It hurt to blink.
The light stabbed at his eyes, shooting daggers of pain to the back of his skull. When he shut them an aurora of black and white spots lingered.
Albert Payne had never been one to partake liberally in alcohol; not that he was a complete teetotaler either. He’d been hungover a handful of times during his fifty-six years, but those few occasions had been the result of unintended excess, never a deliberate intent to get drunk. So although he had little experience with which to compare it, his pounding head seemed a clear indicator that he had indeed drunk to excess. He’d have to accept that as so, because he could remember little about the prior evening. Each factory owner, along with the local officials in China’s Guangdong Province, had insisted on a reception for Payne and the delegation, no doubt believing their hospitality would ensure a favorable report. Payne recalled sipping white wine, but after three weeks the receptions had blurred together, and he could not separate one from the other.
The thought popped into his head and he seemed to recall that caffeine eased a hangover. Maybe so, but locating the magic elixir would require that he stand, dress, leave his hotel room, and ride the elevator to the lobby. At the moment, just lifting his head felt as if it would require a crane.
Forcing his eyelids open, he followed floating dust motes in a stream of light to an ornate ceiling of crisscrossing wooden beams and squares of decorative wallpaper. He blinked, pinched the bridge of his nose, then looked again, but the view had not changed. A cold sweat enveloped him. The ceiling in his room at the Shenzhen Hotel had no beams or wallpaper; he’d awakened the previous three mornings to a flat white ceiling.
He shifted his gaze. Cheap wood paneling and a dingy, burnt-orange carpet: this was not his hotel room and, by simple deduction, this could not be his bed.
He slid his hand along the sheet, fingertips brushing fabric until encountering something distinctly different, soft and warm. His heart thumped hard in his chest. He turned his head. Dark hair flowed over alabaster shoulders blemished by two small moles. The woman lay on her side, the sheet draped across the gentle slope of her rounded hip.
Starting to hyperventilate, Payne forced deep breaths from his diaphragm. Now was not the time to panic. Besides, rushing from the room was not an option, not in his present condition, and not without his clothes. Think! The woman had not yet stirred, and judging by her heavy breathing she remained deep asleep, perhaps as hungover as he, perhaps enough that if he didn’t panic, Payne might be able to sneak out without waking her, if he could somehow manage to sit up.
He forced his head from the pillow and scanned along the wall to the foot of the bed, spotted a shoe, and felt a moment of great relief that just as quickly became greater alarm. The shoe was not his brown Oxford loafer but a square-toed boot.
Payne bolted upright, causing the room to spin and tilt off-kilter, bringing fleeting, blurred images like a ride on a merry-go-round. The images did not clear until the spinning slowed.
“Good morning, Mr. Payne.” The man sat in an armless, slatted wood chair. “You appear to be having a difficult start to your day.” Eyes as dark as a crow, the man wore his hair parted in the middle and pulled back off his forehead in a ponytail that extended beyond the collar of his black leather coat.
“Would you care for some water?”
Not waiting for a response, the man stood. At a small round table in the corner of the room he filled a glass from a pitcher, offering it to Payne. If this were a bad dream, it was very real. Payne hesitated, no longer certain that his hangover was alcohol induced.
The man motioned with the glass and arched heavy eyebrows that accentuated the bridge of a strong forehead. Dark stubble shaded his face. “Please. I assure you it’s clean, relatively speaking.”
Payne took the glass but did not immediately drink, watching as the man returned to the chair, and crossed his legs, before again pointing to the glass. This time Payne took a small sip. The glass clattered against his teeth and water trickled down his chin onto the sheet. When the man said nothing, Payne asked, “What do you want?”
“Me? I want nothing.”
“Then why are you—”
The man raised a single finger. “My employer, however, has several requests.”
“Your employer? Who is your employer?”
“I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to divulge that information.”
The woman emitted a small moan before her chest resumed its rhythmic rise and fall. Payne looked back to the man, an idea occurring. “I’ve been married for more than twenty years; my wife will never believe this.”
The man responded with a blank stare. “Believe what?”
Payne gestured to the woman. “Her. It’s not going to work.”
“Ah.” The man nodded. “You believe that I am here to blackmail you with photographs or videotapes of the two of you fornicating.”
“It isn’t going to work,” Payne repeated.
“Let me first say that it is refreshing to hear in this day when more than fifty percent of all marriages end in divorce that yours remains strong. Good for you. But look around you, Mr. Payne; do you see a camera or a video recorder anywhere in the room?”
Payne did not.
“Now, as I said, my employer has several requests.” For the next several minutes the man outlined those requests. Finishing, he asked, “Do we have an understanding?”
Confused, Payne shook his head. “But you said you weren’t here to blackmail me.”
“I said I was not here to blackmail you with photographs or videotapes. And as you have already educated me, such an attempt would not be productive.”
“Then why would I do what you’re asking?”
“Another good question.” The man pinched his lower lip. His brow furrowed. “It appears I will need something more persuasive.” He paused. “Can you think of anything?”
“Something that would make a man like you acquiesce to my employer’s demands?”
“There’s nothing,” Payne said. “This isn’t going to work. So if I could just have my clothes back.”
“Nothing?” The man seemed to give the problem greater consideration, then snapped his fingers. “I have it.”
The word struck Payne like a dart to the chest. “Murder? I haven’t murdered anyone.”
With the fluidity of a dancer the man stood, a gun sliding into his extended left hand from somewhere beneath his splayed black coat, and the back of the woman’s head exploded, blood splattering Payne about the face and neck.
“Now you have.”
© 2010 La Mesa Fiction, LLC