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The Reluctant Scholar – Chapter 5.5

Tommy would now forever be a wanted man. He could never safely enter the United States again, and the Sun Yee On surely knew who had killed their man. Still, he was back in Hong Kong where an understanding of mutually assured destruction maintained peace. Neither triad wanted to give the Hong Kong government a reason to step up their offensive against organized crime. Both sides had soldiers that had been killed by the other. The turf lines in Hong Kong were clearly and carefully drawn and seldom crossed.

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Such was not the case in the Portuguese colony of Macau. In the mid-70s the Portuguese government was addressing its own troubles closer to home, and was not nearly as “hands on” with their colony as the English were with Hong Kong. In 1974 the authoritarian regime of the Estada Novo was overthrown in Portugal and the new Portuguese government redefined Macau as a “Chinese territory under Portuguese administration,” granting the local government a much higher level of autonomy.

Within months the Chinese government had their people in all the right places, and the Sun Yee On triad established a new base in Macau. Gambling flourished, and almost overnight Macau became the Las Vegas of Asia, complete with all the other vices that gambling Meccas attracted. Other triads took notice and moved in quickly to get their piece of the pie, none quicker or more aggressive than the 14k.

Tommy, fresh off his success in the United States, was ordered to support the 14Ks commander in Macau, a highly visible role that signaled Tommy’s ascension. If he was successful in Macau, and with his connection to Big Brother Chang, rumored to be the next Dragon Head of the 14K, Tommy was in line for a significant promotion.

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But Macau turned out to be a losing proposition for the 14K, and an absolute tragedy for Tommy. The Sun Yee On triad was too entrenched and had too much support from the Chinese government. 14K leadership was tentative and ordered their troops in Macau to refrain from any confrontation.

Tommy grew frustrated. He was still a young man, with a young man’s confidence and bravado, a soldier who had tasted the adrenaline rush of a gun battle and liked it. When denied the rush of combat, he sought and found a similar sensation with high-stakes gambling in Macau’s casinos.

Tommy’s gambling problem wasn’t immediately apparent. He wasn’t stupid, and he won often enough to appease his bookies, of which he had many. There were more than a few casinos in Macau, and they didn’t share bettor information like casinos might in Las Vegas. He also had a significant line of credit because of who he was. Those factors allowed him to set up a Ponzi scheme, where he would partially pay down a loan from one bookie with credit from another bookie, keeping everybody satisfied enough to continue lending to him. By the time he was yanked back to Hong Kong by 14K leadership in the early 80s, his total debt had exceeded US$3 million.

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He went from being an asset to a liability and was delivered a humiliating demotion at the hands of Chang, who had been officially appointed the Dragon Head of the 14K. Tommy had deadly enemies in the Sun Yee On triad, and now the Hong Kong and Macau police actively kept track of his activities.

He kept himself relatively clean and out of trouble for a time. He worked as a mini-bus driver on routes owned and operated by the 14K. The mini-bus business served as a way to wash money and clandestinely move drugs around Hong Kong. Tommy got married and had a daughter.

For a while he held his gambling addiction in check, satisfying his need for risk by playing in low stakes games of Mahjong and the occasional trip to the Happy Valley or Sha Tin race tracks to bet on the ponies. He still owed the triad millions of dollars, and the payment terms he had worked out with Boss Chang were more than reasonable, but Tommy rankled at being owned by anybody.

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Sometimes he prospered, enjoying winning streaks that would temporarily boost his confidence. But it was false confidence that lured him into bigger bets, and on a hot, humid August night in the late 80s, Tommy was winning big at a rigged game at a Mahjong parlor in Wanchai. Unbeknownst to the other two players, Tommy had a partner, and they were taking their two marks for everything they had. The foursome had been playing for hours, and Tommy was up tens of thousands of dollars. The older of the two men took his losses in stride, but the younger man was becoming infuriated and grew suspicious of Tommy’s extraordinary luck.

Towards the end of the night, Tommy’s partner got sloppy. They were well into their final round when the unmistakable clickety-clack of a fallen Mahjong tile bouncing along the cement floor cut through the parlor. The players at the table froze as they simultaneously realized the implications of the dropped game piece. Pushing back their chairs, they stood and stared at the lone tile lying beneath the table. Although Tommy’s partner was the one that had made the error, Tommy had won the most and became the primary suspect.

The unaffiliated pair yelled, threatened, and stabbed their fingers at Tommy, while Tommy’s partner tried to calm them down. The argument escalated when the younger man grabbed Tommy by the collar of his shirt and forced him violently into the wall behind him. Instinctively, Tommy reached for the knife he concealed on the side of his leg and struck the man three times in the throat. It took the man more time to realize what had happened than it had for Tommy to finish his three strokes. The man crumpled to the floor, holding his neck, trying to staunch the blood. The other man held up his hands up in fear and resignation, signaling to Tommy to take the money and go. His partner, still playing the role of innocent, put his hands up as well. Tommy scooped up as much of the money as he could and casually walked out the door. He was in no hurry. He knew he was screwed.

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