EPISODE 1: A GIRL FROM CHINA Part 1
It was early morning as Mei sat hidden, watching her prey. The creature she stalked was still drowsy and moved in a slow, clumsy fashion. The moment came, and Mei took it. She pounced out of the alleyway, running towards the man. The bakery owner looked up and was surprised to see a young teenage girl standing close by. Her puppy dog eyes fixed on him.
He had just started opening his shop and was putting his bread outside to sell. Mei’s eyes moved from his face to the bread in his hand. He moved it a few times, watching her eyes follow it with extreme accuracy.
He sighed loudly, knowing he was beat. He handed over the piece of bread and was rewarded with a large smile. The corners of his own mouth turned up in a smile as he watched Mei disappear into the alley.
Unfortunately, she ran right into a small ambush. Three men, all looking down on their luck, stood there waiting for her. The boss, a man that towered over the other two, held out his hand for the bread. “Street tax,” he said. One of his followers, giggled nervously.
They thought Mei would be easy pickings. She was a twelve year old, Chinese girl, very petite. She barely reached the boss’ large stomach. Her clothing was in the Chinese fashion, with a tight top with loose, flowing arms and loose pants, all in a greenish-grey colour. Her bright red shoes, looking something like slippers were the only real colour on her. Her long black hair was tied up tightly on her her head and was covered by a newsboy cap. To these tough men of New York city, there seemed nothing to be scared of.
She put the bread between her teeth, holding on to it, for safe-keeping. The man leered down at her, cracking his knuckles to emphasize his point. Between the crack of his first knuckle and his second, Mei had made her move. She reached down to the ground, going into a handstand with her legs in the air. She then pushed off from the ground hard. The soles of her shoes found the bottom of the man’s chin. His expression barely changed, as he fell to the ground, unconscious.
The man’s two friends looked at each other in disbelief. That had to have been an accident. They nodded to each other, working up the courage to test her. As they moved to surround her, Mei regained her feet. In a fluid motion, she punched with her right fist and kicked with her left foot, hitting both men squarely in the stomach at the same time. They both doubled over, feeling sick. Mei stood as tall as she could, still only about as high as the men crouching over in pain, and glared strongly at the both of them. The effect of the glare was somewhat lessened by the large piece of bread held between her teeth. It did its job, however, and the men ran off, leaving their boss lying on the ground.
Mei sat down on the unconscious form of her would-be attacker. There was a slight chill in the air and he was a warm seat. She stared out at the city through the small opening of the alley. It was still early. A few store owners had started their opening exercises, but it was too soon for the customers to come out. The few others that stood around were those that were universally known as loungers. They did not have enough money to buy anything, but sitting at home was too boring, so they simply walked the streets, aimlessly.
Aimless wandering was one of the most popular activities of the day. Mei had forgotten the exact date long ago, but it was sometime in the 1930’s. The Great Depression was in full swing. Many people did not have jobs, and they had given up looking for one some time ago. So, they simply wandered. It eased the hunger pains in their stomachs, and the pains of pride in their hearts for being jobless and unable to provide for their loved ones.
Mei did not blame the man that was now temporarily her warm seat. The Depression had caused many to turn to desperate acts that they would have shied away from in happier times. He was hungry, she was hungry, and there was only enough food for one. Living had lost its pleasures and was now a test for survival.
While those around her had been forced into this life, Mei, however, had actually chosen it. She could not imagine the people of her tiny village being affected by something so trivial as a world-wide depression. And it was only because she had left, that she now faced the harsh life of the streets.
She was searching for her older brother, Li. One night, he had simply disappeared. The village’s treasure, a jade dragon sculpture, had vanished along with him. She would never believe the liars that said he had stolen it.
It had been a little over two years since she had left. She had searched most of China for a sign of him, and had finally arrived in Hong Kong. Her talents for fighting allowed her to survive life on the city streets, but she heard nothing of her missing brother. That was when something miraculous happened to point her in the right direction.
Running down the streets, being chased by bullies much larger than the ones she’d just dealt with, Mei found a small alley to hide in. The bullies passed her by. But just as Mei was about to breathe out a sigh of relief, a small flash of green light, the colour of jade, appeared against the far wall. The sigh caught in her throat. The light grew brighter and larger, much larger. After a moment, she could make out the image of her brother, completely green.
Mei reached out with a trembling hand. “Brother?”
Li looked around, as if he were lost. “America,” he said, haltingly. His voice seemed to come from a far off distance, even with him standing right in front of her. “You must go to America.”
With that, Li simply disappeared. The green light in the alley was snuffed out completely. Mei sat down on the cold ground and cried.
The next day, she made up her mind to travel the long distance to America. She had snuck aboard a merchant ship, and hid inside the cargo hold. She lived off scraps that she could steal from the crew. The rats took the blame for her tiny feasts.
And now, here she was in New York, still fighting, still begging for food, and still without a clue to her brother’s whereabouts. The warm bread started to taste a little salty from a couple tears that she couldn’t keep back. Two years of world traveling felt like an eternity for the young girl.
A flash of green interrupted her thoughts, before the waterworks really began. It was there! Something incredibly large, the same green colour her brother had appeared as, streaked quickly past the alley she sat in. Mei jumped off the man, leaving the last portions of the bread beside him and took off running.
As soon as she left the alley, Mei realized she was not chasing her brother. It was the Jade Dragon come to life, only infinitely larger. Lifesize, she supposed, but she had no idea what scale a lifesize dragon would actually be. Instead of regular flight, it seemed to twist itself through the air and clouds, like a gigantic snake slithering along the ground. Every twist, every movement was so full of beauty, though.
Mei kept it within sight as she chased after its tail. Though there was very few people out at this time, she wondered how a dragon the size of a football field could create so little attention. Everyone just went about their business, completely ignoring the flying monster. If anything, it was Mei herself, that gained the most attention, with people jumping out of her way or yelling at her to stop running so fast. She had always been a polite girl, at least decently so, but she just ran straight through them.
Finally, after turning a corner, she came face to face with the dragon. It had come to a halt, and now the magnificent green monster looked down at her. It seemed still, yet its body moved constantly, keeping it airborne. There was a sense of sadness in its majesty. Mei could do nothing but stand there with her mouth open. And, just as suddenly as it had appeared, the great dragon vanished in a rush of air.
But this wasn’t all. Loose papers that were lying around were blown up with the rushing air. They swirled around Mei until she reached out and grabbed one. It seemed like a poster advertising a detective agency.
In bright, bold lettering, it read, “Spooks, spectres, ancient curses? Are you having trouble with magic? Come see the Magic Detective.”
Mei was shocked. “This can’t be a coincidence.” No sooner than saying that, she looked around and saw the same poster everywhere. It was plastered on walls, on benches, under the wipers of cars, literally everywhere. A little doubt crept into Mei’s last statement. “Or, maybe it is.”
A little while later, on the other side of town, Mei reached the address of the so-called Magic Detective. The exterior did little to stir the imagination. It was a squat, brown brick building. It was the kind of place where the architect must have given up on ever creating real beauty and had settled on practicality. It was not ugly, just dull.
With her paper flyer in hand, Mei approached the front door. She was an incredibly brave girl, but she could not hold back a slight shaking in her limbs as she knocked. She had not found many people she could trust in her travels, and this magic business sounded a little sketchy. There was no answer. She tried again, with the same result.
Ignoring her desire to leave, and her temper rising with being ignored, she tried the handle. This was a success and she took her first step inside. She entered into a hallway, long and narrow. “Hello…?” She asked the empty air, a little tremulously. Gathering her courage, she walked forward and reached a door. Without even bothering to knock, she opened this one.
It was like looking at a disaster zone. Papers and books and who knows what else covered the floor creating a miniaturized landscape of hills and valleys. A large table stood along the back wall covered in metal and chemical experiments. Two small birds, one yellow, the other blue, flew around the room, as if they were looking for a way to escape. There was a window, but it was half-covered by stacks of books. The only source of light came from a large fireplace in the corner. The coals inside burned low, but still seemed a danger in this room of loose paper and books.
The place filled Mei with a sense of horror. She turned to go, but something long and warm shot out of the pile of trash and grabbed onto her ankle, holding her there. Mei froze. She wanted to run but her body had gone numb with shock. Her brain was left screaming while her body moved slower than ever before. It took her over ten seconds to finally turn her head enough to look down at her leg. It was a hand! She saw a long arm reaching out from the refuse, and now it was slowly pulling her back in.
Mei reacted instinctively. She grabbed the largest object at hand, a massive book, and brought it down hard on the monster hidden in the papers.
“Ow!” was the only response she got. The hand recoiled and out of the papers a young boy stood up. He was a curious sight. Mei felt he was probably about thirteen years old, though he could have been younger, as he was short and very, very thin. He was dressed in decent clothes, a shirt and tie, and suspenders help up his wool pants. But everything was worn in a sloppy manner. The tie was slightly crooked, the shirt needed a good ironing, and one of the straps of his suspenders had fallen off his shoulder. This sloppiness was emphasized all the more as he was now vigorously rubbing his sore head, messing up his tousled brown hair even further.
“Do you always hit people when you visit them?” he asked.
Mei blushed deeply. “I didn’t mean to. You grabbed me.”
The boy waved his hand, as if he no longer was interested in the subject. He tapped his index finger against his pursed lips as he stared intensely, and without a shade of embarrassment, at his guest. Mei was definitely feeling uncomfortable under his scrutiny. It was if she was some kind of interesting bug on the slide of a microscope.
“Hmmm…” he said, after a few moments. “You’re from northern China, but you’ve spent some time in Hong Kong, and only recently made it here. You’re an athlete, or some kind of fighter. And, you’ve got a problem with magic.”
Mei was shocked. “How did you know all that?”
The boy yawned, as if he’d just woken up from a nap. He brushed together a pile of the surrounding papers and sat on them like a stool. “I can tell by the muscles in your arms and legs – it’s not that hard to notice them through your clothes – that you must be extremely athletic. The fact that your Chinese is obvious, and Chinese boxing or Kung Fu has become famous in the last while. Wasn’t that difficult. Your clothes are all styled in the Hong Kong fashion, so it made sense that you’ve spent a long time there. The length of time is obvious by the age of your clothes. They’ve seen better days. That’s also how I could tell you’ve been living on the streets.”
Mei blushed a bright scarlet. She looked down at the worn-out knees in her trousers and the loose threads at the end of her sleeves. She made a movement to try to hide some of the worst aspects of her clothes. She stopped herself quickly, however. Her blushing face took on a look of intense pride. She held herself up stiffly and glared at the boy, almost daring him to find more faults with her. The boy did not seem to notice, as he continued on with his assessment.
“Of course, I realized that I was wrong in thinking that you were from Hong Kong as soon as I saw your necklace. It’s obviously from northern China. It’s been taken good care of, more than anything else you own, so it has sentimental value. Not that hard of a guess that it’s from your homeland. And as to you needing help, well…” The boy suddenly grinned widely. “Hello, my name is Tobi. If you’re here looking for me, then you definitely need some help.”
“How do you know I’m looking for you?”
He pointed to her hand. “You’re holding one of my flyers.”
Mei’s eyes opened wide as she looked down at her hand. “Oh! Of course.”
Tobi sat himself more comfortably on the pile of papers he had made into a temporary chair. He reached into a pocket and pulled out a small chocolate wrapped in colourful paper. He unwrapped it, threw the paper behind him to join with the other scattered trash, and placed the chocolate into his mouth. A dreamy look of pleasure came over his face as he slowly chewed and swallowed the small piece of candy.
That look of pleasure only slightly decreased as he looked his guest over again. “So,” he said finally. “What brings a girl from northern China to Hong Kong and then all the way to my humble home?”
Mei had seemed entranced by the spectacle of Tobi eating the chocolate, but she shook herself awake now. She looked again at the waist-high piles of paper, at the dirty shelves and the busted birdcage. There was nothing in sight that gave her the slightest confidence in this strange little boy. Her problem was not a normal one, and the visions she had were definitely unnatural. There was no way that someone like this boy could help her.
“I think I’ve made a mistake,” she said as she turned to go. “I’m sorry for wasting your time.”
“It’s do with magic, isn’t it? Your problem, that is.”
Mei turned back quickly to face him. “Only some of us thought the dragon was magic.”
There was something strange in his smile. If Mei had not turned and looked at him, she would have left then and there. That smile, though, it was so full of it’s own genius, so confident that it was always right about everything. That smile irritated her. It also made her feel like she should trust this boy to help her.
“Come with me,” he said, quietly, as he stood up. “I want to show you something.”
Tobi took Mei’s hand and led her further into the room. She stumbled over several piles of old papers. When she looked up, they were standing in front of the large fireplace.
“Where are you taking me?”
“Into the fire,” answered Tobi. His tone was simple, but it still felt ominous. As if on cue, the low burning fire burst into life. The flames towered over the two children. Tobi grasped Mei’s hand even tighter, almost crushing it. He stepped towards the roaring fire, pulling her with him.
“No!” she cried, but it was too late. The two of them fell forwards, into the flames.
TO BE CONTINUED…