Li’s eyes flickered open to the sound of her phone’s alarm clock, the harsh tones a grating contrast to the silence that accompanied a peaceful night’s sleep. The room was largely tidy, her clothes hanging neatly in rows inside a built-in wardrobe, visible through an open door that had been left ajar with a navy blue parka that had been suspended on a clothes hanger on the end of it. In the corner adjacent to the window there lay a mess of sketches, notes, pens and books, as well as the occasional empty glass jar or unkempt ragdoll, which conflicted with the tidiness of the room, just as the sound of the phone’s alarm clock had conflicted with the silence. The room was dark, though a small amount of light managed to trickle through the crack between the curtains and the wall, slightly illuminating the room to a state of relative visibility. Li sat up and placed her right hand to her forehead, grabbing her black, thick-rimmed glasses with the other, placing them on her nose and pushing them up into position.
“Great,” she quietly muttered to herself, “waking up with a headache. What a wonderful way to start the day.” She leaned over sluggishly, picking up her phone and disabling the alarm. She turned and got out of bed, immediately walking out of the room and taking a left down the corridor as she headed towards the bathroom. Li was a young Chinese woman from Tianjin, twenty five years old and living illegally in England. She was a small individual, relatively flat chested with some mild curves at the hips. Her hair was jet black in colour and long, running down between her shoulders and reaching half way down her back. Her eyes were a dark brown and sharp, complimenting her typically Chinese skin tone.
She arrived at the bathroom, placing her phone down next to the sink. She reached over to turn the taps on the shower to let the water run for a while, allowing the boiler to heat the running water to comfortable levels as she took off her pyjamas and placed her glasses next to the sink. She stepped into the shower tray, closing the door behind her. The water was warm, steam rising to envelop the room in a sort of misty cloud that clung to the air, the humidity rising quickly. Twenty minutes passed before the shower was turned off and Li emerged, grabbing her nearby towel and wrapping it around her body as she headed for the sink. She picked up her electric toothbrush, squeezing a blob of white toothpaste onto the head and beginning to brush her teeth as her phone started to ring. Leaning over to check the number, she noticed that her boyfriend was calling her. She frowned and continued to brush her teeth, dismissing the phone call as she thought to herself, I’ll call him back, as she washed her mouth out, turned off her toothbrush and cleaned the foamy remnants of toothpaste from it.
Returning to her room, her phone started to ring again. With a frown, she brought her phone up to look at the screen. Sighing, she pressed the answer key and brought the phone to her ear.
“Good morning, Miss Li,” came a heavily American sounding voice through the speaker.
“Good morning, Mr. Walker,” Li replied politely and professionally, the forced smile of a businesswoman spread across her face, her accent heavy, “I wasn’t expecting a call from you this early. What can I do for you?”
“You should know by now that we’re a twenty four hour company,” Walker continued, his voice stern and uncompromising, “regardless, you’re our closest asset to ground zero on this one.” Li opened her mouth to speak, though Walker cut her off before she could utter a sound. “We’ve deciphered the texts following a sorcerer, named Smith, that we recovered from New York. They speak of a vault of occult items where he stored some of his more powerful tomes and artefacts.”
“Smith?” Li responded in disbelief, raising an eyebrow as she spoke. She walked over to her wardrobe and started to flick through shirts and blouses as Walker replied.
“Yes,” he sighed, “you’d think that a conjurer of his class would change his name to something more flashy and memorable, though I guess it’s memorable in the way that he’ll go down in history as the sorcerer with the most ‘normal’ name.” Walker took a deep breath. “But I digress, the vault is in Brighton, England and I want you to locate and retrieve its contents before the English do.”
“Rules of engagement?” Li asked fairly casually as she picked out a smart white blouse, hanging it on the wardrobe’s door handle.
“Hm,” Walker paused for the moment, “the United States is officially an ally of the English, so we’d prefer it if there was no blood spilled. Your call though. Get this done efficiently and we’ll make sure your immigration papers go through just as well.” Walker hung up.
Li placed her phone on the end of the bed before picking out a pair of denim, skinny fitting jeans, a set of underwear and a pair of socks. She remained silent as she got dressed, pondering how she would go about her task. The information was vague, as usual, though she felt that for a matter this sensitive, she’d be given more information. She walked over to the window and flung the curtains open, allowing the morning sun to illuminate her room. The outside air looked pleasant, the sunshine reflecting off the relatively calm waters of the Brighton seafront. Li smiled and opened her window a crack, allowing the cool, sea breeze to slowly seep in without causing the temperature to immediately plummet. She stayed by the window for a moment, gazing upon the road below her window. She lived on the third story and so she had a good view of the activity by the sea. The road was fairly quiet, populated only by the occasional car. The street was just as quiet. Elderly couples taking a morning walk, mothers taking their children on the morning nursery or school run and the occasional dog walker. Li found herself smiling at the peace and normality of it, perhaps a life that was now within her grasp. Do her job, gain American citizenship, get engaged and settle down.
Ever since the deterioration of global relations, Li had found herself without a home. The Chinese were preparing for war, regardless of what they told the West, and the few freedoms that she had at the Chinese Association of Sorcery and Occult Knowledge, or CASOK as it was known by the West, were instantly stripped from her. The people of China were not happy with their leadership and wished no hostilities with the rest of the world, but any outspoken concerns were quickly silenced by a unit of indoctrinated secret police. The academy where she had trained in the magical arts and learned occult lore had started to treat the students as test subjects and soldiers rather than students. There were disappearances, contact with the outside was completely cut off, lessons became incredibly harsh and dangerous. Those who could not keep up often died in the attempt. Regardless of the outcome, the weak ones, as they were called, were taken away and never seen again, more victims to CASOK’s human engineering program. Li had felt herself slipping, lagging behind little by little which in turn caused her to lose focus, further increasing the deterioration. She banded together with a few other sorcerers, no older than herself, and staged an escape. Li was one of the Chinese magic users who had fled the Beijing Magic Academy run by the Chinese Association of Sorcery and Occult Knowledge. Of the three who escaped, only two made it past the border, Li and a man named Huojin Wang. The third escapee was captured as he tried to take to the seas on a passenger ship, or that was the last the two of them had heard. It was a gruelling trip, but the two of them eventually parted ways in Russia, Wang heading to Norway whilst Li headed to England where she was picked up by a member of the American Occult Lore Department who happened to be on holiday. They ran her through due diligence and eventually offered her a place in their ranks once they were totally convinced of her defection.
Li’s phone rang again, breaking her momentary flashback and returning her to reality with a sharp jolt, like someone had grabbed her by the wrist and violently jerked her to the side. She rushed over and answered it.
“Hello?” she inquired.
“Li, I’ve been trying to contact you,” a male sounding voice with a heavy, well educated English accent spoke out.
“I know, you caught me with a mouthful of toothpaste,” Li replied with a chuckle identifying the voice as her boyfriend, Paul’s, “what can I do for you, my dear?”
“I wanted to know if you’re available for dinner?” Paul asked.
“Dinner? Tonight?” Li replied, unable to mask her surprise. It seemed rather sudden. “I should be free this evening, that’d be wonderful. Is there any dress code?”
“Great!” Paul said gleefully, “I’ll book the table and there’s no real dress code. Shall I pick you up at seven?”
“So if I turned up in a Santa Claus onesie, I’d be acceptable?” Li teased with a giggle, “seven sounds good to me. I’ll see you later, then.”
“Take care, Li.” Paul responded with a chuckle, before the two of them hung up. Li checked the time. Ten past eight.
“Rush hour traffic,” Li groaned to herself, slipping her phone into her handbag which lay static on the bedside unit, “I’ll walk it.” She peered out of the window again at the dark clouds that gathered overhead. “Or I’ll start late.” She made her way back into the bathroom, bringing her towels which she draped over the towel rack to dry. She then walked to the mirror, picking up a light blue comb from the glass shelf that resided underneath. Taking her time, Li combed her hair thoroughly, before taking a black hair band from around her wrist, tying her hair into a neat ponytail. She returned to her room, sitting on her bed, applying a light dusting of red eye-shadow and a pencil-thin line of eye-liner, before grabbing her handbag from beside her and walking to the door. She reached immediately for her long, brown trench coat, putting it on before looking at her collection of shoes. Eventually she decided on a pair of black, leather boots that travelled half way up between her foot and knee. By the time she left her flat, it was approaching nine o’clock. Luckily, she knew where to start looking in pursuit of this vault of occult items and her timing would work very well.
She walked to the elevator and pressed the button to go down. She looked around herself at the third floor hallway. It was dull, the rising damp in the far corner caused the yellow paint to start peeling. There was little in the way of natural light, the only source being a small, mildew covered window at the far end, adjacent to the corner where the damp lingered. With a ding, the elevator doors opened, the smell of air-freshener wafting outwards. She stepped inside and pressed the button for the ground floor and the doors closed, the elevator slowly moving downwards and opening to the crisp, cool air of the main lobby. The décor was slightly less dull in the main hall. A few paintings hung on the walls, produced by local artists, and the mailboxes were well maintained. She stepped out of the lift and was instantly knocked aside as a passer-by walked into her with substantial momentum, landing on the marble floor with a quiet thud.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, madam,” came a man’s voice with a slightly Northern accent.
“Ouch, watch where you’re going,” Li started as she turned to get herself up from the floor. The first thing she saw was an outstretched hand. Looking up, her eyes met with those of a very apologetic Englishman. His blue eyes seemed to have a gentleness to them, though she was not sure what to think about this man. She had never seen him before and something seemed off. With a sigh, she took his hand and he helped her back onto her feet.
“Once again, I am terribly sorry, I was in a rush and I wasn’t looking where I was going,” the man said once again as Li dusted herself off, giving him a cold look. “Oh, where are my manners,” he said hastily, “my name’s Albert Robertson, I’m moving into flat thirty four today,” he continued, stretching out his hand again for a handshake. Still, Li looked at him with a scornful expression, before looking at his hand. She did not move to engage in a handshake, her eyes returning back up, staring into his with the same, icy glare. Albert retracted his hand, a momentary look of despair was soon replaced with the same, over-friendly smile. “Perhaps we got off on the wrong foot, are you free later? We could grab a drink after work-…”
“No, I’m not. I’m seeing my boyfriend,” Li snapped, causing Albert to back off a little, a surprised expression on his face. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get to work,” she said as she turned to walk away. She did not wish to speak with the man. He had knocked her over with his clumsiness, but what was worse was the uneasiness that Li felt around him. There was something that she just could not put her finger on and it terrified her, especially being in her line of work and position. As she approached the mailboxes by the front door, she took out her phone and typed a memo quickly, before unlocking her own mailbox and taking the contents. She flicked through the letters as she walked outside, throwing a shoddily designed doomsday leaflet into the nearby bin. Other than that, there were two bank statements, a letter selling motor insurance and a letter from Norway, the address was handwritten. She deposited the other letters in her handbag, opening the letter from Norway and peering at its contents as she crossed the road and started to walk East. Inside was a small passage written entirely in simplified Chinese script, written by Huojin Wang, the man she had escaped China with. It explained how he had been picked up by the Norwegian Order of Magic and was now working with what was left of the U.N. Moreover, it explained how he had settled down, met a woman and started a family, as well as how life in Norway was better than in China. A lone tear slid down her cheek and landed with a soft plop onto the paper as she was reading, bringing a hand up to wipe her eyes, careful not to smudge her make-up that she had only just applied. She noticed a paper-clip near the top left hand corner of the page and upon further investigation, discovered that he had attached a photograph to the letter. It was a picture of him, alongside a woman with long, blonde hair and big blue eyes. In front of them stood two children, boys no older than five years of age. They looked like the woman in most respects, though their eyes and nose looked incredibly like Huojin’s. Li swallowed and sniffed once, before noticing the bus approaching to stop at the bus stop ahead. She folded the letter and photograph and carefully placed them safely into her bag as she ran to the bus stop, getting to the bus stop just before the driver could shut the doors on her, much to the driver’s displeasure. She quickly took out her purse.
“All day return, please,” she said politely, merely getting a grunt from the bus driver as she placed the required fare in exact change into the dish. She pulled her ticket and made her way down the bus, stumbling as the bus driver pulled out from the stop with very sudden acceleration. Li knew that he was doing it on purpose, but she took a deep breath and sat down. With the deterioration of global relations came an increase in global racism. China, along with most of east Asia, South America, Mexico and southern Europe had cut ties with the rest of the world, closing the borders and acting politically hostile towards outsiders. It was another Cold War, and being Chinese, Li was often a victim of racism in England. The people were scared, scared of potential spies and saboteurs, not to mention foreign magic users. Magic was barely tolerated in itself, rogue sorcerers were hunted and brutally slain if they were lucky and foreign magic was extremely frowned upon and carried a prison sentence, along with an appointment with the country’s Occult Inquisition. Despite working for the Americans, Li kept her status a secret as most sorcerers did; the people already feared what she may be already, there was no need to add to it. She sat by the window and looked outside as the bus made its way along the seafront road. If anything, Brighton was quite picturesque. Distracted for a moment, she caught sight in her peripheral vision of a young child staring at her over the seat in front, his big, brown eyes peeping over the top of the chair like a curious squirrel. He shied away from her gaze as she turned to face him with a smile, dipping below the seat temporarily, though again he popped up to stare at her. She smiled and covered her eyes, pretending to hide as she played with the child for a short moment, causing him to giggle in amusement before his mother noticed and told her son to stop. Li sighed to herself, she was just playing, yet as usual, the Englishwoman had believed that Li’s motives were sinister, so she went back to staring out of the window for the rest of the journey.
When Li got off the bus, it was a short walk to the local school. The bus stop was on the seafront road, though with the elevation of the road by the time it got to Kemp Town meant that it was not really a seafront road any more. She walked past a bakery, just after she walked past the local school’s music building. She had yet to eat breakfast, and from within came the aroma of freshly baked bread, pastries and cakes. Her stomach growled and she walked inside to join the queue of people. The smell indoors was far more concentrated than it was outdoors, almost overpowering to a hungry individual such as herself. She patiently waited, got to the front and ordered a pain au chocolat and a coffee, with surprisingly little animosity from the staff unlike the bus driver not more than ten minutes ago. She sat near the window, casually munching on her breakfast and staring outwards. There was not much to see. The occasional car or bus, people going about their lives and students from the local school on their way to the music building, none of which particularly interested Li. As she sipped her coffee, she noticed that the sky was clouding over, causing the ambient light levels outside to drop to the dull grey that characterised the English winter. She finished her breakfast and departed the bakery with haste, wanting to get to the college before the school’s break time, which she assumed would be around eleven. She checked the time on her phone. Nine forty five. She was on schedule.