A distant murmur pulled me back to awareness from some dark primordial state. Slowly but steadily the murmur turned into words: “Yeah, dad, I know. Just can’t come right now, you know.”
My mouth was completely dry. I was desperate for water. I tried to open my eyes and cry out to the person that spoke those words, but my whole face was like a hardened, plaster-cast mask over which I had no power.
I was lying on my stomach, with my right cheek pressed against the rough fabric. My limbs were crooked and every attempt to move them, even just a little bit, resulted in pain. I called out again, producing only an undistinctive guttural sound.
In this mental and physical agony, I succeeded to open my right eye only to promptly close it again as the sun hit me with its blinding light. I squinted and slowly, centimeter by centimeter, moved my arms and then my legs. I realized I was on a deckchair. A small, red blanket slipped from my body to the floor as I sat up.
The memory of last night’s events gradually took shape and prompted me to check my jaw and my nose. A deep sigh of relief left my lungs; despite the pain, the swollenness, and the inability to open my left eye, nothing seemed to be broken. The kick did not break my jaw this time.
Thinking about that infamous moment fuelled me with anger. I stood up and stumbled across a wooden platform towards the blurry silhouette. I lost my balance and hit a transparent barrier, barely managing to grab onto its upper edge as my upper body dangerously bent over it.
On some other occasion, the view would have been breath-taking, but at that moment all the hair of my flesh stood up as I gazed with my only functional eye at the concrete jungle forty stories below. My stomach was at my throat and everything seemed to be slightly moving as if swayed by the light, hot breeze I felt against my face.
“Heeey, easy man! You don’t wanna lean over that!...Are you okay?” a kind voice said.
Still leaning over the fence I turned my head sideways towards the person that addressed me. A skinny black man holding a phone to his right ear stood not far from me. His gentle-featured face was oddly familiar to me.
“Geez, what happened to you?...Dad, listen, dad, I’ll have to call you back.” He put his phone in his back pocket and approached me.
It was jeans and a sleeveless, white t-shirt instead of the red gown, short, black curls instead of luscious, long hair, and it was a man instead of an elegant woman. But the face and the soft velvety voice, which now carried a distinct trace of American accent, was the same. She...he was the singer from last night. I smiled at the realization, although in all probability my lips, being swollen and dry, did not move at all.
Placing his hand on my shoulder, the man gently pushed me away from the fence and walked me back to the deck chair. I noticed some vomit on it and, looking down on my shirt, I saw some of it on me as well. It already dried out leaving a yellowish stain.
“Eww....better not to sit on this one,” the man suggested and looked around for an alternative.
“Here you go. Take it slow.” He pulled closer a chair nearby and sat me on it. “Judging by the looks, you must be that newcomer...the one that got beaten up last night?”
“I...echm,” I cleared my throat. My voice was hoarse from the dryness. “Can I get a glass of water...please?”
“Yeah sure, just wait here, okay? Don’t go wandering off towards that edge.”
Only after getting a nod from me he left. The club’s terrace turned out to be quite big, with tables and chairs scattered over the wooden platform and a transparent fence marking its edge. I spotted an empty bar area, where drinks were probably served in the evening. There was also a small pool, a few deck chairs, and parasols. ‘At least they could have put me under one of them’, I sarcastically remarked to myself. The sun showed no mercy on this roof-top terrace and being left on a deckchair till what looked like early afternoon hours, did me no favours. A strong smell of sweat and vomit hit my nostrils as I lowered my head towards my armpit.
My clothes were a mess. The pants were dirty, probably from being dragged on the floor. Half of my shirt was pulled out and missing a couple of buttons. There was a tear on both sleeves of the jacket and stains of blood and vomit on all the garments. ‘The money I spent on them’, I thought regretfully while tucking in my shirt. As I touched upon the area of my abdomen a sharp, stabbing pain shot through my body.
“They did a good job on you. Here, take this.” The man returned with a large glass of water and a plastic bag filled with ice cubes. I eagerly took the glass and gulped down most of the water.
Wincing from the look at me, he passed me the bag with ice. I pressed it on my swollen left eyelid and, closing my other eye too, allowed myself a moment of bliss as the ice soothed my injured skin and eased the heat of the sun.
“Who are they?” I rasped.
Repeating the words again required too much effort, let alone start explaining, so my response was a shallow but audible sigh.
“Oh, you mean...the men that beat you up?”
“Well, can’t say for sure. Can be any of the clans.”
“Yeah, clans, you know.” He gave me a pitiful look. “Oh man, you have no idea, do you?”
I emptied the glass, feeling my mind clearer. Once again I went over the more important details of last night. That damn woman somehow knew my plan and she had me beat up to prevent me from contacting Fujiwara. But why, and why undertake such a drastic measure?
“You’re...the singer,” I uttered, breathing heavily. A sick feeling arose in the pit of my stomach.
“Well, technically, that was Ela.”
I couldn’t continue the conversation. The nausea worsening I rushed to stand up. Another sharp pain in the abdominal area sent me staggering towards the man. He caught me but my weight sent him several steps backwards and we almost both crushed to the floor.
“Hey, man, are you okay? You should go see a doctor.”
The pain receded a little, and I steadied myself on my feet. “Can you show me where the toilet is?”
“Sure. Let me help you.” He put his arm beneath my shoulders to give me support, but I refused. He was much thinner and lighter than me and it just felt embarrassing.
“Thanks, I’ll be fine.”
He looked at me unsure.
“Can we please go?” I hoped he sensed the urgency in my voice.
“Okay. Come with me.”
He walked slowly, pausing every few steps to make sure I was able to follow.
“I’m Ernest, by the way.”
For some reason that name forced a chuckle out of me, followed by a helpless yelp as my body answered with pain.
“I know, right” he rolled his eyes and smiled. “I owe it to my father’s obsession with books of Hemingway.”
“Nik, that’s a good name. Short, it fits you. Mine certainly doesn’t fit me. I don’t look Ernest, do I?” He grinned.
I couldn’t care less. I needed the bathroom, asap. Finally, we reached the sliding door, which opened on its own, and entered.
“Mind the step,” Ernest warned me, as I followed him inside the club. The bartender that served me last night was standing behind the counter, wiping a glass dry. Upon seeing us, he remarked something in Japanese. His tone was not overly friendly and he averted his stare when I looked at him.
“It’s fine Kenichi, just taking him to tidy up. Don’t worry, he’ll be out of here afterwards,” responded Ernest in English. The bartender acknowledged it with a nod and returned his attention to the glass in his hand.
We walked into a narrow hallway behind the stage and Ernest opened one of the doors on the left.
“You can use this bathroom.”
He then pointed to a door opposite. “I’ll wait for you in there.”
I hurried past him and went straight to the nearest toilet cabin. I was lucky I managed to open the lid just before the yellow fluid splashed from my mouth. Bent above the toilet-seat, I watched as an automatic flush cleaned my bile. From the cabin I staggered to the sink and opened the faucet, calming myself at the sound of the running water.
Not a pretty sight when I looked up in the mirror. There was a smear of dry blood from my nose over my lips and chin. I looked like a vampire that just had a feast. An ugly one too as the left side of my face was all puffed up and instead of my eye there was the bloated purple eyelid. My nose and my lips were swollen too, and the white surface of my right eye was bloodshot. Despite the damage my face sustained, I considered myself lucky that no bone or tooth was broken and there seemed to be no need for stitches. I’d have to do something about the eye, but the rest was nothing a pack of ice couldn’t heal. What worried me more was the pain in my abdomen. I lifted my shirt, seeing a large hematoma in the right side of my stomach. The liver shot. I flinched from the memory of it.
Convincing myself a good rest was all I needed, I splashed cold water over my face, neck, and hair. I washed off the blood and patted my face dry with a paper towel. I took another look at the mirror. Much better. I was used to beaten faces, a common sight among us fighters, it surprised me, though, how well Ernest took it.
I found the door across the hallway ajar, so I entered. It was a small room with a few pieces of furniture and lots of make-up, clothes, and other accessories scattered all around. Ernest was sitting by a desk with a large mirror, tapping on his phone.
“Well, you look less bloody,” he said placing the phone down, and pointed at the sofa; “You can sit there.”
“What is this place?”
“Ela’s dressing room. Sorry for the mess.”
I noticed photos pinned on the wooden frame of the mirror. Ernest was only on one of them, standing next to an older man in a military uniform, while all the other photos were of Ela: Ela in the company of various guests in the club, Ela on the stage, Ela grinning with the bartender, Ela on the club’s terrace embraced by a shirtless, muscular black man. I looked again, focusing my eye on that photo. That man...Thinking suddenly became a huge effort for my brain cells. I began to feel weak and nauseous again. I lay on the sofa and closed my eye.
“Hey, man...Nik...You can’t stay here.”
“Let me be, just for a while. Besides, I need to speak to your sister.”
She knows one of the guys that beat me. I wasn’t sure if I said that out loud. I drifted off and surrendered to comfortable darkness.