Twenty years earlier, Chaoxiang’s mother had held her newborn son, weeping with joy. Of all the auspicious names to choose from, his mother picked the Chinese name for “expecting fortune.” As an undocumented kitchen worker at AmeriCasino’s Shanghai Buffet in Reno, Chaoxiang had learned to temper his expectations.
In the midst of chopping endless mounds of broccoli, mushrooms, onions, and peppers for a pittance, Chaoxiang paused mid-slice, knee-deep in parings, to watch the cheery twinkle lights blink. Outside, they clicked wildly against the grubby kitchen windows’ panes as the howling, icy winds of Nevada threatened to shatter the lights, kitchen window, and all.
He shivered as he walked by the exit doors. It had never been this cold in Yunnan. For a moment, he was grateful for the kitchen’s oppressive heat, though he had grown to hate both the AmeriCasino and the Shanghai Buffet. Still, the lights outside were beautiful, almost as much as the Sierra Nevada mountains that enveloped Reno, the only American city he knew.
Chaoxiang wondered if all of America was just as cold.
“Chow!” the bloated red-faced man called to him. “Dish room. Now.”
Chaoxiang nodded, the only acceptable response. He wordlessly cleaned up his station, carefully washed the sharp knives, and meticulously put everything back in its place.
You are a good student, his senior middle school teacher had said. At university, you will do very well. But there was no money for college. His father’s gambling debts had seen to that. His father was notable in Yunnan as biāojì wèi shībài—a man marked for failure. Even in this new place, his father’s failures clung to his only son.
The amount of money that Chaoxiang earned by working seven days a week, keeping the buffet’s steaming trays cleaned and filled, was merely a drop in the bucket. As his father owed over a million yuan to the Chinese triads and they owned AmeriCasino, Chaoxiang’s indentured servitude had been arranged without his consent, even after both of his parents were murdered. The triads would have their money, even if seven generations of his family toiled in the backs of kitchens around the world to pay it off.
Frankly, Chaoxiang’s plight was more of a message than anything else: those who couldn’t pay their debts would lose their eldest sons. It was quite a deterrent for recalcitrant stiffs back in Mainland China.
Chaoxiang entered the dish room, taking up alongside Ping, another Chinese national. He soon felt like a garbage man in a sauna. Rivulets of sweat streamed down Chaoxiang’s face while his hands reddened under the caustic soap and blistering hot water.
“Chow, there will be a raid soon,” Ping said.
“No triads. ICE.”
“How do you know,” Chaoxiang whispered, as his co-worker looked sick and untrustworthy. So many of the kitchen workers used cheap drugs to get them through the long days of grueling work. Why Chaoxiang held out hope that his fortunes would change often vexed him. How much easier would it be to believe in nothing?
“I know, Chow. The delivery men have said as much.”
“Delivery men and who else?” Chaoxiang asked.
“Look out on the casino floor for yourself. There are too many strange men near the exits. The pit bosses and cashiers have cashed out early. And see that pretty lady having coffee in the manager’s office?” His peer pointed through the partition where the red-faced man kept his disheveled desk. “She just arrived. She asked to see our papers.”
“Where are the managers?”
“They are meeting together with the cashiers.”
Odd, Chaoxiang thought. The red-faced man had never left the kitchen before.
He noted the pretty lady appeared to be Chinese. She pulled off her heavy fur-lined jacket, far too warm for inside, revealing her shoulder holster. Her badge was affixed to her belt, previously hidden beneath her coat. As she held her second steaming cup of coffee, her short, blunt fingernails tapped it repeatedly. Her other hand felt for her gun, as if to reassure herself it was still there.
She acted far too nervous to be the police.
Five years earlier, Chaoxiang’s father had held his teenage son, weeping with remorse, giving him the names of the Chinese gangs who expected a fortune from him but were taking his son instead.
His father also gave Chaoxiang some very old advice: one arrow, two eagles. Or as Westerners would say, kill two birds with one stone.
There wasn’t much time.
Chaoxiang walked into the manager’s office and bowed low to the pretty lady. She was taken off guard, seeing a kitchen worker approach her so directly. In one fluid movement, Chaoxiang extracted her pistol from her shoulder holster, neatly jamming the muzzle into her ribs.
“Answer me quietly or die,” he muttered in Mandarin.
“Who is coming tonight? ICE? Feds? Local cops? Chuen? Shing? Sun Yee On?”
Of course. The worst of them all. Sun Yee On was the largest of the Chinese gangs, but 14K was expanding globally. What better place to launder human trafficking proceeds than a casino in the middle of nowhere?
“Where and when is the drop?”
“In a half hour. A car is coming around the back. The driver will come in through the kitchen.”
“Then we’ll wait for him together. Sit on the floor.”
He held the gun on her, tucked under his apron. They sat in silence for several minutes, her neck getting sore from looking up at him.
“What is your name?” she asked, eyes soft, head tilted, mouth slightly open.
“Expecting fortune,” he replied curtly, understanding that she had to use all the weapons she had at her disposal.
Ping suddenly appeared, carrying what would have been the pretty lady’s third cup of coffee.
“Would you—” Ping asked, stopping short as he saw Chaoxiang holding a gun on her.
“Ping, we are leaving this place with a lot of money.”
He looked at both Chaoxiang and the pretty lady, determining how to respond. “Yes, Chow. We are,” Ping decided.
The bell on the kitchen’s backdoor chimed.
The expected fortune had arrived.