After such a traumatic event it was hard not to imagine everyone he saw out of the corner of his eye as a black suited Bald Man, but none materialized on Manny’s way home. Soon he was out of the downtown area and making his way toward the aqueduct he used as an entrance to the sewer system. It was disgusting but he didn’t care. It was isolated. No worries about running into any neighbors where he was going.
The smell of the ocean got stronger the further he went along his way. It always calmed him, for some reason. A brief flash of memory from his childhood made Manny stop and stare at the sunset for a moment. If only his family was still the same as it was then, but his father — had changed. And so abruptly. Manny didn’t see any other option than to do what he did. He felt he had no choice.
There were few people walking along these streets; a man sweeping a sidewalk a few blocks up, a woman and her toddler sitting on a bench beside the ocean, enjoying the view. The mother glowed with happiness at her innocent child. Manny glimpsed a lonely car a several streets over, but besides that sedan the roads were bare. Everything was at peace.
He passed the mother and daughter gazing toward the sea, and gave the mother a polite nod. She was rather attractive, with shoulder length auburn hair and brilliant blue eyes, and to Manny’s surprise, she returned the gesture. Most people wouldn’t acknowledge those they deemed beneath them, and Manny couldn’t have looked much worse. His face and head was a nest of unkempt hair and dirt. His clothing was old and dingy, and despite the warmth of his overcoat it looked like it might have belonged to a wild animal. Manny found this was another effective way of staying out of the spotlight; people were a lot less likely to pay attention to someone they found repulsive. But not this woman; she had a gentle warmth that overtook Manny. He kept walking, but for the first time that day, a smile crept onto his face.
It was short-lived, however. He was barely three steps past the woman when her horrifying scream made Manny spin back around. The daughter was gone and their was a recent splash in the tranquil water below.
“She just jumped over the rail! She can’t swim! Oh God, she’s not coming up!”
The frantic mother was paying Manny no attention, and only seemed to be shouting for her own sake, since there was no one else around. Manny realized she was about to dive headfirst after her daughter, but he grabbed her shoulder in time.
Before she could respond he was over the ledge and in the water. The saltiness penetrated his mouth and eyes, brining him instantly. He dove, searching for the child, his eyes burning through the murky ocean. He was tempted to use the Vodaphobe, but he didn’t think it would help. He didn’t know the depth, and that was one of the things of which Elias warned him. “Don’t let anyone see you use it directly, and don’t use it in water when you don’t know how deep it is. You could end up in free fall with no way to stop yourself, besides resealing the stone, and that would be ... unpleasant.”
The mother would clearly see him using the stone if he did, so that was out of the question. He didn’t think the water was too deep, but sometimes even this close to the land it could be a steep drop off.
A chill ran through him when he passed into the colder water that the sun failed to reach even during the day. Visibility was zero now that the light was mostly gone. He could see nothing, except ... a flash of movement below him, maybe another ten meters. He pushed onward, deeper still until he saw the form of a small girl, twitching eerily in the darkness. He grabbed the girl around he tiny, lifeless waist and started kicking back to the surface as fast as he could. He was nearly out of breath himself, struggling against the dense water, praying for air.
He gasped and sputtered water when he finally breached the surface, but there was no such reaction for the toddler he held to his chest. He found an emergency ladder built into the concrete embankment for just such occasions, and hoisted the girl over his shoulder so he could make the climb. The mother was waiting, screaming her lungs out at the top.
“Is she alive?! Did she make it?! Oh God, she’s not breathing! Do something!”
But Manny was already ahead of her. He had the little girl on her back and craned her neck to open her airway. He’d performed CPR many times before, but this was possibly the youngest person for which he’d ever needed it. He was afraid he might hurt her; he was a rather strong man, and sometimes had trouble with finesse.
“Ok, Mom, I’m gonna need your help here. Do you know CPR?”
The woman fell silent, or at least relatively silent, and shook her head. She was still sobbing under her breath and breathing heavily, but she was listening at least. That was good. She trusted Manny.
“It’s fine, I’m gonna walk you through it. I want you to hold your daughters nose closed and breath slowly into her mouth. Remember, she has small lungs so you won’t have to breath hard. Can you calm your breathing for me?”
Immediately her breathing fell to a controlled rate. Manny was impressed. She was much more in the moment than her earlier screaming indicated.
“Good. After you’ve given her two slow breaths, I want you to give her ten gentle pumps with your knuckles on her chest, above her heart. You’ve seen it done on TV, I’m sure, right?”
But Mom was already breathing into her daughter’s mouth, and afterward she started compressions at a perfect rate. Apparently she had seen it on TV.
After the fourth round of chest compressions, the little girl finally coughed up half the Pacific ocean and proceeded to wheeze for several minutes, while her mother nearly smothered her against her chest in a tight hug.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you! I don’t know how to say it enough! If it weren’t for you, Morgan would be dead! How could we ever make this up to you?”
She went for her purse, but Manny was quick to respond.
“That won’t be necessary ma’am, I was happy to help. Who would just stand by and let an innocent child die?”
The mother started laughing maniacally, clutching her daughter to her tightly once again.
“I bet you’d be surprised. You’re one in a million, sir.”
Manny smiled uncomfortably, then without another word continued down the sidewalk, turning his back on the reunited mother and daughter.
“Wait! At least tell me your name!” Manny stopped without looking back. “Emmanuel. My name is Emmanuel.”
- - - - - - - - -
The rounded mouth of the aqueduct swallowed him whole when he passed through, craning his neck to fit into the nearly man-sized pipe. It wasn’t exactly meant to be a passageway, but it led straight to the junction, so it was his fastest route.
Filth and sewage filled the air and plastered the walls in the catacombs of the old sewer system. It was mostly dry near the sunlit entrance, but once inside it became a hotbed of stagnation and humidity. Tiny beads of sweat formed on Manny’s brow from the relatively high heat trapped by the tons of concrete. Fortunately, since he had taken the time to study and memorize the map of the sewer, he knew the shortest route to the emergency hatch, and this was it.
He wasn’t sure why the hatch existed, but he was thankful that it did. He remembered seeing it on the sewer schematic and wondering about its use. It probably once held an emergency relief valve for the junction, but when Manny first entered the hatch he found no evidence of any function, beyond a large storage space filled with dozens of boxes of identical dingy work coveralls with faded logos on the chest. There was a single light for which he had to replace the bulb, and a built in sink and toilet. Maybe it was a bomb shelter at some point, he considered, but ultimately gave up wondering. All that mattered now was what it was to him.
He reached the end of the tunnel and jumped down onto a metal grated walkway below. The cavernous room around him was the end point of several other aqueducts, combining their contents into a single reservoir in the depths of the nearly hangar sized space. Manny may have found an empty duct to enter through, but the majority spewed thousands of gallons of water per second. Crashing water echoed through the concrete system; Manny was always reminded of Niagara Falls.
The steel catwalks were seemingly flimsy, but he trusted them. He approached the single largest pipe at the end of the row and followed the path of its contents as they blasted out of the pipe and onto the angled cement slab, flowing into the huge pool below. The emergency hatch was directly beneath the stream of that aqueduct, built into the concrete slab the deluge so violently tried to pummel into nothing.
The concrete ledge was well below the scaffolding Manny occupied, so he had installed a ladder to help him come and go with ease. He scrambled down the ladder and pressed himself up against the edge of ledge. Even being as far as possible away, the spray from the splashing water still misted around him thoroughly. He reached into his shirt and removed the Vodaphobe from the safety of its locket, and immediately the mist was forced away from his face.
Inching forward a tiny step at a time, he approached the plume of water, which slowly split into two streams as it reacted with the field produced by the Vodaphobe. The huge volume of moving water danced against the edge of its boundary in a perfect sphere of maelstrom. Manny’s foot hit something hard and metal; the hatch. He bent down, twisted the wheel handle, and lifted the door. The climb inside was always awkward since the first few rungs of the wireframe footholds were missing, but he managed to find the first one that was still strong and pulled the hatch door shut behind him, sealing it tight.
When he reached the floor of his cramped space he yanked the cord for the light and was greeted with the warmth of the small yellow bulb. It illuminated the prison cell of a room, throwing shadows off the cot and desk Manny rigged together. A few books cluttered the otherwise empty shelves, and the desk was bare except for small wadded pieces of scrap paper, and a thick, black envelope adorned with two bright rings.
“What the hell?” Manny whispered to no one.
He crossed to the desk and picked up the foreign envelope, having never seen it before in his life. His fingers trembled around the message, as if he could still feel the presence of the intruder who left it, lingering in the air.
Someone actually found his sanctuary? And, even more surprisingly, left him mail?
He tore open the velvetesque paper, uncertainty coursing through him. Inside were two pieces of the same cloth like black paper; the first had a weird symbol at the top of the page, and underneath was an address Manny was all too familiar with. It was the building where he first received the Vodaphobe from Elias. The old man’s home. Below the printed address, someone had scribbled the word ‘Midnight’.
Alright, that’s strange. What good would it do to visit him in the middle of the night? Was the invitation even from Elias? Probably not; he hadn’t seen the man in weeks, and besides giving him the Vodaphobe, Elias showed no other hospitality to him beyond a kind word and reliable ear.
Manny flipped to the second page of the letter and found a complex geometrical shape, that seemed to sink into the page itself, and rise out like an object he could pluck from the page. He was transfixed by the amazing image for a moment before something clicked in his mind, and it returned to a flat, blank image on the black paper.
Well, that’s stranger still. Whoever sent this must be serious —
He cut off the train of thought abruptly while an explosion of information filled his imagination. He could see it in his mind’s eye; the front steps of the building Elias always emerged from in the mornings and returned to at night, the interior lobby’s layout down to the square footage. The blueprint of the entire building was unfurling within his mind.
His heart quickened and his blood pumped cold within his veins. He couldn’t slow his breathing; he felt like he just ran a marathon. The shock of the clarity of the vast knowledge and its foreign origin made Manny physically ill. He stared at the now innocuous image in his hand; could it really have given him all that knowledge, so quickly?
Elias’s condo burst to life in his mind’s eye. He knew its floor plan as well as he knew the sewer system. Whoever left him the letter meant for him to visit Elias at midnight that evening, and had given him everything he would need to find it and get in undetected.
It must be important that Manny show up. He’d hate to disappoint his host.
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