Chapter Two

Keep moving at a good pace, but not too fast. Don't draw attention and you might lose them. There's only two, like always, and they don't seem that bright. Just follow the crowd, keep your head down, and —

"There he is! Black trench coat!"

Manny only barely heard the first of his pursuers over the chatter on the street and the sound of the heavy traffic, but it was enough that his previous plan was no longer valid. Now he had to move.

He chanced one glimpse over his shoulder, knowing that his cover was blown anyway. They were closer than he would have liked; two tall men with smooth skulls that reflected the dense light of the afternoon sun that was able to make it through the skyline down to street level. They were wearing the same generic fitted black suit, with no identifying marks of any sort. Just as Manny turned his head, the men started pushing people violently out of their way, trying to clear a path to him. But Manny was quicker, more nimble in a large crowd, and he knew the city like the back of his hand.

And, most importantly, he had the Vodaphobe.

Funny, when Elias gave him the mysterious orb and Manny asked to know everything about the blue glasslike marble, the old man neglected to mention the possibility of being chased after by some ominous organization apparently bent on stripping him of the object. He only showed Manny exactly how the stone functioned. It was fascinating, really. A powerful gift to give a drifter he hardly knew, only because Manny happened to spend a fair amount of time around the old man's building. It was nice there; one of the more extravagant buildings in the downtown Los Angeles area, with plenty of generous people who were willing to help out someone in Manny’s position. He didn’t take advantage, like most others in similar circumstances. In fact, he hardly ever took anything. He was one of the few who willingly chose that way of life. There were worse things in the world to hide from than Bald Men in black suits.

It wasn't until he first saw these Bald Men a few weeks prior that he realized the gift from his old acquaintance might not have been totally selfless. This was the fourth time they'd found him, and hopefully would be the fourth time he managed to get away. He wasn't certain what they were after, but it was easy to guess. There couldn't be many artifacts in the world like the Vodaphobe, could there?

A break in the sidewalk foot traffic allowed Manny to sprint several yards ahead, leaving his would be captors in the crowd behind. He wouldn't have long before they escaped. He needed a place to go.

The usual place was pretty easy to get to from here. An abandoned hotel that was kept unlocked, for some reason. It was most notable for being a common sleeping ground for whichever homeless people happened to be in its vicinity come nightfall. The shelter was effective, but more importantly it held the best hiding spot Manny knew. Whenever he led someone into the building, they would not follow him out. He’d already used it twice to escape the Bald Men, so he knew it was a lock.

He nearly knocked over an elderly woman when he turned the next corner, but he was able to duck out of her way in the last second. He kept sprinting down the sparsely occupied sidewalk, weaving in and out of the pedestrians as well as he could. He was quick and agile despite his tree-like build, but the occasional collision was unavoidable.

"Sorry!" he shouted after a particularly hard knock against a young teenage girl coming out of a Walgreens, who nearly fell off her feet when he sideswiped her. Her father looked close to chasing after Manny himself, but before he could take off, he was overtaken by the two Bald Men, and was left looking thoroughly shocked. They were too close now.

Manny ducked down a dark alley between a pizza joint and a bar he knew connected to the next street over, where he needed to reach anyway to get to his destination. He could hear the two men bustling after him in the cavernous alleyway, and when he burst onto the next street he immediately took off in the direction of the abandoned hotel a few blocks up.

A car horn blared when he failed to stop running at an intersection, and a city bus nearly collided with him. He was sure he felt the huge vehicle swipe his coat as he passed by it in a dead sprint. A second horn blast behind him told him he was putting a little more space between himself and his followers. Good, he thought. The farther ahead he was, the easier it would be get where he needed to go without their knowledge.

The door frame to the old hotel slammed open easily without the thick glass that originally kept the lobby of the building isolated from the world outside. The wide, empty lobby now was only lit by what little natural light could make it into the depths of the underside of the tall building. The linoleum floor was covered with dry leaves and dust, along with the trails of rats that also called the building home.

Manny crossed the lobby in a few long strides to the center column of the building, which held the nonfunctional elevators alongside the painted cinderblock stairwell, which he passed into quickly and started up the first few winding flights until he got to the third floor. He knew the third floor well. It held the indoor pool the hotel had once been so proud of. Now it was nothing more than a murky, stagnant reminder of what used to be.

The shadowy hallway to the natatorium was filled with dingy furniture that Manny desperately zigzagged around, until he nearly collided with the entrance to the loud tile room of the swimming pool. The dirty water was a grayish opaque that stopped the light from the floor-to-ceiling windows dead in its tracks, and on the surface floated dark, minuscule leaves and skittering water bugs. He would have to walk through the gunk at a disgustingly slow rate to disturb the water as little as possible.

He checked the hallway once and saw that his pursuers still hadn't made it to his floor. They must be clearing the floors below first. If he was lucky they wouldn't even give the pool a second glance. After all, no one could hold their breath for that long, right? Fortunately, Manny wouldn't have to hold his breath.

The rusty chain around his neck nearly sliced him when he pulled it from beneath his shirt. The last thing he needed to worry about was contracting tetanus, but he couldn't help repeating the reminder to himself; find a new chain for this thing.

Hanging at the end of the chain was a spherical locket of dull grey metal about half the size of a baseball. It had a hinge which opened at the center of the ball, but the hinge was the only evidence that it opened at all. The seal was nearly invisible, and it needed to be. Manny didn't want to imagine what could happen if it was exposed in a public place. He tried hard not to stand out, so the last thing he needed was an exploding fire hydrant or a mini tsunami in a water fountain anywhere near him. This was a special occasion, though, right? Life or death? To be fair, he didn't really know if it was life or death, but he didn't want to risk finding out.

He faced the shallow end of the pool, only a few steps away from the water's edge, and flipped open the metallic shield.

He knew that it didn't actually produce light, but he couldn't help thinking that the blue stone was glowing softly every time he opened the shield. The metal locket wasn't very thick, and the stone within was the same spherical shape. Manny pulled the stone out and wrapped his hand around it, fully enclosing the hollow stone in his palm, which he then held to his heart. If it had been the first time he held the tiny marble he may not have been able to stop himself from studying the magnificent object. The dense outer blue glass of the stone was just translucent enough that, if held to the light, one could see a grey substance trapped deep within the heart of the trinket. Manny noted upon his first inspection of the stone weeks before that he didn't think it looked to be liquid or gas, but some sort of inexplicable flowing material, like a smoke of the utmost thickness. Its flow was independent of exterior stimuli; no matter how much you shook or spun the orb, the material continued to flow at its own lazy rate.

So far nothing spectacular had happened, but he hadn't expected it to. He was too far from the water just yet for the stone to have any affect. He had to move slowly. The utmost care had to be taken.

The sound of thudding footsteps resounded through the hallway. The Bald Men were on the third floor. He was confident they would check every room in the hall before they got to him, and by then he'd be fully submerged. He took a step toward the pool, and the water directly in front of him receded in an elliptical arc, as if some unseen force was burrowing into the water using nothing but empty space. He took another step forward, and the ellipse of displaced water grew into a half moon wedge, like someone had scooped a big chunk of the pool away, but the remaining water couldn't flow to fill the space. His feet were now where the water's edge had been only moments before, but now the pool was bone dry below his feet.

The water’s surface didn't respond to his invasion in the slightest. No ripples, no waves, no movement whatsoever. He knew perfectly well how quickly he could move while still avoiding any serious disruption, which was important for evasion. A smart man would know that a rippling pool meant recent activity.

By the time he could clearly hear the voices of the men searching the rooms adjacent to the pool, he was encased in a perfect sphere of dry air, negative space within the volume of water, nearly submerged. He was already well past the depth of his own height, yet the water had not overtaken the top of the repellent sphere, and as such he was still exposed by a small circle at the surface. He was only steps away from the end of the pool, and instead of hiding directly against the corner of the deep end, he slowly dropped to one knee, then the other, before sitting comfortably with his hand held firmly to his chest, bringing the empty sphere totally underneath the murky water. He had perhaps a meter of water separating his sanctuary from the surface, but it was more than enough to conceal him. He slowed his breathing and closed his eyes, trying his hardest to relax. He would be fine if he didn’t panic.

There were ringing footsteps around the pool. If Manny didn’t know better, he would guess there were more than just the two men, but that was crazy. He hadn’t seen them in groups of more than two. Besides, where would more men have come from so quickly?

The footsteps stopped, and Manny couldn’t resist taking a glance. Although he couldn’t see through the dense water much better than the Bald Men could, he was certain he could see the outlines of their shadows towering over him.

Sounds began to seep through the water. Muffled voices arguing with each other, if Manny wasn’t mistaken. What could they be arguing about?

One of the shadows made a sweeping gesture with its arms, then reached to its chest and produced something triangular in its hand. The other hand reached up and grasped the object, cocked it back, and released it with a deafening metallic din. The second shadow repeated the actions just a few beats after the first.

Oh shit.

The initial sound of gunfire was significantly more frightening than the prospect of being hit. They fired a few rounds into the shallow end, and the bullets whizzed through the water and collided with the bottom, leaving horrible cracks in the already unsalvageable pool.

Manny drew his legs up to his chest and curled into as tight a ball as he could, keeping the Vodaphobe centered on his chest. The shots started getting closer, and finally one pierced the edge of his dry hiding spot. The bullets had lost most of their steam by the time they made it through the water of the deep end, but a direct hit still would surely hurt him, maybe even kill him. If they happened to aim directly at the top of his repellent shield, the water wouldn’t stop the bullet enough to save him. He closed his eyes once again, not wanting to flinch. If he jumped and disturbed the water, they’d catch him.

A few more shots on either side of him, then several more in a row behind him, followed by a final volley of shots into the corners of the deep end. Then silence. Beautiful, glorious silence.

Good thing you didn’t hide in the corner, Manny thought. Then he chuckled. That, sarcastically, should be the motto for his whole life.

A few more distorted words exchanged, then once the Bald Men were apparently satisfied with the lack of blood and floating bodies in the pool, there were several more footsteps, followed by a complete absence of shadows hovering over the pool. He was safe, for now at least.

Manny waited for what felt like an hour but must have only been a few minutes before he got out of the pool and returned the Vodaphobe to its home around his neck. He wanted to be sure there was no chance the Bald Men would still be on this floor. He figured they must be several floors above him by now, giving him more than enough time to escape right under their noses.

He quietly returned to the stairwell and descended the spiraling steps until he was back in the lobby. The only sound came from the nearly deserted street outside. Manny left the building and was only a few steps away from the door when he heard a shout from across the street.

“Get on the ground! Now!”

Another Bald Man? He guessed they got tired of losing him by only sending pairs. He hadn’t even considered there could be a watchman still on the street.

The Bald Man reached into his jacket, and for one second Manny thought he was about to produce a weapon, so he turned and fled down the empty sidewalk. When he realized there were no shots flying by his head, he glimpsed back to see the Bald Man typing madly on the screen of small electronic device. Backup? He couldn’t chance it. He needed to lose them. Now.

He knew how, but it wouldn’t be pretty. But now, it truly looked to be life or death. He just hoped no one would happen to have their camera ready near the scene. The popular, usually highly congested with tourists, scene.

Fuck. At least its not far.

He ignored the Bald Man, who not only had returned his device to his pocket and started pursuit, but was also joined by his two partners emerging from the abandoned building, who apparently had gotten word that Manny was outside. None wielded weapons during their chase. That gave Manny a small bit of comfort.

Two blocks later he still had a decent lead on the Bald Men, but the foot traffic was getting thicker and harder to navigate, and now when he chanced a look back, he could only find two of the three agents. He wasn't sure if the third was gone or he simply couldn’t see him among the crowd.

Manny turned onto a wide metropolitan street, one of the finest in the Los Angeles areas, and was greeted with the site of his destination from afar. A fountain that must have been as big as a two story house sat in the middle of a concrete and grass courtyard that was wonderfully landscaped. The wide pool at the base was littered with change along the bottom, and the thick horizontal disk in the center spat showering multicolored sprays of lighted water displays from its entire circumference. It was by far the most impressive fountain Manny had ever seen, but then again, he hadn’t seen many fountains. He had to assume this one stood out amongst the rest he hadn’t seen, though. It was magnificent.

He reached the edge of the fountain’s park and thought he had a clear shot to his goal, but just when his feet touched the sidewalk surrounding the pool, he saw the third Bald Man circling around from the opposite side of the aquatic monument, this time holding neither a firearm or a cell phone, but wearing a weird black glove covered with thin grey metallic strips. Manny had a feeling he didn’t want to find out what the glove did. There were people everywhere; seated all around the fountain, meandering outside the perimeter talking or posing for photos in front of the pretty lights. Kids running around playing.

They’d get over it eventually, after years of therapy most likely. Screw ‘em.

One glance over his shoulder as he pulled the tiny safe from inside his shirt told him he was only going to have one chance. He knew the internal structure of the fountain well enough, and he knew the Vodaphobe was strong enough to repel any and all water, no matter its hinderance in space. Whether it be the empty air inside a pool, or the concrete and steel piping of a fountain, it would repel any contiguous water molecules not protected by a living host. Somehow, and the explanation had totally gone over Manny’s head, the water inside any living thing was not affected by the field of the Vodaphobe. A lucky spoof of nature or something of the sort.

He wanted as few people as possible to see the cause of the destruction, so he quickly emptied the metal sphere into his hand, and flung the smooth crystal as nonchalantly as he could manage up into the air in a huge arch. After he did so, he began screaming as loudly as he could. Not words, just incomprehensible sounds that people were bound to turn toward. No one could avoid searching for the source of such a heinous outcry.

It felt strange to him, trying to be the center of attention, but he immediately knew he made the right call. The Bald Men were no longer advancing on him, in fact the one with the single black glove had dove into the pool, apparently after the Vodaphobe, but it was of no use. The glimmering blue orb fell straight down into the central stone disk, which promptly sunk into itself, forced down by the water inside the pipes pulling the concrete of the fountain. It may have been a soufflé collapsing, but that was only the initial reaction, which many in the crowd hadn’t noticed, thanks to Manny’s incredulous shouts. Unfortunately nothing could distract any audience from what happened next.

With the center of the stone disk collapsed away, the Vodaphobe was free to fall to the same level as the surrounding pool, which continued to force the structure of the fountain to expand at a rapid pace away from the intruding object. It was not a slow process; the water was pushed with such unimaginable force that the result resembled a grenade explosion. Rubble and crumbled metal piping fell around the horrified people, many scrambling around trying to collect their loved ones and get the hell away from the mad scene. Manny glanced around for the Bald Men; the one who dove into the pool was crushed by a piece of the fountain that got pushed aside by the Vodaphobe, and the other two were nowhere to be seen.

Manny hurtled over the edge of the pool enclosure and swept into the small crater made by his helpful crystalline friend. It sat perched on top of the pile of broken concrete and twisted pipe, gleaming in the sunlight. He scooped up the orb and returned it to its home around his neck, then hurried up out of the crater and back to the opposite side of pool. He joined the chaos of the remaining crowd who were being treated by the first ambulances to arrive. When he knew no one suspected him of anything, he slipped away into the fading light of the afternoon sun.

Time to head home.

Next Chapter: Chapter One