I want to move, but the matchbook stays in my hand, my back weighs on the bench, and the ache and bruise of a beaten body feels like manacles. The Mandarin Oriental might as well be a million miles away.
No matches missing from the matchbook. Jenny doesn’t smoke. I wonder what she planned to ignite?
Garland sits on the bench above my head. He’s gained a second garland. With a little nod and a twinkle in his eye, he places a pile of bills near me.
“That’s for the winner,” I lisp past a loose tooth about ready to pop out.
He shrugs, and offers an apologetic smile. For an instant my pride wants me to knock over the pile of bills, but my head spins and the muscles in my knees, neck, and abs are all crying themselves to sleep. It will be days before I can walk properly, days in which I’ll need to eat.
“Thank you,” I say, and take the money. Pride is the sin of a victor.
My eyes work on closing. No time for that. “Jenny’s in trouble,” I say to myself by way of encouragement, but my courage doesn’t engage. Hard to think of how a body this beat up could be of any help to her.
“You want Agafya,” says Garland with a worried frown. “Bitter Flower.”
“Do I? Not if he’s tougher than you.”
He taps his fingers against the bench. “Listen,” he says, measuring his words against the slow tap of his fingers, “you should not go there. Dangerous.”
“Looking for a lady,” I manage. “I think she’s there. Maybe you could find her.”
His round face clouds over and he wipes sweat from his shoulders with the towel that hangs across them. In his eyes, I see a flicker of dancing ankles. After a few seconds he says, “Bitter flower has many people. Fighters and dancers…” he trails off and a yellow flower in one of the garlands bruises between his thumb and forefinger. The aura of color surrounding him shifts in tone as auburn streaks overrun its pale gold. The color over his right shoulder warps the light around it as though it were a telescope lens and visible only there, a lady rests her hand on his shoulder. She wears gold bangles and necklaces thick as armor, a scar like a continent on a map covers half her face, and no sound comes from her rustling ornaments. Garland takes a slow breath, frowns like a gargoyle, and then leans forward: “Two kind people in Bitter Flower; who pay, who belong.” Garland ticks the two kinds off on his fingertips and then turns on his smile. His aura stays red. “You no have money, so you no pay. You no fighter, so no belong.”
Two thoughts click into place:
- you can pay to get into Bitter Flower. Jenny will want to know that.
- these hallucinations of mine are useful.
I’ve been seeing clues about people’s past and identity swimming about in their auras, like Garland’s garland or Mitts’ mitts, but I’ve also been seeing emotion as color. In that fighting ring I learned I can see the movements of people’s attacks foreshadowed by the flow of their aggression – washes of red like a painter’s stroke that showed the path of their intention a moment before the approach of a kick, or the swing of a punch.
None of which explains the lady in bangles, but she’s probably some part of Garland’s past.
I wish I knew how it worked, or how to turn it on or off again. It’s unreliable. Garland’s fists didn’t light up red, and I got no warning when his blows were coming.
Now I think about it, if the red is aggression, and it’s the red that tells me where a punch is going to go, maybe I didn’t have any warning of Garland’s attacks because he wasn’t feeling aggressive when he made them.
A shiver runs through me and my hands tighten on the wood plank beneath me. Fights are about anger, about dominance. Yet, I may have been trounced by a man so much better than me he didn’t even feel like he was fighting. I try to shake it off, but the shiver sits in my lower spine and won’t go away.
“Not a fighter?” I squeak. “You were my third fight today!” The scattered ranks of my self-image rally enough to sit me upright. My body feels like a sack full of seashells and ball bearings.
He shakes his head in a hard rejection. The hand on his shoulder closes to a fist. “Bitter Flower no sport. I not strong. Bitter Flower, very strong. You go, you die.”
“Alright.” My tongue is salted meat. I need water. If he says I’m not a fighter, then the blood on my body is evidence enough to believe him. “But what is Bitter Flower? And who is the girl with her hand on your shoulder? She has a scar on her face?”
He blinks. Over his shoulder, the lady’s eyes whip to me. She tilts her head to the side. Her mouth moves but I can’t hear her, and then she’s gone like a camera flash and all the color fades. Garland shakes his head like I’ve just slapped him. “Go rest,” he says. “Give up.”
Heat and crowds make the street outside seem to swim, but it’s a cold black-and white after the color of the club. I hail a rickshaw. The man who pulls it has teeth stained red and legs like an Olympic marathon runner.
“Mandarin Oriental,” I tell him.
Judging by the afternoon sun the tournament took all day, though I hardly noticed. The air smells of exhaust, tropical ocean and spicy food. I search the street for things of color, bits of glass, the bricks of a shop festooned with some garish red powder. There’s color, but it doesn’t move. It seems dead. Ordinary. The power’s gone. I wish I knew why.
The cart lurches forward, making my head spin. This city has nearly beat me senseless. I’ve never lost so badly, not since the early days. Well, not since the German shot and killed me. Alright so I might be on a losing streak.
I have to switch tactics. My legs and neck will still be sore for a day or two, so whatever trouble Jenny’s in, I’m not going to be punching it out. People around here are too good at punching for my taste anyway.
“Hey,” I shout at my rickshaw runner, and he glances over his shoulder, slowing. I point at a nearby tailor shop. “Stop there.”
Ten minutes later I’m on the move again.
The street, busy with rickshaws and wagons, smells of dog poop, palm trees, roses and dust. The calling of bells from the river reaches over a spread of manicured garden between the last thatched shops in the row along the road and the big bulk of the Mandarin Oriental. My rickshaw runner jogs at an even pace, but watching his muscular calves makes my shins clench up in bruised and confused self-defense.
The Oriental has an honor guard of monkeys: A gold-furred one hoots at me from the edge of the paved roundabout under the hotel’s gilded awning. He has about a dozen friends, all hunting about in the grass and chewing on whatever it is they’re digging up. All twelve of them watch me climb out of the rickshaw with tiny, black eyes.
My skin crawls as I hand the runner the last of the cash Garland gave me. It was enough for a pinstripe suit and a wicker hat – costume enough to hide my bruising from cultured eyes, but I feel naked the way the monkeys watch me.
Two mustached doormen pull open the huge hotel doors like the gates of heaven. They bow as they usher me on to whatever fate Jenny fears.