After he had finished his call with Brig earlier that morning, Tommy separated his new wealth into two piles; one with US$10,000 that he would take to Boss Chang, and the balance, a little less than US$20,000, he would carry with him for as long as he would have to babysit Brig. He hoped that it wouldn’t be more than a few days.
With the US$10,000 in hand, Tommy caught a taxi to a seedy nightclub in Mong Kok. It was still early afternoon and the nightclub was closed, but it was where Boss Chang had ordered Tommy to meet him. Tommy had been avoiding Chang since their last meeting in Stanley Prison. It was then that Chang had suggested Tommy come to see him as soon as he had gotten out, but Tommy was not eager to jump back into that lifestyle.
Now Tommy had received word that Chang was growing impatient and considered his truancy a show of disrespect. He knew it was only a matter of time before he had to prostrate himself before Chang, but at least now Tommy had something to give him. Although $10,000 was only a fraction of what he owed, he hoped that it would be enough to buy him more time. Before meeting Chang, Tommy visited a Hong Kong Shanghai Bank to exchange his U.S currency for Hong Kong dollars. Giving Chang U.S dollars would raise questions that Tommy didn’t want to address.
Tommy arrived at the club a little before the meeting time of 2 p.m. Although Tommy preferred to be the one that was waited for, this was not the time, nor was he in any position to play head games with Chang. Tommy’s clout had diminished considerably within the 14K. He still had people loyal to him, like Johnny, A-fai, and Glitch, but most members were loyal to the fraternity, and by extension, the group’s leader. Many in the brotherhood treated Tommy with open disdain. One of those men, Big Baby Chen, sat outside the door of the office where Big Brother was holding court.
Boss Chang’s top henchman was big, but the baby part of his nickname wasn’t as obvious. He didn’t look like a baby. The fact was that when Big Baby fought, which was often, he got emotional and would break out into tears. The tears and his rage were legendary and were likely a side-effect of the steroids he took. As Tommy approached, Big Baby looked up from his cell phone.
“Well, if it isn’t the scholar.” There was no hint of friendship in Big Baby’s tone. “The Boss has been looking for you.”
“Has he? I hadn’t heard,” Tommy responded with mock surprise. “Is he in there?” Tommy moved towards the door.
“Stop.” Big Baby blocked his way. “You don’t have that kind of access anymore.” Big Baby was thirty years younger, one hundred pounds heavier, and a foot taller than Tommy. They locked eyes, each trying to intimidate the other. If it came to blows, Big Baby would destroy Tommy, but he was still the Reluctant Scholar, an original gangster and one time heir apparent to the 14K throne. Big Baby eventually turned away from Tommy with a smirk and knocked on the door.
“Open,” came a voice.
“Send him in,” Chang ordered, slightly annoyed. He knew there would be animosity between these two, but Big Baby’s posturing always annoyed him.
As Tommy entered the room, two suited Japanese men hurried out of Chang’s office, paying little attention to Tommy as they left. They seemed relieved to no longer be the focus of Chang’s attention. The room choked with cigarette smoke. Chang still smoked like a chimney but never looked the worse for it. Tommy didn’t know how old Chang was, but he had to be in his eighties. Whatever Chang had lost physically, he more than made up for in cunning and brutality.
“The Reluctant Scholar. Have a seat.” Without getting up from his seat, Chang motioned with his right hand to one of the open stools in front of a massive Chinese tea table made from the gnarled roots of a walnut tree. It was a magnificent work of art which had depictions of old China carved into it. The top of the table was multi-tiered, allowing water to flow from one level to the other, running under a small wooden bridge that drained into a bucket hidden under the table.
The tip of Chang’s cigarette burned bright as he took a long drag. No tea was offered.
Tommy shook his head “no” and took a seat.
“Oh. That’s right. You quit. How thoughtless. Please forgive me.” Chang forgot nothing.
“No. It’s me who should apologize.” Tommy countered. “I have wanted to come to see you, but I’ve been busy trying to find work.” The door shut, and though he didn’t look back Tommy sensed Big Baby’s presence behind him.
“Scholar, you know I always have something for you. And let’s not forget, you still owe me a large sum of money.”
“Not a day goes by that I do not think about it.”
“Really? Because I have to wonder why I wasn’t the first person you visited when you got out of prison? Not only was it not your first stop, but given how long it’s been, I have to assume you’ve been avoiding me.”
“I didn’t want to come to you empty-handed.” Tommy started to reach into his coat and quickly felt the cold sting of a knife being held to his neck. “Careful,” Big Baby warned. Tommy moved his hand slowly and withdrew the envelope filled with cash. Big Baby seized it roughly, examined it, and took his knife away from Tommy’s neck as he placed the money on the table in front of Chang.
“You’ve been busy.” Chang picked up the Hong Kong dollars, flipping the edges with his thumb. “You were always a good earner, Scholar. How much is this? Fifty? Sixty Thousand?”
“Over seventy thousand. And more to come. Soon.”
“Is this money from the American?”
Tommy was shocked and his face must have shown it.
“Oh, my God. You didn’t know!” Chang exclaimed. “He didn’t know!” Chang said to Big Baby sarcastically.
Tommy’s eyes darted back and forth, trying to understand the betrayal. Had Happy double-crossed him? But why? Why get him out of prison just to be thrown to Chang now? If so, were his friends also caught up in the deceit?
“That’s right, Scholar,” Chang emphasized the word scholar mockingly. “Happy told me about her plan. She’s loyal. She cares for me, and I for her.”
Tommy shook his head back and forth, unable to accept this new information, his rage rising to the surface. As did Big Baby. Tommy again felt the pressure of the knife at his throat.
“Settle down before Big has to do something I might regret. I’m not asking you for your blessing.” Chang waited a few seconds for Tommy to compose himself. “Now, I would just as soon kill you and move on, but your daughter thinks there is still a role for you to play in all of this. What do you think?”
Tommy said nothing, and could only wonder what game Happy was playing at now.
“Not talking now, are you? That’s fine. Here is how things are going to go down. Or they won’t.” Chang shrugged and lit a fresh cigarette with the dying ashes from the butt of his last one. Chang took his time, savoring the humiliation and control.
“This plan of Happy’s. I have my doubts. However, I see no downside for me. I’ll be honest with you Scholar, I no longer know how to motivate you. Threatening to hurt Happy is a little disingenuous now since we both know I could never hurt her. Killing your wife isn’t an option,” Chang smirked. “Torturing your friends? Maybe.” Chang withdrew a pistol that had been secreted away somewhere on Chang’s side of the table and pointed the gun at Tommy’s face. “I promised Happy I’d give you seven days to pay your debt. Seven days.” He stubbed out his cigarette with his left hand, keeping the pistol aimed squarely at Tommy’s head with his right.
“Shit! This gun looks small, but it is really heavy. Feel this.” Chang turned the gun around as if to hand it to Tommy. “Just kidding!” Chang laughed and laid the gun on the table. He reached over for the teapot and made an elaborate display of producing a single cup of tea for himself. Tommy looked on as Chang took a sip.
“This getting old is getting old,” Chang lamented as he sat back heavily in his seat, stretched, and picked his gun back up.
“Put your hand on the table,” Chang directed. Tommy only stared back at Chang defiantly. He knew what was coming, and was in no hurry to comply.
“Put…your hand…on the table,” Chang repeated.
“Dealer’s choice,” Chang laughed at his joke. “That’s funny, right? Considering how you lost your money.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“I don’t know.” Chang looked away as if genuinely pondering the question. “The older I get, the more I enjoy seeing my enemies in pain.”
“When did I become your enemy?”
“You’ve disobeyed and disrespected me for decades, but, if I had to put a date on it, I’d say it was when I started fucking your daughter. But remember, you were the one who forced her onto me. You begged me to take care of her, and take care of her I did. Early and often. Oh, the things I’ve done to her. If you only knew.”
“Now put your fucking hand on the table!” Chang yelled.
Tommy slammed his open left hand down on the middle of the table, slightly startling Chang. He felt Big Baby’s knife tighten against his throat.
“That’s more like it! Let’s do this!” Chang placed both hands on his pistol and nodded at Big Baby. “I’m sure I don’t have to say this, but don’t try anything. If you do, I’ll have to reduce the seven-day grace period to seconds.”
Big Baby released Tommy’s head and walked over to his side, brandishing the knife in Tommy’s face.
“Let me do the threatening, will you?” Chang reprimanded his lieutenant.
Tommy shifted his stare from Chang to Big Baby. Big Baby expected to see fear, ideally some pleading, but instead saw only rage. Baby had wanted to take his time cutting Tommy’s finger, but Tommy’s demeanor had unnerved him and he inadvertently slammed the knife down fast and hard.
Tommy barely flinched. The only sound he made was a long shaky exhale from the deep breath he had taken to steady himself. Blood gushed from where his finger once was, flowing down through the levels of the tea table, the drain, and into the bucket.
“What? That’s it?” Chang looked on disapprovingly.
Tommy closed his eyes and focused on his breathing. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Repeat. The pain was excruciating, but in prison Tommy had taught himself how to minimize the pain through compartmentalizing it.
“Get the fuck out of here,” Chang ordered. “I’ve got other things to do.”