We are pleased to introduce Jingwei Li, one of the protagonists from
J.R. Vikse's The Keeper Chronicles: Playing with Fire in this excerpt from
Prologue: Part Two: The Activist
And see further below to meet Callum Swift in an excerpt from
Prologue: Part One: The Thief
Santa Monica Place was always busiest in the after-school hours. Packs of students milled around the main concourse; eating, shoplifting, flirting, and generally celebrating surviving another day in the American educational system. The open-air plaza was a popular hangout, especially on days like this one; high temperatures, blue skies, and not a cloud in sight.
Jingwei Li stepped back from the easel she had unfolded. It looked sturdy enough. Sometimes it fell over if nudged by a passing shopper, but she’d widened its stance today. Hopefully it would last for the summer; she had lots of work to do.
She crouched down to her backpack, pulling the back of her skirt down as she did so in a gesture of conscious modesty. She had always hated school uniforms, and didn’t appreciate being forced to wear a skirt just because she was a girl. She had told her grade ten teacher that, being Chinese, she had to deal with enough stereotyping already, and didn’t want to add to it. Her teacher had pressed her fingers against her temples and told Jingwei that she would take the matter up with the school board, if only Jingwei would put down the bullhorn.
Jingwei pulled that same bullhorn out of her backpack and set it on the ground next to the crescent-moon-shaped fountain pool. She placed her poster-board graphs on the easel and carefully folded her dark blue school jacket and set it on a bench, flipping her short black hair out of her eyes. Taking a deep breath, she grabbed a clipboard and pen and turned towards a passing shopper. She’d save the bullhorn for later, if she needed it.
“Excuse me. Do you have a moment to talk about the rainforests?” Jingwei spoke very quickly. She’d learned the hard way that unless you got right into it, the majority of people didn’t want to stop and chat about the role of major corporations in the destruction of rainforests in the Amazon and around the world.
The shopper continued past her without a word. This was the usual response, but Jingwei didn’t give up easily. In the last three days alone she had garnered more than one hundred and twenty signatures for her petition; a number more than worth a few rude passers-by, in her opinion.
Jingwei stuck her hand out to dissuade someone else from walking past her, and spent the next few hours continuing to invite shoppers to sign her petition, gaining a few more signatures. By the time five o’clock rolled around and the mall started to empty, she felt satisfied with the day’s results.
She began to pack up her equipment and pulled her school jacket on. Her foster parent, Rhonda, was a stickler for her being home to help with dinner and make sure all the younger kids were ready. Jingwei was sure that Rhonda was only using her for the governmental support cheque that she brought with her. The young girl didn’t get anything from the woman that she didn’t have to work for; the only reason she was in a private school was because she had tested so highly that she had been entered in a sort of educational lottery, which she had won.
Every time Rhonda saw the school uniform’s jacket, she rolled her eyes and grumbled under her breath about “knowing your place.” Jingwei ignored the woman, and though she was sure that she had nothing to prove to anyone, sometimes left the jacket lying around the house, accidentally on purpose.
The easel was folded up and Jingwei was kneeling on the ground, stuffing the bullhorn into her backpack when a shadow fell over the clipboard on the bench and a hand reached down to grab it.
“Hey, Jingwei. What’s the petition for?”
Jingwei lifted her head and felt her heart flip-flop in her chest. Hunter Wells was standing within the crescent shape of the fountain holding the clipboard in his hands. Hunter Wells was the most popular boy in school. He was hot, and funny, and an amazing athlete. And Hunter Wells was talking to her.
A group of his friends was standing a few feet farther back, staring strangely at Jingwei as she remained frozen, crouched next to her backpack on the ground with her neck craned up to look at the boy standing above her. She realized this and quickly stood up.
“It’s to save the forest. For rain. I mean the rainforest. To save it.”
Jingwei mentally kicked herself. She was sure she was blushing. She hated blushing.
Hunter didn’t seem to notice as he smiled down at her. “Sounds cool. Can I sign it?”
Jingwei scooped up the pen and thrust it towards him, pressing it against his chest and holding it there. He raised an eyebrow and gently pulled it from her hand, then glanced over his shoulder at the other guys. They all took their cue from him and stepped up to sign the petition too.
Once each of them had signed, the boys spread into lounging positions around the fountain, one lying on the bench that bordered it, another sitting on the ground with his back to the low glass wall that surrounded it. The last boy handed it back to Jingwei with a wink. They rest were littered out around the fountain now, as Jingwei looked down at the clipboard in her hand.
“Thanks guys! It’s great to have teens interested in–” Jingwei broke off to a chorus of guffaws from the boys. She looked up at them, her face burning with fury.
They had all signed names that were formed from crude anatomical slang.
Jingwei didn’t think twice. She stepped up to Hunter and swatted him on the shoulder with the clipboard.
“You think that’s funny? I spent all day getting those signatures, and now the whole paper is useless!” She hit him again. “You think you’re soooo clever, impressing your friends, but you’re just an immature jerk!”
Hunter had raised his arms against the onslaught and looked surprised at her anger.
“Hey, Jingwei, it was just a joke. Calm down!”
“Calm down? You calm down! I’m perfectly calm! You want to see me when I’m not calm?! Trust me; you don’t want to see me when I’m not calm!” Jingwei’s voice had raised itself into a shriek.
The last few passing shoppers began to glance over at the group of youths by the fountain, their attention drawn by the rising noise and scuffling. Hunter grabbed at Jingwei’s arms to keep her from hitting him. She began to struggle even harder.
“Let me go!” Jingwei was shouting now. She lifted her foot behind her.
Hunter recognized the signs of a knee to the groin and immediately released her arms and pushed her away from him. Jingwei was surprised by her sudden freedom and stumbled backwards into the bench. She sat down hard on the stomach of the boy who had been casually lounging there, laughing at her. He let out a startled breath and reflexively pushed her off him, and she fell.
Into the fountain.
Jingwei landed with a tremendous splash. Water flew everywhere, soaking the boys completely.
Jingwei floundered for a moment and then gingerly sat up and looked around her. She had miraculously missed the metal pipes that stuck up randomly through the pool to spit water into the air. She looked out at the boys.
Every drop had landed on one of her attackers. The bench, her backpack, the easel, even the ground around the fountain had remained dry, save for the pools that now began to gather under the soaking boys.
The stunned boys looked down at their dripping selves and then around them, taking in the unbelievable dryness of the area. Their eyes grew even wider as they looked at Jingwei, who stood up in the centre of the fountain.
Jingwei was completely dry.
She was looking at her clothes, holding her jacket sleeve up in front of her in disbelief. She slowly turned to see the soaking boys and the dry surroundings, and her hand started to shake.
This isn’t possible.
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Prologue: Part One: The Thief
Fifteen-year-old Callum Swift heard the whistle blow behind him and urged his legs to move faster as they turned onto the sidewalk of the larger street. Bridget was racing along beside him, her practiced fingers rifling through the wallet, searching for notes, coins, or anything else of possible value. Out of the corner of his eye, Callum could see her plucking the money out and tucking it into her shirt as she ran.
Suddenly her eyes widened and without warning she sprang away into the street. Callum glanced back up at the road ahead and saw two police constables emerging from an alleyway into the wavering light of the gas lamps. They searched the crowd and their eyes landed on Callum. A cry of discovery rang out, followed by another shrill blast on a whistle.
Callum veered right, following Bridget across the busy street, now filled with the living traffic of Londoners returning to the suburbs after a hectic day in the City. Bridget had disappeared behind the spoked wheels of a passing hansom cab and Callum was forced to wind his way around hurrying animals and pedestrians alike as he jostled through the crowd.
Bridget was not making the run easy for him. She purposely pushed into people as she ran, knocking them over, dumping their goods onto the ground, creating obstacles that were meant to slow down her pursuers, and consequently Callum as well.
Callum gritted his teeth and kept moving. His legs pumped as he tore past a woman who had kneeled in the street to pick up a fallen book. He ignored the shouts of the two men whose shoulders he used to vault himself over an upturned wheelbarrow. Up ahead, Bridget raced in front of a shaggy mare pulling an empty milk truck. Callum watched her reach out her hand and slap its chest as she tore past it.
The horse reared in fear and shock. Callum didn’t have time to stop and threw himself into a leap, his body rushing towards the ground. He curled himself at the last second and turned his dive into a forward roll, passing beneath the horse’s hooves and scrambling up on the other side just as the animal clattered heavily to the ground behind him, creating a rearing, foaming, living barrier between himself and the police.
But in spite of his speed, the whistles behind him were growing louder as he elbowed his way through a final mass of people, emerging from the crowds at the Cumberland Gate entrance to Hyde Park.
Bridget was nowhere in sight. Callum pursed his lips. Trust her to take care of herself, and no one else.
Without stopping, he tore down the footpath towards Kensington Gardens, hoping to lose any pursuit in the wooded areas along the Serpentine. Heavy footsteps sounded loudly behind him as a pursuer began to gain ground, the policeman’s path cleared with whistles and shouts, his long legs matching Callum’s lengthy strides and eating up the distance between him and his quarry.
Storm clouds had gathered above the city, and Callum could see the branches of the trees waving him towards safety in the rising wind as he turned off the footpath.
“Gotcha!” said a rough voice as a hand closed painfully on Callum’s collar, knocking the cap off his head with a sudden jolt. The policeman pulled Callum to a stop and wrenched the boy around to face him, drawing him up on his toes to do so.
The officer was a full four inches taller than Callum’s 5’11’’ frame, and had the bulk of a Clydesdale workhorse. He sneered at the pickpocket, showing off a mouthful of tobacco-stained teeth.
“Not this time, my clever cutpurse! That fine gentleman wants his goodies back, and he don’t mind if I have to shake you to pieces to get ‘em! Now, ‘and ‘em over, nice and easy-like, and you won’t have nothin’ to fret over.” The sneer widened. “And if you don’t, then you and me gets to have... a conversation.”
Callum panicked and swung a loose and reckless fist towards his captor, who knocked it casually aside. He continued to struggle frantically against the officer’s grip, but it was useless. The man was just too strong. Lightning flashed in the sky overhead as rain started to pour down, drenching them both.
“I don’t have nothing! The other one, she took it all!”
The policeman narrowed his eyes as thunder rumbled. He shook his hand, flicking off the first few drops of rain, and then rammed his fist into Callum’s stomach.
Callum doubled over onto the ground, gasping. The officer loomed over him, highlighted against the blackened sky by now-frequent flashes of lightning.
“Shall we ‘ave another go?”
Callum grabbed his cap from off the ground next to him and stuffed it into his pocket. He didn’t answer, but started to scramble sideways, away from the policeman, his feet slipping wildly over the wet grass. The man reared back and kicked at his side, throwing him onto his back.
In the distance, the other policemen were rushing down the footpath towards them, their truncheons glittering wetly in the lamplight. The officer reached down and roughly grabbed Callum’s hair, pulling him forcibly, and painfully, to his feet. They stared at one another, the policeman expectantly, the pickpocket stubbornly.
With a smile and a sigh, the officer pulled his arm back to deliver a blow directly to Callum’s face. All pretence of bravery faded as Callum widened his eyes and yelled out in fear, his cry echoing across the park.
At that moment, the gas lamps went dark, the flames not whiffing out, but instead popping, each one shattering the thin, wavy glass of the lamp as they blew. The park was plunged into a sudden blackness that startled the policemen, and the rhythmic footsteps of the approaching constables were interrupted by the sounds of stumbling and swearing while the man who held Callum by the hair momentarily lessened his grip in surprise.
A moment was all that was needed for Callum to pull away and race into the trees. Loud cursing followed his escape and he kept on, pushing blindly through the underbrush until he was certain he was a safe distance from the open parkland.
Callum regained his feet and clambered up the thick trunk of a sturdy oak, and then inched his way along a top branch until he could see out.
Curiously, the lamps were lit again, their flickering light reflecting off the wet footpath and shards of shattered glass below. He could see the retreating shapes of the policemen as they gave up the hunt and hurried to get out of the downpour, dragging their violent comrade away with them.
Callum sighed and let his body relax, lowering his head onto the branch. That had been his closest call yet. He knew that Bridget would have plenty to say to him when he returned to the abandoned warehouse they used as a base. She was always hard on any of her protégés who got caught.
Useless, she called them.
Well, Callum thought, least she got the tin. That should cheer her up. Though I’ll be a basket of oranges if I ever see me share.
Thunder rolled over the park again, and Callum carefully inched back towards the trunk, preparing to lower himself to the ground. Better to brave Bridget’s wrath than be caught out in this storm.
Suddenly the sky above him lit up and a bolt of lightning shot down from the blackness, crashing into the oak and forking through the upper branches of the tree, its current racing through the cracks in the bark, making it look as though the tree was glowing from the inside out. The bolt found Callum’s prone body and settled in a startling flash of brilliant energy.
When the blaze of light cleared, Callum was no longer there.