He was not a happy man, and the Happy Man Guesthouse was partly responsible. The building was at least half a century old, and it looked as if the carpet had never been changed in that time. Perhaps the carpet actually predated the Guesthouse, and they’d chosen it for its stains and dark brown colour, as if that would confer the right image on the establishment.
His room was on the first floor, looking down onto Lockhart Road, and that afforded him a view of the Wild Chicken’s neon sign, which beamed a constant and lurid animation of a bird through his window. The venetian blinds hanging on the window were made of such cheap, thin plastic that even with them drawn tight he could still make out the Wild Chicken, pecking away outside. It looked more like a goose to him, although he wasn’t sure if it was more offensive for being poorly executed, or if that was a mitigating factor. The traffic, the honking of horns, the rumble of buses, the stench of diesel puffing up into the room, were constant.
If he lay on the bed, he could do psychological tests on himself by staring at the patches of mould on the ceiling and trying to describe what they reminded him of. His mother, a butterfly, a vase of flowers, somebody upstairs flooding the bath.
Well, you could call it a bed. It was apparently designed for lying on. If you were drunk enough not to notice how hard it was, and if you were no taller than five feet. Perhaps the Happy Man Guesthouse’s clientele were alcoholic twelve-year-olds.
Apart from the bed and the carpet, the only furnishings in the room were a piece of metal pipe bolted to the wall next to the door, running parallel to the bed and bolted next to the window frame. A single wire coat hanger hung from the pipe, which is what allowed him to tell it was a crude attempt at a wardrobe, rather than just a spectacularly poor plumbing decision. There was a badly painted picture of a boat hanging lopsidedly above the ‘bed’, and a cracked mirror opposite it.
There was no toilet en-suite. The room smelt as though there was, cheap bleach failing to obliterate the smell of sewage. And mould.
The bathroom for the floor was down the hall, past two other bedroom doors. He hadn’t ventured down there yet – given the state of his room, he dreaded what a shared facility would be like. That would come soon enough.
All these things, all the horrors of the room, were things that he could have consoled himself by taking an inventory of, a litany of complaints to refer to later in his life. But not at this point. The pain was too much for these things to be anything more than a passing distraction, an extra indignity as he lay on the floor groaning.
The pains had got worse since he’d left the plane and passed through immigration. They had abated for an hour, perhaps two, and then returned. He was running a fever; alternately hot and cold, his hands shaking, sweat clammy on his back. He’d tried to turn on the air conditioning unit in his room, but it clanked and chugged and didn’t seem to do anything. He couldn’t remember if you were meant to treat a fever with cold air or stay warm.
From time to time, he had stabbing pains through his limbs, as though his nerves were taut wires, being dragged back from his fingers and toes into the centre of his chest. He kept coughing, and sometimes it was a dry wheeze, sometimes he was bringing up blood.
Gray lay there on the floor, feeling quite certain that he was going to die soon, and still feeling some absurdity in this. He had only had the visit to the medical centre two days ago, a check-up where they did the whole gamut of tests, told him that he was in perfect health. He’d had his jabs, taken the pills, had nothing to worry about.
And yet … and yet. There was something else wrong. He was here in Hong Kong to deliver a package. What was the package? Had he left it at the airport, blinded by the pain? No. He’d had a small backpack with him, and a wheeled suitcase, both of which were at the foot of the bed. Had he had something taken out of them?
He crawled to the bags. In his suitcase was nothing but clothes for his time in Hong Kong; in the backpack was the package he was meant to deliver. He unzipped it, hardly capable of holding the zipper. Inside the bag was a manila envelope, a set of papers contained inside. If he passed out here in the room, what would happen to it? Would somebody else come upon the secrets that were too great to email to their contact out here? Could that be risked?
He’d open the envelope, against the security protocol, against what Miles had told him – go to Hong Kong, deliver the package, leave – but if there was a risk of him losing the package, it would be safer to memorise the contents. Then he could destroy it, pass on the information to the contact in person. That was the sensible thing to do.
He ran a fingernail through the taped seal, pulled out the documents that were inside.
Something was wrong. Something was very badly wrong.
That, or Miles had sent him to the other side of the world for a joke, or to drop off a six-week old copy of the Economist, where he’d used a ballpoint pen to black out the teeth of the president of the USA on the front cover. Gray feebly shook the magazine; nothing fell out. No sign of any articles in the magazine were highlighted. There was nothing else in the envelope.
He wept a few tears then, knowing that he’d travelled to a foreign country, far from his home, where he knew nobody, on a fool’s errand, only to succumb to some awful disease picked up in the Heathrow departure lounge. What a waste, an utter waste.
His stomach grumbled, a sound like gravel in a cement mixer, feeling much the same. He groaned in sympathy, hot bile rising up in his throat.
Perhaps it would help if he stood up. If he was vertical, maybe things would not be as bad. He pulled himself upright via the bed, turned and looked at himself in the mirror. Now that it was getting dark outside (how long had he been in the Happy Man Charnel House? It had been too long since the moment he had walked in and the bored clerk downstairs had ticked off his name in a little book) his face was stained with the light coming in through the window; now he was both rouged by the light, and afflicted with the pallor of a corpse.
A corpse that was bleeding. There was a patch of blood on his shirt front, gradually widening.
Shocked, Gray unbuttoned his shirt, clumsy fingers fumbling with the buttons.
There on his belly, a bloodsoaked patch of gauze, held in place with dozens of strips of surgical tape, wrapping round his abdomen. Soaked through with blood.
That hadn’t been there two days ago. Not before he’d visited the medical centre. Not before he’d had the tests. What tests? He tried to remember, tried to block out the pain for a moment. What had they done? What did he remember being checked for? Had he been conscious all the time? Were there gaps in the four hours he had been there that he couldn’t explain? What was happening? Why did everything hurt so much? What had Miles done to him?
He put his hands over the gauze. His belly was hot to the touch. He could feel the heat, right through the bandages.
Something moved inside his stomach. He felt it, like a baby kicking in the womb. He shrieked, and fell to the floor. What had they done to him?