at him with what seemed like vague contempt . . . undoubtedly because he had not said something to Silva and his pals. Demanded an apology, perhaps, or even tried to start a fight to teach them a lesson. Banner didn’t care. He had far bigger problems to worry about. Well . . . one far bigger problem.
He moved out onto the factory floor, an enormous sprawling forest of machinery, festooned with steam pipes and conveyor belts, the former hissing, the lat- ter grinding, all in a huge open floor with a high tin- roof ceiling. A catwalk ran around the perimeter up above and across to the tops of certain of the largest machines.
Officially, Banner spent his days working in the soda bottling plant. His job was rudimentary: carrying supplies of bottle caps or bottles to the workers who manned the massive conveyor belts of bottles moving through the bottling process. The gunk they bottled was called “Amazona.” The taste was nothing special—somewhat fruity, really—and the main thing it had going for it was that it was made with guarana, a plant that flowered in the Amazon and provided berries that were said to have three times more caffeine punch than coffee. In fact, the labels on the bottles advertised “With Guarana Kick!” Banner had never tasted it himself. The last thing he needed was obscene amounts of caffeine in his system. For the past five years the only coffee he’d had was decaf; he certainly didn’t need something with more power than coffee coursing through his veins. Granted, supposedly guarana didn’t cause jitters the way that coffee did, but he wasn’t interested in taking the chance . . . even if Brazil was the third-largest consumer of soda in the world, and he was probably the only guy in town who wasn’t drinking it.