It was Sunday evening and I returned home from a sailing trip joining a group of avid sailors from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where we fished for Marlin. It was my first time fishing for these magnificent fish, and I was fortunate to “hook” a large Marlin. It put up a valiant struggle, and with the help of the deck hands, we managed to pull the strikingly beautiful, blue marlin, onto the deck, only to watch the deck hands beat it about the head until dead, hanging it, and then photographing me alongside my “catch.” It was 12’ in length, and 300 pounds.
Watching the deck hands behead the marlin, throwing the head overboard, and tossing it’s torso into the below deck cooler, sickened me. I imagined what the Marlin was thinking as it struggled to free itself from the hook, being dragged out of the water, struggling to breathe, then beaten to death. I decided to catch the next flight home. Returning home to my oceanfront condo, in beautiful San Diego, wasn’t like leaving paradise; it was returning to paradise.
Upon arrival home at the airport, I noticed surgical masks being worn by airline personnel and travelers. Once I unpacked, I turned on the news, and heard the reports of the covid-19 pandemic. It didn’t startle me because I lived through other virus outbreaks, but judging from the urgency of the news reports, this virus was severe. I was wealthy, healthy, happy, and had no concerns in the world. The next two months changed my life forever.
I owned and rented out restaurant business properties I accumulated over my career as a commercial real estate broker. I lived modestly, investing my large commissions in restaurant real estate with the goal of an early retirement. I grew up in the restaurant business and felt comfortable owning restaurant property. I owned three successful “dive bars” popular with young people, owned a food court with a dozen immigrant restaurateurs thriving, and I owned two drive-thru restaurants leased by independent burger, and fried chicken operators. By the age of fifty, I was retired, and collecting large monthly rent checks which provided me with a very comfortable lifestyle, a spacious ocean view condo, a new Mercedes Benz GT-Class Coupe, and a fashionable wardrobe consisting of expensive Italian labels. I managed my properties from home while staring at the ocean waves, worked out with a personal trainer, adhered to my diet monitored by my nutritionist, and enjoyed visiting the bank monthly to deposit the rent checks. Life was good to me. I was single and never failed to find a beautiful date.
Within days, counties throughout Southern California closed down the bars, and prohibited sit down seating in restaurants. My tenants began calling, pleading for rent abatement. They were “mom and pop” operators, decent, hard working immigrants, and I knew they couldn’t survive a prolonged pandemic, eventually having to close their restaurants. It broke my heart to see them lose their life savings. The cash flow from their rents was necessary to pay my mortgages and was quickly drying up. I couldn’t help my tenants as I had my own financial struggles.
I carried highly leveraged mortgages on my beachfront condo and rental properties. Although I had strong banking relationships, I requested forbearance on the mortgages, but the banks were demanding their mortgage payments and threatening foreclosure. Unless the bar and restaurant restrictions were immediately lifted and my cash flow from the rental properties resumed, I would lose everything I had worked for my entire life.
I wasn’t a heavy drinker or prescription medication taker, but over the next two weeks, I was growing anxious, couldn’t sleep, and decided to take some of my prescription “Valium” to sleep. The “Valium” was originally prescribed to alleviate my fear of flying. Taking the “Valium” to fall asleep worked. I awoke refreshed, but the nagging anxiety of losing my net worth returned quickly. I began taking “Valium” to get me through the morning, afternoon, and evening. I was taking larger dosages than prescribed, and the “Valium” was losing its effect on calming my nerves.
I continually pondered, “How would I avoid financial ruin?”
I was too old to get a job, and start over. I could wipe out my creditors and stall the foreclosures by filing for bankruptcy protection, but once the bankruptcy was concluded, my properties would be foreclosed upon, with only my remaining cash to survive upon. It wouldn’t be long before I found myself living “on the street.” I fell into a deep depression.
On occasion, I’d indulge in a premium, single malt, scotch whiskey. Without thinking about the dangers of mixing booze and “Valium,” I began to wash the “Valium” down with a shot of whiskey which helped lessen the anxiety. I felt safe using “Valium,” but my increasing anxiety was compelling me to become careless with the mixing of the drug and alcohol.
I came across some “shady” characters during my career. “Morty” was once such individual. He was a pharmacist whose pharmacist license was revoked by playing “fast and loose” with DEA regulations regarding the prescription of “controlled narcotics.” He became a drug dealer to the “stars.” I sold Morty a retail building when California permitted the opening of cannabis stores. He asked me to invest in his first cannabis store, but I declined, to my later regret. Over the years, he expanded his number of cannabis stores and became a millionaire. Morty had a talent for retailing. His stores were beautiful, and the layouts were ingeniously designed to encourage sales just like the large retailers selling clothes or appliances. He only hired beautiful, young, female employees which helped sales. He would call me from time to time, complaining about the hoards of cash he was compelled to place in safe deposit boxes, because the federally chartered banks wouldn’t take deposits from cannabis stores as cannabis was illegal with the federal government. He could have deposited the cash into his personal accounts, although deposits of $10,000 or more were reported to the Treasury Department, triggering DEA scrutiny. Morty could make laborious, daily, $9,999 deposits into banks throughout the city, but he surmised this would also create DEA scrutiny. Morty didn’t trust foreign banks, and wouldn’t risk sending his cash fortune overseas.
Morty expressed interest in funneling his legal profits into a successful restaurant business with franchise potential, but he was always too busy to pursue the matter further with me. We were friends, of sorts, so I decided to phone him, and tell him of my predicament.
Morty always returned my calls promptly. He queried me like a physician on what drugs I was using. He ran me through the various Benzedrine’s, nicknamed “Bennies,” which are in the same family of “Valium.” He told me to try the following Benzedrine’s: “Klonopin,” “Ativan,” and “Xanax.” He remarked, “Ativan” was the most potent, and given to patients prior to surgery.
“If these Bennie’s don’t work, I’m sending you a single syringe of heroin, Ben. It will be preloaded. Keep it in the refrigerator, and use it only as a last resort. You’ll get a quick, euphoric, long lasting high. Check out a YouTube video on how and where to inject it. I only want you to inject half of it, understand?”
“I’m not going to become a heroin junkie, Morty!”
“You’re already an addict, booby! I know the Bennies aren’t working for you, and the last resort for relief of your anxiety is heroin. I implore you not to use heroin, Ben! I can tell you stories of clients including lawyers, doctors, and celebrities who ended up homeless or dead from heroin. I’m also suggesting you kick the Bennies. If you continue to mix them with alcohol, you’ll overdose like Morrison, Hendrix, Joplin, and Monroe.”
”Please let me check you into a rehab clinic. I know one in Malibu. It’s like staying at a five star hotel. I can get the Medical Director on the phone right now, and have you checked in this evening. I’ll take you up there myself. In a month, you’ll be feeling like a “champ,” and this whole pandemic thing will be over. You’ll be thinking clearly and find a way to dig yourself out of your financial woes. If you’re short of cash, I’ll pay for the rehab. You made me millions. It’s the least I can do”.
“My credit cards are almost maxed out, I’m losing all my property to foreclosure, and I’m down to my last $50,000 in cash. My only option is filing for bankruptcy, and eventually, I’ll become homeless! I’d rather die, Morty!”
“It’s really that bad, Ben?”
“I’m also sending you a potent joint I sell only to my VIP clients. Cannabis is safer, and just might get you through these hard times. I season the cannabis with my own proprietary, narcotic, which gives the joint an added sedative effect, but only smoke half of the joint to see how your body reacts to it. I’m also sending you a vile of Narcan. When using your drugs, keep your phone nearby with the Narcan. If you’re struggling to breath, your heart slows, and you’re close to blacking out, dial 911, and tell them you’re overdosing from drugs. Stick the Narcan vial up your nose, press the trigger, and snort as hard as you can. My delivery guy will be at your place within the hour. All the meds will be marked with the recommended dosages.”
“What do I owe you, Morty?”
“It’s on me, Ben, but don’t call me again for pills or heroin. I’ll sell you cannabis but I won’t be responsible for your death from Bennies and heroin.”
Morty scared me, but I thought, “If I can calm my nerves with the drugs, maybe I can formulate a way of climbing out of my financial hole?”
I was already thinking like a junkie.
Within an hour, Morty’s delivery guy knocked. He wore a mask, said nothing, handed me a plane, paper bag, and split.
I stared at the hypodermic needle already loaded, and I placed it in the refrigerator. I decided to use it only if my anxiety was unbearable. I reached for the bottle of Ativan, emptied the prescribed dosage into my palm, and washed the pills down with a glass of expensive, single malt, scotch whiskey. An hour later, I felt nothing but a slight buzz. If Ativan was the strongest Bennie, and mixing it with booze didn’t calm me, I had to try the heroin.
I was heading for the syringe of heroin when the phone rang. I answered, and yet another tenant was informing me she was closing her restaurant and could no longer pay my rent. I hung up on her. I couldn’t take the stress anymore and opened the refrigerator to retrieve the heroin. YouTube showed me step by step how to inject the heroin. I retreated to my lounge chair with the cell phone and Narcan in my lap. I was careful to inject only half of the syringe into my vein as Morty recommended. Within seconds of pressing down on the plunger of the syringe, a wave of euphoria swept over me from my head to my toes.
I fell into a deep, dark sleep. I felt happy, and content. There was no bright light at the end of a tunnel, or voices of relatives calling for me. It was only silence and a feeling of contentment. It occurred to me that I may be clinically dead, and I was at peace with death.
I was awoken from my bliss by my cell phone vibrating in my lap. The caller I.D. suggested it was my client, “Song.” I mumbled incoherently,
Song replied, “I’m sorry, did I wake you?”
“No you didn’t, but you may have saved my life!”
“Save your life? What do you mean?”
“I was joking. How may I help you?”
I pulled the syringe out of my arm. The heroin worked fast!
I rented Song her first Korean restaurant in my food court ten years earlier. Song was thirty five years old, Korean, and possessed a strong work ethic. She was beautiful, ambitious, and single. She arrived in the U.S., penniless, worked hard within Korean restaurants, scraped, and saved enough money to open a first restaurant in my food court. It was an instant success. I was proud of her. Before long, she was pestering me to sell her my food court!
I sold Song several restaurants over the years, mostly tired, old steak houses, she adroitly converted into steak and Korean fusion restaurants. They became instant hits. Song trusted my business acumen and told me, “I made her lucky.” I never mixed business with “pleasure” and resisted her attempts to begin a romance. I looked after Song like a sister.
Song was “hell bent” upon becoming a millionaire by establishing a chain of Korean-American fusion restaurants. She was prone to “get rich quick” investments which I talked her out of. My advice to her always, “stick to what you know. There are no shortcuts to success.”
Song was eager to share a business proposal with me on the telephone. It was another “get rich quick” scheme, the type of business proposal I never would have pursued, and cautioned her against. But given my approaching financial ruin, drug and alcohol induced impaired thinking, I’d listen to any opportunity which might save my ass.
Song described a business man named “Mr. Kim,” who lived in Hong Kong, and was a multimillionaire with ties to the Chinese Government. He had eaten in Song’s restaurant on a recent business trip to Southern California and was impressed with her restaurant menu, business acumen, and contacts with American businessmen. He wanted to be her financial backer in an ambitious five star restaurant expansion plan. I suggested a conference call with Mr. Kim as I had chased down many false leads in my career; anonymity with clients was always a “red flag” for me in business, and I needed to qualify Mr. Kim. Song insisted Mr. Kim wanted to meet personally, in Hong Kong, with all necessary parties present. The only information I could get out of Song was that Mr. Kim had $100,000,000 deposited within HSBC bank in Hong Kong.
China had tamped down on money transfers out of Hong Kong. Mr. Kim believed if he substituted an American partner to his HSBC account, he could get the money wired out of Hong Kong, and into the United States. Song described my restaurant experience, and trust in my good judgment, which impressed Kim. Mr. Kim was prepared to place the $100,000,000 into a new corporation with me as President, including a lavish salary and equity. Song would be my Executive Vice President. Our business plan would include investing in new restaurants operated by celebrity chefs in major North American cities, including Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Vancouver.
Song demanded we meet Mr. Kim in Hong Kong on Tuesday before travel restrictions were implemented by the government. It was Sunday night, so I needed to act quickly. I had never been to Hong Kong, and sitting at home during the pandemic watching my net worth evaporate, motivated me to get the hell out of the house and take a chance on a deal likely leading nowhere. Song agreed to provide all of the travel arrangements, including first class round trip airfare, and an evening stay at the first class, Hong Kong “Peninsula Hotel.” The meeting would take place at the private “Executive Lounge” within the Hong Kong International Airport. I instructed Song, “Send my travel documents and I’ll get to work!”
I acquired many contacts through the years and could reach any celebrity chef through their agent. I also had a close working relationship with a partner of an international law firm in Southern California with an office in Hong Kong. I reached the attorney by cell phone, and he immediately placed me in touch with his counterpart in Hong Kong.
I reached the Hong Kong attorney, Mr. Woo, on his private cell phone, and I described Mr. Kim to Mr. Woo, who, coincidentally, was acquainted with Mr. Kim’s reputation and believed he was legit. He told me transferring the money would be complicated, requiring a new US Corporation and bank account, naming me President and Chief Executive Officer of the new company with full and unequivocal authority. Mr. Woo was frank, suggesting he would have to “call in some favors at HSBC,” conveniently a client of his law firm. Mr. Woo agreed to attend the meeting at the Executive Lounge. I was growing more excited by the second!
“Who would have thought a pandemic may enrich me beyond my wildest imagination?”
I was following a popular, Australian, celebrity chef, with successful restaurants in Sydney and London. I knew he was eager to expand into the States. After considerable effort, I reached his agent who told me his client would coincidentally be transferring flights at Honk Kong International the same day. It all came together! In years past, I would have approached this deal “as too good to be true.” I didn’t stop to ponder whether it was the heroin and booze which convinced me that I might actually pull this deal together, but it didn’t matter. I was desperate.
I placed the remainder of the heroin in the refrigerator for my return home should the deal turn out to be “too good to be true.” I pondered suicide if I returned home unsuccessful. Conversely, if I returned home victorious, I’d have Morty check me into rehab, get sober, and travel the world while managing the new corporation.
As I began packing, it was too cumbersome to carry four bottles of “Bennies” in my pocket. I found a large plastic bottle, and emptied the contents of all four Benzedrine’s into the bottle. When I needed them, it would be easy to empty the pills into my palm, and it didn’t matter which pills I was taking, as they were all the “same” as I was concerned.
I was in a deep sleep within the First Class Cabin on my flight to Hong Kong. I dreamt of my mom’s death from an overdose of booze and pills when I was fourteen. I was crying during my dream, as the announcement came over the speakers alerting us to our landing in Hong Kong. I awoke with trepidation as I did many a morning realizing I was running out of time to save my fortune. Needing to calm my nerves, I reached into my pocket, took out the bottle of pills, and washed down five assorted “Bennies” with a “Bloody Mary.” I never had been to Hong Kong, but the City looked beautiful from the air. In the distance, I could see the gleaming office towers and palatial homes nestled within the hills above the harbor. I packed light, quickly removed my bag from the overhead compartment, and departed the plane.
Walking into the terminal, I realized this was my last chance for a “big score.” My instincts told me I’d roll “snake eyes,” but I had to take one last chance to dig myself out of financial ruin. The pills and booze gave me a strong buzz, made me dizzy, and felt as if I might pass out. I attempted to sit, but fell on my ass, trying to stand, and regain my composure. Nobody departing the plane stopped to assist me, stepping around me, unwilling to come to the aid of another human being in distress. One of the stewards quickly arrived to assist me, telling me, in broken English, to “sit quietly, while he barked orders into his phone in Cantonese for medical assistance. It wasn’t long before a young, airport hostess arrived in a golf cart. Both of the airline employees, helped me to my feet, and carefully walked me to the golf cart. The young hostess driving the cart, introduced herself as “Tin Si,” and asked where she could deliver me.
“I have an urgent appointment within the Executive Lounge.”
She was impressed by my mention of “The Executive Lounge,” and assured me in English, “I will escort you personally and safely to the Executive Lounge, reserved for First Class passengers, dignitaries, VIP’s, and replete with liquor, gourmet appetizers, showers, steam room, and masseuses. It’s very dignified and designed like a private club.”
I was an hour early and Tin Si escorted me to a comfortable booth. My head was spinning, and I had a terrible headache.
“Your guests will be arriving shortly, Sir. I would normally offer you a cocktail, champagne, or a glass of wine while you wait, but instead, I will bring you a tall glass of water, mixed with green tea which will make you feel better. I suggest you drink as much water as possible before your meeting. I’ll also bring you aspirin and Dramamine if you feel dizzy.”
Then, to my surprise, she reached for the zipper on my trousers,
“Pardon me, Sir. Please allow me to adjust your zipper.”
She tactfully placed a pressed linen napkin over my waist, placed her hand underneath the napkin, and gently pulled up my zipper. Despite wearing a $10,000 “Brioni”, navy, pin striped suit, I had committed a fashion faux pas, and would have embarrassed myself, and possibly killed the deal walking in with my zipper down.
Tin Si was maybe, eighteen, petite, wore her hair short, suggesting to me she cut her hair herself, and exhibited extraordinary compassion and nurturing. She was likely a low paid employee, living within the low income neighborhoods of Hong Kong, but, she was my “Angel of Mercy,” assuring I made my appointment on time, and helped me to regain my composure to attend the meeting coherently.
The water, green tea, aspirin, and “Dramamine” sobered me, and I prayed I could stay awake during the meeting!
Tin Si returned to escort me to a private meeting room discretely located within the “Executive Lounge.” As I attempted to exit the booth, I became dizzy and almost fell, but for the quick action of Tin Si, who steadied me, she walked with me slowly with her arm around my shoulders into the private meeting room. I would have never made to the meeting without her kindness.
Tin Si slowly led me to Queen Anne chairs placed around a table and discretely assisted me to sit, pulling out my chair for me, and left quickly. Nobody at the meeting was the wiser. The attendees had already arrived, four in total. The lounge staff was extremely attentive, but something about them, gave me the impression they were working below their “station” in life, and they outnumbered the guests within the lounge 3:1. I dismissed my impression as drug induced paranoia.
All of the attendees rose to greet me. I managed to stand briefly to shake hands, but quickly sat as the room spun inside my head. There was the distinguished and younger than anticipated, Mr. Kim, wearing an impeccably tailored suit, likely Seville Row, and red silk tie. His accent was distinctly Korean which gave me pause to consider his “close ties” with the Chinese government. He was refined, articulate, and jovial. Standing next to Kim was Song. The color “red” is considered a “lucky” color in Asia. She was a devotee of “Givenchy,” and her red, couture business suit, looked magnificent on her. The soles of her red pumps displayed the familiar red, “Christian Louboutin” red. I knew she only wore “Mikimoto” pearls, including a tennis bracelet, matching necklace, and, I presume, her jade earrings were purchased from her favorite jeweler, “Cartier.” Song clutched a black, alligator skin purse with the familiar “Bulgari” trademark, a coiled snake gold latch. Song looked like a princess.
My attorney from Hong Kong, Mr. Woo, introduced himself, and my research about him revealed he was the son of a Samsung executive stationed in San Francisco. Mr. Woo, “Carter,” was a standout student at Berkeley High School and an “All American pole vaulter.” He attended both Harvard College and Harvard Law School. I felt confidant Carter was able to put the deal together. He spoke without an accent suggesting to me he was born in the States. He wore the familiar, gray “Brooks Brothers” conservative business suit, button down white shirt, red and navy blue “repp” tie, and brown “brogue” shoes. The celebrity chef, “Renaldo,” was also present with his agent. He was cocky because his restaurants were all the rage, and was talking a television deal. Renaldo must have weighed 300 pounds, and wore his remaining hair in a terrible “pull over.” He wore a tropical shirt displaying his huge waistline, and smoked a cigar. Renaldo’s agent, “Sammy,” was a cocky, young Hollywood kid working for a top talent agency. His agent was tough, young, and seasoned. I suspect he was born into the entertainment industry. Sammy dressed, “business casual,” but fashionable. They lacked the social graces of Mr. Kim, Carter, and Song, remarking, “Let’s get down to business!”
I said to myself,
“It’s now or never.”
I knew Carter’s presence would add the necessary legitimacy to Mr. Kim’s business pedigree and net worth, gaining Renaldo and his agent’s confidence. Mr. Kim got right to business with no “small talk.” He’d appoint me as President of a new corporation created by him. I would be provided with a power of attorney, and added as the sole beneficiary to the $100,000,000 bank account held at HSBC. Because it would be an American corporation with no mention of Mr. Kim, HSBC assured Carter, the money could be transferred out of Hong Kong and into a new HSBC bank account within the States. HSBC was also a client of Carter’s law firm, and the President of HSBC in Hong Kong, assured Carter, he was prepared to take the “heat,” if any, from the Chinese banking regulators. Carter’s law firm was prestigious and trusted within high level political circles in Hong Kong. Carter inferred bribes would be paid by HSBC to Chinese officials to get the money out of Hong Kong, as a last resort.
Carter demanded that I would act independently without oversight of a Board of Directors. Mr. Kim replied, “We trust Ben’s judgment impeccably, I agree to your demand. The details of Ben’s lucrative compensation and equity package will be agreed upon quickly and to Ben’s satisfaction. The new corporation will be named, “Lucky Dragon, Inc.” Our objective will be the creation of restaurants managed by “celebrity chefs” operating only out of premier hotel and casino properties throughout North America. We will begin in Las Vegas.”
Renaldo appeared to be growing impatient. Naturally, he wanted to know what was in this deal for him. His agent assumed an aggressive posture, demanding, “Let’s turn the conversation to my client!”
Mr. Kim addressed the cocky, young agent like a school boy, “Chef Renaldo’s deal regarding the creation, design, and management of the restaurants, will be negotiated separately at the conclusion of this meeting. Understand, however, Chef Renaldo’s operation of the restaurants won’t supersede nor interfere with Ben’s authority. Renaldo will be working for Ben, although Renaldo will have exclusive design, staffing, and menu authority. Chef Renaldo will receive a handsome salary and equity which we will discuss shortly.”
Renaldo and his agent appeared happy and remained silent. Over the course of my real estate career, I met many business people and could develop a “sixth sense” about them. I didn’t trust Renaldo and his agent. Of course, the drugs and booze in my system may have made me paranoid.
Carter agreed to have all the necessary legal documents for the transfer of the money, creation and management of “Lucky Dragon, Inc.” prepared within forty eight hours. At the conclusion of the meeting, we all shook hands. Mr. Kim commented, “it was a pleasure to meet with you. Please allow myself, Chef Renaldo, and his agent, to finish our separate negotiations. I wish you a pleasant trip home and look forward to our business venture.”
I rose slowly from my chair, still woozy, and Song took me by the arm and escorted me and Carter out of the meeting room. The heavy walnut door to the private meeting room slammed shut. Carter shook my hand, saying, “I think it went well, but it’s all up to HSBC.”
“I’m suspicious Renaldo and his agent are negotiating a direct deal with Mr. Kim, cutting out Song and myself. Carter.”
“What gives you that impression, Ben?”
“It’s the “smart move.” Mr. Kim has the money but only needs a popular chef to get started. When word of their partnership gets out, prime hotel and casino real estate properties will be presented to them without my assistance. He doesn’t need Song or me.”
“Would you like me to continue with the contracts, Ben?”
“Wait a few days; let’s see what happens?”
“Very well, Ben. I’ll be in touch within seventy two hours. I wish you both a safe and pleasant trip home.”
Carter departed. Song appeared melancholy and confused, “Why would Mr. Kim go around us?”
“Don’t be alarmed, Song. I didn’t trust the chef and his agent, but it’s Mr. Kim’s decision. He likes you and sought you out. I hope he will honor his proposal to you. We’ll know shortly.”
“I trust your instincts, Ben, and I hope Mr. Kim will move forward with us.”
She took my hand, and led me into a discrete corner of the Executive Lounge, out of sight of the help.
Song whispered in my ear, “I want to show you something.”
She removed from her exquisite, black alligator, Louis Vuitton wallet, a One Hundred Dollar bill, saying, “Examine this hundred, carefully.”
I held it up to the light and saw the familiar watermarks. It appeared to be genuine.
“What’s your point, Song?”
“Compare it to one of yours, Ben.”
I reached into my wallet, and removed a One hundred Dollar bill. We laid them side by side, turned them over, held both of the bills to the light, both revealing the familiar watermarks, and additional security features.
“Look closely at the paper, Ben.”
The paper looked familiar.
“Close your eyes, Ben. Feel the texture of each bill.”
The paper felt similar. Song whispered,
“The bill I gave you to examine is counterfeit. It was printed by the masters of counterfeit currency, the North Koreans. There is an opportunity for us to launder millions of these into the States, through the new corporation. Restaurants and casinos are cash businesses and perfect to launder the counterfeit bills.”
She placed the bill inside my coat pocket, saying, “Take it for a “test drive”.
“Song, I didn’t sign up for a counterfeit money laundering enterprise. What the hell is going on?”
“Mr. Kim gave me the bill. I realize the counterfeit money laundering might endanger our business enterprise, but Mr. Kim assured me our restaurant investment endeavor remains unchanged. The counterfeit currency is just a side endeavor, if you’re interested? Think it through, we can discuss later. Goodbye for now, I have to return to the meeting.”
A chill ran up my spine, and I shouted, “Get back here, Song!”
She returned with a puzzled look on her face.
“I’ve cautioned you against get quick rich schemes, but you’re dealing with counterfeit money which can land us in jail for the remainder of our lives. I don’t how you met Mr. Kim, but if he’s involved in this money laundering, you and I are out of this deal. Got it?”
Song pouted like a little girl, “what should I do, Ben?”
“Song, do you have any more counterfeit bills on your possession?”
“No, Ben. Just the one I showed you.”
“Run, don’t walk, to your flight, and get the hell out of Hong Kong! Let me give this some thought, but we won’t communicate with Mr. Kim again! I’ll be back in touch with you shortly!”
“If you believe it’s best, I’ll follow your advice, Ben.”
The euphoria of our meeting was deflating for me quickly.
“How could I fall for such a ruse?”
I was humiliated by involving a corporate law firm, and a world renowned celebrity chef within a counterfeit currency criminal conspiracy, but given my burning desire to dig myself out of my financial ruin, and my mind clouded by drugs and booze, I pondered the possibilities of laundering the counterfeit money through the new corporation. I had no alternative other than bankruptcy or suicide. Maybe I’d be killed in prison and avoid suicide?
It occurred to me that I didn’t thank and tip Tin Si who was my “angel” in time of need. I looked about the room for her, but she was nowhere to be seen. I asked one of the waiters if he knew her whereabouts.
“Tin Si brought me to the meeting in a golf cart. She served me at the booth. Can you find her?”
“Don’t know her. There are many workers at airport!”
My “angel” flew away never to be seen again, but I would always remain grateful to her.
As I was exiting the executive lounge, a burly group of Asians and a Caucasian man entered the Executive lounge, heading straight towards the private meeting room. The Caucasian man was American judging from their conversation. It crossed my mind that perhaps I wasn’t the only “candidate” for the investment opportunity. On the other hand, their suits were wrinkled, and appeared purchased “off the rack.” I’d think they would show up dressed more professionally, if successful businessmen. I was becoming more suspicious, depressed, and disappointed by the minute. I got the hell out of the lounge quickly.
As I walked down the concourse to my gate, I passed a coffee shop named, “Dante’s Roasting Company”. It was busy and looked inviting. I entered and relished the opportunity to enjoy a fresh, warm cup of latte and reflect upon the meeting, and a strategy moving forward. Without the narcotics and booze clouding my judgment, the answer would be to walk away from the deal. I made my way to the counter, and, noticing a full bar, I asked for a double shot of “Kahlua” in my latté.
The place was crowded, and I had difficulty finding a seat. As I walked about, I caught the glance of a young woman who waved me towards a narrow place aside her on the sofa with a table upon which she had laid out books and a notepad.
“Here’s a seat, Sir. You’re welcome to sit here.”
I squeezed in. She was courteous and attractive. Her hair was long, black, and flowed down her shoulders, glistening like mirrors. I thought I caught a glimpse of myself in her shiny hair and didn’t like what I saw. She wore a cashmere crew neck sweater, navy blue pleated skirt, and a pair of fashionable, Gucci loafers. Her nails were beautifully manicured to a sharp point with red nail polish. She wore little makeup and looked like an English boarding school student from an elite family.
I removed my notepad from my briefcase and began to review the notes from our meeting. I kept thumbing through the pages, to and fro, more skeptical of the deal with each passing minute, which caught the attention of the young woman, “excuse me, Sir. Are you an attorney?”
“No. I’m a real estate investor.”
“Your focus, concentration, and attention to detail, reminded me of an attorney. I hope I didn’t insult you?”
I noticed she had opened Julius Caesar’s, “The Gallic Wars,” and was taking copious notes. I asked, “Are you a professor?”
“No, Sir. I’m a student.”
“Thank you for the compliment, Sir. I’m an undergraduate majoring in the classics with a minor in Latin. I’m 27 years old.”
She looked older than an undergraduate and was dressed more professionally than most students I’ve met. She reached out to shake my hand. Her grip was firm, and she stared deep into my eyes without blinking.
“My name is Hecate, pleased to meet you, Sir.”
She had piercing, deep blue eyes, and wouldn’t let go of my hand until I gave her my name. There was something prescient about her, as if she “tapped into” my soul, knew my pain, and had known me my entire life.
“I’m Ben, pleased to meet you, Hecate. You have a very unusual name. Where are you from?”
“Here, there, a little bit of everywhere.”
Hecate’s answer was ambiguous, but I didn’t give it any further thought.
Hecate impressed me because every kid of my business associates was a “STEM” major looking for a quick buck after graduation. Yet, Hecate was studying the classics. I admired her.
“What brings you to Hong Kong, and how did you come to major in the classics, Hecate?”
“I’m in Hong Kong for a vacation break after final examinations. I was introduced to the classics by a professor I met in group therapy.“
“In group therapy?” What a curious response, I thought?
“The professor took a liking to me, encouraged me to read the classics, and tutored me, believing it would be a therapeutic treatment to my addiction. These books, although written centuries ago, still have relevance, providing guidance to lost souls.”
“What do you mean, “addiction”?
“I was a heroin addict, meth freak, and alcoholic.”
I was flabbergasted. This preppy young woman looked like a “poster girl for an Ivy League college catalogue.”
“I’ve seen that look of confusion before, Ben. I’m not ashamed to tell you my story.”
“I would like to hear it.”
“I was an only child, and my family lived a comfortable, middle class lifestyle. I took some film courses in university and developed a talent for sound mixing and editing. I managed to pick up gigs on sound stages and recording studios, making good money. Unfortunately, the music business doesn’t pair well with money. I was working long hours, meeting addicts, and before long, I was boozing, smoking pot, and chasing greater highs. I developed a meth addiction, but the only drug which would satisfy my cravings was heroin. They found me unconscious in a public bathroom with a needle sticking out of my arm. I was on the “merry go round” of addiction, jail, rehab, and relapse. I lost my job, possessions, and became homeless. My family disowned me.”
If that wasn’t enough, this articulate, soft-spoken, collegiate, young woman, looked me in the eye, without blinking, and without emotion, saying, “in order to feed my habit, I’d take you on as a trick, beat, rob, or kill you to get your money!”
A chill ran up my spine. I realized the drug addiction had aged her appearance and led her into doing unspeakable things. I wanted to know more.
“How the hell did you go from addict to a student of the classics?”
“I hit rock bottom. I found myself naked, on the edge of a high rise building, ready to jump to my death. I needed to stop the endless hunger for heroin, and the guilt associated with hurting my family, and those I robbed, beat, stole, and screwed for money. The professor of classics I met in group therapy saved my life by taking my cell phone call for help, talking me off the ledge, and turning me onto the classics after I completed rehab. The ancient lessons I learn from the classics keep me on the straight and narrow. From the first classical book I picked up, each page has provided ancient wisdom, and battle strategies which conquer compulsive behaviors, depression, sadness, and eliminating the need for drugs.”
I was overwhelmed by Hecate’s story.
“You should be proud of yourself, Hecate. What’s your plan moving forward?”
“I’ve got two years to complete my Bachelor’s. I’ll move on to graduate school where I’ll earn my Master’s and PhD. I’d enjoy helping others who are suffering with addiction.”
Hecate’s story sounded familiar, but I was in denial of my own drug addiction. I leaned back, took a deep breath, and reached into my pocket for my bottle of “Bennies” which I placed on the table in front of me.
“If you don’t mind my asking, Ben, are you troubled?”
I didn’t expect such a direct question from a young stranger. She looked me squarely in the eye, convincing me she knew my pain.
“Why do you ask that, Hecate?”
“You quickly reached into your pocket for your med’s. I recognize that behavior. Why are you taking a mixed bottle of meds?”
I hurriedly reached for the bottle, spilling multiple tablets into my palm, and washed them down with the warm latté.
“What are you taking, Ben?”
“Valium,” “Xanax,” “Ativan,” and “Klonopin.” I was ashamed and lied, “I have a fear of flying, and, sometimes, I take them just to relax.”
“You’re embarrassed, Ben, but I know all those drugs aren’t necessary to alleviate your fear of flying. They’re all Benzedrine’s. I used to crush those tablets; crushing and snorting them created a quicker high, but soon, I needed a stronger and longer high. It led to a heroin addiction.”
A frightening connection between Hecate’s drug addiction and mine became apparent. I remembered the half filled syringe of heroin waiting for me in my refrigerator, and concluded I may be heading for a heroin addiction. I was in denial and couldn’t admit to her that I took a fix of heroin. Something told me Hecate had already assumed I took the “leap” into Heroin.
“Ben, the drugs lessen the pain and anxiety, but, over time, they’ll cause you to make decisions you never thought possible. Your thinking will become cloudy. I never thought I’d have sex with a stranger in a public toilet in order to score a fix! Soon, you’ll be searching for the “quick buck” to pay for your “fix,” and it’s always the “quick buck,” which lands you in jail, and the drugs will kill you. You might also find yourself standing on the edge of a roof top ready to jump to your death. You have too much to live for, Ben. To paraphrase something I read in one of the classics, “one must walk through the cold winter of defeat before they may sprint through the warm springtime of victory.”
“Kick all of the drugs, and winter will be short for you, Ben.”
“As you grow older, Hecate, you’ll discover its difficult being closer to the end of life rather than the beginning. There’s no time left for me to start over.”
“I suspect the pandemic has turned your life upside down, Ben. However, traumatic events like a pandemic are tests of mankind’s resilience. Catastrophes’ force people to examine their lives, dig deep within their souls, discover their priorities, and choose to live or die. It’s not the first pandemic or catastrophe, nor will it be the last. I’ve witnessed many throughout the millennia; I meant to say, I’ve read about these challenges to mankind through the classics. Vaccines can kill the virus, medicines and ventilators can keep people alive, but nothing but the resilience of the human soul, and desire to live, can change your life for the better!”
“Yeah kid, life is easy when you’re young, even after kicking a drug addiction. Try my shoes on for size in about thirty years. I may lose everything I’ve worked for due to this pandemic!”
“You feel helpless, Ben, I’ve been there, but since getting sober, I greet each day with joy and exuberance. I never dreamed I’d be wearing nice clothes and attending college. I can conquer any challenge sober. When you get back home, check yourself into rehab. You appear to be able to afford a first class rehabilitation clinic. Get sober. You’re life depends upon it.”
Hecate looked me in the eyes again, without blinking, and said, “the path you’re on will kill you.”
I was shaken up and needed to wash down some pills.
”Please excuse me; I need to visit the Men’s Room.”
As I squeezed out of the booth, Hecate held my hand tightly and stared deeply into my eyes admonishing me, “get clean soon, Ben! You have plenty of living to do. I hope we don’t meet again, but if we do, the pleasure will be all mine.”
My head was spinning, and I stumbled to the bathroom. I was shaken up by Hecate. I felt as though she was holding up a mirror for me to look at myself, and I didn’t like what I saw. All I could think about was downing my despair with more meds. I wish I had the heroin. I popped some pills, washed my face with cold water, and tried to regain my composure.
When I returned from the bathroom, Hecate was gone but Caesar’s “Gallic War’s” was slipped discretely under my briefcase. Hecate highlighted for my attention, a liner note within the book’s cover, suggesting Caesar’s motivation for the military campaign was to “plunder territories with the goal of getting himself out of debt” to which I could relate. I barely mentioned my financial situation, so why would Hecate highlight this liner note for me, I pondered?
As I left Dante’s, I headed toward my gate. I had about an hour before boarding. I was agitated by my meeting with Hecate and the counterfeit bill concerned me, I wanted rid of it. I spied a cozy bar conveniently located nearby my gate. I thought I’d sit, order a beer, and attempt to understand the day’s events. I was quivering from the last round of pills.
The waiter approached. He was a Chinese man, exquisitely dressed in a black tuxedo, wearing white gloves, spoke with an impeccable English accent, and asked politely for my order, “how may I serve you, sir?”
“I’ll take the strongest beer on tap!”
“We have a 9% Demon IPA, Sir.”
“I’ll have it!”
“My name is Charles sir. May I arrange for your suit jacket to be pressed and your shoes polished while you enjoy your libation, sir?”
“That won’t be necessary, Charles.”
I reached inside my pocket, removed my bottle of drugs, and placed it on the table. I also removed the counterfeit $100 bill, and thought it would be an opportunity to test drive the counterfeit bill as Song suggested. At the other side of the lounge, a Chinese, teenage girl, sat at a grand piano, and like a virtuoso, played a beautiful piece I didn’t recognize.
Charles returned with a tall, frosty, beer glass, the bottle of “Demon” IPA, and a crystal serving tray of assorted cheeses, olives, and English biscuits. He reached for the pressed, white linen napkin, gently laid it across my lap, and carefully poured my beer. He placed the snacks on the table, each within its own, exquisite, Chinese inspired, porcelain bowl.
“What is the pianist playing, Charles?”
“She’s playing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.2, sir.”
“Do you know its significance?”
Charles leaned into me, and whispered, “it’s a member of one of the classical funeral concertos. We’ve asked her not to include it, but she forgets. I apologize if it’s inappropriate; I’ll ask her to cease playing, sir.”
“It’s beautiful, Charles. Please don’t disturb the pianist.”
“Very well, sir. I’ll be nearby. Please summon me should you require my services.”
I handed Charles the counterfeit $100, “bring me the check and a book of matches, Charles.”
I reached for the glass, and my hand trembled from the conversation with Hecate about death, and a funeral concerto agitated me further!
I raised the glass to my lips and my hand continued to tremble. I glanced over at the long fuselage of the gleaming jetliner which would take me home. I imagined the comfortable first class cabin seat which awaited me, eager for that long, undisturbed, alcohol and pill combination, placing me into a deep sleep until the plane landed home. I was looking forward to that second fix of heroin in my refrigerator knowing the trip to Hong Kong was a failure. I took a sip of the beer, but I couldn’t get out of my mind the peculiar meeting with Hecate and the piano concerto continued to increase my anxiety. I remember Hecate’s story of the perilous journey she took as an addict and believed I was following the same path to destruction. It crossed my mind to begin planning my suicide!
Charles returned with my change, and I was relieved the bill cleared. I handed him the $75 in change, and requested, “please bring me one shot of single malt scotch whiskey. Keep the change. I need to visit the bathroom, and will be back, shortly.”
“Of course, sir. Thank you for your generosity.”
“Charles, please give the young pianist $10 of the change.”
“Yes, sir. She will appreciate your generosity as well.”
The bathroom was empty. I found an open stall, closed the door, lowered my pants, and began to relieve myself. As I sat, I rummaged through my carry on and found the plastic bag with Morty’s joint. I’d never smoked anything before and decided to smoke the joint. I placed it to my lips, lit it, and took a deep drag. I coughed but felt immediate relaxation and contentment. I took several more drags, coughing after each, and felt more relaxed with each puff of the joint, finishing only half of it as Morty suggested. I flushed the remaining joint down the toilet, freshened up and returned to my table. As I sat, all of the colors, sounds, and smells of the airport were like experiencing a “Technicolor” movie, and I was completely at ease and content.
“Maybe the joints were my solution after all?”
Charles returned with my shot of whiskey, placing a clean, pressed, linen napkin on my lap.
I heard a commotion, and saw a line of police officers running down the concourse towards the Executive Lounge. I looked over at my terminal and saw my boarding would be delayed thirty minutes. I asked Charles, “what’s the reason for all the cops?”
Charles leaned into me and whispered, “there was a police undercover sting within the Executive Lounge with arrests, sir. Have no concerns about the counterfeit bill; you’ll be permitted to board your plane. Please don’t return again to Hong Kong. I wish you a pleasant journey home.”
It occurred to me that the airport was on “lock down” by police authorities, and the sting was a major police undercover operation.
“Why am I permitted to leave, Charles?”
“We questioned your business associate, Song, before she boarded her plane. She satisfied us that both of you were not implicated, and we decided not to charge either of you. We investigated Song’s business success within the United States, and she has very strong banking ties with Hamni Bank whose President vouched for her legitimacy. I might add, sir, she spoke very highly of your business ethics.”
I remembered that it was the practice of the North Korean government to open legitimate businesses throughout the world as a way of getting much needed cash into their coffers. I suspected the $100,000,000 was likely the property of the North Korean government. I also remembered reading about the North Korean’s sophisticated counterfeiting techniques. I thought to myself, the guys in the bad suits, and the over abundance of help, were likely undercover cops.
Mr. Kim was either complicit or not, but I didn’t want anything to do with him and was grateful Song was shielded from criminal complicity. The day was beginning “to add up” to me. Without Song’s endorsement, I could have been arrested. I was eager to board my plane and take off.
The pressures of the day were affecting my health. My heart beat was slowing; I was struggling for breath, and I was slowly losing consciousness. I remembered Morty’s advice about taking the ”Narcan.” Morty’s “secret seasoning” of the joint must have included “Oxycodone,” a potent opiate. I feared falling into unconsciousness, emptied my travel case on to the floor, found the ”Narcan” dispenser, stuck it up my nose, hit the plunger, and breathed deeply. Within seconds, my heart beat returned to normal, and I regained consciousness, thankful to be alive. For the first time in weeks, my mind was clear. It must have been a side effect of the ”Narcan,” and avoiding arrest.
Charles came running to my aid, but I politely waived him off, collected my possessions, and placed them back into my carry on. I thought about the syringe of heroin awaiting me in my refrigerator, my near arrest, and thoughts of suicide. I was jolted into taking responsibility for my addiction, getting sober, and felt confident about the future. I sprung into action with a flurry of text messages.
I first texted my attorney, Carter, “shady information concerning Mr. Kim came to my attention. Deals off! Inform all parties immediately. I recommend you erase any records of your meeting with Mr. Kim to protect yourself and your law firm. Notify Renaldo and his agent, as well. Song and I are out of the deal!” Carter replied, “yes, sir. Thank you for the intelligence on Mr. Kim, which I will convey to HSBC. I’m wishing you a pleasant trip home.”
My next text was to Song, “I don’t have a good feeling about this deal, Song. We’re out! I instructed my attorney to cease all negotiations. You worked too long and hard to build your business, and you could lose it all. I recommend that you immediately destroy any computer on which you communicated with Mr. Kim, and that includes your cell phone. Furthermore, get in touch with your Cloud provider immediately, and instruct them to permanently erase any communication between you and Mr. Kim. I’ll be checking into a rehab center upon arrival home; I’ll text you the name. We can talk about an idea I have for a lucrative, restaurant, franchise opportunity incorporating your Korean American fusion recipes. I may have a legitimate investor interested in underwriting the deal.”
Song immediately wrote back, “I’m already in the air and heading home, Ben. My restaurant manager has already broken the computer into small pieces and deposited the rubble into trash bins throughout the neighborhood. My Cloud provider has confirmed the Kim files have been permanently deleted. I’ll destroy and replace my cell phone the minute I land. Thank you for being my trusted friend all these years, Ben. I look forward to discussing our new business venture.”
Song’s text message, made me feel useful, relevant, wanted, and loved. My low self esteem needed the boost, and it felt better than the high from the drugs.
My final text was to Morty, “I’m leaving Hong Kong. Check me into rehab immediately upon arrival!”
Morty’s reply was quick, “I’ll meet you at the terminal. I have you registered into the most lavish rehab center in Malibu. The Medical Director is “Chief of the Addiction Recovery Unit” at UCLA and will be there to greet you, and personally examine you. He’ll make you comfortable and get you on your way to sobriety. You’ll emerge a new man and ready to begin a new life, buddy.”
“I have a lucrative, restaurant investment proposal in mind which will legitimately eliminate your necessity to hoard cash, Morty.”
“I can’t wait to hear it, Ben. You’re already thinking clearly, brotha.”
I was happy Song was on her way home. Song was a good friend. She didn’t have to vouch for me with the authorities, but she did! Morty’s eagerness to help me get sober warmed my heart. I was lucky to have them as friends.
They called my flight, and I swiftly walked to the gate. I reached for my cell phone to swipe the barcode under the scanner, and I found my way to my comfortable First Class seat. The steward approached, and offered a flute of champagne which I placed on the pull down tray. I stared at the bubbles rising to the top of the flute and the bottle of pills clutched within my hand.
The day’s events really unnerved me. A visit to beautiful Hong Kong, the specter of a multimillion dollar business enterprise, and the counterfeit bill just didn’t add up, but what was running through my thoughts like a “freight train,“ was the prophetic warning given to me by Hecate, “soon, you’ll be searching for the quick buck to pay for your fix, and it’s always the quick buck, which lands you in jail, and the drugs will kill you.”
I was fortunate to have met Hecate who helped me confront my drug addiction. I summoned the steward, asking him to remove the flute of champagne, bring a Diet Coke, and place the bottle of pills in the trash.
We were given the go ahead to lift off. I took a deep breath, finished the diet coke, and was grateful we weren’t implicated in a criminal conspiracy. We caught a break by being excused from the meeting by Mr. Kim who was certainly arrested with Renaldo and his agent.
As the plane ascended high into the clouds, I felt it was a metaphor. Although my life reached rock bottom, I had nowhere to go but “up”! It felt good to have friends like Song and Morty, and I felt a refreshing new self esteem sweep over me.
I reached inside my briefcase, and opened Caesar’s “Gallic Wars.” As I opened the inside cover, I found a handwritten inscription,
“Pleased to meet you,
Hope you guess my name
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game?”
The ink appeared fresh, causing me to ponder the message Hecate wrote to me, was she inferring Caesar was speaking to me from the pages of history, advising me to “press on” and fight the necessary “battles” to overcome my own “debts,” or, was it something more profound she was inferring?
I’ll never know the purpose of the inscription. I was simply grateful for the life saving message delivered to me in an airport coffee shop by a “stranger.”
I was looking forward to rehab, and excited about structuring a lucrative, Korean-American fusion, restaurant franchise business together with Morty and Song. For the first time since hearing of the pandemic, I was confident I would dig my way out of financial ruin, and live sober with a fabulous future ahead of me.
The pills, alcohol, and stress of the day placed me into a deep sleep. I dreamt that I was the beautiful, Marlin, with a savage “hook” imbedded inside my mouth, struggling to free myself, and being reeled into a certain, horrible death; then, I heard Hecate’s awkward goodbye, “the pleasure will be all mine.”