By Scott Casper
Midtown Manhattan, New York City
June 22, 1971
The intersection of 42nd Street and 5th Ave. was a busy one at this time of day on a Tuesday afternoon. Fifteen people were waiting patiently on one side of a street to cross and one person was decidedly impatient. That one person, though, happened to weigh in at 500 lbs and was covered from head to toe (presumably, though his long blue pants covered some of him) in an orange, rocky hide. As the cars on the left hand side started to drive over the crosswalk, Ben Grimm simply held out a four-fingered hand and casually held back the nearest car so he could walk in front of it. The drivers across the other lanes did not need to be shown the error of trying to cross the street when the man known as the Thing wished to cross it, so they held back and left the crosswalk clear for him.
Even in the best of times the Thing had a reputation for being destructive, but every newspaper in town (following the Daily Bugle's lead) was denouncing the rash of violent acts the Thing had been committing over the past month. So, when the Thing seemed about to clear the street but at the last moment kicked the nearest car so it flipped over on top of the car behind it, it only seemed to confirm the newspaper headlines and their call for the Thing's arrest.
It was perhaps, then, only slightly coincidental that Walter Collins, landlord of the famous Baxter Building, was standing in the lobby of the Fantastic Four's private top floors, holding a copy of the Daily Bugle in front of him with the headline 'outstanding warrant for Thing's arrest ignored'. Walter was shaking his finger under the headline as he held it up for John Storm, the man known as the Human Torch, to see.
"See this? See this?" Walter kept saying while he chewed on his cigar. "I put up with your shenanigans for years because you were celebrities, but I'm not going to put up with harboring wanted criminals!"
Crystal Storm, full-time wife of the Human Torch and part-time Fantastic Four member, sat on the sidelines in a comfortable chair. Crystal had joined John in donning their Fantastic Four uniforms as soon as Ben received the newest package from Yancy Street. She sighed, wondering if she should interfere yet and decided not to.
"Don't play dumb, Mr. Collins," John said defiantly. He stood blocking the entrance from the private lobby to the rest of the floor. "Reed told me everything. Those warrants have been on the books for years because of incidental property damage during our adventures. Every police commissioner has agreed to sit on those warrants or else we'd be so busy fighting court cases that we'd never get to fight bad guys."
"Who are the bad guys here?" Collins asked. "You've got the Sub-Mariner as a member these days and I can't count how many times he's declared war on the 'surface world'."
"Indeed?" King Namor the Sub-Mariner said before he stepped into the lobby behind John. Namor wore a white shirt unbuttoned wide to show off some chest, casual slacks and was bare-footed, but still looked every inch an Atlantean monarch. "Perhaps I should take you aside and we'll have a long discussion about it…?"
John stepped aside so Namor could get right up in Collins' face. True to form, Collins blanched and stepped back from Namor's intimidating presence.
"In fact," Namor said as he backed Collins up to the elevator, "maybe I should take you back to Atlantis with me and we can have a nice, long, private talk about Atlantis' diplomatic relations? No? Then do not bother speaking to the friends of Namor the First about things in which you know nothing!"
Collins was cowering in the back of the elevator now so that all Namor had to do was reach around the corner and press the down button for him. Just before the doors closed, Namor gave him a smile and a little wave.
"Cowering codfish!" Namor exclaimed as he turned around and walked back to John. "Now that we're finally rid of him we can go stop Ben!"
"Now, hold on," John said, putting a hand up in front of Namor to stop him. "I'd like to see you knock some sense into Ben as much as you want to, but you know it can't work like that! Collins was right in that people still remember your past. Wrecking the city in a fight with Ben will look even worse for you than it will for him."
"And you also know I don't back down from a fight…" Namor said, tensing.
"At ease, boys!" Crystal said, jumping up and coming over to wedge in between them. "Namor, you know John and I have a better chance to stop Ben without violence, but what we really need is Alicia here. She's still on Whisper Hill with Agatha. You need to get her back here, she'll listen to you."
Everyone in the room knew that Namor would wipe the floor with John before backing down, but when Crystal told him to do it he acquiesced.
"All right, Whisper Hill first," Namor said, giving Crystal a stern but not defiant look. "Then Ben will get his comeuppance from me if he has not had it from you first."
White Plains, New York
June 22, 1971
Almost three miles northwest of Long Island Sound, on the outskirts of the city of White Plains, stood Whisper Hill. Here, well away from the nearest street lights, stood the rundown and spooky manor of Agatha Harkness. The local children said it was always Halloween on Whisper Hill and that Old Lady Harkness was a witch. Even the bravest children no longer dared to venture up to the witch's door, knock and run. Of course, they were actually very wise and at least half right about everything.
Inside that spooky old house, Alicia Grim stood in a musty room full of antique and scary-looking curious, wrinkling up her nose at the smell of sulfur and moved the potion away from her face.
"You're smelling," Agatha Harkness said, as if scolding.
"I can't help but smell," Alicia said crossly.
Agatha crossed behind her student, watching her intently. "Of course not, child. That is what we have noses for, after all, and every apprentice over relies on their ordinary senses too much at this stage. You have an advantage over them, though."
Alicia felt around the table for the rack on the mahogany table before her that held the rest of the potions and tried to put hers away, but Agatha took it gently from her hands and held it aloft. "You mean how I can't see it," Alicia said.
"I mean how you have always sensed beyond what ordinary senses could tell you. You are the most naturally gifted diviner I have ever known. Now, to which school of magic does the potion belong?"
"Necromancy," Alicia said, determined to be right. "No, wait…conjuration…?"
"Very good," Agatha said, putting the flask back in place. "Our senses can lead us to doubt what we really know to be true. If we see, or hear, something we dislike, it colors our reactions and decisions."
Agatha's pet cat, Ebony, sauntered into the room past the curious that overflowed the shelves and littered the floor. Agatha leaned down so Ebony could leap up into her arms.
"Wait," Alicia said, turning around to face where she could hear Agatha standing. "Is this really about Ben?"
"Is it?" Agatha asked absent-mindedly as she petted Ebony.
"You don't know what Ben said to me or how he said it. I can't go back to him."
"Come then. Show me what I missed," Agatha said as she slowly walked out of the room.
"Show you how?" Alicia said as she touched the wall and followed it out into the hallway.
"Step into my ritual room – and I'll show you," Agatha said. Ebony jumped out of her arms as Agatha pushed open the door to a room Alicia had never seen inside before.
The room sounded mostly empty from how Agatha's footsteps echoed inside, but as soon as Alicia stepped in she could feel the presence of something in the middle of the room. "What is it?" she asked.
"Very good," Agatha remarked. "You sense my crystal ball. Now, think…think of what words passed between you two that day."
"I'd rather not…" Alicia said, stepping back.
"Alicia, my dear, this will haunt you every moment of every day until you face it. And believe me, I know about haunting."
Alicia stared through unseeing eyes into the room for a long moment before she heard the familiar background sounds of the Baxter Building. And then came loud voices, raised in horrible anger.
"What are ya doin' on their side?" Ben's voice roared. "I'm not on anyone else's side!" Alicia's voice protested. "This is your side I'm on!" "Yeah, yer on my side alright – clingin' to it like a wet blanket!" "Ben, how could you?" Alicia's voice asked, close to tears. "How could I put up wit' ya, ya mean? John's married to an Inhuman, Namor's got his merwomen, and look at me, worst of the bunch, wit'—"
"I'm not on anyone else's side!" Alicia's voice protested. "This is your side I'm on!"
"Yeah, yer on my side alright – clingin' to it like a wet blanket!"
"Ben, how could you?" Alicia's voice asked, close to tears.
"How could I put up wit' ya, ya mean? John's married to an Inhuman, Namor's got his merwomen, and look at me, worst of the bunch, wit'—"
"Stop!" Alicia shouted. She turned away from the room and the noises turned off. "I won't hear it again!"
Agatha watched as Alicia stormed off. "Then, my dear, you'll never learn," she said quietly.
Manhattan, New York
A specific neighborhood in the Bowery
That same moment
Yancy Street looked old and decrepit as long ago as the 1920s and looked only worse today. The main street itself was a maze of cracks that made it virtually impassable to traffic. The buildings were made of crumbling masonry. What few shop fronts remained were shops no longer, but boarded-up or gated-off relics of a more prosperous time for this neighborhood. Some cars sat on the street curbs, several of which looked like they had not been moved in years. The apartments and other tenements lining the neighborhood were inhabited; one could tell from the little fans sitting in open windows, trying to bring relief for people too poor for air-conditioning. A few window boxes thrived, but most were filled with dead, dried-up flowers. Some windows displayed flags proudly proclaiming the ethnicity of the residents. Yancy Street was a melting pot, as evidenced by the seven or eight different flags one could see from any particular vantage point.
When Ben Grimm used to feel like coming by the old neighborhood and continuing his half-serious rivalry with the Yancy Street Gang, he would typically announce himself and secretly be pleased when he was remembered – even if a prank would follow. This time, though, Ben walked quietly up to the nearest fire hydrant and broke the top off of it with his large, orange, stony mitts. Without fanfare, he quietly pressed his mitts into the stream of water that began spouting straight up and deflected the stream. With just a little practice, he was able to aim the water stream directly into open windows.
"C'mon, ya jerks!" Ben roared as loudly as his monstrous lungs allowed. "Once you've had yer baths, come out here an' get what's really comin' to ya!"
The men of Yancy Street in their 40s and 50s had grown up during Ben's time in this neighborhood. Some of them hollered from their windows or doorways.
"We might'a known! It's the loud-mouthed Thing!"
"C'mon! Let's knock 'im out from under them orange lumps!"
Men, women and children who had been quick to throw rotten eggs and vegetables at him on previous visits had rushed to gather fresh weapons, but stood transfixed when they saw the look of raw fury on the rocky visage of the Thing. This was not their boisterous antagonist of old, but some avatar of pure anger come to wreak a terrible vengeance upon them. The people shrank back and hid.
"Aw, c'mon, ya wussies!" Ben hollered. "Ya got no fight in ya? Ya think you can hide from me? I'll crack open your homes like eggs and eat the lot of ya fer breakfast!" With that, Ben bent down and opened his mouth over the water stream, taking in a huge quantity of gushing water. When he was done drinking from the hydrant, he stood erect and shouted, "Come out, come out, where ever ya are! I'm nice an' refreshed again, so yer tryin' to dehydrate me before I even see ya ain't gonna work, John!"
"Rats," John said from a nearby rooftop, looking at Crystal. "So much for Plan A."
Crystal nodded and they both stepped up to the edge of the rooftop into view.
It only took Ben a moment to spot them. "There ya are! What's the matter with you kids? Ain't got nothin' better to do?"
"Ben, don't do this!" John shouted down to him.
"They sent me a box o' girlie beauty supplies, John! I'm sick of it! It stopped bein' funny a long time ago an' now they're gonna find out what happens when I get fed up wit' people!"
"John, look!" Crystal said, pointing to the kids approaching. Fear of the Thing was being overwhelmed by a more primitive desire to run out and play in the fountain spraying from the broken hydrant.
"Go'wan, beat it, kids!" Ben shouted as he picked up a parked car off the side of the street with one hand and held it up over his head menacingly.
"Aw, geez – I guess we're up to Plan C already!" John said to Crystal. John's hand caught fire as he directed all the heat he could generate into the car around Ben's hand, hoping to startle Ben into dropping it.
Crystal, for her part, gestured with a swooping motion with her arm and gale force winds whipped around Ben's feet.
The unconventional 'one-two punch' worked. With the car's undercarriage turning to slag around Ben's hand, he completely missed that he had been lifted off his feet until it was too late. As he swung around in mid-air, he pitched the wrecked car to one side and groped for the pavement beneath him. His fingers dove into the tar and concrete like shovels, but he was careful not to break up the material so that it came loose in his hands. So anchored, he moved one improvised hand hold at a time across to the sidewalk, while Crystal continued to hold him upside down in a miniature tornado.
"So hard to maintain this intensity at this distance..." Crystal said, her brow furrowed with concentration.
"Hang on, hon, I'll distract him. Flame On!" John yelled as he was enveloped by a fiery sheath of burning plasma. His body looked like a yellow blur inside a nimbus of red flame. Partially cut off from gravity by the energy nimbus around him, John was able to float into the air and descend like a burning angel down towards his lifelong friend. "Ben!" he yelled. "Don't do this! You're only acting out in anger!"
"Ya better believe I'm angry!" Ben roared as he let go of one handhold so he could throw a hand full of concrete up at John. The missile was deflected by the wind wall around him, however, and was redirected down the street.
From John's perspective, it looked like the rock missed all the Yancy Streeters standing what they thought was a safe distance away, but it was a near thing. "You've got to stop before you hurt someone!" John yelled, trying desperately to appeal to Ben again before he took more drastic measures.
"Who cares about hurtin' me?" Ben yelled. "It's about time I hurt people back!" He had finally pulled himself down into a crouching position now and was almost within reach of the fountain still erupting from the broken hydrant.
For John, after nine and a half years in this business, this tactic was old as dirt. Clearly, Ben planned to redirect the water spout at John and try to extinguish his flame. John had little choice but to cut off Ben from his weapon. Gouts of burning plasma erupted from John's hands, streamed over Ben's head and instantly turned the geyser to steam. Moments later, the heat melted the hydrant to slag and capped off the water, but the cloud of steam now completely obscured the entire section of street Ben was on. For a moment, John and Crystal could not see anything, but with a wave of Crystal's arms the steam cloud spread apart and dissipated. In the moment Ben had been concealed, he had reached the wall of the tenement building directly under Crystal. As Ben punched his fists into the wall, cracks formed halfway up to the roof. Brickwork crumbled and windows shattered as their frames were bent out of shape. The roof of the building shook enough that Crystal was thrown off-balance.
"Crystal!" John yelled. For a frightening moment he thought she might fall forward off the building, but she fell backwards instead. Distracted, he could barely raise the intensity of his plasma sheath in time to slag the mounds of brick being hurled up at him from below. The liquefied slag did not hurt John, but its impact still knocked him back across the street.
It had been distraction enough. By the time John and Crystal could see the street again, there was no sign of Ben anywhere – just a big hole in the sidewalk where Ben had been. Ben had pounded an escape route for himself. Police sirens were approaching the neighborhood.
Down in the sewer below the street, Ben had been planning to spring back up out of the ground as soon as John and Crystal lowered their guard, but the sirens changed everything. "Nuts! It's the fuzz!" he grumbled to himself. "I can beat 'em all, but it ain't worth it. When the time comes for me to lay it on the line, I gotta be sure there's a pay-off..." And, with that thought lingering in his damaged mind, he slunk away.
The Baxter Building
Ten minutes later
Reed Richards, the man formerly known as Mr. Fantastic, knew he should not be there. Sue and Franklin, his wife and child, were both still back in California, where it seemed all superheroes went when they retired. In his more fanciful moments, Reed thought he had earned his 'happily ever after' with his family out West, but the worst mistake of his life kept haunting him and bringing him back here.
Reed had finished running exhaustive tests on the machine he had used to alter Ben's mutation so that he could change back and forth between his normal form and his rocky form. He was just reading the results of his analysis now on a computer printout. He involuntarily started crumbling the paper as he reached the inescapable conclusion from the data. "How could I have been so blindingly stupid?" he asked out loud. Then he leaned forward on his old work table, holding it with one hand while he rested his face in his other hand, as if all the strength had drained out of him. "Ben...forgive me," he said. "You're out there, somewhere...alone and bitter..."
A moment later, Reed looked up to see the door to his lab open. John and Crystal were there in the hallway.
"Bad news, Reed," John said. "We kept the damage to a minimum on Yancy Street, but we lost Ben."
When Reed did not respond right away, Crystal came in and stood next to him. "How are you holding up?" she asked him. "How are both of you holding up?" she added, for John.
"You know I always loved him like a brother," John said, venting his frustration, "but he's not old 'Bashful Benjy' anymore. He's like a stranger now!"
"And I'll be fine as soon as we've saved Ben from himself," Reed said, finally looking up.
"Yeah, and how do we do that?" John asked. "You know what Namor wants to do. Beat some sense into Ben."
"Namor could likely win that fight if they did," Crystal suggested. "He is almost twice as strong as Ben. Reed, we've got to try something more drastic soon before more New Yorkers turn against us. John and I saw a crowd of 15 protesters outside when we came back, with signs demanding we leave."
"Ben has never gone down in a fight easily," Reed said, "and such a slugfest in Manhattan would likely cause enough destruction to prove our protesters right. Still, maybe there's something there after all!" he said, suddenly more energetic again as the idea came to him. "We might be able to subdue our old friend faster if we had an overwhelming force to oppose him. We need...the Hulk!"
To Be Continued...
Next: In Fantastic Four #3: Can Alicia forgive Ben? Will Namor get his chance for a rematch? Will Reed really recruit the Hulk? Find out next time in – "Battle of the Behemoths!"