Read an Excerpt
The Pacific Pearl,
Taipa Island, Macau
Wednesday, 27 June 16:22:51 GMT +0800
"Everything is now better," Quan said, turning over another page of blueprints. A slight man in his mid forties, rather formal in manner, with high cheekbones and saffron-colored skin, he was dressed in a custom-tailored linen suit and soft leather brogues. "Much better."
Better! Patience was not one of Jake Rynerson's virtues and it took all his willpower just to remain seated at the table while Li Quan methodically recounted everything that was being done to accelerate the pace of construction. Better wasn't good enough, not when a new world order hung in the balance.
As he continued, Quan delicately smoothed down the large dappled sheet of paper. "Interior work should be back on schedule within ten days." He spoke with an unusual accent, not quite Chinese, not quite English, a by-product of his Oxford education. "As you see -- " His voice echoed through the cavity of unfinished space, a revolving cocktail lounge two hundred feet above the casino floor. "We have tripled our workforce." He motioned toward the teakwood balustrade, an intricately carved serpentine of dragons.
Though Jake hardly needed anyone to point out the obvious, he realized his attention was expected, and glanced down at the beehive of workers and craftsmen swarming over his masterpiece, and what he now feared would be his albatross. The main tower was a typical John Portman design -- a huge open atrium with plants hanging off the indoor balconies -- except nothing about the Pacific Pearl was typical. Every suite offered two breathtaking views: outward, over the Pearl River Delta, and inward, over five acres of green felt tables. It was by far the most spectacular of all the new resorts in Macau, exceeding even his own lofty expectations, but he was already late to the party, the last of the large gaming corporations to open in what was predicted to be the new Mecca of gambling. If he hoped to lure the high rollers away from the other resorts, he needed to open with a splash . . . and if he hoped to save the Pacific Rim Alliance, he needed to open on time, something that no longer seemed possible. Holy mother of Texas! -- he couldn't imagine the ramifications. The hotel booked to capacity . . . Streisand coming out of retirement to open the showroom . . . the collapse of a yearlong secret negotiation between China, Taiwan, and United States.
"Three shifts," Quan continued, "working twenty-four hours a day."
Nothing Jake didn't already know. He would have cut the man off, but the Chinese were different from Westerners, they didn't understand his mercurial temperament, and he couldn't afford to offend his general manager a month before the scheduled opening. Billie, sitting between the men like a bridge between East and West, dipped her chin, acknowledging her husband's unusual restraint, her subtle way of telling him to keep his yap shut. He took a deep breath, then let it out long and slow, all the way to the bottom, trying to control his anxiety. How could he have been so confident? The secret was too big, the time too short. All those bigger-than-life headlines must have turned his brain into bullcrap.
BIG JAKE RYNERSON, BUSINESSMAN AND BILLIONAIRE, TAKES ON SOCIALIST CHINA.
VEGAS COWBOY RIDES INTO MACAU -- CAN HE DELIVER?
Yup, that was it, his balls had finally outgrown his brain. He had clearly succumbed to the myth of his own infallibility. What did he know about Chinese politics? About Chinese superstition? How was a dumb ol' West Texas cowboy supposed to appease the Gods, blow away the bad spirits, and sooth the sleeping dragons? Of all the stupid things he'd done in his life, this had to be the worst -- not counting wives two, three, and four -- three acts of lunacy he preferred not to think about. At least he'd been smart enough to marry his first wife twice -- he gave Billie a little wink -- the best decision he ever made.
"Of course," Quan went on, "much depends on the weather."
Jake swiveled toward the windows -- a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree panorama overlooking the Chinese mainland, the islands, and the South China Sea -- a spectacular view if not for the onslaught of rain hammering away at the glass, a two-day downpour that showed no signs of retreat.
"It won't last," Billie said, sounding more hopeful than confident. "We're going to make it."
Jake nodded, trying to put on a good face, but he didn't believe it; it was the beginning of typhoon season, the time of black rain, and the onslaught could last for days. Weeks maybe, and if the problems continued . . . they were already $82 million over budget . . . but that was only money, that he could handle . . . it was all the political bullshit . . . the set-in-stone timetable established by some feng shui master . . . that's what he couldn't handle.
Li Quan stared at the rivulets of water streaming down the glass, then turned over his hands, a gesture of helplessness. "Very bad joss."
Jake kept his eyes fixed on the gray horizon, barely able to restrain his desire to grab the man by the shoulders and shake some sense into him. Quan was an excellent administrator, but his Chinese mind-set, his propensity to blame all problems on bad joss, was almost too much. Luck had nothing to do with it. Too many things had gone wrong. Big things: a crane buckling under the weight of an air-conditioning unit and crushing two welders; a misplaced wrench tearing out the guts of the hotel's grand escalator, a curving triple-wide mechanical marvel that cost over eight million dollars; the sudden collapse of a construction elevator that killed four workers; and two days ago -- only hours after the security netting had been removed from the tower -- a building inspector had somehow gotten past the retainment barrier and fallen off the roof. Problems that were costing him a fortune to keep out of the press, and far too many to be written off as bad joss. "No, Mr. Quan, I don't believe luck has anything to do with it. Someone's behind this."
A wave of confusion rolled across Li Quan's face. "Behind this . . . ?" He turned to the window, obviously wondering how someone could control the weather. "I don't -- "
Billie, who had an aggravating and somewhat mystic insight into exactly what her husband was thinking, interrupted. "Excuse me, Mr. Quan -- " She glanced at her watch, a gold, wafer-thin Gondolo by Patek Philippe. "But I think it's time for the uniform review." She nudged Jake's boot with her foot, a reminder that Li Quan knew nothing about the secret negotiations, the proposed alliance, or the true significance of the opening date.
"Right," Jake said, more in answer to Billie's unspoken warning than to what she had said. "Let's get that over with."
"Hai," Quan responded, a relieved lift in his voice. "We should not keep them waiting." He snatched up his two-way radio and began chattering away in rapid-fire Cantonese, the most common dialect within the province. It was that single talent -- Li Quan's ability to communicate with the Macanese staff -- that kept Jake from making an immediate management change.
Within minutes people began streaming out of the crystal-domed glass elevators that ascended silently along one side of the atrium. There was a male and female employee from each department: bellhops and parking valets, hosts and hostesses, janitors and maids, dealers and croupiers, bartenders and cocktail servers, and at least a dozen more. As Li Quan began lining everyone up along the front of the balustrade, Billie leaned over and whispered, "You have to be careful, Jake, you can't afford to offend the man. We need him."
He nodded, not about to argue, but knowing what he really needed was a hard-charging ballbuster like Caitlin Wells to get the place open.
"And," Billie added, "you can forget about Caitlin. She can't speak the language."
Damn woman, he was starting to think she could read his mind. "Give me a little rope, darlin', I ain't senile yet."
"Besides, you need her in Vegas. She's got enough to handle with the expansion of the Sand Castle."
As if he needed to be told. "I know that, Billie."
"I know you know, but you look a bit short on patience." She gave him a teasing smile, the kind that could still make his old heart giddy-up and gallop. "So, I'm reminding you."
"Well I don't need remindin'," he whispered back, though they both knew that wasn't true. "But if I hear bad joss one more time, that boy's gonna be wearing one of my boots up the backside of his fundament."
She chuckled and patted his knee as Li Quan began his fashion parade. Though Jake smiled and nodded to each team as they paraded past the table, nothing registered, his mind struggling to find some way to speed up the construction process. He wanted to pick up a hammer, do something with his own hands, but that would look desperate, and all it would take for the press to unleash their bloodhounds. That's the way it worked -- one minute he was that loveable Vegas cowboy, and the next just another dumbass cowpoke from West Texas -- but either way, up or down, Big Jake Rynerson made good copy for the tabloids, and their minions were always watching. So he was stuck, hoping Mother Nature would turn her wrath elsewhere, hoping the contractor could finish before anything else went wrong, hoping the press . . .
"What do you think?" Billie asked as a casino hostess in a micro-short dress of shimmering gold stepped forward.
He felt like a lecher just looking at the girl, who couldn't have been more than eighteen, with perfect golden brown skin and sparkling black eyes. "About what?"
"The dress. You think it's too flashy?" Billie pointed toward the heavens and made a circling motion with her finger. The girl executed a graceful pirouette, her pixie-cut black hair spiking outward as if charged with electricity.
Jake tried to concentrate on the dress but couldn't move his eyes beyond the hemline. "It's awful damn short."
"These girls don't have breasts, Jake, and they're not very tall. They need to show some leg."
"I got no problem with legs, Billie. We just don't want 'em flashing their fannies around, that's all."
Billie tilted her head, a look of amusement. "Jake, honey, you're blushing like a schoolboy."
And feeling like one. Embarrassed, he pushed himself back from the table. "It's almost nine o'clock in Vegas. I promised Caity I'd call before breakfast."
"What about the dress?"
"Whatever you think." He grabbed his cellular and started toward the back of the room, but before he could punch in Caitlin's number, the tiny unit began to vibrate. The number on the display, a Macau prefix, was not one he recognized. "Hello."
"Mr. B. J. Rynerson, this I presume?" Despite the awkward syntax, the soft feminine voice was both confident and seductive, with only a hint of Cantonese accent.
Jake hesitated, moving deeper into the room. Only three women knew his private number, and this was not one of them. "And who is this?"
"My name Mei-li Chiang. Perhaps you have heard this name?"
"It's possible," he answered cautiously, though he knew the woman by reputation: a well-known power broker, and one of the few Macanese who had managed to maintain influence in the new Special Administrative Region -- the SAR -- that guaranteed Macau a "high degree of autonomy" when Portugal turned the province over to China in '99. "What can I do for you, Madame Chiang?"
"It is more what I can do for you, taipan."
He hated the title -- big boss -- and tried to discourage its use. "Please call me Jake."
"Jake," she repeated, turning his hard-edged name into something soft and provocative. "I understand you are having problems."
Was she guessing -- he knew the Macau grapevine was healthy and well entrenched -- or did she really know something? "The usual construction delays."
"Not so usual, I am told."
He wanted to know exactly what she had heard and who had said it, but was positive she would never divulge a source or any details of what she knew. That was the crux of her power -- secrets -- and she would know how to keep them and use them. "Nothing we can't handle."
"That is most gratifying to hear, taipan. I thought perhaps I could be of some small service . . ." She paused, her voice a teasing mixture of promise and provocation.
He could already feel her hand in his pocket and knew he was being sucked toward a vortex of Chinese graft and corruption. Given a choice, he would have told her to take a flying leap off the Taipa Bridge, but if she did know something, he needed to quash the story before it spread. "Yes, it's true, we've had a few unfortunate accidents." Nothing, he was sure, she didn't already know.
"Accidents," she repeated, as if the word amused her. "I think it is more than that, taipan."
"And you could help?"
"Perhaps. I have some small experience in these matters. There are people I could speak with about these . . . unfortunate accidents."
"And what's this here 'small experience' going to cost?"
She made a little sound, a disapproving exhale of breath, offended that he should be so blatant and boorish. "This is not about money, taipan."
He knew better. Once a person acquired that ludicrous title of businessman and billionaire, it was always about money. "Please excuse my ignorance, Madame Chiang. I'm just a simple qai loh, and a cowboy to boot."
"A foreigner, yes, but we both know you are neither ignorant nor simple, taipan. You misunderstood my offer."
"To welcome a new friend into the colony. To provide assistance. Your problems are my problems."
He didn't believe a word of it. "That's much appreciated, ma'am. Sure is."
"We should discuss these problems."
Or more accurately, the cost of eliminating them, a situation he could see no way to avoid. If he went to the police -- who cared nothing about the problems of a rich qai loh -- the story would leak out; and if he didn't pay, the accidents would continue. The only question was the amount it would take to make the problems go away. "Yes, ma'am. I'm listening."
"These are not matters to be discussed over the phone."
Right, you don't discuss bribes and offshore bank accounts over the airwaves. "What do you suggest?"
"A private meeting."
And you don't discuss such matters in front of witnesses, which was perfectly fine with him. "When and where?"
"I am at your service, taipan."
He glanced at his watch -- 4:51 -- realized the day was rapidly slipping away, and the Alliance that much closer to dissolving. "Is today convenient?" He tried not to sound as desperate as he felt, but could hear it in his own voice. "Say nine o'clock?"
"Ten," she answered instantly, obviously aware she had him on the hook, and could reel him in at will. "You are familiar with the Leal Senado?"
"The old senate building?"
"Hai. From there you must walk."
He pressed the RECORD button on his smartphone. "Give me directions, I'll find you."
Billie leaned forward over the white tablecloth, her whispered voice as tight as the string on a new guitar. "This isn't like you, Jake. You've never paid a bribe in your life."
He shrugged, trying to keep it casual, nothing he couldn't handle. "I've never done business in China."
"It's too dangerous," she snapped back, her voice rising, the words echoing through the dimly lit bistro. "Forget it, Jake. Please."
He gave her his best good ol' boy smile, trying to dampen the fire in her eyes. "You sure do look spectacular when you're angry, darlin'."
"Don't you try and sell me with that cowboy bullshit. Don't even try. I'm too old to buy, and too smart to believe."
"I mean it, Billie." And he did. She might have acquired a few wrinkles around the eyes and mouth, but it was a face built on a magnificent superstructure of bones that didn't depend on makeup and perfect skin. "You look as good as the day we got married."
She frowned in mock disgust, though her eyes sparkled with affection. "Like that's a big whoop. We've only been married two years."
"I meant the first time."
"You're so full of bullshit, I'm surprised those baby blues haven't turned brown over the years." She dropped her voice another notch. "What else did he say?"
She assumed it was a man and he saw no reason to say otherwise. That would only exacerbate the problem, her thinking he was meeting some Chinese seductress in the backstreets of Macau. "That was it. The person who called was just a go-between."
"You don't know that."
No, but he believed it. Mei-li Chiang was a political parasite; she didn't create problems, she lived off them. "It doesn't matter."
"It does matter. You're one of the richest men in the world; you can't start paying bribes to everyone who tries to shake you down. For all you know it's the Triad."
"The Triad hasn't operated in Macau since '98. These are just some local yahoos trying to score a few bucks from the newest qai loh wanting to play in their sandbox."
"I don't think so."
That was the problem with Billie, too damn smart. They both realized the accidents were too severe for a bunch of local yahoos. "Why?"
"If this was just about money," she answered, "they would have made a try after the escalator got trashed and before a bunch of innocent people got killed."
He shook his head, but that was exactly his thinking. There was something else going on, something he didn't understand. "There's no reason to worry, they just want to be sure nothing is being recorded. They'll give me an amount and the number of some offshore account and I'll be back at the hotel in less than an hour. Besides -- " He glanced around, making sure no one was eavesdropping on their conversation. " -- I don't really have a choice. If these accidents continue we'll never get the place open in time. The Alliance will fail."
"That's not your problem."
"The President made it my problem. I gave my word."
"Don't do it, Jake." She reached out and clutched his hand, the way a person does at thirty thousand feet in bad weather. "Please, I've got a very bad feeling about this."
"I've got to, honey. You know I do." He gave her fingers a reassuring squeeze. "I'll be careful."
She cocked her head toward the three-man security team near the door. "At least take one of them."
"Can't do it. The instructions were very specific. Private. If I don't show up alone there'll be another accident tomorrow, you can bet on it."
She released his hand and slumped back into her chair, resigned.
Ten minutes later he was on the Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro, the main thoroughfare dividing the narrow southern peninsula from northern Macau. Despite the late hour and the rain, there was still an abundance of foot traffic, a combination of tourists and locals. Jake pulled the collar of his Gore-Tex jacket
up around his neck and hunched over, trying to conceal his massive frame, but it was hopeless, like trying to hide Paul Bunyan in a land of midgets, and he gave up the effort. Guided by street names etched onto azulejos -- the distinctive blue-enameled tiles of Portugal -- he turned north on Rua de Camilo Pessanha, then west toward the inner harbor, moving deeper into old Macau: a maze of narrow, cobbled streets offering a colorful mixture of shops, churches, and small cafés.
After twenty minutes of back and forth and around, he was thoroughly confused, blindly following Madame Chiang's directions into the hodgepodge of alleyways and backstreets, away from the tourists and pedicabs. From time to time he had the feeling of being watched, eyes following his every move, but saw nothing and dismissed the apparitions as the fruit of an over-stressed imagination.
Another few turns and he found himself in a dimly lit area of closed shops, the foggy street empty of people. Though the rain had eased to a drizzle, the humidity was thick enough to chew, and his shirt was now soaked with sweat. He stepped into the covered entryway of a Chinese apothecary and checked his notes in the reflected glow of his cell phone. Almost there. He leaned into the misty rain, checking the street for any sign of activity. Nothing, but he could feel something, or someone, and didn't like it. The place was too dark and remote, the whole scenario too much like an old Charlie Chan movie the moment before everything went bad. But what choice did he have? If he didn't show up, there would be another accident, more innocent people dead. And that's all it would take, one more accident and they would miss that magic feng shui timetable; and then the dominos would fall, Taiwan would blame Beijing, Beijing would blame the United States, and the President would have no choice but to blame that dumb 'ol West Texas cowboy. Shit.
He stepped back into the narrow street, moving cautiously toward the hazy glimmer of a streetlamp about a hundred yards ahead. It was like moving underwater, the fog softening the harsh lines of the shops into muted shades of gray, the sound of his own footsteps muffled and distant. At exactly ten o'clock a woman stepped out of the fog and into the yellow cone of light beneath the streetlamp. She was dressed in a shapeless silk chemise, as garishly colored as a macaw, a cream-colored shawl draped over one arm. "Good evening, taipan." Her soft, sensual voice dissolved into the heavy air, barely spanning the short distance between them.
"Nei ho ma?" he answered, the standard Hello, how are you? greeting of the province. She was a short woman, not more than five foot, early forties, with black hair pulled back into a bun at the back of her head, and thick black eyebrows that arched together like bat wings over sharp, black eyes -- ugly as a Komodo dragon. "Madame Chiang?"
She smiled coquettishly and dipped her head. "Hai."
He returned the bow and stepped forward into the light. He wanted to get straight to the point, the money -- the how much, the when, and the where -- but that was not the way of business in China. "It is generous of you to meet me on such a night."
She smiled again, the cryptic grin of a gambler with aces in the hole. "It is my honor to serve the great taipan."
Honor. Great taipan. The bullshit and exaggerated politeness made his skin crawl. "And it is my -- " From the corner of his eye he saw a man step from the shadows, not more than ten yards away, his skin so white it seemed transparent. Dressed in a dark jogging suit and black running shoes, he had the broad shoulders and narrow hips of an athlete, and the steady hand -- which contained a black machine pistol -- of a professional. Before Jake could react there was another sound, from behind, someone light on their feet, coming fast, emerging out of the fog, arm outstretched, a small chrome-plated automatic waving erratically with each step.
Twisting his body to avoid a direct hit, Jake shoved Madame Chiang out of the way, but he was too slow and too late, a lightning bolt of fire burning through his chest as both guns fired simultaneously. He felt the air leave his lungs, the blood draining from his legs, the earth rising to meet him as he pitched forward onto the wet cobblestones. You dumbass cowboy!
He landed with a hard, dull thud, but felt nothing, his body already numb. He could see the hem of Madame Chiang's dress, her booted feet as they peddled backward out of the light.
"Billie . . ." He gasped her name with his last bit of air, knowing it would be the final word to cross his lips.
Copyright © 2007 by Jay MacLarty